Incense is defined as any substance whose pleasing aroma is released by exposure
to heat. I'm not to sure that the word pleasing is appropriate as many ritual incense
from all parts of the world could be described as malodorous but the part about the
aroma being released by heat is certainly the key.
Incense can be broken into three (3) main groups with several sub groups in each.
Group 1 Would be the first used by man, Natural Incense.
The aromatic portion of plants. There bark, wood, leaves, flowers, resin, roots;
wherever the aroma is concentrated. For instance the Indian Sandalwood tree has
very little aroma in the young wood. The aroma occurs in trees over 30 years old,
with the upper wood having the best fragrance..
Natural incense is the incense of the hobbiest. Also those who use incense in
rituals; as it is more the essence of the herbs rather than the aroma which is
important. They are most frequently burned on charcoal tablets and less frequently
forming the natural ingredient into self burning sticks, cones, coils and blocks with
the addition of Potassium Nitrate and a binder such as Gum Arabic..
Group2 Would be Aromaticl Oils.
There are two catagories of oils. Synthetic Aromatic Oils and Essential Oils
Synthetic Aromatic Oils have the scent of the named plant, wood, resin or blended
fragrance in the case of perfume types. However they have none of the essential
elements of those items. There are several way to manufacture aromatic oils and
generaly speaking the more the oil smells like the named fragrance when burned the
more it costs. Most inexpensive citrus fragrance oils smell like lemon, orange or
grapefruit in the bottle but when burned as incense they frequently take on the aroma
of burning rinds in a trash dump. The more expensive oils smell the same burning as
they do in the bottle.
Natural Essential Oils are expressed from the plant by pressing, soaking in water and
solvents and usually a final extraction by steam distillation. These oils carry the
aroma as well as the essence of the plant. They are most often used in expensive
perfumes and by licensed aroma therapists. There use in incense is most often
limited to a few drops in natural incense blends. Most essential oils are very expensive
due to the extraction process and the huge amount of plant material required to
acquire even a few drops of the oil. As I understand aroma therapy the external or
internal use of these essential oils for healing is scientifically based on the medicinal
elements in the oil which are not directly related to the aroma. However many of the
essential oils that are used to treat mental or emotional problems have a mind clearing
or enhancing ability when a few drops of the oil are inhaled. Many people are using
aromatic oils for aroma therapy without understanding that these are synthetic oils
with none of the attributes of essential oils other than a similar aroma.
Group3 Consists of charcoal or wood pulp, sticks, cones, blocks and
The vast majority of these products are made from unscented blanks made in India
or China. The aroma is introduced by soaking the blanks in aromatic oils.. Oil soaked
stick and cone incense are the most used incense in the West. They are very nice
for setting a mood such as a relaxing atmosphere after a hard day at work or an
evening of romance. It is at least a start from the sterile acceptable household
fragrances of pine annd lemon scented cleaning products.
Incense Use Today and Yesterday
Since the trade in incense has been dated back to the Neolithic period ( 6,000 -
10,000 BC) we will probably never know when its use began. My own feeling is that
it started about the same time as the camp or cave fire.
Someone tossed a more fragrant branch on the fire and those around the fire noticed
the change in aroma.
I am sure it couldn't have been a long time afterward that the wood, or grass was
kept for special occasions.
Incense burners have been found in archaeological digs dating to 6,000 B C and we
know from pictographs that incense played an important role in the ancient societies
of the Mid-East. The earliest incense formulas known today date back to the glyphs
on the 1st pyramid. Frankincense and Myrrh are mentioned in the Book Of The Dead
(From the Paprys of Nebseni, Sheet 3) . There are five (5) additional referances to
incense morespecificly to Frankincense. It is important to remember that Frankincense
and Myrrh were not native to Egypt but by the time of the 1st pyramid they had
become a part of the basic philosophy of Egyptian culture.
Incense remained an important part of Eastern culture through today. However in
Western civilizations incense use was pretty much limited to churches from the time
that Christianity was declared the religion of Rome. John of Antioch (387AD) gave
incense as an example of the heresy of the Jews yet Frankincense was burned in
the cathedral as he spoke.
Its use by the Middle ages was considered proof of witch craft and indeed the use
was pretty much proscribed to various pagan cults where its use was indeed for
magic or ritual purposes. Possession of individual ingredients was allowed as they
were widely used for medicinal purposes.
Today incense is still very much a part of Eastern cultures and with the large influx
of immigrants to all of the western countries many westerners have been introduced
to the pleasures of incense. There has also been considerable interest in aroma
therapy though well understood by very few it has kindled additional interest in incense.
The large interest in many ancient rituals that harken back to the days of the Druid
has created an awareness in natural incense that was very lacking in the west
outside of Great Britain.
The enjoyment of incense can be as simple as lighting a sticks or cone to set a
mood or the hobby of creating natural herbal blends.
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
travelled 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 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.
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)
2. Water (Stems & Branches)
Sandalwood, Aloeswood, Cedarwood, Cassia, Frankincense, Myrrh, Borneol
3. Earth (Roots)
Turmeric, Vetivert, Ginger, Costus Root, Valerian, Spikenard
4. Fire (flower)
5. Air (leaves)
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
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
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
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 soluable 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.
The picture above is a machine used by Japanese incense companies to powder
ingredients. It pulverizes the materials instead of grinding them in an electric
powder mill. This keeps the material from being overheated and losing aromatic
integrity. This is very important because materials like Sandalwood will lose some
ranges of aroma entirely, as well as generally weakening the overall aroma.
There are a couple of methods you can use at home that work well.
- One is the Mexican culinary Molcajete
- Another way is using a hand crank coffee mill like the one shown below.
Sometimes you can find ingredients already powdered. Ingredients like Clove,
Cassia, (Cinnamon) Spikenard, etc. can be obtained from Spice and Ayurvedic
herb suppliers. Cassia is usuall called "Vietnamese Cinnamon" and you should
look for one with 4% oil content or better. Some Baieido incense retailers stock
some of these ingredients
Each incense ingredient is carefully measured and then mixed together in the mixing
container. Once they are completely mixed they are put through a sieve to remove
impurities and sifted for uniformity. The powder should be very fine for the incense
to blend, knead, extrude, and dry properly. You can do the same by using a flour
sifter after you mix your ingredients. Makko is also added to the other ingredients
for proper burning and binding. At least 10% makko should be used, and depending
on the other ingredients, more makko maybe required for proper combustion.
Next the powder is put in a machine to knead it into a uniform past called "Tama."
Water is added to make the dry powder into tama.
For making incense at home you can use a medium or large porcelain mortar and
pestle. Be sure to add a little water at a time and knead the tama until it is consistent.
The next step is extruding the incense sticks in much the same way as pasta is
extruded. Baieido uses a hydraulic extruder in Japan. It reguires considerable
pressure to push the tama through the extruder. When making incense at home you
can either form the tama into cones at this point, or you can roll the dough flat and
cut in thin strips. Then follow the same procedures in the rest of this demonstration.
What you see above is the extrusion of incense paste (tama) into long strands.
These strands are captured on a board and cut to a fixed length. Next the incense
sticks (senko) will be seperated from sticking to the board and then straightened.
The next step is to cut the incense sticks to various lengths according to their uses.
Once the incense sticks (senko) are cut to the proper length they are placed on
drying trays and placed in racks to dry. It takes many days to dry the incense
properly, and during the process the incense sticks are adjusted with a board to
remove the space between the half dry incense, and make certain the sticks
Finally the incense sticks are bound together in bundles to prevent any bending.
As you can see, Japanese Style incense is quite an art. Every part of the process
requires careful attention and skill. There are ways to shortcut the process, but this
is the method that produces the finest incense in the world!
Many thanks to Baieido Ltd. and the Sakai Small Business Promotion Association
for information and photos used in this presentation.
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