The Sense of Smell
As soon as we enter a place, whether it is a house, shop, restaurant or office, one of the first things we notice is how it smells. We place a lot of faith in our olfactory senses and often our final impression of a place may be sealed just by the way it smells. If it smells nice and fresh, we assume the place is healthy, and if it doesn’t smell nice, we form the impression that the place is uncared for and decrepit. With so much value placed on our sense of smell, it is hardly surprising that from time immemorial, we have been trying to make our surroundings smell nice. We often do so by burning aromatic substances, oils, resins and plants that give off a nice fragrance as they burn, infusing the surrounding with a sweet and pleasing smell.
Smell for Healing and Wellbeing
It is a well-established fact that fragrances and smells can alter our mood and help our bodies to heal. In ancient Ayurveda and Chinese Traditional Medical system, incense and aromatic herbs and oils are used to promote health and healing. This is what probably gave rise to the practice of aroma therapy where fragrant oils, perfumes and incense is used to relax the mind and the body, promoting a sense of wellbeing. Different fragrances have different effect on our body and mind. Some smells can be relaxing while others can be invigorating and some others can help to concentrate and help in spiritual practices. Each fragrance or combination of fragrance has some effect or the other and that is an undeniable fact.
Incense Form, Shape and Sizes
Incense come in many different forms, shapes and sizes. From loose powder to sticky paste to sticks, cones and just loose herbs or braided leaves or roots. Some can be burned directly and others require a heat source to burn.
In East and South Asia, where incense burning is a daily ritual, the various forms of incense that are available can be mind boggling. Some incense sticks that are used for special occasions or ceremonies can weigh over a kilogram and can be as tall as an average man. They also come as cones, coils, and solid sticks, which, again, can be many different sizes and weights.
Making of the Incense
In order to make incense several ingredients are required. The main ingredients of course include the aromatic herbs and oils, then there is a burning base which can be charcoal or wood based and finally a binder is required if the incense has to be rolled into sticks, cones or coils.
The proportion of each of the ingredient has to be carefully checked and controlled as the proportions of each have to be just right to make the incense burn just right, give off little smoke, release its fragrance and maintain its shape.
While most incenses have a herb or plant base that is blended with combustible substances to make incense, there are some incense now available that come formed as blanks – which essentially means they do not contain any fragrance just a combustible base which can be dipped into a chemical fragrance to create the incense. These incense are cheap and do not retain their fragrance unless they are sealed properly.
Incense paste is made by combining all the raw materials with water in to a kind of doughy paste. This paste is then hand rolled or machine rolled into the desired shape to create the incense. The best handmade incense contain no chemicals or artificial perfumes. They are made using aromatic plants, medicinal herbs, plant based resins and oils. These incense sticks are made with sustainable material and are completely eco-friendly and environmentally safe.
The Best Incense is Handmade Incense
The best incenses in the world are mostly handmade. This is the traditional process, it is very labor-intense but this produces some of the finest incenses in the world. From mixing the dough to rolling the incense everything is done by hand. Even splitting the bamboo sticks for the core is also done by hand. Though now, there are machines available to make incense, the end result is not as satisfying as when it is hand done.
When machines are involved they usually take care of the splitting the bamboo for sticks and then in the final process of coating the bamboo sticks with the paste to roll them into incense sticks. So they are not completely machine made, there is some element of human labor involved here too.
Most of the incense that is sold across the world comes from India. There are other countries also that manufacture incense, but India is the largest supplier. Incense industry is mostly a cottage and small industry in India. Entire families are involved in making and rolling incense sticks that are then exported across the world. When you buy handmade incense in Australia, it is the labor of a family in the hinterland of India or other such third world country that has produced it. So everytime you buy or burn a handmade incense stick, you are supporting a family to sustain itself.
Incense stick industry employs thousands of women across the world in some of the poorest countries. These women empower themselves and support their families by making and hand rolling incense sticks.
Buying Incense Sticks
When buying incense you can buy them as blanks and infuse them with an essential oil of your choice or you can buy incense sticks that are made with real resins, aromatic herbs and plant extracts and come complete in itself. Incense are available in many different fragrances which can be broadly categorized as, woody, herbal, floral, spicy and citrusy. Some fragrances are single note while most popular ones are a complex blend of several different scents. Whatever your choice, remember to buy handmade and hand-rolled incense everytime.