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Incense Around The World

When you burn incense you are linking yourself in to a tradition that stretches back long before any written history.  People have been applying heat to fragrant plant leaves, resins, and oils for millenia, and even up until the present there is a strong desire among many individuals to burn these things, to let their fragrant smoke float up into the air, be it as a form of air-freshener, or as an offering to the gods.  For some reason, there is an extensive human tendency to understand plants and nature through the medium of fire.  Incense helps us link in to that, and if you have ever had the opportunity to burn a really high quality piece, you know how powerful it can be!  The following is a quick overview of the types of incense that have developed the world over, how they are similar and how they differ, and how the incense making of each region has developed over time.


Indian incense was one of the first types of incense to become popular in the west.  Its fragrant, seductive and exotic smells are both powerful and intriguing.  India is also the home of many of the base materials from which incense is made.  After all, with access to materials such as sandalwood, myrrh, camphor, and so forth, it is not surprising that India has developed a vast variety of marvelous incenses.  The trade of these fragrant materials also strongly influenced the creation of incense in other regions, such as Tibet, China, and Japan.

The Vedas, the ancient Hindu holy scriptures, discuss the use of incense to create pleasant aromas and as a form of medicine.  Incense is actually considered to be the first stage of Ayurvedic healing, and so incense making was primarily done by monks and doctors. Ayurvedic incense making classifies ingredients based on the five elements and combines them accordingly.


Around 200 CE a group of wandering Buddhist monks brought the art of incense making to China.  China was most likely the birthplace of solid stick incense, that which does not contain a solid wood core.  This innovation truly turned incense making into a fine art.

In China, incense is used regularly in religious ceremonies, ancestor veneration and medicine.  For example, burning camphor was said to help with eye troubles as well as heart and stomach ailments.  The Chinese also used "incense clocks", sticks of incense which burned so regularly that one could set a watch by them.


Incense making traveled from China to Japan, where it became an art form of the highest caliber.  Even today, traditional Japanese incense makers must study their entire lives in order to gain mastery of their art.  The creation and use of incense became a jewel of the high courtly arts of Japan.

Japanese incense is generally fairly simple and uncluttered in its fragrance, often representing one or two main scents at most, making it more subtle than, say, Tibetan incense.  Most incense ingredients in Japan come from India and South-east Asia and many are chosen for their properties in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

The Japanese even have a Way of Fragrance, Kodo, which is one of the three classical arts of refinement, along with tea ceremony and flower arrangement.  Kodo includes all aspects of the incense, from the tools and composition, to activities such as incense-comparing games and a game known as Genjiko, in which participants inhale pre-made incense blends and try to determine what chapter of the epic Tale of Genji they represent.


Tibetan incense has a very earthy, herbal scent for the most part, and usually contains quite a large number of ingredients, often thirty or more.  Tibetan incense is recognized as a way of treating sickness, and is the central work on which Tibetan medicine is based.

Unfortunately, Tibetan incense making has become commercialized in the present, which leads to incense formulation by makers who do not have the proper lineage.  This has degraded the process of Tibetan incense making somewhat.  However, it is still possible to find high quality, healing Tibetan incense, and to support the artisans that make it through making informed purchases.


Europeans also have a long history of incense use, but never made the transition to self-burning incense.  The ingredients of the Far East were incorporated into this, as was local flora.  This type of incense is often strongly connected to herbalism and magical ritual.

The New World

Although we do not always think of it as incense, North and South America also demonstrate long traditions of incense creation and use.  In indigenous North American traditions, sage, pine, and even tobacco are placed over smoldering coals as part of ritual in order to release their scents and send prayers up to the gods.  In South America, we see the burning of copal by the Maya and Zapotec peoples, and the Incan tradition of burning the fragrant palo santo wood.

With the rapid globalization and modernization of our society, we are now able to gain access to beautiful incense from all over the world, and we are even seeing new combinations of scents and styles to create amazing new products.  So take some time and explore incense from all over the world, so you will know what works best for you.  You may find that through using incense from all over the world you will be able to achieve exactly the effects you desire no matter what situation you find yourself in!
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