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History of Incense
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Various Names of Incense

  • Incense in-sens,n. - derived from the Latin word incendere which means ’to burn’.
  • Fragrance fra'grant,n. - being fragrant (having a pleasant smell); perfume.
  • Perfume pur'fum,n. - derived from Latin per fumum which means ‘through smoke’.
  • Agarbathi - "Agar" or Aloes wood, the original incense which became synonymous with the word and "bathi" meaning stick.
  • Dhoop / Dhoopbathi - Derived from the dhoop tree, located in Eastern India, whose chips emit a rich fragrance on burning.
  • Joss Sticks - Sticks used to bring Joss - good luck.


It is interesting to note that the sense of smell is more primitive than the other senses and is directly linked to that part of the brain which is older, in an evolutionary sense, as compared to the rest of the brain. Is it any wonder then, that incense, which has all to do with our sense of smell, dates back to the dawn of history itself and the burning of incense is one of the oldest practices of mankind? The origin of using aromatic substances can be traced back to the Stone Age or probably even before that.

In India...

In India, often considered the home of incense, eulogized from the time of Vedas. The traditional well - known scents of ancient India were Jasmine, Rose, Sandalwood, Champa, Cedar & Musk. Ancient Sanskrit texts contain many beautiful descriptions of festive occasions when incense was burned in homes and streets. Fragrant water was sprayed on the thoroughfares and scented flower garlands adorned and buildings and entranceways. In fact, flowers, which have deep spiritual connotations in Hindu philosophy, are among the chief sources of incense in India. Along with flowers, incense sticks and Dhoop are part of the 16 essential offerings in a Hindu ritual - the others being betel leaf, betel nut, camphor, cardamom, cloth, clove, diya (lamp), grain, naivedhyam (a mix of nine offerings), sandalwood paste, sweets and water, each with its own symbolic significance.

Indeed, fragrance has played a dominant role in Hindu religious rituals since Vedic times and is intimately linked to the havan or yagna i.e. the sacrificial fire. Offerings or oblations consisting of aromatic and medicinal herbs, resins, barks, leaves, exudates (gums which flow from trees) twigs, roots & seeds along with foodstuffs and ghee were made to Agni , the god of fire who, according to mythology, carried them to the celestials. This was done to appease the Gods for ushering in prosperity or avoiding disaster. The emanating fumes, with their unique aromatic properties, purified the environment and had a vitalizing and invigorating effect on individuals, besides acting as a natural disinfectant. They were said to ward off evil spirits, alleviate anxiety and create an aura of tranquility and help in experiencing the divine presence. In fact, fragrance, considered a divine attribute, was said to manifest the presence of Gods, as well as gratify them

It is this Dhoopa upachara or Dhoopa aradhana which has transformed over the ages, for convenience & practical reasons, into the present day agarbathis. Agarbathis, also known as joss sticks, incense sticks or prayer sticks, are today used in all temple and domestic offerings by millions across the country.

In Other Civilizations...

Burning of incense has been an integral part of all ancient civilizations. Fortunes were spent for incense and trade routes established with incense in mind. Among the most important ancient fragrances were frankincense (olibanum) and myrrh, but the resins of various other plants have also been collected and traded since approximately the year 3000 B.C.

Gums and resins of aromatic trees were imported from Somalia in the Arabian Peninsula to ancient Egypt to be used in religious ceremonies. The tomb of Tutankhamen in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes was found to have huge quantities of perfumes, oils and incense surrounding his mummy. For Egyptians, incense held a direct connection with the dead. Each incense has a specific purpose and effect.

The Babylonians used incense extensively while offering prayers or divining oracles. It was imported into Israel in the 5th century B.C. where special gold altars were erected for it in the ancient Temple of Israel. According to one theory, it spread from there to Greece, Rome and India.

The sophisticated Greeks appreciated aromatic sources such as the turpentine tree, myrrh, frankincense and cinnamon. Enormous amounts of money were spent on these exotic imports. These were burnt as oblation & for protection. More precious perfumes, incense and spices came as imports through Arabia along well established incense routes, to be eagerly purchased by Mediterranean merchants to satisfy the increasing demands of the European markets.

In Rome it was an important element in public and private sacrifices, especially in the worship of the emperor. The Old and New Testament refer to the extremely powerful Resin Drop Incense, whose recipes were given through Voice or Vision e. g. Moses was given recipes by the Creator during his encounters on the Mount. It is well known that when Jesus was born, frankincense and myrrh were presented to him along with gold by the three wise men of the East. Today Roman Catholic as well as Protestant and the Eastern Orthodox Church use incense at mass and in many other rituals.

Native American Indians offered tobacco, sage, junipers, cedars and mugworts in their rituals, as documented from their first encounter with Europeans in the 15th and early 16th centuries. Even to this day, the descendants of the Mayas and Aztecs offer copal, an aromatic resin during worship.

Brought to Japan by Buddhist monks, the delicate scents of Koh (Japanese incense) amused and entertained the nobles in the Imperial court during the Heian Era, was used by samurai warriors during the Shogunate period in the 14th century, and spread to the upper & middle classes of Japanese society in Muromachi Era during the 17th & 18th centuries. Koh-Do or the elegant art of incense appreciation has for long now been the spiritual nourishment of Japanese culture & Koh is a mainstay of Shinto ritual. The Chinese use it to honor ancestors and household or tutelary deities.

Incense was unknown in early Buddhism, which was opposed to external ritual. But in time, Buddhists began to burn it at festivals, initiations or daily rites. It is used to accompany their meditation, to induce self -awareness and free them of negative states.

It is in Tibetan Buddhism, however, that the use of incense has transcended mere ritualism to gain a respectable medical status. But since Tibetan medicine and Tibetan religion are closely related, the usage of incense in Tibetan medicine is strongly dictated by the rituals of Tibetan Buddhism. Mystical aspects of incense have withstood the test of time, making it absolutely necessary for any magical or occult practice.

As such, these aromatic substances have been of fundamental relevance to religious and cultural practices and developments throughout history and have been an inspiration for explorers, aristocrats, writers, artists, poets, merchants and priests and the world trade in these scents of nature has never declined.

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