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Incense Making

By David Oller

Incense has its roots back in mankind's first experiences with fire itself. It is unlikely primitive man would have missed that certain woods had more pleasing aromas and indeed varying emotional effects. Incense artifacts, thousands of years old, have be found in throughout the world, and appear to be a part of virtually every culture. The connection between incense, religions, medicine, and shaman practices is obvious, it would be impossible to separate them, or say which proceeded the other. Historically it is difficult to trace because it has always been largely an esoteric and oral tradition evolving in relation to both religion and medicine.

There are many myths regarding incense as well. Several modern sources include the use of Salt Peter (Potassium Nitrate) in making incense. This is undoubtedly a much later addition that arose in the commercialization of incense, primarily in the last 40 years.

Incense has appeared in many forms: raw woods, chopped herbs, pastes, powders, and even liquids or oils. What most of us think of as incense today is joss-sticks or cones. Cones as we know them were an invention of the Japanese and introduced at the World's Fair in Chicago in the late 1800's. I cannot say, at this time, when the Joss Stick or Masala incense first appeared. We do know that it was brought to China by Buddhist monk's around 200 ce. as both incense materials and Buddhism traveled the various routes of the Silk Road. The process of extruding incense sticks and coils from finely ground incense materials seems to have begun in China, as well as the use of these types in time measurement.


Herbal Incense

Herbal incense is blended primarily for effect. Scent is the secondary consideration in many cases, but in "all" cases, the scent is designed for the burn. Many natural incense ingredients have almost no aroma until they are heated. Notably, Aloes wood as well as many other resins have little or no aroma until they are smoldered over the incense fire.

Incense and Herbalism go hand-in-hand, and the oldest sources we have regarding herbalism and incense is the Indian Vedas. The primary references are in the Athar-vaveda and the Rigveda. This is commonly considered first phase of Ayurveda and deals with the subject in a more magical and religious approach to healing. Examination of early Vedic texts indicates that the herbalists, or healers were a second tier of Hindu priest that emerged out of the agrarian areas. They appear to assimilated their knowledge of herbalism with the rituals and beliefs of the orthodox or "Sacrificial" priests. However, they remained two distinct classes and were scorned in the later days of this phase by the sacrificial priests who considered them unclean because of their association and medical treatment of all classes of people. Around 200 bce. They were excluded by law from participating in sacred rites. Even before this, the medical priests had begun associating with wandering mendicants and ascetics who were renouncing sacrificial rites and orthodoxy, and among these were the Buddhist or bhikkhus. Pali sources indicate that the Buddhists were the principal means by which these emerging physicians organized, developed and disseminated their emerging art. This begins the classical phase of Ayurveda and the great healer Atreya emerges among others at the medical university at Taxila. Among his students were Jivaku (Buddha's Physician).

Later, Brahmanization of certain medical texts amends the heterodox practices in light of a more orthodox view, and Buddhist medicine appears to split with Ayurveda. From this point, incense evolves in both traditions in association with medicine and herbal remedies, and becomes even more a closely guarded secret passed down primarily in the oral tradition and apprenticeship.


Incense Ingredients

Breaking down the five elements and their Ayurvedic relationship to plants and common incense ingredients we find them falling into five classes. The following chart shows the relationship:


1. Ether (Fruits)
Star Anise

2. Water (Stems & Branches)
Sandalwood, Aloeswood, Cedarwood,
Cassia, Frankincense, Myrrh, Borneol

3. Earth (Roots)
Turmeric, Vetivert, Ginger, Costus Root,
Valerian, Spikenard

4. Fire (flower)
Clove

5. Air (leaves)
Patchouli

By Buddhist traditions, the 5 primary ingredients are:


1. Buddha Family
Vairocana
(Transmutation of Ignorance)
Aloeswood

2. Vajra Family
Akshobhya
(Transmutation of Aversion)
Clove

3. Padma (lotus) Family
Amitabha
(Transmutation of Desire)
Sandalwood

4. Ratna Family
Ratnasambhava
(Transmutation of Pride)
Borneol

5. Karma Family
Amoghasiddhi
(Transmutation of Envy)
Turmeric



Making Incense

The process of making herbal incense without the use of salt peter, or even charcoal is actually quite easy. However, perfecting the art is another matter. Perhaps the easiest way is by using a binder commonly called Makko. Makko not only serves as a water soluble binder, but as a burning agent as well. Makko is a natural tree bark from an evergreen tree and contains no synthetic chemicals, charcoal, or salt peter.

To make incense, simply mix the desired ingredients, in powdered form, with makko, and add some warm water. Knead the incense-dough thoroughly and form into cones or sticks and let them dry slowly. Japanese makers have ways to control the drying time. About a week in the summer and ten days in the winter.

Sandalwood is common to almost every incense formula, and serves as a wonderful base aroma as well as a burning agent of its own right. If you were making an incense of sandalwood alone, the amount of makko required may be a little as 10%. However, resins like Frankincense are more difficult to burn and must be used in much lower percentages to burning agents such as sandalwood or makko. Otherwise, your incense won't burn properly, and may me too smoky or keep going out.


What is Makko?


Tabu no ki (Makko)

Makko really just means "Incense Powder," but when we refer to Makko we are talking about a specific incense powder called Tabu no ki. It is the bark of a tree that grows in Southeast Asia, the Machillus Thunbergii tree. Makko comes in four grades, and the the higher grades have less aroma than the lower ones. What makes this powder so special is its water soluble adhesive properties, an almost odorless characteristic that seems to be entirely lost when mixed with other ingredients, and its abilities to burn smoothly and evenly.


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For more information on Japanese Incense you will want to visit the Japanese-Incense.com website.

© Copyright — David Oller 2000-2002