Did you know that the sense of smell is more primitive than the other senses? In brain evolution – the sense of smell is located in older parts of the brain. So it isn’t any wonder that incense dates back to the dawn of history and the burning of incense is one of the oldest practices of mankind?
The origin of using aromatic substances can be traced back to the Stone Age or probably even before that. Let’s take a look at how incense has influenced cultures across the world!
India is often considered the home of incense; it is eulogized in the Vedas, back in the era 5000 B.C. The traditional well-known scents of ancient India were Jasmine, Rose, Sandalwood, Champa, Cedar & Musk. Ancient Sanskrit texts contain many beautiful descriptions of festive occasions when incense was burned in the homes and streets. Fragrant waters were sprayed on the thoroughfares and scented flower garlands adorned and decorated buildings and entranceways. In fact, flowers, which have deep spiritual connotations in Hindu philosophy, are among the chief sources of incense in India. Along with flowers; incense sticks and dhoop are a part of the 16 essential offerings in the Hindu ritual – the others being betel leaf, betel nut, camphor, cardamom, cloth, clove, diya (lamp), grain, naivedhyam (a mix of nine offerings), sandalwood paste, sweets and water.
Indeed, fragrance has played a dominant role in Hindu religious rituals since Vedic times and is intimately linked to the havan or yagna i.e. the sacrificial fire. Offerings or oblations consisting of aromatic and medicinal herbs, resins, barks, leaves, exudates (gums which flow from trees) twigs, roots & seeds along with foodstuffs and ghee were offered to Agni , the god of fire who, according to mythology, carried them to the celestials. This was done to appease the gods for ushering in prosperity or avoiding disaster. The emanating fumes with their unique aromatic properties, purified the environment and had a vitalizing and invigorating effect on individuals, besides acting as a natural disinfectant. They were said to ward off evil spirits, alleviate anxiety and create an aura of tranquility and help in experiencing the divine presence. In fact fragrance is considered as a divine attribute and is said to manifest the presence of gods as well as gratify them.
It is this dhoopa upachara or dhoopa aradhana which has transformed over the ages, for convenience & practical reasons, into the present day agarbattis. Agarbattis, also known as joss sticks, incense sticks or prayer sticks, are today used in all temples and domestic offerings by millions all over the world.
Burning of incense has been an integral part of all ancient civilizations. Fortunes were spent on incense and trade routes established with incense in mind. Among the most important ancient fragrances were Frankincense (Olibanum) and Myrrh, but the resins of various other plants have also been collected and traded since 3000 B.C.
Gums and resins of aromatic trees were imported from Somalia in the Arabian Peninsula to ancient Egypt to be used in religious ceremonies. The tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes was found to have huge quantities of perfumes, oils and incense surrounding his mummy. For Egyptians, incense held a direct connection with the dead. Each type of incense had a specific purpose and effect.
The Babylonians used incense extensively while offering prayers or divining oracles. It was imported into Israel in the 5th century B.C. where special gold altars were erected for it in the ancient Temple of Israel. According to one theory, it spread from there to Greece, Rome and India.
The sophisticated Greeks appreciated aromatic sources such as the turpentine tree, myrrh, frankincense and cinnamon. Enormous amounts of money were spent on these exotic imports. These were burnt as oblation & for protection. More precious perfumes, incenses and spices came as imports through Arabia along well established incense routes, to be eagerly purchased by Mediterranean merchants to satisfy the increasing demands of the European markets.
In Rome it was an important element in public and private sacrifices, especially in the worship of the emperor. The Old and New Testament refer to the extremely powerful Resin Drop Incense, whose recipes were given through Voice or Vision e. g. Moses was given recipes by the Creator during his encounters on the Mount. It is well known that when Jesus was born, frankincense and myrrh were presented to him along with gold by the three wise men of the East. Today Roman Catholic as well as Protestant and the Eastern Orthodox Churches use incense at mass and in many other rituals.
Native American Indians offered tobacco, sage, junipers, cedars and mugworts in their rituals, as documented from their first encounter with Europeans in the 15th and early 16th centuries. Descendants of the Mayas & Aztecs offer copal, an aromatic resin even today in their worship.
Brought to Japan by Buddhist monks, the delicate scents of Koh (Japanese incense) amused and entertained the nobles in the Imperial court during the Heian Era. Koh was used by samurai warriors during the Shogunate period in the 14th century. The practice spread to the upper & middle classes of Japanese society in Muromachi Era during the 17th & 18th centuries. Koh-Do, the elegant art of incense appreciation has long been the spiritual nourishment of Japanese culture & Koh is a mainstay of Shinto ritual.
The Chinese use it to honor ancestors and household or tutelary deities.
Incense was unknown in early Buddhism, which was opposed to external ritual. But in time, its use became more general. And now it is used to accompany the Buddhist in their meditation, to induce self -awareness and free them of negative states.
It is in Tibetan Buddhism however, that the use of incense has transcended mere ritualism to gain a respectable medical status. But since Tibetan medicine and Tibetan religion are closely related, the usage of incense in Tibetan medicine is strongly dictated by the rituals of Tibetan Buddhism.
Mystical aspects of incense have withstood the test of time, making it absolutely necessary for any magical or occult practice.
As such, these aromatic substances have been of fundamental relevance to religious and cultural practices and developments throughout history and have been an inspiration for explorers, aristocrats, writers, artists, poets, merchants & priests and the world trade in these scents of nature has never declined.
From around the world back to India…back to Mysore…the land of an Incense Maker
Mysore, the land of palaces and temples beckons you with its awe-inspiring magnificence
Mysore, the land of silks and sandalwood beckons you with its handcrafted treasures
Mysore, the land of The Dasara Festival beckons you with its majestic pomp and splendor
Mysore, the land of a million aromas beckons you to a feast for the senses
Mysore, home to the NR Group, beckons you…
Steeped in history, closely nestling against hills and forests, this city is probably the largest centre for the manufacture of incense sticks in India. Its quaint old – worldliness works like a charm on you and offers an experience that is uniquely Mysorean – an air imbued with the mingled fragrances of a thousand agarbattis and attars.
A – Aromatherapy.
It is one of the oldest uses of incense, as old as 5,000 years.
B – Bedroom freshener. Keep your rooms alive and fresh with incense.
C – Concentration. Whether it is while studying or at work, the use of specific incense enables clear thinking and complete awareness.
D – Divining the muse. For writers, painters, or any kind of artistes, burning incense provides the right setting as you meet one creative challenge after another, in search of the muse.
E – Entertain guests. Delight and impress your guests with your sense of creativity and sophistication, by having a uniquely scented home.
F – Flower for your soul. Incense speaks to the soul and enlightens it. Light some incense and find peace.
G – Gift it. What better way to share your love for incense and introduce others to the wonderful world of fragrance?
H – Healing touch. Incense carries the power to heal, be it a light headache or a serious depression, herbal incense is used in a variety of therapies.
I – Inspiring. Scents can inspire you, stimulate you and boost your confidence.
J – Joy. Incense is known to influence the atmosphere and feelings in the room. Light some incense and see the mood lighten up instantly.
K – Kundalini flow improves. Incense has the power to increase your latent energy flow, resulting in complete well – being.
L – Love. The invigorating incense can increase the sense of love. Light some incense and feel the love flow.
M – Meditation. Incense is believed to have a deep connection to spirituality and burning of incense creates an excellent atmosphere for meditation, a practice in vogue down the ages.
N – Nature. The incense is a natural disinfectant & fumigant. Use it as a chemical-free insecticide & pesticide to repel mosquitoes & other pests, and you don’t have to worry about harmful side effects.
O – Occult uses. Incense has its mystical dimension and is absolutely indispensable to any occult or magical practice. It is said to improve the medium’s psychic abilities and help spirits to manifest themselves.
P – Purifies the environment. Immense purifying properties are ascribed to incense which cleanses, not only the surroundings, but also the individual who, as part of the environment, feels psychologically cleansed.
Q – Quiet. Go deep within yourself . light an incense and be quiet. Fragrances have been proved to have a soothing effect on frayed nerves & jaded minds, and dispel doubts and uncertainties.
R – Relieves stress. Burning of incense works as an effective outlet for stress and a channel for releasing pent-up tensions.
S – Sanctity. Festivals, poojas, weddings and all kinds of celebrations can be given a special touch by having a delightful fragrance drift around.
T – Tantalizing. Excite the atmosphere with incense.
U – Unwind. Ideal for unwinding after a hard day’s work. It induces your body to relax and helps you let your hair down.
V – Vibrations. Incense has the power to counter negative vibes and create positive vibrations which uplift both the emotional and the physical state.
W – Worship. Down the ages and across various religions, incense has been an inextricable part of worship. For our ancestors in every culture, it symbolized the sacredness associated with prayer and ritual.
X – Xanadu. Light some incense, close your eyes and travel to idyllic places.
Y – Yoga. Incense is an excellent accompaniment to the practice of yoga. On burning, it produces an effect conducive to the state of mind required for dedicated yoga.
Z – Zzzzzz. Sleep inducing. The next time you are troubled by restless sleep, or if you are habitually plagued by insomnia, try the caressing power of fragrance to lull you to sleep.
A firsthand account from an incense stick
Namaste! I am the humble agarbatti and this is the story of my creation, which in India, is treated as a sacred art.
Did you know that India, which has developed the culture of fragrance to its highest level, produces the widest variety of fragrant flora in its many climatic and geographical zones?Stretching from the Himalayas in the north to the tip of the southern peninsula and from the hills in the east to the western desert, nature’s bounty of fragrant flowers, balsamic woods and aromatic resins offers the best sources for my creation – jasmine, champa, rose, sandalwood, musk, lavender, patchouli, saffron and countless others.
Is it any surprise that thousands and thousands of my varieties are made in this country? Interestingly, I am mostly still hand-made and a significant part of my production is a cottage industry. Being highly labour intensive, this industry is a huge employment generator. It necessitates no educational or technical qualification or specialized experience and thus employs a large number of women who work from their homes. It is also capable of providing employment to the partially handicapped, aged persons and other weaker sections of society in both cities and villages. What’s more? My making requires no huge capital investment and no dependence on power supply but it is a great foreign exchange earner.
My manufacture is actually both a science and an art. Some of my formulations are so ancient; they have been handed down through centuries. These are prepared under strict supervision. The finest ingredients are blended in exact proportions so that the same unique bouquet is obtained every time. My formulas are often family guarded secrets that have passed down over generations.
While I come in all kinds of shapes & sizes: cones, logs, coils, powders, wood chips, resin drops – my most popular form is the stick or agarbatti.
Here’s how I take that form:
• I start off as bamboo, which is evenly slit and cut into sticks of the right length and thickness.
• A fine paste of natural ingredients like aromatic roots, herbs, resins, gums and adhesives, including jiggit powder is carefully prepared and gently rolled onto me.
• I am then left out at the mercy of the sun to bake & dry for no less than three days.
• After this, I am sorted, bundled and packaged attractively in a variety of aroma – retaining covers.
Now I am ready for use!
Some of my cousins are made differently. While I am known as the masala bathi, another type called Charcoal bathi is the stick coated with a more basic paste of wood charcoal, spent sandalwood powder, binding resin, etc and is black in color. But he goes on to get lovingly dipped in a special blend of fragrant essential oils before being put out to dry again.
Yet another cousin is a combination of the two of us. He gets treated to both the masala paste and the special oils or he gets to have some resinoids and essential oils mixed with his masala paste. He has a very fragrant bouquet and leaves a more lingering fragrance. There are others, like sandalwood and some amber. They are actually masalas like me but contain only powdered or shaved wood and a resinous or solid perfume. But they are distinctly woody and are called wood base.
Yet another masala incense, the Durbars are slow burning, with a sweet, spicy, rich aroma. They are a mix of solid and liquid perfumes in a gummy base, they don’t dry completely and are soft to touch. Champas are those durbars which contain the sticky grey, semi-liquid halmaddi from the Indian plumeria tree.
I haven’t yet told you about my other relatives, Dhoops or logs, which are extruded fragrance sticks without the bamboo. These are masala or combination incenses, a resinous mixture of rice, coconut, flowers, etc and they are strongly aromatic. Cones are another variety of dhoops in a conical shape.
Thus, I can be a complex blend of up to 50 or more natural ingredients. Sometimes the climate of an area may determine the method by which I am made e.g. the number of days I need to dry would depend on how hot & dry or humid a place is. Did you also know that certain regions specialize in producing particular types of incense? E.g. sandalwood varieties which Mysore is known for. Another thing, while most of us cousins can be ignited directly, there are some mixtures like the sambrani , which need to be sprinkled in powder form over glowing charcoal or over a fire, to release their fragrance.
Like my fragrance, I could go on & on but I must stop here. However, while going, I must tell you to beware of cheap duplicates in the form of unprocessed wood slivers, dipped into synthetic perfumes, which are then ornately packaged and sold. These blank sticks, known as firecracker punks, produce harsh chemicals on burning, and can give you quite a headache!
Here is what goes into the making of a Cycle agarbatti at N. Ranga Rao & Sons:
The best of raw materials are sourced directly from the Asian sub-continent. None of these are issued for production until they pass very stringent quality control tests.
We have the strongest R&D setup in the entire agarbatti industry. Years of rigorous research have given us distinction in fragrance creation, and we are known to have set trends in creating different forms of incense and packaging.
NR Group’s core competence – the nurtured art of creating new fragrances is a family secret that has been handed down through generations, safeguarding the purity and original quality of the incense.
Adding to the company’s strength is the fact that all fragrances are made or blended in-house and all processes are developed in-house, ensuring that there are no collaborations. All statutory requirements under labour, forest, commercial and pollution control laws are applicable to this industry, which is recognized by the Government as a handicraft industry. This safeguards the interests of the production workforce and the environment.
A professionally managed company, N. Ranga Rao & Sons introduced modern practices such as Vendor Development Initiatives, Quality Management and HRD as early as 1960.
Cycle agarbatti gives full and part time employment to many tribal hamlets and also to more than 3000 families in India.
Cycle products are totally eco-friendly – no CFCs are released during production, no animal products used and no animal testing is involved.