Visit to Assam, Agarwood 1
I hope all of your are well as we proceed into the Fall Season of the year. In the coming days I will be sending out a series of newsletters on the recently completed trip to India. It was lovely and meaningful in every way. As all of you may remember I went for documenting the agarwood industry in Assam and the Blue Lotus extraction in Maharastra. I hope these accounts will bring you close to what was experienced there.
Agarwood Explorations-Part 1
This account is the result of a just completed expedition to the center of agarwood production in the state of Assam. For many years the longing to explore the world of agarwood had been in my heart but the proper contacts to do so had not manifested. As is well known to anyone interested in the subject there is a lot of misinformation and confusion surrounding the topic and rarely has any Westerner been allowed into the centers of actual production. After researching the subject in terms of written literature, talking with colleagues who had some knowledge of the raw materials , and procuring samples of "so-called" agarwood oil, I became convinced that unless I had the chance to see things first hand, I would never understand the topic properly. It is one of the most expensive essences in existence and although many people had requested me to carry it I did not feel comfortable offering an item for which I did not have actual knowledge of the sources from which it came.
As sometimes happens in this life, doors that were once closed began to open up to make an in depth investigation of the subject under the guidance of a family that had been involved in agarwood for several generations. One day I was doing some research on agarwood on the internet and while pursing that work I came across the name of a person from Assam who was reputedly offering the authentic material. For some reason the name of this person resonated in my heart and I thought to myself I should go ahead and contact him and see if this new lead would prove fruitful. In the past I had pursued similar contact information but the replies were always that the material being offered was authentic but that it would be impossible for me to see actual distillation going on because no one is allowed into centers of production. Such replies always left me feeling uneasy. But I had also learned that one should not be discouraged when making such enquires but simply wait for the time for the right door to open. A lot has to do with our own purity of intent and I was very sure that I did not want to deceive anyone with regards to agarwood for the sake of making money.
In August of 2001 I contacted Mr. Tajul and from the very first response I knew that I had found the person who was doing genuine work and might possibly allow me to experience this world first hand. His replies to my questions were frank and direct and the information he supplied me with was illuminating and instructive in every way. Another thing which appealed to me greatly was that he and his family had developed a project in Assam whereby thousands of agarwood trees were being replanted to replenish the resources that had been overharvested especially during the last 30 years. It is a well known fact that genuine wild harvested agarwood is a great rarity at this time because unscrupulous entreprenuers, caring little for the tree and the environments in which they grew cut down them down indiscriminately whether they had the precious resin within the or not. So knowing that Tajul's family had personally invested in agarwood reforestoration spoke volumes about the sensitivity and kindness in their hearts. He even shared with me a well written documentation of how the project had evolved as well images of different aspects of the project.
In the initial interactions I did not feel bold enough to request permission to visit their operation but as our information interchanges increased I realized that there would be no harm in asking if he might allow me to see what they were doing. He did not hesitate to welcome me to Assam and assured me that he would be delighted to share with me everything I wished to know about cultivated and wild harvested agarwood. This positive encouragement was a delight to receive and a tentative arrangement was made to visit Assam in February of 2002. Meanwhile I had developed such a confidence in Mr. Tajul that a couple of projects regarding agarwood were initiated on a practical level.
Early on in our interactions Tajul sent me samples of both wild harvested and cultivated agarwood oils. Both had their own unique attributes. From a simple olfactory level the wild harvested material appealed to me more. I knew it was authentic because I had with me a bench mark sample of pure agarwood oil that had been distilled 30 years before by my dear colleage Dr. Mohan Maheshwari. When he was a student doing his Phd work on agarwood the authentic material was readily available in India. He had with his own hands distilled over a kilo of material from high quality raw material. It was through his intensive interaction with this rare resin and its oil that he had been able to identify for the first time ever some of the rare aromatic molecules contained therein. Fortunately he had kept a small amount of the original distillation with him and he was gracious enough to share a small amount of it with me. No sample I had received up to that time from any other source had struck me as being even close to the quality of Dr. Maheshwari's oil until I received the sample from Tajul. It had the same high vibrational resonance which spoke to the heart of one of the most precious aromatic substances in the world today.
The oil of the cultivated material was also beautiful in its own right but it did not possess quite the richness of the wild harvested oil. This was due in part to the fact that the fungus infected heartwood which produces the resin was relatively young as compared to the wild harvested wood. The oldest trees from which the resin was distilled were only 12 years of age whereas the wild harvested resin was from 30 years upwards. So there is defintely a correlation between the age of the natural resin existing in the tree and the odor profile. Still the cultivated material had a lot of merits and the desire to find a proper use for it was awakened in my heart.
As I thought deeply on this matter the idea came to me that it might prove very useful in incense manufacture. I therefore contacted one of my dear colleagues in Maharastra State whose family had good knowledge of traditional masala incense manufacture and asked them if they might take up a special project to produce an incense based on the oil from cultivated trees along with the spent dust left after the distillation of the wild harvested resin. Thus was born Brahmaputra Agarwood Masala Agarbatti which turned out very well. The name Brahmaputra was selected for the incense because this might river whose name means Son of Brahma(in Hindu tradition the primal creative power)
After this incense the idea came in my mind that it would be worthwhile to see what type of essence we could get by doing the CO2 extract of the spent dust and virgin wild agarwood resin. In order to initiate this new project I contacted another dear colleague in Maharastra State who had a fine CO2 extraction facility. He readily agreed to take up this pilot project. Both extractions also produced useful and beautiful materials which represent another dimension of the aromatic profile of the resin contained in the heartwood of the tree. In fact the spent dust which remains after the distillation of 20 days still contains extremely valuable aromatic components and only through CO2 extraction under very high pressure can the remaining essence contained therein come out. The extract obtained from the virgin wild harvested resin was softer and milder than that obtained by the traditional distillation process. This experience in itself was a great example of how different distillation or extraction processes produce different ranges of aromatic molecules in special configurations which give us a more comprehensive understanding of the essence contained with any raw material we are starting with.
While all these new works were getting started, Tajul also made a visit to my fragrance mentor, Ramakant Harlalka as well as to the factory of the CO2 extractors and incense makers. He was keen to know at each step how these works were being done and what the resulting products were like. I had also informed him that if all went well Ramakant might be interested in doing the in-depth analysis of the oil. This type of endeavor(the analysis) is a demanding effort. It is not just the matter of injecting a sample into the gas chromatography mechanism and getting a readout of the components. Indeed most of the research on agarwood components is either not published or incomplete due to the fact of lack of authentic samples and the time required to do proper analysis(which can take hundreds of hours) At the time Tajul visited Ramakant in Mumbai, Ramakant was busy with many other works and so could not make a deep committment to doing the full analysis of the oil but the seeds of further interactions were planted during this initial interaction as the subject has its own magnetism for anyone who has become engaged in it to a lesser or greater degree. There is just something about agarwood that will not leave one because it has within it so mucvh history, adventure, mystery and intrigue not only now but for thousands of years.
For those who are not familiar with India and the kind of difficulties that once existed in bringing such projects into manifestation this project was a wonderful example of the value of e-mail communication and rapid domestic transport of goods.
Because of e-mail I was able to be in constant contact with all the concerned parties. It was then possible to arrange to have the raw material shipped all the way from the interior of Assam which is quite remote, to the incense maker and CO2 extraction facility without any difficulty. They now have very good transport facilities in India where one can track the progress of the consignment just as can be done with packages sent via UPS, Fedex, etc in the USA. These kind of faclities are change the face of Indian commerce and allowing projects to take place which would have been impossible to think of just a few years back.
All these preliminary interactions and projects increased my longing to visit Assam and become practically knowledgeable about the trees themselves, the plantings they had initiated, their distillation techniques etc. Unfortunately I had to change my plans for the February visit due to a shoulder injury. This was a great disappointment but fortunately I was able to reschedule it for October which worked out better in the long run because I could couple it with a presentation that I had been requested to give in UK at the International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists in Harrogate. Thus it was that on October 10th I began the trip to Assam that was to issue me into a world of unbelievable beauty and enchantment.
Agarwood Explorations-Part 2
As plans for the October visit matured, Ramakant also felt inspired to join me. This was happy news because it had been 2.5 years since we had traveled together and I greatly missed the chance to learn from a dear friend and colleague who I consider to be a person possessed of the deepest insights into the world of pure essential oils, absolutes, CO2 extracts, etc. His knowledge is based on practical experience in distillation and extraction techniques, deep involvement with quality control analysis, a love of India, her environments, cultures and people and a rare intuitive connnection with the world of the plants themselves as they exist in nature.
Each visit with him has been illuminating and instructive in every way and this long break in direct interaction had been sorely missed by me. One can no doubt understand many things through the written word but there is another type of knowledge which can only come through direct transmission. I also felt that by traveling with Ramakant several important exchanges of information would occure regarding improved distillation techniques and other matters related to the subject agarwood and natural aromatics in general would arise.
I arrived in Mumbai on the early morning of the 15th from London. I was picked up by Ramakant's nephew Sandeep who took me to there home to rest. The day was spent in happy interactions with the family and colleagues from Europe who were also visiting at that time. It was the auspicious day of Dusshera and so the whole city was alive with a festival atmosphere. We enjoyed a drive through Mumbai in the evening to see the celebrations and to have a boat tour of the bay just near to the famous Gateway of India monument.
Early the next morning Ramakant caught our Jet Airways flight to Calcutta with onward connection to Guwahati the capitol city of Assam. The air journey itself was a revelation on the changing India. I have seldom experienced such fine and courteous service as we received by the staff of Jet. It was on a par of Singapore Airlines which to me is the best in the world. On the connecting flight to Guwahati I was conspicously the only foreignors on the plane. It is only in the last few years that Assam has opened up to people from abroad as there was previously a good deal of political and social unrest in the land. That has for most parts of Assam subsided so there was no problem in entering without a special permit.
After collecting our baggage we proceeded to the exit where Tajul was waiting for us with a couple of his brother, Mr. Aminul and his cousin, Mr. Simu . It was a happy meeting for us. In actual fact I had never enquired from him of his address or phone number as all our correspondence had been by e-mail. I simply trusted he would be there and of course he was. The day before we left for Assam I remembered that I had nothing but a promise that he would be at the airport to greet us and of course he was. Regarding Assam I had only a slight knowledge of the area from brief consultations with guide books. I somehow had it in my mind that it was going to be extremely hot and muggy but it was not like that at all. When we stepped outside the terminal we experienced a fresh warm subtropical atmosphere that wa by no means unpleasant. Everything felt natural and comfortable for all of us although this was a first meeting.
We were immediately taken to the office of one of the chief government officials of the area, Mr. Hazarika. He was a close friend of Tajul's who had a deep interest in promoting agricultural projects that would be for the benefit of the people of his district. This first lively encounter was enlightening for us all. The reason for Ramakant's accompanying me became apparent with each passing moment because his work with natural essential oils in India is entirely based on practical knowledge of what is really needed in the domestic and international fragrance and flavor industry. Often it has been seen that some projects with regards to aromatic plants have been started in India but the people promoting that work do not have the proper connections on the consumption end of things so those projects either fail out and out with disatrous effect on the lives of the farmers, or they struggle along providing little real actual income. So the link between industry and the farming community needs to be real for any work to reach positive fruition.
During this initial meeting a strong emphasis was placed on expanding the agarwood plantings and developing patchouli as a commercial crop. India currently imports many metric tons of Patchouli from Indonesia as it is one of the most widely used fragrances in the country. Only small amounts are produced domestically. Various small experiments have been tried in Assam with patchouli in the last several years with very positive results. The soil and climate have been found ideal for its cultivation and any amount produced there had a ready market if it could be produced within international price parameters. Early indications were that this was possible.
Along with that Ramakant encouraged the continued expansion of the agarwood plantings because this crop also has no limit in terms of what could be sold. The demand far exceeds the reply. The quality of Assamese agarwood has been eulogized since ancient times as that region of the world has the precise environmental conditions for producing the finest resin.
Mr. Hazarika was a total delight to be around. Often government officials tend to be more interested in promoting projects for their own benefit rather than the benefit of the people and much money gets syphoned off for improving their own quality of life rather than that of the people but Mr. Hazarika was the exact opposite. He was keen to get projects developed right away so that farmers could avoid some of the financial disasters that seem certain to come with regards to overproduction of rice and tea in particular for which Assam is a major producer. There is stiff competition from other parts of the world with regards to these two crops and it has been projected by those who have a grasp of the subject that prices will plummet within the next couple of years leaving those depending on those crops for income in a difficult situation. So this issue was discussed in depth with continued requests from Mr. Hazarika to Ramakant to help develop a map for implanting the planting of aromatic crops in Assam.
It may be of some value to the reader at this point to mention that this role has fallen into Ramakant's hands in other regions of the country particularly the states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal. He has been working closely with local and state officials in those regions to inspire farmers to grown geranium and lavender as the internal consumption of the oils distilled from the above crops is huge. He has been traveling in those regions and helping get the distilling units set up for high quality distillation of these valuable crops. He has also been active in promoting the spread of organic horticulture in those regions and this has also received the support of everyone from government officals, to scientists, to farmers in making this a reality. Ramakant knows better than most that whatever is produced must have a ready market so the farmers do not become disenchanted with mere talk and no action. The farmers of India are very hard working people with immense knowledge of how to coax from the environments they live a great variety of crops but they do wish to realize some financial benefit from their hard work.
After this meeting we proceeded to the personal patchouli plantations of Mr. Hazarika located to the east of Guwahati in the hill region. I rode with him while he shared with me his deep and loving vision of what he longed to see happen in Assam. Very fortunately the entire state has had minimal impact from the use of herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers because of its so called "backward" nature and now with increasing awareness of the shortcomings of these technologies further restrictions were being imposed by local governments strictly banning their use. So he was also keen to do everything within his power to promote organic horticulute.
I really enjoyed the time I had with this dynamic and kind individual and feel that in the time to come will have good interactions with him.
After visiting his newly started patchouli enterprise we parted ways and I rejoined Tajul, his brothers and Ramakant in their vehicle and continued our journey to Nagoan which was to serve as the center for our explorations of the agarwood industry which would commence on the following day. After descending from the hill district we came into the vast fertile plane surrounding the Brahmaputra River. It was like entering a world very little touched by the hands of the modern era. Some people may call it backward but I thought it to be beautiful beyond compare. It is an ancient land with a lot of historical significance in Indian tradition and the energy and beauty emanating from it was tangibly experienced. Indeed every part of my being was moved by the scenes that appeared before us. Superbly maintained rice fields, mango orchards, banana plantations, coconut groves extended on both sides of the rural road upon which we traveled. It was like looking on a fine tapestry of exquisite craftsmanship.
Cows, goats and water buffaloes meandered by the roadside with no concern for their safety. Ancient law dictates that they have the right of way and it was the duty of humans to honor this unwritten law. Cars and vehicles of any kind had to weave their away around them or meet severe penalities of local communities.
The scene was of one of ancient pastoral beauty. The impact of it far transcended the things being experienced by the physical senses. Trying to describe this feeling is very difficult if not impossible. A good deal of my life has been spent in rural India including active engagement in farming from 1971-1976. The experience that arises as a result of this intimate contact with the land is simply part of my being. There is something so subtle and refined that steals into the heart and takes it over when in the presence of a land so ancient and filled with a vibrant spirit of devotion and sacrifice. The energy arising out of a world where contemplation, prayer and meditation has had an honored role is tremendous. It leaves its own invisible imprint on the valleys, hills, rivers, mountains, forests, lakes and deserts. It has a luminosity that makes these natural resources glow from within. Assam manifested this quality in a profound way because it has been relatively unsullied by the advent of modern technology. Wave upon wave of this sublime enviromental radiance washed over the heart and mind bringing it ever closer to contact with the grand mystery of life of which we are all part.
The India being described here is quite different than the India portrayed through most media presentations. It is what we might call the unseen India. Very few people from the West have lived or moved in the rurual districts for any length of time and so this part of the experience of India which I am describing might not seem real to them. But it is definitely there and accessbile if one desires it. The farming community which comprises over 70% of India's population(meaning that it is 700 million strong) still have with them to a greater or lesser degree the spiritual heritage that has been handed down to them from generation. The passing changes of the world do effect them but because they are in contact with the land they have not lost contact with something far older and deeper, more aligned with the invisible and eternal reality which all of India's sages and seers have talked about. Even though they represent many different cultures, communities and religions they are united by a spirit of love and devotion for the Hidden Essence which radiates its power to all living beings. By virtue of their hard day-to-day work on a land that is filled with this special charging, of an age that cannot be calculated, India has continued to thrive in spiteof unimaginable difficulties and hardships. Today a powerful new economic infrastructure is arising only because this strong agricultural foundation exists.
The grandeur and beauty that exists in the lives of these unassuming sons and daughters of the land can only be tapped into when one is able to set aside the attitude that only technogical and scientific achievements of the modern era are important. They are valuable but they are not everything. The qualities of humility, sacrafice, hard work and ingenuity have been kept alive from generation to generation in large part because of the farming community. These qualities have a value of their own which which is worth honoring and respecting as well as incorporationg into ones own lives.
The four hour trip to Nagoan was completed by evening. A room at the government circuit house had been arranged for us. Every small amenity was provided to make our stay comfortable. We had further discussions with Tajul after dinner. It was arranged that the next morning we would have an early morning walk about town before proceeding to the agarwood plantations located in a couple of hours into the interior.
The whole day was a sequence of happy experiences and meetings. There are certain times of the life where one feels the perfection of every moment and this was one such time.
In a brief few hours my life had been touched deeply by Tajul and his brothers. They were a wonderful example of intelligence, intergrity and kindness. They were in every way in touch with the modern world yet they had maintained their deep love of the land and her people. Functioning as a single unit they were using their life energy to improve the lives of those around them as well as caring for the environment in which they lived. They were in my eyes the true nobility of the time. In the company of such people one simply feels a certain trust and confidence that exists without the need of much talk. Through their support, the beauty of the landscape we were passing through and all my own feelings about India and her inherent spiritual qualities, the day had been one of great joy.