Incense – cultural variations
By- Sanamdeep Singh
Along with the introduction of Buddhism in China came calibrated incense sticks and incense clocks. The poet Yu Jianwu (487-551) first recorded them: "By burning incense we know the o'clock of the night, With graduated candles we confirm the tally of the watches". The use of these incense timekeeping devices spread from Buddhist monasteries into Chinese secular society.
It is incorrect to assume that the Chinese only burn incense in the home before the family shrine. In Taoist traditions, incense is inextricably associated with the 'yin' energies of the dead, temples, shrines, and ghosts. Therefore, Taoist Chinese believe burning undedicated incense in the home attracts the dreaded hungry ghosts, who consume the smoke and ruin the fortunes of the family.
However, since Neolithic times, the Chinese have evolved using incense not only for religious ceremonies, but also for personal and environmental aromatherapy. Although misrepresented until recent studies, Chinese incense art is now regarded as one of the esteemed Chinese art forms - next to calligraphy, tea, flower arrangements, antiquities, etc.
Incense sticks, also known as agarbathi (or agarbatti) and joss sticks, in which an incense paste is rolled or moulded around a bamboo stick, is one of the main forms of incense in India. The bamboo method originated in India, and is distinct from the Nepal/Tibet and Japanese methods of stick making which don't use a bamboo core. Though the method is also used in the west, particularly in America, it is strongly associated with India.
The basic ingredients are the bamboo stick, the paste (generally made of charcoal dust and joss/jiggit/gum/tabu powder - an adhesive made from the bark of litsea glutinosaand other trees), and the perfume ingredients - which would be a masala (spice mix) powder of ground ingredients into which the stick would be rolled, or a perfume liquid sometimes consisting of synthetic ingredients into which the stick would be dipped. Stick machines are sometimes used, which coat the stick with paste and perfume, though the bulk of production is done by hand rolling at home. There are about 5,000 incense companies in India which take raw unperfumed sticks hand-rolled by approx 200,000 women working part-time at home, and then apply their own brand of perfume, and package the sticks for sale. An experienced home-worker can produce 4,000 raw sticks a day. There are about 25 main companies who together account for up to 30% of the market, and around 500 of the companies, including a significant number of the main ones, are based in Bangalore.
Jerusalem temple incense
Tibetan incense refers to a common style of incense found in Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan. These incenses have a characteristic "earthy" scent to them. Ingredients vary from cinnamon, clove, and juniper, to kusum flower, ashvagandha, or sahi jeera.
Many Tibetan incenses are thought to have medicinal properties. Their recipes come from ancient Vedictexts that are based on even older Ayurvedic medical texts. The recipes have remained unchanged for centuries.
In Japan incense appreciation folklore includes art, culture, history, and ceremony. It can be compared to and has some of the same qualities as music, art, or literature. Incense burning may occasionally take place within the tea ceremony, just like Calligraphy, Ikebana, andScroll Arrangement. However the art of incense appreciation or Koh-do, is generally practiced as a separate art form from the tea ceremony, however usually practiced within a tea room of traditional Zen design.
Agarwood (沈香 Jinkō) and sandalwood (白檀 Byakudan) are the two most important ingredients in Japanese incense. Agarwood is known as "Jinkō" in Japan, which translates as "incense that sinks in water", due to the weight of the resin in the wood. Sandalwood is one of the most calming incense ingredients and lends itself well to meditation. It is also used in the Japanese tea ceremony. The most valued Sandalwood comes from Mysore in the state of Karnataka in India.
Another important ingredient in Japanese incense is kyara (伽羅). Kyara is one kind of agarwood (Japanese incense companies divide agarwood into 6 categories depending on the region obtained and properties of the agarwood). Kyara is currently worth more than its weight in gold.
Some terms used in Japanese incense culture include:
- Incense Arts: [香道, Kodo]
- Agarwood: [ 沈香 ] – from heartwood from Aquilaria trees, unique, the incense wood most used in incense ceremony, other names are: lignum aloes or aloeswood, gaharu, jinko, or oud.
- Censer/Incense burner: [香爐] – usually small and used for heating incense not burning, or larger and used for burning
- Charcoal: [木炭] – only the odorless kind is used.
- Incense woods: [ 香木 ] – a naturally fragrant resinous wood.