Its scent is as recognizable even to someone who isn’t familiar with it yet. The strong lingering aroma of burning wood or herbs, perhaps even with a tinge of aromatic oil, it will tickle your nostrils unlike most perfumes you’ve come to know. This is the signal that you’ve encountered incense within your environs.
Although not as costly as it once was, incense still captures the imaginations of many thanks to its unique, enigmatic fragrance. Love it or hate it, there’s more than meets your nose to this ancient scent.
Find out more about incense and why it’s loved by people the world over throughout millennia.
History of Incense
Incense didn’t always start as bamboo sticks burned during meditation.
As far back as the 5th dynasty of ancient Egypt, explorers have found evidence that Egyptians used resin balls and combustible bouquets for their sacred ceremonies and fumigation. They would even take care of plants and trees that produced sweet-smelling sap, which can be burned along with other herbs, to appease their gods.
Between the 24th and 25th century BC, incense then found its way to Greece and Rome by way of Babylon. There it was used by oracles during their prayers and offerings to the divine.
By 3300 to 1300 BC, the enigmatic fragrances found its way to the Indus Valley Civilisation, or the north-western regions of South Asia, including what is today northeast Afghanistan to Pakistan, and northwest India. This was when fragrant oils were added to incense, enriching their captivating aromas.
In India, they adapted formulas taken from East Asia and incorporated roots as well as local flora. This was the time when Sarsaparilla seeds, frankincense, and cypress were used.
By 2000 BC, incense was being used in ancient China for worship purposes. The practice became so popular, particularly during the Song dynasty, that many structures were built solely for performing formal incense ceremonies.
Inasmuch as there used to be a ‘Silk Road’, there was also the ‘Incense Road’. Imagine a desert path running through the Negev desert from Yemen to Oman, a staggering 1,200 miles, simply to deliver frankincense and myrrh. While traders were known to carry other goods like fruit, none were as highly valued as perfumes and incense.
It was Japan that came a little late in the game, when Korean Buddhist monks introduced incense to them during the 6th century. Back then, the delicate scents was strictly reserved for the nobles of the Imperial Court. It wasn’t until the 14th century that samurais were allowed to perfume their armor and helmet with incense for ‘invincibility’.
By the 15th and 16th century – also known as the Muromachi period – the art of incense appreciation (called kōdō or Way of Incense) spread among the upper and middle class societies of Japan.
From then on, incense has evolved and has been used the world over for all kinds of rites and purposes: from sacred ceremonies, to simple enjoyment and pleasure.
How Incense is Used Around the World
Some traditional Muslim homes use incense for disinfection and to control the smells within the house (especially kitchen smells). This keeps pleasant odors inside, helping families feel more secure and at home in their spaces.
The use of bakhoor (scented wooden chips burned in charcoal or traditional incense burners, called Mabkhara) is also enjoyed because they release amazing scents. Sometimes, you can find bakhoor in special events like weddings or for relaxation.
When ingredients for incense came to Greece and Rome, many pagans used the sweet-smelling herbs, flowers, berries, and wood to ward off evil spirits. Especially with the cold, long, dark winters, there was nothing more reassuring than these warm fragrances, promising protection and defense against unseen forces.
Today, they are used in homes for pleasure and enjoyment.
It’s no surprise that incense has been linked with Asia. After all, countries such as China, Japan, and India remain mystical aspects of their culture despite the growing globalization.
In India for example, Hindu rituals still require incense for its psychological and physical benefits. Traditional or alternative medicine like Ayurveda, also uses incense for its calming properties.
China perhaps has the most uses for incense. Aside from medicine, it’s also considered essential for religion, art, and time-keeping. Visit Chinese temples and you’ll see incense being burned as offerings to deities and ancestors. There’s also xiangzhong, or incense clock. As written beautifully by poet Yu Jianwu:
“By burning incense we know the o’clock of the night, With graduated candles we confirm the tally of the watches.”
Meanwhile in Japan, incense has been so common than most folks who use it hardly think about it anymore (in contrast to when it was first introduced to the country). Today, incense is used mainly for two reasons: for Buddhist traditions, such as rituals for mourning for the dead; and as a hobby.
You can usually find them in homes, burned for their lovely scent, or during Tea, as well as to perfume rooms in guest houses. There is also coil-shaped incense that is widely popular during summer months to keep pests like mosquitoes at bay.
How to Begin Using Incense at Home
Interested in using incense but not sure where or how to begin? Here are some practical tips:
1. Understand WHY you want to use incense.
Throughout history, incense has been used for all kinds of purposes – from religious rites to sheer enjoyment. It pays to know why you want one. Is it to find an alternative cure for migraines? Or perhaps you’re looking for an aide during your morning meditations? Answering such questions will help you find the best incense that will suit your needs.
For instance, champa incense from India has been praised for its benefits on stress management and depression. Scents such as sage and sandalwood on the other hand, make great company during meditation.
2. Shop around for scents.
Take note of any allergies or existing medical conditions that you have before buying incense sticks or dried wood. It’s good to be familiar with scents you already like. If you’re feeling adventurous, visit local town fairs and check out booths with incense or essential oils.
Combining scents can produce interesting aromas that can soothe, relax, and increase your overall olfactory experience. For instance, musky or earthy smells can be paired with more romantic white floral essences. Meanwhile, the mixture of sandalwood and citrus can be re-invigorating. This is perfect for those looking for a natural way to deal with late night deadlines.
Of course, amber and frankincense have been popular for centuries. So it’s good to consider them as well before expanding your incense collection.
3. Beware of fakes.
Nowadays, incense is made from natural and synthetic materials. While you may not be an incense connoisseur just yet, there are tell-tale signs that point out whether that incense would be a great buy or not.
Some hints of fake or chemical incense include:
- Strong or piercing scent, irritating to the nose;
- Does not burn evenly or produces plenty of smoke;
- Very cheap price, usually bought from dollar stores.
Handmade incense sticks made from fragrant oil, resin, and powder for example, sometimes excrete small traces of essential oil when pressed between your fingers. Once burned, they will also produce a more divine scent that will envelope the room.
Remember NOT to buy cheap incense! As they’re not all created equal, there are some that produce toxic chemicals, which can be harmful to your health. Before making your first purchase, do your research by reading customer reviews and checking labels. When in doubt, ask!
Investing in a good set of incense will not only be good for your home, but eventually, to your well-being, too!