In many parts of the world incense is an important part of daily life, associated with religion, ritual and health. As you wind your way through narrow streets in bazaars and market places stalls are crammed with colourful boxes of incense with exotic and evocative names and the air is filled with rich incense smoke as you wander past temples and shrines. But what exactly is incense and why does it play such a prominent role in society, especially in temples?
Incense traditionally comes from tree resins, but can also be produced from certain bark, flowers, seeds and roots. There are two main types of incense; Eastern and Western.
Western incense comes from the gum resins of tree bark such as the sticky gum found on fir trees. The gum hardens to become resin, which is collected by cutting it from the tree with a knife. The pieces of resin are called grains and are sprinkled on burning coal to release their fragrance.
Eastern incense is produced from plants such as sandalwood, patchouli, agar wood and vetiver. These ingredients are ground using a pestle and mortar. Water is then added to make a paste along with saltpetre – potassium nitrate – to help the mixture burn evenly. The mixture is then processed in various ways.
In India, the mixture is spread on a stick of bamboo to make agarbatti, or an incense stick, whilst the Chinese sieve the mixture to form strands. In some cases, incense cones are also formed and incense paste can be formed into Chinese characters, which bring good fortune when burned.
Throughout history, incense has been used by many different cultures and religious faiths to produce a wide range of results. In ancient times it was believed that plants were scared and closely associated with the gods. The burning of certain plants was believed to drive away demons and encourage the gods to appear on earth.
In Hinduism, incense made from sacred wood and flowers is burnt to purify the atmosphere and provide worshippers with a clear frame of mind to perform ritualistic worship or meditation.
Egyptians associate incense with the dead. Incense is specially blended with each ingredient selected for its unique magical properties, which carry the soul of the dead to heaven along with the prayers and good wishes of the mourners.
The Native Americans are also known to have burned mixtures of herbal smoke in ceremonial cleansing and healing rituals. These rituals date back thousands of years and are believed to drive away negative energies and restore balance. Herbs and plants such as cedar, sweetgrass, sage and tobacco were tied into bunches and fanned through the energy field to attract positive forces.
Incense is widely used throughout Buddhism for a number of purposes. It is burned in large quantities at all religious ceremonies and in daily worship. In Tibetan Buddhism, incense is also used in healing and can be used to treat a wide range of symptoms including skin diseases and fatigue.
It has long been thought that the burning of certain fragrances can heighten the senses of sight and smell and in today’s society incense is playing a prominent role in aromatherapy.
Many aromatherapy specialists promote the extensive use of incense, attributing it with a wide range of beneficial properties. Certain types in incense are used to reduce anxiety, stress and fear, alleviate insomnia, accelerate healing, revitalise and renew energy.
It is believed that each fragrance has its own vibration and can be carefully selected to aid mood enhancement and assist personal development.
To produce the most beneficial effects for your personality, many aromatherapists recommend blending your own incense. This is a lot simpler than in sounds and can also be a lot of fun.
To start, choose a selection of wood and spices that you feel positive towards. You should use at least one resin or wood as a base, which should be frozen for at least 15 minutes before use. The ingredients must be in the form of a fine powder; you can use either a pestle and mortar or a coffee grinder to produce the powder.
Although there is no limit to the ingredients you can use, it is easiest to start with just three, such as one wood and two herbs. Mix all the dry ingredients together and then add the resins. Place the mixture in a ceramic dish or a large seashell and set light to it to release the calming aroma.
Most incense sticks for sale in shops or on street stalls are produced in factories in China or India. Production is simple and economic. Large bundles of wooden sticks – known as ‘punk’ sticks – are bought from a specialist supplier in bundles of 100 sticks.
The ends of the sticks are cleaned and the bundles selected for a particular fragrance with the ends painted the colour relating to that fragrance. The bundles are then left to dry overnight.
The fragrance oils are mixed the next day and the punk-covered ends of the bundles are dipped into the fragrance and left to dry overnight once more.
Once dry, bundles are individually wrapped in wax paper, sealed in plastic bags and placed in bins to await orders for sale.
So there you have it. From cleaning the mind to honouring the spirits and mourning the dead, incense is used in numerous ways by many different cultures and religions. However, all seem to agree that these small scented sticks have the power to release human spirit and potential.
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