A kangling is a trumpet made from a human thigh-bone. You play a kangling in tantric Buddhist rituals, particularly chöd.
The function of chöd is to cut your emotional attachment to your body. Putting a dead person’s leg bone to your mouth—to blow the kangling while practicing—is an intimate reminder of your own mortality.
Chöd is also a celebration of generosity and of your connections to people and other creatures in the web of life and death. Recognizing your place in the food chain is a part of that.
This page is an illustrated guide to making a kangling from scratch, or improving a poor-quality commercial one. High quality kanglings are now rare and expensive. Making your own is more affordable, and creates a stronger personal connection with the instrument.
I’ll also say a little more about chöd and the kangling’s rôle in it.
Kanglings can vary a great deal. Here are three:
At the top is one of Ngak’chang Rinpoche’s kanglings. It is about two hundred years old. It is decorated with repoussé silver and semiprecious stones.
The middle one belongs to Chris Pennock. He bought it for $25 in Kathmandu in the 1980s. It’s old and splendidly crude.
The bottom example is a modern commercial “tourist” kangling. If you have one like this, you would do well to improve it. I’ll explain how later.
This one bears the head of a makara, a wonderfully appealing mythological beastie. The metalwork is copper repoussé, and the eyes are turquoise.
Conceptually, making a kangling is very simple. You start with a human femur (upper leg bone), which you can easily find lying about in any local charnel ground. (You do practice in a charnel ground, don’t you?) You cut the hip end off, poke two holes in the knee end, clear the bone’s central channel, and blow through it.1
There’s a hitch. A living bone is a combination mostly of calcium phosphate and collagen. The calcium is a white mineral; it is hard but brittle. Collagen is an elastic protein; it also makes up tendons, cartilage, and skin. Together, they are extraordinarily strong.
However, when a bone is cleaned and dried, all the collagen goes. That makes it surprisingly fragile. The knee end of a femur, in particular, will crumble with only gentle pressure. (The shaft of the bone is relatively strong.)
So, the knee end needs to be covered, both to protect it and to hide the fact that it’s disintegrating. The covering can be made from skin or metal.
Skin coverings are meant to look like a sheath of human connective tissue stuck to the bone. They’re dyed dark reddish-brown to look like they’re covered in dried blood.
If the bone is particularly old, or particularly fragile, or according to tradition and taste, a kangling may have extensive metal reinforcements. So long as you are covering it in metal, you might as well decorate that.
Every kangling combines horror and beauty. Its particular aesthetics may emphasize one or the other of those aspects.
Of the ones above, I think I like Chris Pennock’s best; it is exceptionally hideous. At the other end of the spectrum, the makara kangling is a thing of great beauty.
In chöd, you blow the kangling three times, to summon demons to your ritual feast. If you have not heard one before, you might like to play the audio below. (I don’t think the sound coming from speakers is likely to bring demons, but you might want to be prepared, just in case.)
Materials and methods
Before beginning, assemble all the necessary materials and tools. Some may be difficult to find, if you do not have convenient access to a charnel ground. I’ll give a check-list before going into the construction methods.
Also before beginning, read through this whole page carefully. You may need to adapt the methods to suit the materials you have available.
Consult with your lama to see if he or she has any advice based on lineage tradition or personal experience. There are many different styles of kanglings, and many choices to make that affect their appearance and perhaps sound.
- Either an intact human femur, preferably separated from the rest of the human; or a poor-quality commercial kangling
- Hydrogen peroxide (available in drugstores)
- Auto body filler (“Bondo”)
- Epoxy glue (needed only if the shaft is cracked)
- Tampon (optional)
- Boiled linseed oil (optional)
- Emery paper, in several grades, and/or steel wool; optionally car polish (“Autosol”)
- Furniture polish/wax
- Paint stripper (if upgrading a nasty bright-red tourist kangling)
- Some stiff fabric, about ten inches square
- An untanned meat rabbit skin (unless you are upgrading a kangling that has an adequate skin)
- Deer sinew
- Coarse twine
- Moderately stiff plastic, from a package
- Leather dye (or other coloring agent)
- Paraffin wax
You won’t necessarily need all of these; it depends on how you decide to approach some of the construction steps.
- Carpenter’s dust mask
- Dremel moto-tool, or drill and metal files
- Fat knitting needle (8mm diameter is about right)
- Large leather needle and thimble, or leatherworker’s awl
- Regular needle and thread
- Clean empty soup can
- Rubber work gloves
- Razor and shaving cream/gel
Finding a femur
You probably already have at least a couple of femurs around the house. However, it is usually best to find one for which the original owner no longer has any use. This can be something of a challenge.
Leaving aside various esoteric and improbable options, there are two main approaches. You can buy a cleaned, intact femur, or you can buy a tourist kangling (which is mostly a femur) and upgrade it.
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, it is entirely legal to own human bones in most places. You may want to check local law, however.
The Bone Room, in Berkeley, California, often sells human femurs. Their web site does not always accurately reflect their inventory; call them to ask. They ship world-wide. As of May 2012, their price is $250.
Otherwise, try eBay, or Google. Do not buy a femur that is burnt at all; those usually have been stolen from cremation sites.
“Tourist” kanglings may be available in Tibetan import shops or Buddhist centers. The skin will be painted bright red. These are minimally adequate, but cheesy. The good thing is that they are usually no more expensive than a bare femur. You can rescue the bone and turn it into something worthwhile.
(High quality kanglings used to turn up in Tibetan shops, but are now rare and cost many hundreds of dollars.)
In Tibet, kanglings were sometimes made from animal bones, wood, or metal. These seem to me poor substitutes. They simply won’t have the emotional charge of part of a dead person.
Using a plaster cast, or a plastic or other artificial reproduction femur, is right out. If you try to summon demons with a plastic kangling, they will just laugh at you. And it will serve you right.
Before you start working on your kangling, I suggest contemplating the bone: both its appearance and its significance.
Horror or disgust may make it difficult to face it squarely. It can be easiest to start by thinking of it as something you’d find on the beach, like a piece of coral. It is, indeed, a beautiful piece of natural history.
Examine it closely. The shape, and the surface texture, are extraordinarily complex. There are rough and smooth areas, rounded pieces and sudden edges. There are subtle variations in color, from pure calcium white to caramel brown.
There are channels for blood vessels, and grooves where muscles attached. You might find it intriguing enough to learn a little about how each of the parts function in the body.
Every femur is unique. Mine has a rough area that I suspect may be a sign of arthritis. The details are the result of a subtle interplay of biological pattern and random circumstances.
The bone you hold in your hands is the product of four billion years of evolution: an vast history of purposeful lives and accidental deaths. It is, thus, a manifestation of the endless dance of form and emptiness.
You have two bones very much like this one, inside your body, mirror images of each other. You could hold the bone against your leg to see how it fits. It is remarkable how well bodies work without our thinking about them, or having much understanding or appreciation for them.
Many religions are anti-body. Bodies, they say, are messy, disgusting, and impure. They tie you to physical reality, and are full of hormones that drive you into nasty unspiritual sins.
Buddhist tantra is pro-body. Bodies are amazing, wonderful, and sacred. They connect you to physical reality, and are full of hormones that drive you toward glorious this-world enlightenment.
It’s inescapably obvious that you are holding a piece of dead person. Soon you will be dead too. Your femurs will eventually look like this one—unless you are cremated, in which case the cremation ash is also largely bone dust. How do you feel about that?
Holding this bone, you have an extraordinarily intimate connection with its original owner, now dead. You will probably never touch the bones even of the people closest to you.
Probably it is someone about whom you can know nothing. How did they live? What were their hopes, their fears; their triumphs and disasters? How did they die? How are they remembered?
Chöd is a feast of generosity. It affirms that you are willing to give your life, and even your body, for the benefit of others. It is a celebration of your connections in the world-wide web of life and death.
Your life, and your death, may touch others profoundly, in many cases without your ever knowing about it. We are interrelated in ways we can never fully comprehend.
The lesser trochanter
The first step in making a kangling is to cut off the hip end of the femur with a hacksaw.
It’s a good idea to mark the exact line with pencil first; cutting by eye can result in regrets.
The saw will put quite a lot of bone dust in the air. Wear a dust mask; any kind of dust in your lungs is unhealthy.
Even with the mask, you are almost certain to ingest some bone. It has quite an odd taste. That’s part of the fun—and heightens your intimate connection with the dead.
(If you are squicked by a little recreational cannibalism, you might not be ready to practice chöd yet. Consult your lama before proceeding.)
If you are concerned about hygiene, you can soak the femur in hydrogen peroxide to sterilize it. Do not use bleach; that drastically weakens bone.
The protruding knob through which I cut is called the lesser trochanter. Its function is to anchor the psoas muscle. The psoas is a particularly interesting and important muscle that not many people know about. It’s the only one that connects the leg and the spine; it lifts the thigh and draws it inward.
In the fight-or-flight reflex, you tense your psoas in preparation for dynamic action. Emotional stress is a low-grade constant fight-or-flight response, so if you are often stressed out, you are likely to contract the psoas habitually. You also need to contract the psoas to sit in a chair. (Chairs are unnatural and unhealthy and, in fact, evil.) If you do stressful work while sitting at a desk, as so many people do nowadays, you are almost certain to have a shortened, chronically tense psoas—a major cause of lower back pain.
The psoas is intimately involved in sex, and particularly orgasm. Intercourse involves rhythmic relaxation and contraction of the psoas. If it is tight, the full range of motion is unavailable. Also, the role of the psoas in the fight-or-flight reflex means that it is impossible to be fully emotionally comfortable with a contracted psoas. Learning to relax the psoas is a key to developing full-body and extended (“tantric”) orgasms.
The psoas is also important in athletic—
Hang on—I think I may have wandered off the topic, slightly!
That’s to be expected, when discussing tantra. Tantra is interested in everything, in messy specifics, all the details of the real world. It is not a religion of airy spiritual abstractions. Tantra finds connections everywhere. If you start talking about any little bit of it, you are constantly pulled toward discussing every other bit.
Where was I? Um, yes…
Most kanglings are cut just below the lesser trochanter. My lamas recommend cutting through the trochanter to maximize the length of the kangling, and also because it helps form a broad mouthpiece.
Here is a picture of the end of the bone after the cut:
Inside you can see the honeycomb-like gossamer interior. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Take time to admire it. Unfortunately, you will have to remove this sponge, later.
The knee end of a femur is delicate and will eventually disintegrate. The next step in making a kangling is to hurry this process along, and then to repair the damage.
Using as much pressure as you can produce with your thumb, break off all the soft parts there. If there are bits that seem like they might someday come off, which you cannot remove with bare hands, use pliers.
Here you can see my femur after removing the soft knee bits:
In Tibet, the missing bone was replaced with beeswax, before wrapping it in skin. The problem with beeswax is that it is softish and eventually dries out and shrinks and then crumbles to dust. A better substitute is auto body filler, which is stronger and rigid and should last as long as the bone. You can get the stuff at car parts shops or big hardware stores. “Bondo” is the best-known brand.
The idea here is to build up layers of Bondo to form a shape similar to the original bone. It will probably take at least two rounds; leave the first to dry overnight before applying more. It is OK if the glop ends up a bit bigger than the original, or has sticking-out bits. You’ll remove the excess in the next step.
The single most difficult aspect of making a kangling is getting the skin to fit into the groove between the two lobes of the knee end. [The lobes are called “condyles,” by the way, and the groove is the “intercondylaris fossa.” Thought you’d want to know.] You can cheat a bit by making the groove wider and shallower than it was originally. You can also make the condyles rounder, which also makes it easier to fit the skin.
Here’s my kangling with the fake Bondo condyles:
Here it is end-on. You can see that there’s some excess Bondo, and that in places the original bone shows through.
Wielding the vajra dré-mèl
The next step is to sculpt a reasonably realistic knee end by grinding off Bondo blobs. I recommend using a Dremel moto-tool; if you don’t have one, you could use a file and coarse sandpaper.
Using the Dremel, or a drill and files, cut two “nostrils” into the condyles:
The nostrils should connect through to the hollow channel that runs up the shaft of the bone. Hollow out the condyles to form the “bell” of the trumpet. (Be careful not to cut into the walls of the shaft itself.)
In retrospect, the nostrils I cut were too small. Most kanglings have bigger ones, and the small nostrils seem to make mine a bit difficult to play.
Now, using a knitting needle, poke out all the bone sponge that fills the length of the shaft, so there is a clear channel from end to end.
Here is the open hip end (trochanter), which will form the mouthpiece later:
I used Bondo to fill some bone sponge there; that’s the white stuff at the front left. This was a mistake; visible Bondo is uncool. It would have been better to use wax, or to use the Dremel to remove all the sponge.
Treating the shaft
If there are any cracks in the main shaft of the bone, fill them with epoxy resin glue.
(In Medieval Tibet, where epoxy was in short supply, cracked bones were wrapped with reinforcing metal bands. You can do that too, if you have the skills and are feeling traditional.)
My sources recommend coating the inside of the shaft with linseed oil or wax. Apparently this is meant to protect it. Block the hip-end opening with a tampon, and pour the oil or hot liquid wax into the nostrils using a funnel. Dump out the oil; or, heat the knitting needle and push it through the wax to make a new channel.
I’m not convinced that this step is necessary (based on what I’ve read about preserving bone), so I didn’t do it.
The next step is to polish the shaft of the bone. You can take this in either of two directions, depending on whether you want to emphasize the decorative beauty of craft, or the natural horror and beauty of the femur:
- Extensive polishing, removing all the surface irregularities, gives bone the look of old ivory. Lovely!
- Minimal polishing retains the grisly horror of death. Delightful!
The general principle of polishing: coarse abrasives remove large bumps; fine abrasives remove small ones. Coarse abrasives also actually dig grooves that you need to remove with finer ones. So, polishing always proceeds through a series of stages, from coarse to fine.
If you want to remove all coarse biological detail, you can start with something like a 180 grade wet/dry sandpaper, and work up through to 600 grade emery paper. Then, for surface texture, you could use several grades of steel wool, from coarse to fine, and finish off with car polish.
If you want to retain the whorls and channels and rough bits, you might start only with the finest emery paper, or coarse steel wool, skipping the sandpaper.
The finest abrasives can bring the bone to a high, glassy gloss. You might prefer to stop before that, leaving the surface with a silky matte texture.
(I was aiming for horror, so I used only fine emery paper and coarse steel wool. That still removed more texture than I would have liked. I think if I were doing this again, I might not polish the bone at all.)
Finally, apply a thin coat of furniture wax (also called furniture polish). That protects the bone from the mild acid naturally present on your skin.
Shaving the bunny
If you have jewelry or metalcraft skills, you may want to cover the “nose”—the knee end—in copper or silver. I don’t, so I can’t help with that. I’ll assume you are going the skin route instead.
Skinning the kangling is the most difficult step. The idea is to soak a stretchy skin in water, which loosens it up. You sew it tightly over the nose, wet. The skin contracts as it dries, shrink-wrapping the bone.
I don’t know what kind of skin Tibetans used traditionally. Human skin would probably be ideal, if you can get it.
Untanned goat skin is commonly used in my sangha. (Tanned skin doesn’t stretch.) You can get this from some music shops, which sell it to make drum heads. The thinner the skin, the stretchier it will be.
I got the thinnest goat skin available, from three different sources, and found that none of them stretched enough to be usable. Some of my vajra siblings have had the same problem; others have succeeded.
After experimenting with other options, I had good results with rabbit skin. I bought mine in person at The Bone Room. They will send you one if you call them; their price is $4 currently.
The charmingly gothic and impressively geeky saleswoman there told me that the skin I bought came from a meat rabbit, and that the hair on meat rabbits comes off much more easily than that on fur rabbits. If that’s true, I strongly recommend getting a meat rabbit, because it was a major pain getting the fur off even that.
I soaked the skin for a few hours to loosen the hairs, and then pulled off as much as I could by hand. I used a razor to remove the remainder. (I also tried using a wood scraper, but it was not particularly effective.)
Pulling the hair out took several hours of hard work. Shaving the bunny was more fun:
Before cutting the skin to size, you may want to make a template from stiff non-stretch fabric.
You stich it onto the bone, in the shape the skin will take, and cut off the excess:
Looks kind of cozy, doesn’t it?
The point is that if you screw up at this stage, you can just start over with some more towel. You really don’t want to make a mistake cutting out the skin if it’s taken hours to prepare.
Rip the seams out and flatten the fabric to form a template for cutting the skin:
Did you know that “sutra” comes from the same Indo-European root word as “suture”? And “sew” and “couture,” among many others. Some sources say this is because the pages of Indian books were sewn together; others suggest that the argument of a sutra is supposed to be straight and connected, like a thread. (I think kittens got into some of them, in that case.)
In Tibet, kangling skins were sewn on with some kind of animal product—not a plant fiber such as cotton thread. I used deer sinew.
Natural sinew is dried tendon. I got mine online from a company that supplies it to arrowmakers. (“Artificial sinew” is a horrible plastic non-substitute; avoid it. If you can’t find real sinew, use heavy cotton thread; that’s less bad.)
The tendon came as a single rigid piece, about the length and width of my middle finger. To use it, you whack it repeatedly with a hammer, which gradually softens it and separates the collagen fibers. Eventually, you can split it lengthwise with your fingers, into coarse, and then gradually finer, strands.
I used a leather needle to do the stitching. Leather needles have a diamond-shaped tip, which is somehow important for making a right-shaped hole in the material. However, using the needle seriously misled me…
I was aiming for something like Chris Pennock’s kangling, which as I mentioned earlier is exceptionally crude. It looks like something you’d improvise in a charnel ground, not a civilized and elegant work of art. This isn’t a great photograph, but it gives you the sense that the sewing is sloppy and the “thread” is extremely coarse—more like a leather thong:
I had intended to do something similar. However, the eye of the leather needle was small, so (without thinking about it) I wound up thinning the sinew down to about the dimensions of dental tape. And that led me to quite tidy stitching, despite my best intentions.
If I were doing this again, I would punch holes in the skin with an awl, and use much thicker sinew with no needle.
Although I had planned to use the towel template, I decided at the last minute to wing it, instead, in order to get a rougher look. That resulted in my accidentally covering more of the shaft than is typical:
Here I’m nearing the end of the sewing:
I left some dangly ends of sinew, which wound up looking like bits of blood vessels hanging off the finished kangling. Yay!
After cutting excess skin off with scissors, I found the edges too tidy. So I gnawed the margins to get a nasty ragged torn-looking edge:
To force the wet skin to conform to the fossa, I bound it with twine, and left it to dry for a couple days:
That worked, but it also left narrow grooves in the skin after it dried. I had to re-wet the skin and smooth it out. I’d suggest putting some semi-stiff plastic between the twine and skin, to avoid this problem.
The mouthpiece of a kangling is a “cup,” the same shape as that of a Western trumpet—if you are familiar with those. A metal mouthpiece works well, and is traditional:
It is equally traditional to form a kangling’s mouthpiece from beeswax. Beeswax will stay sticky for ages before hardening, though, and then later will dry out and crumble. My lamas recommend using paraffin wax instead. (You can find paraffin wax in the canning supplies section of supermarkets.)
Put some wax in a clean empty soup can, put the can in a pot with a few inches of water to form a double boiler, and heat.
When the wax has melted, carefully drip some into the trochanter end of the kangling, and smear it around with a finger to form a plug.
Once the wax has cooled and hardened, heat your knitting needle and push it through to create the air passage.
Then use a knife to whittle out the cup shape.
Rescuing a tourist kangling
The main problem with most tourist kanglings is that the skin is painted garish lipstick-red. I suppose that is somehow supposed to look like fresh blood, but it’s totally unrealistic, and untraditional, and just ugly and stupid.
The minimal upgrade is to use paint stripper to remove the red paint, and to color the skin with something more realistic.
Depending on the quality of the skin and stitching, you may also want to replace them. If you pick the stitching apart, you can use the old skin as a template for a new one.
Some tourist kanglings are artificially “aged” by smearing the shaft with used engine oil. Here’s an example:
This is a lousy photo, so you can’t see it clearly, but the aging is quite unrealistic. (The glossy red paint on this one has chipped off in places, as well, showing the pale skin beneath.)
Here’s a close-up. In the bottom left, you can see that the instrument-maker has cut a series of grooves in the bone with a knife, probably in order to retain more of the black oil:
Use paint stripper to get as much of the grunge off as you can. Follow that up with emery paper, to sand off the remainder and smooth out the grooves.
The essence of tantra
I don’t know what Tibetans traditionally used to color kangling skins. My lamas recommend using leather dye (not shoe polish).
I experimented with several different synthetic dyes (on left-over scraps of skin). They gave odd metallic colors that I did not like.
I was starting to try out natural dyes—I’m told henna works well—when someone suggested using pig’s blood.
Well, why not? Why mess around with substitutes when you can use the real thing?
But hey, wait—speaking of “the real thing”—why not use human blood?
Or, better yet—human menstrual blood? That has magical properties in tantra…
Oh, wow, how about menstrual blood from a dakini?
Awesome! But actually… why not the essence of tantra—the inseparable union of wisdom and compassion; of the solar and lunar principles; of the red and white essences? Now we’re talking!
Once you have colored the skin—whether with blood or shoe dye—you can cut the nose holes. Make them somewhat smaller than the nostrils in the bone/Bondo beneath. Then you can wrap the skin around the edges and glue it in place:
I used a latex-based fabric glue for this. I’m told that it’s traditional to use wax.
The insides of the nostrils of old kanglings are black. I assume this is just a buildup of grime over centuries of use. You might want to simulate that with lampblack or shoe dye or something. I left mine as they were.
I’m delighted with the effect produced by the essence of tantra. It’s completely horrifying.
Menstrual blood is dark, thick, and clotted with gory bits of endometrium (the lining of the uterus). This gives the surface a complex, blotched texture that is difficult to capture with a camera. It looks quite different depending on the lighting.
Here’s another attempt:
Tantric Buddhism is a bit like a sport: if you take up skiing, scuba diving, or tantra, you wind up collecting a lot of gear.
You can buy most of the standard pieces of equipment. However, unless you are lucky and know where to look, nowadays most of what is commercially available is pretty junky. It’s made for Westerners who think it looks “interestingly ethnic” and put it on a display shelf as decoration, with no idea what it’s for.
With some effort and research, you can make much nicer, more functional equipment yourself. That also gives you a more intimate, personal connection with it. Craftwork is, furthermore, an improvisational dance with the complexity and uniqueness of your materials. It requires careful perception and skillful action. This is the real essence of Tantra.
Making a kangling is a pretty easy craft project. It does not require any specialized techniques. It takes about ten hours of work, although that will have to be spread over several days as you wait for various liquids to dry. (It took me far more than ten hours, mostly due to the trouble I had finding a suitable skin. I hope my bunny recommendation will save you from that.)
I am far from expert, either on kanglings or on craftwork. I would greatly welcome corrections, information, and suggestions from anyone else who has relevant experience or knowledge. Please leave a comment below!
My thanks first to Ngak’chang Rinpoche, for theoretical and practical advice on making kanglings, and on so many other topics. Also, for a ghastly pun, which I have shamelessly recycled.
To Rin’dzin Pamo, for contributing two months of her wisdom-essence to this project; and so much else.
To many from the Aro sangha, who provided advice, assistance, and materials, before and during the project. Among them, gÇèrdröl Wangmo, Chris Pennock, Dorje Khandro, Francesco Trudel, Ögyen Dorje, Pema Zangmo, Rig’dzin Dorje, Shardröl Du-nyam Wangmo, and probably others I apologize for forgetting.
- 1.”Clear the central channel and blow through it” has a different meaning in rTsa rLung practice. This analogy may be productive.