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Incense

Incense

Dear Friends,

Several new and interesting projects continue to evolve which should, in the months to come, prove delightful from an aromatic standpoint . As mentioned in a recent newsletter I have come in contact with an agricultural operation in Assam that is growing Agarwood trees/Aquilaria agallocha under cultivation. They have successfully inoculated the trees with the fungus that causes the formation of the agar resin and are now able to produce the precious aromatic resin as a renewable resource. As mentioned before the wild harvested species, while still in existence have been put under a lot of stress do to intensive harvesting so this may also provide the naturally occurring trees with some relief as it is less costly to produce the cultivated agarwood.

As this contact evolved, the thought came in my mind that it would really be splendid to offer a true agarwood incense based on the oil and the powder produced from the resin. By good fortune, I know of a respected family in India who has a wonderful tradition of producing incense/agarbatti based on natural ingredients. I contacted them and then had them begin interacting with the grower/distiller in Assam so that they could work together to produce a fine agarwood incense. Due to the wonders of e-mail the connections were made quickly. This was unthinkable in India 5 years ago. Communications between businesses in rural areas and those in cities took a lot of time and such meaningful connections were seldom made. So within a matter of a couple of days samples of agarwood powder and oil were making there way by express courier service from the heart of Assam to my friends the incense makers. As soon as the material arrived my dear colleagues there began the prepartion of the agarwood incense and the first sample batch has already been made and has been sent by courier to me. I also instructed my friends to dedicate themselves to making an absolutely pure sandalwood incense based on freshly ground mature sandalwood heartwood and pure sandalwood oil. I made it clear to them that I was not concerned about price, only that they should make the absolutely most perfect incense based on pure ingredients of the finest quality so that when the incense burns it delights the heart and mind with the precious aromas of nature's treasures.

Several other incenses of similar quality are forthcoming. Kashmiri Saffron, Oman Frankincense, and Ethiopian Myrrh in which the powdered botanical and the oil(in the case of frankincense and myrrh will be used) The same strict adherence to purity of product will be followed throughout each dimension of this project. These are not going to be "inexpensive" incenses. These are going to be as elegant, sublime, simple and beautiful as can be made made using pure and natural ingredients. It is going to require several months for the project to take practical shape but the experimental phase is underway and it will not be long before some nifty natural traditional incense will be availalbe for your olfactory delight. Along with this I hope to delve deeper into the incense traditions of India to bring this ancient story alive in a more comprehensive way. Several years ago I began working on the story of incense in India but have not been able to put all my attention on it because of the need to continue my gardening work as well as building the essential oil business(I think many of us feel that we are being "stretched" across the universe as we endeavor to do what we love while still making enough to pay all the expenses of daily life) Anyway I am including the first part of this article(I have not completed the second part) It is at best, a very preliminary attempt to understand this sublime subject.

Incense in India Part 1
by Christopher McMahon

Visit to Mysore and the Story of Incense
The real purpose of our visit to Mysore was to meet with incense manufacturers who could shed some light on the history of how stick incense rose to prominence during the 19th and 20th centuries. Through Ramakant's contacts arrangements had been made to meet with Mr. M.N. Ramakrishna of Sri Satyanarayana Parimala Factory and Mr. R. N. Murthy of N. Ranga Rao and Sons.

Both companies had their roots in the making of "masala" agarbatties (stick incense composed of natural ingredients) and these gentlemen had agreed to share with us the knowledge in their possession. The day began with a brief meeting with Mr. Ramakrishana. He told us that originally his family business made incense with natural ingredients only, as was true with all the original companies in Mysore. Prior to 1950 India had an abundance of natural forest products in the form of different precious woods, spices, herbs, roots, etc. that served as the basic ingredients for making "masala" agarbatties. Several other special ingredients were readily available up to that time including true musk, ambergris and civet. They were integral parts of natural formulations and the secrets for blending were closely guarded family secrets. The formulations of that era were drawn from ancient aromatic compounds in the form of powders, tablets and pastes used for religious ceremonies and for personal adornment. (Stick incense is a relatively new creation. Before almost all incense was made up from crushed and/or powdered ingredients that was sprinkled on coals)

He specifically referred to formulas that were created for the worship of various gods and goddesses like Ganesh, Vishnu and Shakti.In the Agama Shastras it was said that each formula should consist of eight ingredients (Ashtaganda) selected from a list of 18 substances which included camphor, saffron, agarwood, sandalwood, vetiver, spikenard, costus, etc.

In this regard, it is important to remember the foundations of Indian culture arose on a firm belief in a sublime unseen power out of which the entire created universe came. This created universe was thought to be composed of five basic elements; earth (bhumi), fire (ag), ether (gaggan), air (wayu), and water (nir). When that power infused itself into these elements the different forms of creation came into being like minerals, reptiles, birds, animals and humans. One of the names given to that power was "Bhagawan", "bh" from "bhumi", "a" from "ag", "g" from "gaggan", "w" from "wayu", and "n" from "niru" indicating that the Supreme Power activated the five elements giving them life, form, and expression. Naturally the desire came to find some way to worship that power which was present in all forms of life.

India, several thousand years ago was a veritable natural paradise filled with a wealth of botanical treasures, many possessing unique aromatic properties. The people of that time, lived simple lives with senses fully awake to the environments in which they lived. Today we speak of ecology but in earlier times people had to live in harmony with nature because their everyday life depended upon it. They needed all of their senses to read the signals coming to them from the world in which they lived so they would be able to survive and lead a healthy, happy and wholesome way. They did not think of themselves as being the only conscious entities, but understood that each and every living thing had their own language. They knew it was there duty to have a humble, reverent heart so that they could "hear" what the other denizens of the creation had to say.

At that time, the leaders of the culture were people possessed of the highest sensitivity to nature and the unseen power, which moved all things. They taught the people that the only truly satisfying way to live was to be of service to others because in their deep meditations they saw that every existing thing had been placed in the world to serve some good cause. They wanted the people to understand that nature was a most valuable teacher in this regard and that if humans would interact in a sincere and sensitive with their environment they would learn that by "giving and serving" there would be abundance for all. In order to make their high and sublime teachings accessible to the common man they turned to the beautiful world in which they lived for examples. They wanted to bring the hearts of the people close to the very source of all created life, the Unseen Power itself, so that the unwritten and unspoken laws of true living could be directly perceived. Since most people could not spend so many years in deep meditation and contemplation as they had done, they needed to find outer symbols that could act as bridges to inner awareness.

The exquisite colorful scented trees, shrubs, vines, and herbs, which populated the sylvan retreats, proved to be one of the finest means of awakening in the hearts of those who came in their contact, the type of refined awareness through which a deep inner transformation could be effected.The lovely scents emitting from the heart of a delicate flower carried with it a potent message, which the simplest person could understand. The sages explained that every human life should be like a delicate flower emitting the fragrance of good words, gooddeeds, and good thoughts. From this simple basic teaching they elaborated many other points using the plants as examples of qualities to be incorporated into ones life. They taught that one's time on earth would be successfully utilized and that when the final transformation came the essence of the person also called their soul would be so much in tune with the nameless Essence that it would gracefully merge back into it.

Incense in Ayurveda (Information is provided for cultural interest, not as a recommendation for treatment of disease)

Aside from the deep symbolic meaning inherent in plants and their sublime aromas the sages noticed that fragrance had a profound effect upon the human psyche. They saw that each plant, with its unique array of molecules not only appealed to a person's refined awareness in a general sense but also could be used to effectively treat specific dis-"eases". In the traditional approach called the Ayurveda, or the "science of life," all diseases were seen to originate in some imbalance in a person's inner life. Due to some unhealthy behavior pattern the individual had forgotten the rules of living in harmony with nature. One of the first signs that manifested when a person's life was in a state of imbalance could be seen in some irregularity in the breathing pattern. Correct natural deep breathing was considered one of the essential ingredients of good health as the oxygen emitted from the surrounding vegetation contained sublime nutrients required in keeping the human body in a fit condition. Adequate rest, a simple diet composed of foods grown in the immediate vicinity, and sufficient exercise (which most people got through their everyday work as agriculturists) also contributed to a healthy life style. Still the sages observed that human beings were plagued by various passions resulting in jealousy, anger, greed, avarice, lust, vanity, criticism, etc. and these negative qualities inevitably resulted in a change in the breathing pattern.

One of the best means to help a person to gain a perspective on their own condition was to encourage them to re-establish a deep rhythmic-breathing pattern. This was easily affected by bringing them in the proximity of aromatic plants either in their natural form or in some special preparation designed to remove the blockages in their body caused by unbalanced thinking. This science was practiced in a very high form in ancient times.  With this background the story of incense may now be taken up with a deeper degree of understanding.

When we speak of incense, especially within the context of India we are apt to think of bamboo sticks upon which has been rolled some sort of paste which gives off a pleasant odor. In fact, the story of this type of incense is less than one hundred and fifty years old. Prior to that time, incense was composed of a great variety of natural ingredients, which were obtained from precious woods, aromatic spices, balsamic resins, gums, pungent herbs, earthy roots, etc. In their simplest form these ingredients were powdered or coarsely ground and burned during special ceremonies called yagnas. It is said that in all parts of India great rishis and sages lived whose whole life was dedicated to serving the people of their region. They had deep knowledge of the plant world and understood for which purpose each one was created. In the realm of the aromatic plants they found combinations of spices, woods, herbs, etc. that were very efficacious in purifying the atmosphere of seasonal bacterial and viruses and that at the same time would stimulate the immunesystems of those inhaling the smoke.

With their deep knowledge of the mysteries of nature, they realized that certain types of beneficial aromatic molecules could only be released into the atmosphere via pyrolisis or destructive distillation by fire. Through both inner experience and outer experimentation they developed a highly evolved system of social medicine that served several purposes at one stroke. First of all they would call the people of their vicinity together to perform a yagna during seasonal transition times. Specially designed "Agni kunds" (fire pits designed according to specific geometric formulas) would be constructed that would serve as giant censors for aromatic formulas compounded for that particular season. The sacred fire would be ignited in the various kunds and men and women would sit together chanting powerful mantras that helped attuned their body and mind to the healing power of the Spirit of Life which although not visibly seen was alive and permeating the entire universe. At the same time they would inhale the purifying smoke which would also help in the purification process. The aromatic molecules contained in the smoke were also known to gently stimulate the higher brain center through the olfactory nerves helping the participants relax and experience a sense of reverence and receptivity to the sublime unseen Power supporting their life. This should not be equated with the effect obtained by strong hallucinogens but simply a natural means of awakening the finer sensibilities of the people at large.

As the minds of the people united in this communal devotional endeavor the sages would explain to them simple truths which would, if put into practice, help transform the lives of those listening to them. Pointing to the coarse materials to be burned in the Agni kunds from which a beautiful aromatic smoke would come, they explained that only when a human burned his desires in the fire of divine love would the fragrant essence of the soul come out. Then just as the smoke curled up into the air and became absorbed in the atmosphere would the soul also merge back into its creator.

It is important to note that the sages were also keenly aware that the natural environment should not be harmed by the practice of such profound rites and rituals. Rather they felt that the effect of all that was done by humans dwelling on the earth should be to better the space in which they moved. In studying the flora, where they lived, they realized that each plant had a natural life cycle just as did humans and that the proper time to collect many aromatic plant materials for burning in their ceremonies was when the natural life cycle had come to a close. In fact it was found that some of the most treasured aromatic substances like sandalwood, cedarwood, and agarwood possessed the most abundant amount of odiferous material when they had lived to a ripe old age and had died naturally. Very strict laws were devised to deal with people who illegally cut such sacred trees and society as a whole was taught that one should protect and nurture the ecosystem in which they lived. This way, there would always be an abundant supply of raw materials for the practical and aesthetic needs of the community. It was possible to maintain such a healthy attitude towards the environment partly because the land was far less populated than it is today and partly because a great emphasis was placed on the quest for wisdom and enlightenment. Those who served that higher cause were deeply appreciated by the entire society.

These profound ceremonies began thousands of years ago in India and are still performed to this day, although in many places they have taken on strong commercial overtones. In 1997 I attended a couple of yagnas in Bombay where the basic outer format described above was followed but a lot of attention was being given to praising various prominent local people who had contributed financially to hosting the yagna. One could gain a little of the feeling of how it might have been in the ancient times but I felt somewhat saddened by the monetary overtones that had crept into something so rarified and precious. Still it was an invaluable experience for me as I was able to see how the Agni kunds were constructed, hear how the mantras were being chanted, and smell the purifying smoke of the burning aromatic ingredients, etc. In this way India is a true treasure house of living traditions through which one can gain insight into the countries rich aromatic history. End of Part 1 For those of you who wish to explore more on incense and have not already read the Aromatic Resins Newsletter, you can find it posted on my web site in the Newsletter Archive. There you can also see many links concerning individual incense ingredients like for Benzoin, Frankincense, Myrrh, etc http://members.aol.com/wlaromatics/15aromaticresins.html