Incense, has been known to mankind’s for centuries. 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. 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 this 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, 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. Cone incense 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 Japanese Style Stick or Masala incense first appeared. We do know that it was brought to China by Buddhist monk’s around 200 ce.
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 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 hikkhus. 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, the fragrance 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.
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 (olibanum), Myrrh, Borneol
3. Earth (Roots) Turmeric, Vetivert, Ginger, Costus Root, Valerian, Spikenard
4. Fire (flower) Clove
5. Air (leaves) Patchouli
Copyright 2000, 2002 David Oller copy by permission only