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Ash Catchers

For many thousands of years, people of all walks of life have been drawn to the use of incense for a wide variety of purposes. And, to burn incense, one almost always will want to use an incense burner, also called an ash catcher, so as to provide a safe, fire-resistant, stable location in which to burn the incense, and also to prevent accumulation of dust and debris.

The origins of incense are woven so finely into history that no one is certain where or when it was first used. It is thought to have originated in Sumerian and Babylonian cultures, where the gum-resins of aromatic trees were imported for use in religious ceremonies. Incense was burned in ashcatchers by Egyptian Pharaohs, both to counteract unpleasant odors, and as an offering to the gods. Balls of resin incense have been found in several prehistoric Egyptian tombs. And the oldest ashcatcher ever found dates back to the fifth Egyptian dynasty, somewhere between 3777 and 2832  B.C.E.

The Vedas, the ancient, sacred writings of the Hindu faith, mention use of incense and ash catchers, and it is believed that incense use in India likely began as early as 8500 B.C.E., or possibly even earlier.

The Indus Civilization used ash catchers. Evidence suggests oils were used mainly for their aroma. Incense, and the ash catcher, was used by Chinese cultures from Neolithic times and became more widespread in the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties. Incense usage reached its peak during the Song Dynasty, with numerous buildings erected specifically for incense ceremonies.

So, now that you know a little about the history of incense, you may be wondering, “what kind of ashcatcher is right for me?” This depends partly, of course, on your sense of aesthetics and personal style, and also is dictated by what type of incense you prefer to burn. The ash catcher has been in use as long as has incense, and, like the flowering of the art of incense, the making of ash catchers has evolved into an art form as creative and varied as incense-making itself. 

The censer, or ashcatcher, is any type of vessel made for burning incense. These vessels vary greatly in size, form, and material of construction. The make of an ash catcher can range from simple earthenware bowls or fire pots, to intricately carved silver or gold vessels, from small tabletop objects a few centimetres tall, to as many as several meters high. In many cultures, burning incense has spiritual and religious connotations, and this influences the design and decoration of the ashcatcher.

For home use of granulated incense, small, concave charcoal briquettes are sold. One lights the corner of the briquette on fire, then places it in the censer and extinguishes the flame. After the glowing sparks traverse the entire briquette, it is ready to have incense placed on it. Ash catchers made for stick incense are also available; these are simply a long, thin plate of wood, metal, or ceramic, bent up and perforated at one end to hold the incense. They serve to catch the ash of the burning incense stick.

Charcoal and resin incenses, and other types of indirect burning incense, are best burned in an ashcatcher such as our brass Charcoal Resin Incense Burner, which allows the user the intensely transporting experience of burning resin and/or cone incense, as might be done in a church or temple using a censer -- a ceremonial ash catcher. If you’ve never burned traditional resin incense, I can attest, from personal experience, that it is powerful and otherworldly. It produces a thick, billowing smoke that is more dense and present than other types of incense. It is well-suited to larger areas, or any setting in which the user wants the incense to make an immediate and strong impact.

For the burning of traditional Japanese incense, usually made into thin sticks, an ash catcher such as our Shoyeido Hand-Thrown Incense Burners would be much more practical. To easily burn thicker sticks of incense, such as Nag Champa, a popular Indian incense, an ashcatcher such as our ceramic Elephant Burner will work quite nicely. Traditional Japanese incense is more delicate and subtle than Indian or Tibetan incense, and works very well in smaller, enclosed areas, or any setting in which the user desires a lighter, more ethereal incense.

Carved soapstone ash catchers are also a very nice way to burn incense, and since soapstone ash catchers are less heat-conductive, they can safely be used on wood surfaces.

No matter what manner of incense and ashcatcher you choose to use -- and remember, there is no reason that you can’t have several, for different moods, uses, times of day, etc. -- you will be taking part in a special process that has now existed for perhaps as long as ten thousand years. The burning of incense in an ash catcher has been used for purposes of ritual purification, to enhance mood and relaxation, to heighten and focus awareness, as a means of meditation, and to bring one closer to other planes of existence. For as long as civilization has existed (and perhaps even before that), people from all walks of life, from all corners of our little planet, of every race, age, and religion, have burned incense for one reason or another. And now, I invite you to partake of this beautiful, enriching, and timeless art. If you would like to further explore your curiosity on the burning of incense in an ash catcher, check out The Book of Incense, which illuminates the incense traditions of Japan. Enjoy!
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