Almost everyone has had the experience of smelling something in the air and being vividly reminded of another time or place where that particular scent was present. This "associative" or evocative nature of fragrance has its roots in the structure of the body itself. The sense of smell differs from the other major senses in that its more primitive, working more directly with that part of the brain which is "older", in an evolutionary sense, than the rest of the brain.
The smell of bread rising - a heady, yeasty smell - may bring back moments spent in the kitchen during childhood, together with intense recollections of how the kitchen looks, who you were with or what people said many years ago. In exactly the same manner, the fragance of incense - carried through the air - may inspire thoughts or feelings, setting the mind at rest and into a receptiveness for images of all kinds. It is for this reason incense has been used for thousands of years in conjunction with meditation and prayer. And, needless to say, for the same reason, incense has been used to eliminate or camouflage other odors which are offensive, which may evoke unpleasant assocations.
Incense is unlike other kinds of perfumes because it is designed to spread fragrance to its target immediately, creating an atmosphere or setting a tranquil pace for whatever activity is intended. It is also infinitely more versatile than other perfumes, because it goes far beyond being just a perfume. Good incense makes use of substances like tree barks and saps, roots, flowers and other botanical products, which cannot be liquefied or isolated into a perfume or cologne. And, in the burning, ingredients of extremely differing forms combine into a single, unique bouquet containing subtle tones or shadings.
Incense is a kind of "mental stimulant" which can transform the ordinary into the very special, and do so easily at no great expense. Fine incense burning in a plain room with gental lighting and a few special mementoes can produce a setting which subtly calls the psyche to relax, lighten and allow flow with the moment. Whether the space is a temple or a bedroom, the effect is the same. A mood is set and the moment takes on a heightened, special meaning.
CHOOSING INDIAN INCENSES
Some companies import their line of incense directly from India. But most of the incense available in America is processed here. Blanks (ie, unscented sticks) made by coating thin slices of bamboo with unprocessed wood, are cheaply imported from the East. The blanks are then dipped into solutions containing synthetic aromatic chemicals, ornately packaged, and sold for a high profit (in which you often pay more for the packaging than the actual content). These "blanks" are otherwise know as firecarcker punks. They were never intended to be used as incense as unprocessed wood produce produces harsh chemcials when burned, which is why some incense gives people headaches.
Incenses from India ("agarbatties"), represent literally thousands of different ingredients and compounds. They usually contain liquid perfumes as well as solid base ingredients such as sandalwood powder, charcoal and resin known as "jigit". Any such incense can be expected to have 30 or more ingredients. As a result, the variety of incense from India is quite vast. Diverse as they are, Indain inceses fall into several distinct categoreis. We have described below five processes which emcompass all varieties of stick incense from India. Each listing is prefaced with a word which denotes the nature of each incense. While some incenses don't fall exactly into any one category, we think you'll find these decriptions helpful, particulary once you have tried a given type.
MASALAis the India word for a blend of spices and/or herbs, such as those used in making curries or other food dishes. Masala incenses are made by blending a number of solid ingredients into a paste which is then rolled onto a bamboo core stick. Masalas usually do not contain liquid perfumes which can evaporate.
CHARCOALis integral in the manufacturing of an unscented blank (non-perfumed stick) which is then dipped into a mixture of perfumes and/or essential oils. These blanks usually contain "spent" sandalwood powder, a binding sticky resin that holds the stick's coating together, wood charcoal and sometimes other substances. Most charcoal incenses are black or near black in color, and are distinctive becuase they are rich in aromatic perfumes. Indian charcoal sticks contrast from the "punks" mentioned earlier as they are dipped in superior perfumes and burn smoothly without producing irrirtating smoky by-products. Charocoal stick incenses are typically more single note fragrances.
DURRBARS(and Champas) are wet-process incenses which frequently contain ingedients entirely unfamiliar in the West. They are usually very slow burning and quite sweet and spicy in bouquets. They can amalgamate solid and liquid perfumes in a gummy base which never quite dries, making the sticks themselves soft to the touch. All are rich and highly fragranced.
COMBINATIONincenses are those we have found to have the qualities of both the Masala and the Charcoal. It is possible to make a Masala incense and then dip it into liquid perfumes, producing a very colorful and rich bouquet. Or, semi-liquid substances such as resinolds which can be added to the Masala along with essential oils or liquid aromatics. These incenses usually have a great deal of depth and once burned, leave a lingering after fragrance.
WOODBASEincenses, including sandalwoods and some ambers, contain little more than powdered or shaved wood plus a resinous or solid perfume. They are really Masala, but since the woodiness is so distinct in most cases, we have put them into a separate category.