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Reading the bell

The bell was commissioned by the National Bell Festival and will be cast by B.A. Sunderlin Bellfoundry in Ruther Glen, Virginia. It will stand roughly 3 feet tall. Silver Tibetan coinage from the early 20th century will be added to the molten bronze during casting. The epigraph ‘Truth Will Prevail’ will be inscribed in Tibetan across the bell’s surface, giving the bell its name.

Rendering of the Truth Will Prevail Tibetan Bell

Image: Design rendering from B.A. Sunderlin Bellfoundry of the ‘Truth Will Prevail’ bell, which will be cast in bronze.

The bell is rich in iconography and meaning. Reading down from the canons to the scalloped rim:

  • Two hands clasped in friendship form a suspension loop by which the bell is carried or hung
  • High profile and sloping shoulders emulate the seated posture of Buddha
  • Bosses (raised partial spheres) arranged across the shoulder symbolize the fertility of earth and improve the bell’s resonance
  • A garland of American Beauty roses, the official flower of D.C., hides the wood thrush, the state bird
  • The wheel of Dharma represents the eightfold path to enlightenment with the Three Jewels at center
  • Side panels divided by vertical ribbing host two deer reclining peacefully, the first to hear the teachings of the Buddha
  • The text ‘Truth Will Prevail’ is written in Tibetan
  • A bed of lotus, a symbol of spiritual awakening and purity, rises from the muddy waters in beauty
  • The round striking panel creates a reinforced spot where the bell is struck by mallet or swinging wooden beam
  • Stars and stripes allude to the coat of arms of the Washington family and the flag of D.C.
  • Scalloped rim of six lotus petals recalls archetypal bells from the Tibetan imperial period

The bell will not have a clapper. To ring, Tibetan bells are struck with a large beam or heavy mallet. The resonance of traditional Tibetan bells lasts considerably longer than from bells cast in the Western profile.

Section image: Monks gather on a balcony at a Buddhist monastery in Tibet.

Learn about bells from Tibet

Tibet lies within a region called the Tibetan Plateau, one of the highest inhabited places on earth. Covering some 965,000 square miles, the plateau is the world’s largest and is ringed by mountains, including Mt. Everest at 29,000 feet. Now an Autonomous Region within China, Tibet has a long history as an independent kingdom and religious state.

As Buddhism spread across Asia, rituals and regalia followed – and with it, bells. Large bronze bells would have been cast to adorn the myriad monasteries and temples built across the continent, used to signal the time or call the monks to prayer. However, only a small handful of these bells remain from Tibet’s imperial period (ca. 600–850 CE). From these few examples, we see inscriptions of Tibetan emperors, writings in the Old Tibetan language, and a distinctive style unique to the Tibetan Plateau.

While flat-based bells predominate Asia, Tibetan bells of this period are almost all scalloped with six undulations, sometimes referred to as lotus petals. Casting these bells was a considerable undertaking, though it is unknown whether the bells were cast elsewhere and imported into Tibet (under the direction of someone who knew the Tibetan script), or were cast onsite by itinerant bell makers from China.

Ancient Tibetan Bells

Composite image: In black and white, ancient bells at various temples photographed by Hugh E. Richardson during early- to mid-20th century travels through Tibet. Courtesy: The Pitt Rivers Museum. In color, the great bell at the Samye monastery in the Chimpu valley. Courtesy: Morning Glory Publishers.

The bell would be hung near the monastery’s central place of devotion. Tibetan bells, from the few extant examples, were hung much higher aloft than those in China, Japan, or Korea. The deep, resonant tones could be heard across long distances in the thin Tibetan air.

The ‘Truth Will Prevail’ bell pays tribute to this rich heritage, recalling not only the characteristic design of ancient Tibetan bells, but also the meaning behind bells of this period: calling people together in a spirit of brotherhood, a search for truth, and a respect for all.

Section image: An ancient bronze bell with a scalloped edge hangs at the entrance to the Utse temple at Samye monastery in Tibet in this photograph captured in 1949. Carved pillars support the structure, while a figure of a guardian deity reclines underneath. Courtesy: Hugh E. Richardson, The Pitt Rivers Museum.