Skills: The Ancient Art of Making Incense
by Anne Harwood
for the Scholars of St. Thomas Aquinas, 2008
since primitive man learned that certain woods, resins and herbs thrown on the
fire create pleasant and therapeutic effects, incense has been an integral part
of worship. Virtually every culture in every part of the world has used incense
as a means of worshipping God.
In the Bible, for example, God
directs the Israelites to burn incense as a sacrifice to Him, and included the
recipe to be used in the Temple.
when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his
mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their
treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.”
practitioners of the Ayurvedic discipline were acute observers of their
environment, and were centuries ahead of their western European counterparts in
the sense that they understood that matter was composed of invisible particles.
They also practiced reconstructive surgery
and therapeutic massage, using various aromatics combined with oil to calm the
mind and release toxins from the joints.
was a basic treatment of the Ayurvedic physicians. They noticed that fragrance
has a profound effect on the human mind, and combined this observation with
their knowledge of the antibacterial and antiviral properties of certain woods,
herbs and spices.
During times of widespread illness or the changing of the seasons, Ayurvedic
physicians performed special ceremonies called yagnas.
Natural ingredients including precious woods, resins, powders, spices, roots and
gums were burned on large fire pits called agni kunds (Agni being the
Hindu god of fire and messenger to the other gods of the pantheon). These agni
kunds would serve as giant censers for the aromatic blends prepared for the
occasion and the community of men and women would sit around them, chanting
mantras and inhaling the sacred and healing smoke.
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.
practice of Ayurvedic medicine was restricted to members of the Brahmin caste.
Study of the Vedic texts reveal that the highest tier were those who practiced
orthodox sacrificial spirituality, offering animals to God in rituals specified
in the Vedas. The second tier were the healers, who had assimilated their
knowledge of herbalism with the rituals and beliefs of the sacrificial priests.
These healers were scorned by the higher caste, who believed the healers were
“unclean” due to their association with sick persons of all classes. Around
200 B.C.E., the second tier was excluded by law from participating in the sacred
Due to this significant split in
the Brahmins, I believe that incense making as a profession opened up to other
castes: the higher caste Brahmins retained control of the sacred rituals
surrounding sacrifice and worship, which was privileged knowledge not shared
with other castes, even other Brahmins of “inferior” tribes. Other castes
looking to improve their own status took this opportunity to expand their
money-making potential by learning how to make sacred incense. Rajpal’s family
is Kshatriya, and traditionally warriors, but in discussing caste and
status, one must be careful to avoid categorizing the castes by profession too
narrowly. For example, Niccolao Manucci, an Italian adventurer in India during
the second half of the 17th century, observed,
the top of the ritual hierarchy would eat with no one else at all, nor would
they eat food cooked by anyone else. Yet curiously, the Brahmins would cook for
other communities, and, though he would not clear the leaves on which others had
eaten, he would even pour water to wash the hands of those who had eaten.
Ingredients During the 15th Century
Rajpal and his family enjoy the status of
belonging to both the second caste and artisans, for following the division in
the priestly castes in the second century B.C.E., “incense evolved…in
association with medicine and herbal remedies, and became even more a closely
guarded secret passed down primarily in the oral tradition and
Rajpal is not a healer, the Ayurvedic traditions no doubt impact his
understanding of how incense recipes are prepared. These recipes represent
knowledge passed down to him from his father and his father before him. Being a
holistic healing system, Ayurvedic medicine (of which aromatherapy and incense
are fundamental components) draws on the five elements. It is widely believed
among Hindus that ill health results when there is an imbalance between the
elements. Following is a breakdown of the elements and the aromatics associated
(stems and branches) – sandalwood, aloeswood, cedarwood, cassia, frankincense,
– star anise
(roots) – turmeric, vetivert, ginger, costus, valerian, spikenard.
(flower) – clove
(leaves) – patchouli
during the Mughal reign the worship of Shiva and Vishnu are prevalent,
each Hindu is free to offer his devotion to any of the countless gods and
goddesses in the pantheon. Rajpal makes incense primarily for use in puja
(worship), so his understanding extends to the scents that are sacred to certain
gods. According to guidelines laid out in the Agama Shastra, an enormous
and ancient collection of Sanskrit scriptures detailing the places and means of
worship, the ingredients for incense varied, depending upon which god was being
worshipped. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find an English translation
of this resource. According to secondary and tertiary sources, however, it
appears that formulations for puja incense were composed of eight
ingredients chosen from a list of eighteen.
Very roughly, this list included sandalwood, red sandalwood (sacred to Ganesha), vetivert, saffron,
spikenard, costus, aloeswood, camphor, turmeric, clove, cinnamon, styrax, champa,
frankincense, myrrh, cedarwood, rose oil, jasmine oil and tulsi (or
basil, sacred to Vishnu and Krishna).
not only Hindus use incense for worship. Despite the many differences that make
Hinduism and Islam seem diametric opposites to each other (including monotheism,
transmigration and reincarnation), Muslims also burn incense during their
religious ceremonies. Rajpal, a devote Hindu, nevertheless counts Muslims among
his customers, and has some knowledge of their incense requirements.
and Muslims alike are perfume enthusiasts as well. Umar al-Farouq, one of
Islam’s earliest converts, said, “Whoever spends a third of his wealth on perfume is not being
extravagant.” It is said that of all things,
the Prophet Mohammed loved God, women and fragrance the best,” and his
favourite scent is thought to be musk (“The best of perfumes is musk,” he
said, according to Sahih Muslim, a Sunni collection of the Prophet’s
words). Despite this, followers of Islam in Mughal-era India hold that the rose
is the most pleasant of fragrances, and they use it extensively. Manucci tells
us, “All persons in India being extremely choice about, and fond of, scents
and flowers, they disburse a great deal for essences of many kinds, for
rosewater, and for scented oils distilled from different flowers…. Everyone in
India knows how dear and scarce essence of roses is…Yet neither scarcity nor
high cost deters…”
is another scent that figures prominently in Indian society. No less than
sixteen varieties are available in Mughal-era India. Jasmine is mentioned in The
Kama Sutra, a treatise written in the 4th century C.E., often
mistaken for a pornographic work. While a section of the book does focus on the
various expressions of human sexuality, its broader application is to the
pursuit of pleasure, as its title implies (“kama” translating roughly to
“wish” or “pleasure”, and “sutra” meaning “thread” or
“discussion”). Within the pages of The Kama Sutra, we find guidelines
for the three aims of life, the acquisition of knowledge and tips on personal
grooming, including the ingredients for toothpaste. This recipe involves
cardamon, cinnamon, honey and black pepper. Eraly tells us that the
women in the Imperial harem combined “crushed pearls, musk, amber, aloeswood
and camphor” for their toothpaste.
Indeed, The Kama Sutra considers the artful handling of fragrance one of
the sixty-four arts of the cultured classes.
Abu Fas’l compiled a comprehensive list of aromatics in his exhaustive account
of Akbar’s reign, The Ain-I-Akbari (1596-1597). Fas’l mentions the
means of collecting and cultivating such substances as ambar, camphor,
musk from the civet cat, aloeswood, sandalwood, storax, frankincense, champa,
saffron and sunflower, to name just a few.
of the same ingredients are still in use and it seems likely that incense in
Mughal-era India existed in a form we would recognize today. In the 21st
century, incense is most readily available in the form of cones or sticks. Cones
are a recent invention, and made their debut at the World’s Fair in Chicago in
1893. Sticks, called agarbhatti
or joss sticks, are believed to be a development of Buddhist monks in China, and
probably came to India via the Silk Road shortly after 200 C.E.
Incense was also of the loose variety, which is explored in depth below.
Incense and the Ananga-Ranga
none of the ancient recipes for loose incense intended specifically for puja
have survived the Mughal reign. What has survived, however, is the Ananga-Ranga, a treatise
on human sexuality written by the Indian poet, Kalyana Malla, in the 15th
or 16th century. Sir Richard Burton translated this work into English
Ananga-Ranga is a fascinating document, not
so much for the descriptions of the various types of women to be found in India
and how best to court them, but because it contains a vast pharmacopeia of
cosmetics, remedies and charms. Chapter Seven is devoted to the treating of
“Vashikarana, the art by which man or woman is rendered submissive and
obedient to the fascinator.”
It is here that we find a recipe for “a fascinating incense, or
fumigation”, which is valuable for the insight it offers into the making of
incense during the Mughal era, a process Rajpal would have employed.
recipe reads as follows:
well together sandalwood, Kunku (red powder prepared from turmeric and alum
coloured with lemon-juice and other matters), costus, Krishnaguru (black
sanders), Suvasika-puspha (perfumed flowers?), white vala (the fragrant
andropogon muricatum and the bark of the Deodaru pine); and, after reducing them
to fine powder, mix it with honey and thoroughly dry. It is now known as
Chintamani-Dhupa, the "thought-mastering incense".
is the Sanskrit word for “the mind jewel”, and this incense was burned for
the specific purpose of meditation. Although its focus was on the subjugation of
a romantic partner, rather than the worship of a specific deity, we can assume
that the method for making and using puja incense was identical. From this
recipe, we can deduce that ingredients were ground into powder with a mortar and
pestle, mixed with honey and set out in the sun to dry, forming little cakes.
These disks were placed in small bowls lined with sand, or in specially designed
stoves, and set alight. Once the fire caught, the flame was blown out and the
incense left to smoulder.
incense burner, 12 c.
recreating Chintamani, I was first faced with the task of identifying the
ingredients. Sandalwood and costus are both readily available, and
posed no difficulty. Kunku is today more commonly known as kumkum,
a powder used by Indian women even today as a cosmetic, to make the tilak
(or bhindi) on their forehead, and to decorate the part in their hair
during festivals. Krishnaguru is known more commonly as agar or aloeswood,
and is one of the fragrances mentioned by Abu-Fas’l in The Akbarnama.
White vala is a sweet-smelling grass, known also as vajra or
greatest difficulty in gathering the ingredients for this recipe was identifying
suvasika-pushpa. Even Burton seemed baffled and uncertain of this
ingredient as he added, “perfumed flowers” in parentheses.
All of my efforts to ascertain a common or English name for suvasika-pushpa
were unsuccessful. An online search revealed a commercial producer of Chintamani
incense using traditional methods, but the ingredient list stated only that suvasika-pushpa
is “special fragrant flowers”.
in recreating this period recipe, it was necessary to leave this ingredient out.
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 Old Testament, Book of Exodus 30: 34-37
 Matthew, 2:11
 Eraly, Abraham The Mughal World, pg 350
Incense In India (http://www.oller.net/India.htm)
 Japanese Incense Making (http://www.essenceoftheages.com/info/info1.html)
 Eraly, pg. 114
 Japanese Incense Making (http://www.essenceoftheages.com/info/info1.html)
 Making Japanese Incense (http://www.essenceoftheages.com/info/info1.html)
 Eraly, pg 321
 Eraly, page 95
 Danielou, A. (transl) The Complete Kama Sutra page 60
 Eraly, page 141
 Fas’l. Abu The Ain-I-Akbari pages 75 - 77
 Burton, Richard (transl) The Ananga-Ranga, Medical Press of New York 1964 page 69
 ibid, page 74
 Fas’l. Abu The Akbarnama