The Lure and Lore of Incense

Features Issue 92 Jul, 2010
Text by Jebin Gautam / Photo: ECS Media

Asan, a tiny street crammed right in the middle of old and proper Kathmandu, seems to be the center of all Nepalese activities from shopping for vegetables and day-to-day utilities to dry goods, and colorful candles. Its narrow alleyways are always chaotic, teeming with the gentle aggression of people trying to rush past each other. But amidst all these actions and the cosmopolitan smell, there are always gentle wisps of freshness and flowers. While a bull may be busy chewing on a thrown away vegetable dumpling or a distressed housewife is seen praying silently to the goddess Annapurna, a person can always smell something calm and soothing, amidst this melodramatic environment. A smell of something that is excessively sweet and cloyingly rich, and that does not really supplement the situation of the milieu. Those busy with their pursuits rarely give thought to the source of this sweet smell, but those with keen eyes and sharp sense of smell are fast to find that the source of this fresh and smooth breeze is the long line of incense shops that mark Asan Chowk, just beside the temple of Annapurna. Equipped with all kinds of incense, these shops are probably the most stocked of all the incense shops in the Kathmandu Valley. And although the joss-sticks and the rich camphor, the resin from camphor trees are all well hidden inside these shops, so as to deceive the sun, the heat and the humidity brings out the amazing fragrance from the tiny leaks in the coverings that they are packed in, thus resulting in the sweet overwhelming fragrance.

Modern day origins
Rita Shrestha, a vendor at one of these shops while serving one of her Buddhist customers, reveals that most of the incense she stocks comes all the way from India, Tibet and China. The only incense produced locally is bateko dhup, which is basically the flower extracts that are simply wrapped in traditional lokta paper. She admits that “Until recently the shops used to supply the joss stick candles that are made in Nepal, but the customers rarely preferred those, given to their nauseating smell.” She goes on to clarify that due to lack of demand she has removed these from her stock. She’s not the only one to do so; all the vendors in Asan seem to be doing the same.

Incense is widely used in Nepalese Hindu-Buddhist culture and traditions; hence, the number and types of customers at these incense shops is quite varied throughout the day. Religious devotees from all parts of Kathmandu, come to these shops to stock up for a month or two at a time. Ram Agarwal, a Marwari businessman who owns a sweet shop in New Baneshwor, says that buying a famous brand of Indian incense is a means to both please the gods that line the walls of his restaurant and also to keep off the evil eyes of jealous and envious people. Similarly a thanka art shopkeeper at Basantapur says that, for him, incense is a means to create a spiritual and pleasing setting for his customers.

Its meaning and uses
No matter how people may be using incense in this contemporary period, it is mostly used for religious and spiritual purposes. In Nepalese tradition it is believed that incense is an effective means to keep away evil spirits. It is also believed that incense is an effective means for keeping off the envious eyes of people. Furthermore, most of the priests (pujaris) at temples come up with the single answer — that initially the use of incenses began simply to please the gods, purify the air and mask unpleasant smells. Over the years, however, it has expanded in our culture to using it while performing yoga and meditation. It is said the aroma from incense helps to maintain focus during meditation and also creates a sense of inner harmony.

Besides Asan, Bouddhanath is another place where a wide variety of incense is available. Most Tibetan incense available there is locally produced along with other varieties that are imported from countries like Bhutan and China. The specialty of the incenses available at Boudha, however, is that the shops there sell unprocessed or natural incense made of juniper wood, sandalwood, and fragrant leaves collected in the high mountains: titepatti and sunpatti. These unprocessed ingredients are burned together in a vessel to produce the incense aroma. To get the appropriate result, the ingredients have to be mixed in correct proportions.

From the Vedas
The ancient Vedas tell us that the Aryans produced traditional incense from locally available herbs. The Atharva-Veda and Rig-Veda state that herbal incense was often used in ancient times as a way of healing ailments. Early Vedic texts show that the incense was made by extracting different elements from Nature. In order to clarify and strengthen the power of incense, the herbalists mixed different herbs that encompassed five different classes.  Ether (fruit) was represented by Star Anise. Water (stem and branches) was represented by sandalwood, aloe wood, cedar, cassia, frankincense, myrrh, and borneol. Earth (roots) was represented by turmeric, ginger, costus root, valerian, and spikenard. Fire (flower) was represented by cloves. And, Air (leaf) was represented by patchouli.

Over the eras, the method of producing incense on the sub-continent has greatly changed. Although all the herbs which were used in the Vedic period are not used today. The Nepalese use locally available herbs to get the results for their ancient herbal aromas. Unlike the Vedic period, when the devout Nepalese used herbal incense for spiritual healing, in this contemporary period incense is used solely for religious purposes. It is a common scene for the Nepalese Hindus and Buddhists to be visiting temples and monasteries with a bundle of incense in their hands.

It is virtually impossible to trace the history of incense, for people have been using it as long as they can remember. From ancient Rome and Greece to the countries of the East such as India and Arabia, the use of incense was known for a long period of time. Historians believe that the discovery of incense was largely co-incidental and must have begun when the early humans accidentally burned fragrant woods such as cedar, pine and cypress. Realizing the rich aroma that these shrubs gave off, they must have searched for a way to confine these natural essences in a convenient form.

The early Egyptians are credited to be the first to have experimented with different herbs and natural elements to create the incense. Historians say that the Egyptians imported myrrh from the neighboring states of Mesopotamia and Phoenicia from as early as 3000 BC. Myrrh is a special kind of herb that the Egyptians used to burn on their altars as a gift to the gods. It was believed that the herb purified the worshippers of their sins and flaws. Besides being used as a fragrance, myrrh was also used by the Egyptians to embalm their dead and also as an antiseptic medicine.

Until the creation of incense, spices, gums and other fragrance-giving plants were used usually for religious or burial purposes. In fact, carved pots filled with preserved spices from King Tutankhamen’s tomb gave off a faint odor when they were opened 3,000 years after his burial. Gradually as the Egyptians further understood the prevalence of various different kinds of herbs of aromatic value, such as frankincense, spikenard, mastic, henna, rose, cinnamon and others. Thus, they discovered the rich aroma of present day incense in its initial crude form. Although their attempts to produce incense were naive, the results were exemplary.

In the bible
It is mentioned in the Old and the New Testaments of the Bible that when Jesus was born, three wise men presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Frankincense and myrrh being the basic ingredient for incense during that period, it can be deduced that even the Christians prominently used incense during ancient times. In fact, Roman Catholics still use incense during mass and other religious ceremonies today.

By the 5th century, incense was a booming trade in the lanes of ancient Babylon. The Babylonians used Lebanon cedar, cypress, pine, fir resin, myrtle, clamus and juniper for the most part, to produce their exotic incense. When the Jews returned from captivity to Babylon, the ancient Hebrews adopted the habit of using fragrant incenses to consecrate their temples, altars, candles and priests.

Over the years, as the trade routes expanded, Africa, South Arabia and India began to supply spikenard, ginger and other fragrant grasses to Middle Eastern and Mediterranean civilization, while the Phoenician merchants traded Chinese camphor, Indian cinnamon, pepper and sandalwood. Similarly as the trade routes further expanded and grew the demand for aromatic herbs and elements such as rose, sweet flag, orris root, narcissus, saffron, mastic, cinnamon, cardamom, pepper, nutmeg, ginger, costus, spikenard, aloe wood, grasses and gum resins increased. During that period everyone seemed anxious to take advantage of the ever-increasing demand for incense. By the 1st century AD, Rome was consuming about 3,000 tons of imported frankincense and 500 tons of myrrh every year.

The Chinese and incense
Further east, the Chinese Yellow Emperor Book of Internal Medicine, written in 2697 BC, expounds on the various uses of aromatic herbs. Although the ancient Chinese physicians were researching the medicinal values of the herbs, the Chinese upper classes during the T’ang dynasty of the 7th century AD made lavish use of them as incense and fragrance, and continued to do so until the end of the Ming dynasty in the 17th century. Their bodies, baths, clothing, homes and temples were all richly scented with the help of incense, as were their ink, paper and the sachets they tucked into their garments.

Incense was also an integral part of the ceremonies of the ancient Buddhists. Even today Buddhists still use incense to create a favorable atmosphere during meditation. The gentle smoke from incense is believed to create a favorable atmosphere for seeking wisdom and truth, and frees the mind from a negative state. It is believed that the practice of lighting incense went to Japan from China as a courtesy of Buddhism. The art form was further nurtured by the ceremonious and industrious Japanese. The Japanese constructed numerous designs and patterns for the bland and simple stick incenses that were widely used around the world. They mixed incense pastes of powdered herbs with seaweed and charcoal, and then pressed them into cones, spirals and letters. The Japanese even started Kohdoh schools specializing in incense making, where the students learned how to burn incenses ceremoniously, how to appreciate its fragrances and perform dances for incense burning rituals.

Sticks of time
But the most innovative of the Japanese invention was the incense time clock. This incense signaled people the changes in time, by the change in its fragrance and in case the people were not noticing, a brass ball would also drop (which the incense had been holding). It is also said that the Geishas calculated the fare for their services by the amount of incense that was burned.

Fast-forwarding to this contemporary period, the use of incense has evolved over the years. Even today, incense is an important part of several religions of the world, including Christianity and, most prominently Hinduism and Buddhism. Similarly the forms of incense has also evolved in different regions and places of the world. In some parts, it is still used in its crude form as wood, herbs, pastes and powder, while in other places it is used in oil or liquid form. But the most famous form of incense is the joss stick or masala (spicy) incense, developed by Buddhist monks in China in around 200 AD.

The use of incense is prominent everywhere from the pavilions in Thailand and Myanmar, to the bustling temples in India. Even here in Kathmandu, especially Asan and Boudhanath, the rush of people to buy incense never stops. People continuously examine the herbs on display or flicker carelessly through the shelves of fresh joss-sticks. Picking up the right fragrance for the right occasion is the only thing that is in their mind, but few are aware of the pedigree of this once prized and valued possession, one that has completely adapted itself to the lifestyle of the Nepalese people.