Something in the Air: Amazing Incense

Features Issue 67 Aug, 2010
Text by Noah Gordon

You knock on an unfamiliar door. A quiet man with a warm smile, comfortably attired in a daura surwal, greets you cordially.  But there is more.  Is it the rich textures of wood and cloth that meet your eye?  Is it the soft sound of a flute gently lilting through from some unknown source?  Suddenly you recognize the feeling.  It is the rich even scent in the air; fragrant and yet not overly sweet.  And immediately, you feel right at home.

The ambience of any space is crafted by the message received by the senses.  The bright and vivid lights and colors of such festivals as Tihar and Holi create a sense of beauty that has been expressed in the words of many languages.  But, how would you describe scent?  Please enter the wonderful world of incense and the magic of scented air…

In Nepal, there are about as many different kinds of incense as there are flowers.  Each has its own special ingredients, distinguishing aroma and application.  Incense comes in a variety of shapes, sizes and textures.  There are the traditional long sticks, but there are also the fine powders.  And always, like the memory of a good friend, each kind of incense provides a lasting sense of something special, crafted to fit the ambience one wishes to enjoy.

The use of scent is as ancient as mankind’s experience of fire.  And for sure, the use of sweet smelling leaves, herbs and woods on a fire to keep warm was not lost to the senses in those primitive times. However, it was from within the rich expressions of the Hindu religion, nearly 5,000 years ago, that incense found its first practical appearance in making overtures to the higher realms.  In the Bhagavad-Gita, it states that, “Krishna accepts the offering made to Him with love,” and it is based on this, that prayers and offerings for well-being are made each day in every Hindu temple, shrine and home.

Some historians tell us that incense was first brought to China by a monk around 200 BCE, perhaps following the ancient trade routes through Nepal and Tibet.  Others say incense was burned there, possibly to honor one’s ancestors, nearly 2000 years earlier. Later, during the great Tang Dynasty (618-907 BCE), incense was no longer restricted to purely religious or medical usage. Aromatics were lit to add scent to clothes, rid books of bookworms, and were applied in the making of scented inks and papers.

By then, incense was widely traded throughout the Asian continent.  Similar trade routes brought such treasures as frankincense and myrrh, considered then more precious than gold, west and north into Europe. Later still, through the enterprise of the Chinese Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE), stick incense was first developed.

Today, it is acknowledged that nearly every culture on the planet produces or has produced incense using their own special methods and recipes derived from the local collection of plants and other materials, and whose preparation has been traditionally passed down from master to novice.

Here in Nepal, as elsewhere, two basic categories of incense can be found; that which burns directly such as the common stick incense, and that which burns indirectly such as powders or resins. Each is formulated and made according to its intended use. Both are readily available throughout Kathmandu. However, as with anything else in the marketplace, there are various levels of quality to be examined carefully and chosen, before buying.

The direct-burning form of incense comes in a wide range of shapes and purposes and is created by blending the specific aromatic substances into a workable dough. Depending on the desired result, the dough is then extruded by hand or simple machine, as in the case of solid stick incense or shaped into various forms such as cones, as in some forms of Japanese incense, candles for Chinese moxibustion, or even commercial coils used for repelling mosquitoes. In other forms, a support such as a thin sliver of bamboo is coated with several layers of the blended powders.

Crafted from various combinations of finely ground aromatic materials and an odorless binding agent, incense of this form must be very accurately mixed.  This is to insure that the scent produced is neither too slight nor overly strong. The proper recipe assures an even burning from beginning to end.  Specifically in the case of extruded incense, the sticks are trimmed to size after they are formed, and then left to slowly dry.  The drying itself must be closely attended as without proper temperature and humidity control, the resulting incense can easily end up misshapen or cracked.

The second form, that of indirect-burning incense, requires a primary source of heat to generate its scent.  This group includes the fine powders and resins that normally will not burn on their own when a flame or other source of heat is applied.  Instead, these rich aromatic materials generate their scent only after being dropped or sprinkled onto a bed of glowing embers within specially made incense burners of metal or porcelain.  In some cases, the incense is placed directly on a hot metal plate, heated from below.

There are many local manufacturers that craft incense according to their own traditions and culture.  For example, the Newar community in Kathmandu has for centuries created many fine indirect-burning kinds of incense for their traditional pujas and home rituals. One form, called goza dhup, or badeko dhup in Nepali, is made from various aromatics such as red sandalwood, kapoor—a form of camphor—as well as other ingredients.  However, what makes this incense unique is how it is finished.  After the ingredients are carefully ground to a fine powder, the mixture is rolled into lokta paper.  The paper is then twisted around itself to form its characteristic coiled rope shape, round at one end and pointed at the other.  Small packets of goza dhup can be found in Ason Tole and Patan.  You will also find open bags of other Newari indirect-burning incense that sell by the kilo.

Since the late 1950s, when large numbers of Tibetans resettled in Nepal, there has been the development of an indigenous craft industry making many different kinds of incense, some of which are direct-burning, and others—more traditional—that are indirect.  If you visit either of the two great stupas in Kathmandu, of Swoyambhunath or Boudhanath, you will easily come across shops that display open bags of cut pine, cedar and juniper branches as well as mixtures of these three in powdered form.  You’ll also find gugol, the dried sap of the sal tree and other herbs and resins.

These are indirect-burning aromatics, and a Tibetan household often puts a mixed handful over burning coals in a small pot to welcome guests at their door.  With a different assortment, one might ward off uncomfortable elements.  Tsering Lama of the Dup Champa Incense Shop, just inside the gateway at the Boudhanath Stupa says, “Gugol is my first choice for clearing away obstacles.”

Of course, there are currently many varieties of stick incense that are based on the rich knowledge of traditional Tibetan medicine.  One local producer, Shechen Clinic in Boudhanath, produces Agar 31 whose ingredients include eaglewood and 31 other substances.  Amche Ngawang Thinley of Shechen suggests, “Agar 31 is excellent in the treatment of such everyday problems as stress, insomnia, and depression. But, it is also excellent in easing upper and lower back pain as well as irregularities of blood pressure.”

 Shechen also produces several traditional stick incenses used to make offerings during puja and meditation practice.  Says Lama Dorzin Thinley, the lead person at Shechen’s factory, “We specialize in making quality incense based on the Mindoling tradition.  The very best quality of this mixture was first offered to His Holiness the Great Fifth Dalai Lama in the 14th Century.”

In addition, there are many other sources of incense currently available  such as those imported from India, Bhutan, China, as well as from Japan.  Most of these are in stick form, either solid or with an inner support.  Take for instance, the very richly fragrant aromas of Indian incense.  Most often, these are preparations that may combine a blend of aromatic herbs, perfume, resins and some form of binder that adheres the incense mixture to a sliver of bamboo.  In a more quality-conscious brand, the bamboo might be replaced with sandalwood.

Today, other than the traditional religious, cultural and medicinal settings, the use of incense is very much a part of modern Aromatherapy.  The application of essential oils and the burning of incense are now considered powerful tools that a health practitioner might suggest to improve one’s well-being.  Inherent to its proper application, incense can be used in the treatment of various physical, emotional and psychological problems in ways that are surprisingly independent of the thinking process.  This happens through the stimulation of the olfactory nerves which are responsible for our sense of smell.

When we smell something, no matter if it’s as enjoyable as a fresh serving of palak paneer, or as smelly as a sack of rotting garbage, our mind is immediately responding—or reacting—to the scent in the air.  Far different from our senses of hearing, taste, touch or sight, our nerve receptors for scent are directly exposed to any fragrance we come in contact with.  The feelings these different scents generate within the deeper subconscious levels of the mind determine how we recognize that scent and, more importantly, what we might immediately do about it.

For example, think how easy it is to remember an event by simply smelling the clothes you wore on that occasion, leading you to call a friend you met there. Also, the particular scent of a hospital corridor with its regularly disinfected walls and floors immediately calls other images to mind, without our even thinking about it.

 “This is because our sense of smell is directly linked to the limbic brain, thought to perhaps be the most primitive area and thus the most reactive,” says friend Jill Sedgwick, a certified aroma-therapist here in Kathmandu. This understanding that smell is perhaps the most powerful of our senses makes it one of the essential keys to working with Aromatherapy.

With its proper use, incense can often have a profoundly positive effect on both our physical and emotional well being, allowing us to enjoy a given occasion more fully, or to soften the difficult rigors of everyday life.  Before serving tea, for instance, light a stick or two of an earthy-scented incense to create a tranquil space that offers a grounded setting to replenish your energies.  Then again, rather than abruptly waking up in the middle of the night only to try counting sheep, consider burning a stick of Agar 31, and watch how easily you drift back to sleep.

Feeling low about how life seems to be going?  Why not turn off the TV and the radio, put away your magazines and newspapers, and light some softly fragrant sandalwood incense before settling onto a comfortable cushion for a half-hour’s revitalization.

Whether it’s to clean the atmosphere of unpleasant perceptions, to prepare ourselves for prayer and contemplation, to hasten the healing of our body and mind, or to greet friends to the warm comfort of our home, the burning of incense will always bring a nourishing tone to our lives and the lives of those around us.

When shopping for incense, it is always wise to remember, as we mentioned earlier, that there are many different grades of quality in the marketplace.  Rishi Sapkota of the Y.K. Incense Center in Boudha, who produces 57 different traditionally made kinds of incense, cautions the potential buyer.

“There is a big difference between traditionally-made incense and the commercial brands,” he says.  “And you smell it right away because many of the ingredients used are chemicals that come right from the perfume business.”  In other words, though the packaging may be inviting, the scent might leave you… breathless.