The Art of Traditional Incense Crafting
Since time immemorial, people have burned incense for practical, aesthetic, medicinal and spiritual purposes in every culture on Earth. In ancient times, incense was one of the most prized commodities found burning in temples, courts, palaces, markets, on the streets and in the homes of commoners and nobility alike.
In the old days, there were very high standards for quality incense materials. Merchants and farmers prided themselves in offering aromatic herbals of the highest purity and superiority. A majority of the incense crafters of old were responsible for creating mixtures of exotic and sacred ingredients for many spiritual and ceremonial purposes, therefore any lower grade ingredient was simply not acceptable.
The modern, mainstream incense market has changed drastically from what was once a rich, fragrant array of exotic tree resins, loose herbal mixtures, raw, high-end aromatic woods and artisan blends of quality organic ingredients. Today it can prove a challenge to find an incense made only with natural and organic ingredients, let alone any ethically sourced materials. Most imported commercial incenses from India, China and other Asian countries are a mixture of questionable materials, synthetic chemical fragrances and potentially poached or over-harvested herbs, woods and resins.
In the shadow of these large commercial incense producers who are widely accepted throughout the US, there are many smaller companies and artisans around the world doing their part to keep their rich incense traditions alive while ethically sourcing their materials and practicing sustainability. These smaller artisan incense crafters and companies offer clean and pure incenses made with natural materials.
Incense in its various forms
The many forms of incense are nearly as diverse as the cultures who make and use them. They range from single dried herbs burned on a hot charcoal, to the most complex herbal mixtures of Tibet (sometimes traditionally comprised of over 100 ingredients). Incense takes many forms, including Smudge Sticks, tree resin, hand-formed pellets, cones, sticks, coils, single herbs, the traditional form of loose incense and many more.
Stick incense is perhaps one of the most common forms of modern incense. In ancient India, it is referred to as Agarbatti. There are different types of stick incense. Dhoop incense sticks are traditionally made from a mixture of aromatic herbs, plant oils, resins and water, usually containing some type of binder to hold the shape. Stick incense was originally pressed through a filled cattle horn with its tip cut off, leaving a very small hole for the incense ‘dough’ to be pressed through. Today, various types of hydraulic machinery are used to craft incense sticks in addition to more developed traditional crafting methods.
Joss sticks are the most common form of stick incense found in the West. They contain a thin piece of bamboo that runs through the body of the incense for durability purposes as well as to help stick the incense into sand or an incense burner. Unfortunately, the convenient joss sticks contain an additional material that does not necessarily contribute to the pleasant aromas of the incense itself; bamboo. The burning bamboo stick lets off its own subtle scent (burning wood) and smoke, slightly affecting the overall aroma of the incense.
In today’s market, a majority of Dhoop and Joss sticks are made from harmful chemical fragrances and synthetic materials; especially the mass imported stuff. Most of these do not even contain actual natural aromas. To make matters worse for the incense lover, the larger companies making these incenses are not required to list the ingredients they use, making it nearly impossible to know whether an incense is derived from Mother Nature or a chemist. Researching your incense before you buy it and sourcing from the smaller artisan companies is the best way to ensure the purity of your incense.
Many incense crafters say that the incense cone was a product of Japanese culture, in addition to the renowned koh-do incense ceremony. This form of incense was presented by the Japanese at the World’s Fair in Chicago in the late 1800’s. Today, this form is widespread and continues to be a popular choice for incense lovers. Cones tend to provide a more noticeable or intense fragrance as they burn faster than sticks, releasing more natural aromatic constituents into the atmosphere in a shorter timespan; whereas the sticks give off a more subtle aroma for longer periods of time.
Cones are traditionally a mixture of aromatic woods, resins, fragrant plant oils and other scented herbal materials. The mixtures also usually call for some type of natural binder, or plant gum, to help the cone hold its form. In modern times, the same story goes with incense cones as with the commercial production of stick incense. A majority of mass produced and imported incense cones are made using chemical fragrances and synthetic materials, mimicking natural fragrances. Their reasoning is simple, it’s cheap for the manufacturer and allows for much higher profits.
There are certain smaller international companies that specialize in artisan incense cones made with natural materials, though they are not easily accessible here in the states. There are however a few companies in the US that offer natural artisan cones, Higher Mind Incense being among them.
Single Herbs and Resins
Throughout the world, the most simple means of burning aromatic plants is by placing a single dried herb or incense resin onto a hot charcoal. This is the most ancient form of incense, before the creation of sticks, cones or other complex formulation processes. This basic method is still very common and allows for one to experience the many levels of aroma of a single aromatic plant in a more intimate way.
Burning single herbs is a traditional way to experience and understand the deeper qualities of a single plant. As many people know, aromatic plants can be healing on many different levels: psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, even physiologically. Having a more meaningful, solitary experience with a plant can hold many benefits. The ancient Japanese incense ceremony, the Koh-do, calls for the burning of single herbs in this way, helping one to sharpen the senses and better understand a plant’s healing powers and virtues, while developing the fragrant palette of the incense connoisseur.
Loose Incense Mixtures
Loose incense is another ancient traditional form of incense that was widespread throughout nearly every culture prior to the convenient invention of the stick and cone. As with single herbs and resins, a hot charcoal is needed to burn loose incense. In this way, the person burning the incense is required to be more present, in a sort of meditation, while sprinkling a fragrant herbal blend onto a smoldering coal as the smoke slowly dances upwards.
Burning loose incense can prove to be more of a ritual than using other varieties, and many people welcome this method into such practices as yoga, meditation, sacred rituals, ceremonies, artistic endeavors, etc. Loose incense is often a balanced combination of aromatic herbal ingredients, tropical hardwoods and sticky incense resins. In addition to their sweet, uplifting aromas, the resins also act as adhering agents, helping to create a consistency like that of granola, creating chunks and ‘pebbles’ throughout a mixture. In this way, the aromas emanating from each pinch of loose incense put onto a coal differs slightly, allowing one to fully appreciate and perceive each scented material in varying combinations.
The gifts of the plant world are vast and encompass everything from sustenance, shelter, clothing, medicine, spirituality, incense and more. One of the most pleasing, comforting and relaxing among the many uses of plants is the act of burning aromatic herbs. Incense is used in many different forms to connect to the divine, calm the mind, sharpen the senses, aid meditation, balance the emotions, treat certain ailments, open the heart and uplift the spirit, to name a few.
No matter what forms they take, the aromatic plants of the world have a rich, sacred history and deep relationship to humanity that continues to be of great benefit to millions. If you enjoy the use of incense it is important to be aware of the legitimacy and origin of the incense you burn, as many corporate incense companies have strayed away from traditional crafting, integrity and the use of natural materials. A little research goes a long way.
*If you’d like to take your incense, aromatherapy, or herbal practice to the next level, check out the Listening to Incense Home Study Course. There are just 2 days left to register for this program so be sure to sign up while you still can!
Article by: Evan Sylliaasen, Founder, Higher Mind Incense
© 2016 Evan Sylliaasen, Higher Mind Incense LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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