18-01-23 kangling from Musical Instrument Museum




Trumpets made from human thigh bones and drums crafted from human skulls are integral to traditional Tibetan meditation rituals–ones that stress the fleeting nature of life and material existence. Having read about the rituals considerably, I am not sure that a Westerner (at least me) could ever acquire a deep understanding of their meaning, so here I will just describe the instruments. That way you will be able to focus on the spiritual gist of the ceremony if you make a pilgrimage.

The kangling (literally, leg + flute) is a human thigh bone with the hip end cut off. This forms a nearly circular opening in the bone’s shaft and becomes the mouthpiece. The large flaring at the knee is left intact except for two gouged openings through which air and sound escape once the bone’s spongy interior has been removed.

The shaft of the bone is thick, hard, and durable, but the bone thins out near the knee and is brittle. This explains why the “bell” end of a kangling is covered with tightly sewn skin, sometimes human, or with a thin protective metal sheeting. The covering adds needed durability because this venerated instrument is used for generations and would otherwise crumble away.

The reverent energy imbued in the kangling derives from the spirit of the bone’s original owner. Hence bones from individuals who were free from worldly faults are favored. These include children, youths with clear minds, and monks and nuns with unbroken vows. Likewise, a kangling derived from a saint or sage would have great power of realization and would be able to channel human energy. Listen for a few seconds to the kangling’s haunting, eerie sound here.

In Tibet, thigh bones for making kanglings are plentiful since sky burial is the norm. Buddhists believe in transmigration of spirits, and so a corpse is an empty vessel. In a rocky land where grave digging would be difficult, taking a vacated body to the mountaintop is not only expedient, it is also helpful. The people consider it an act of generosity to feed scavenging birds.

So if that is not grisly enough, human skull drums, known as damarus are a part of the same rituals and share symbolism and energy with the bone trumpets. Two hemispherical skull caps come from a man and woman who have been carefully chosen for their life attributes. The caps, joined at their poles, have mantras inscribed in gold on their interiors before skin is stretched across the openings. When the drums are held by their waist in one hand and rotated horizontally by twisting the wrist, large beads swing around on cords and strike the drum heads.

18-01-23 kangling and damaruA practitioner may play a damaru in one hand and either a kangling or bells in the other. To see all three instruments in action, watch between the 3 and 4 minute marks on this YouTube video . It looks like that the damarus in the video are made of wood. Here is one that is made of bone. Scroll about half way down the page until you see the off-white one. The tightly interdigitated joint lines between the cranial bones indicate their source.

Should you want your own kangling or damaru, the people at www.damaruworks.com can help you out. Of course, they cannot attest to the instrument’s provenance, so you are on you own to determine its spiritual powers.




3 thoughts on “Human Bones Make Ritual Music

  1. Have you considered putting your blog together in one book? I think it would make for interesting reading.
    Human bones into musical instruments. Would not have guessed it. This is one more reason to know about other cultures, where the same activity can be criticized and appreciated.

    1. Hi Michael,
      Yes, maybe some day I will organize the blog posts into a book. Presently, however, it is easier to write a weekly post than it is to write a book!!
      Best wishes, Roy

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