Dhoop Factory / Lawudo, Abhisek, Ganden, Alpine, Sauna Sticks (Vajrapani), Lhasa, Medicine Buddha, Agar 31, Akanishta

More than any other, Tibetan or Nepalese incense is probably one of the most difficult areas to explore. The cheaper brands are analagous to charcoal punks, although usually with incense like this it’s usually cheap cedarwood that acts as the blank and I’ve encountered companies (Sonam for instance) whose different incenses seem like slight variations on the same stick. Sticks like this are generally a waste of money, although not much fortunately.

Essence of the Ages (link on left) probably has the largest variety of Tibetan and Nepalese incense in the US and as far as I can tell by a quick browse, appear to be the only online US company that sells Kathmandu’s Dhoop Factory incense. This line of eight incenses, three of which only slightly vary from another scent, is, in my so-far, limited Nepalese experience, my favorite.

Dhoop Factory incenses can be sampled in a gift box or purchased in two sizes, except for Agar 31 in one size. I’ve owned the gift box and large boxes of all scents except for Lhasa. It has to be said that the packaging on most if not all of these boxes is exquisite and eye catching. The gift box follows the Lhasa motif with blue paper and swirling drawings of dragons (?) and such. Ganden uses a Bhutanese fabric-covered box that strikes me as somewhat reggae in colors (and is very nice to look at). Medicine Buddha is packaged roughly similar to Lhasa but with longer sticks and a midnight blue motif, very beautiful.

The one thing I can’t state for sure is whether sticks vary in size between small and large boxes. Medicine Buddha, Agar 31 and Ganden are all longer outside of the gift box then in. The others are all fairly short, especially for Tibetan or Nepalese sticks.

Lawudo is primarily created from rhododendron and juniper and I am unfamiliar with the scent of rhododendron, but whatever it does to this incense is rather magical. This is a perfect example of how herbal the Dhoop Factory incenses are, that is, this is incense that is probably the closest to smell a combination of fresh herbs. I don’t get the peaty aroma that’s part of the catalog description, but I generally think of Islay single malts when I think peat, but that’s probably as much the iodine as anything else. Nothing like that here, just a very fresh multi-herbal scent that’s rather delightful, if comparatively generic to some of the other lines.

What I consider Lawudo’s “partner” is Abhishek, which is apparently similar to Lawudo but adds gugul. The description mentions gugul as being frankincense, but I always thought it was closer to myrrh and an entity in its own right (like raw or cheaper myrrh, gum gugul can strike me as very off at times). In any case its presence here enhances the “Lawudo base” with those somewhat sweet resiny notes, an almost perfect blend with the herbs. Abhisek and Lawudo are both very relaxing and while I wouldn’t say burning incense is equivalent to medical assistance, the claim that Abhisek reduces stress and anxiety is something I can sympathize with, it’s one of several in this line I burn regularly late at night when cooling down.

Ganden I’ve mentioned in my best incense lists recently, it might be the finest incense in the line. Many Tibetan incenses can be smoke heavy and almost suffocating in presence, Ganden is on the other end, light, airy, sagey and subtly complex, leaving a bright fresh energy in its wake. Ganden is supposedly a sage or sage relative, but it’s a lighter and airier sage than one finds in cooking. Definitely of the “air” element.

Alpine was the first Dhoop Factory line I tried, being at the left end of the gift box. It won me over with its similarity to the scents found up in the Sierra Nevadas with all the evergreen resins and herbs involved. It instantly says “campfire.” And like the small print it is indeed invigorating, I tried burning this at night once and found it too stimulating. In the morning it’s perfect, an effect I can imagine even stronger when the seasons turn to fall and winter.

Given a mix up, I doubt I could tell the difference between Alpine and Sauna Sticks, the only difference, apparently, being the addition of eucalyptus oil. I’m familiar with eucalyptus but it strikes me as faint in Sauna. I tend to lean more to Alpine than Sauna and I’m not sure if it’s the light blue box of Alpine that does it or if intuitively the eucayptus note in Sauna isn’t as inviting. I know that when friends of mine tried this they said it reminded them of barbeque along with the campfire and since this is an incense created mostly for larger rooms it’s possible it’s just a little more intense than Alpine. The catalog description says it’s the strongest smelling incense in the range and that strikes me as right on, if barely.

Lhasa is the blend I had the most trouble with. It’s a reddish stick with an herbal element that I can’t place and may remind noses of rather off scents like old laundry or worse. I haven’t decided to this point if there’s just an adjustment for the western nose to what this herb is, but in Lhasa I can barely deal with it. Essence of the Ages also distribute a Tibetan incense called White Pigeon that shares the same herb, but in that case it works better with some of the other notes. I thought it might be asafoetida, but I think that’s probably even worse.

If it wasn’t for the thicker stick, Medicine Buddha would be pretty difficult to tell from its obvious cousin Agar 31. Both of these really do seem to have some agar resin in there somewhere, or at least I pick up a tangy, slightly spicy note that reminds me of other Japanese and Korean aloeswood incenses. Like Lawudo and Abhishek, these also claim to have insomnia-reducing qualities and like those two (and Ganden for that matter) I find these perfect for a late nighter, although since they’re a bit pricier (especially Medicine Buddha) I burn them less often. I go back and forth on whether I prefer Agar 31 or Medicine Buddha, their qualities are so similar. At times they seem insular and quiet, but at others the aroma can be really impressive and distracting in a good way.

[10/5] I was pleasantly surprised to find Dhoop Factory’s Akanishta incense as a gift in my last Essence order, especially as I found out about it only days after the rest of this article. Fortunately it’s rather simple to describe and does just what it says on the cover, a mixture of sandalwood and cypress with very little else. I get both ingredients at the same strength, almost like a Tibetan version of a Japanese hinoka incense. Not a complex stick, but the ingredients are definitely quality.

Fortunately Dhoop Factory have a very nice gift set to try the full range, otherwise I’d probably recommend Alpine, Ganden, Abhisek and either Agar 31 or Medicine Buddha as starters. If you’re new to the Nepalese, this is the place to start. All ranges are maybe slightly more expensive than your average roll of Tibetan/Nepalese/Bhutanese incense, but the quality is much better.

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12 Comments

  1. Carrie said,

    May 19, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    So I got a box of Alpine in my last EotA box. I got the plastic overwrap off and oh my gosh, what a STRONG scent. And to me, it’s a really BAD strong scent. I got that puppy into a heavy duty ziploc post haste.

    Later on that day I decided to bite the bullet and see what it smells like burning, and I really like it. So much that I brought the incense bowl over and set it on the edge of the computer desk so I could enjoy it. It really is stimulating and I needed that on that particular afternoon.

    I went to put the Alpine in a new storage container today and it smells just as strong in a heavy duty ziploc as it does out, so I doubled up.

    I don’t know what it is about the unlit smell of this incense but it almost makes me ill. I’m having a much harder time with it than I did with the unlit Holy Land.

    But lit, it’s wonderful! And to me it’s not even a particularly strong incense.

    • Carrie said,

      June 28, 2011 at 8:08 am

      I got over my aversion to the scent of unburnt Alpine, just as I did with TMC Holy Land.

      I crave it now. ;)

      I love to burn Alpine in the early morning before I head off to work, and imagine myself sitting in the Himalayas rather than getting ready to immerse myself in the local Babylon.

      I have Lawudo and Ganden on my wish list for the next order, and a couple more boxes of Alpine as well.

      • Mike said,

        June 28, 2011 at 3:41 pm

        There really is something neat about Alpine. There are times where the sheer amount of campfirish woods might overwhelm the sinuses, but I’ve found that a stick first thing in the morning when it’s nice and cool really brings out the evergreen strengths. I should admit in retrospect that the very similar Sauna Sticks aren’t quite as good. Anyway I still think TDHF incenses are among the best Nepal has to offer.

  2. Jerry said,

    April 26, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    Just a comment that I bought the Dhoop Factory gift box from EOA over the Christmas sale, and was so impressed that I scooped up the full range of products in the current 20% off sale for April. The sticks in the regular size boxes are slightly larger than in the gift box, but shorter than “normal” Tibetan sticks. Nonetheless, they have such an all encompassing odor you won’t miss the longer sticks. This line has become my favorite from Nepal! Superb quality for the price.

    • Mike said,

      April 27, 2010 at 2:42 pm

      In the Nepali category, yes these are among the best. On par, perhaps the Stupa, Nub Gon, Lung Ta, and Shechen incenses would be in a similar category (although when it comes to a real evergreen, woody, high altitude hit Dhoop Factory is still tops). My favorite Nepalis probably still have to be the Himalayan Herbal and Tibetan Monastery scents from Mandala Trading and the very smoky but fantastic Yog Sadhana (along with the Drib Poi from the Lung Ta range). When I first asked for recommendations from Beth at Essence on the best Tibetan styles she recommended these last three and the Dhoop Factorys. And speaking of stuff EotA has on sale, I really like the Natural Arogya-Karmayogi Dhoop, which is very resinous and friendly.

  3. Mike said,

    November 3, 2008 at 5:35 pm

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts Claire. Your experiences with Ganden are not unlike a friend’s, who thinks it smells like tire (note your burning rubber pick up). It’s one of those situations that now it’s been pointed out to me, I notice it too! I remember one particularly experience before I noticed this where I was falling asleep to it and really enjoying it..

    I think the main difference between the Sauna and the Alpine is that the former has eucalyptus to it. I only notice that difference when I have no aromatic fatigue at all.

    Overall I think these are a lot more intense than I gave them credit for, something I might have noticed more now had I not been coming off a large amount of very smoky, Indian incense. In retrospect these are maybe a tad unusual even for the style

  4. Claire said,

    November 3, 2008 at 7:47 am

    Thanks to a recommendation by Mike, I recently acquired the Dhoop Factory gift set rather than just a box of Ganden and I must say I am glad I took his advise as I think I would have been disappointed with a box of Ganden, despite it’s pretty box.

    The box to the gift set is worth mentioning as it would be worth keeping even after you have finished the contents – it has 7 separate compartments which could be used to rehouse other incenses that only came loosely wrapped in rice paper or cellophane. Admittedly the box is designed for shorter length sticks but you could always break down longer sticks to fit (I personally tend to use shorter sections of longer sticks anyway).

    A common characteristic to the incenses in this set seems to be quite a long burning time per stick, which is surprising considering the amount of smoke produced (which I would describe as above average) – the smoke at times making my eyes water. The aroma of a couple was so strong that I could smell it in another room, I’d go so far as to say it was a bit over-powering in a small room.

    Medicine Buddha – this reminds me of Tibetan Monastery Incense (by Mandala Trading which I like VERY much and have reviewed elsewhere) but without the barnyard aroma and not as strong overall. With the first stick I burnt I found that I noticed the aroma more after I had left the room and re-entered it but with the next stick I could detect the aroma straight away. I don’t know if the quality varied or if my nose was just more receptive one day. I haven’t as yet tried the suggestion of crushing it and mixing it with massage oil as a balm!

    Lahsa – the aroma of this wasn’t as strong as with Medicine Buddha. It has a rather odd smell erring on the slightly more unpleasant side of “barnyard”… perhaps a bit like sileage! I’ve liked the “barnyard” affect in a couple of others so maybe this one will grow on me in time.

    Abhishek – now the quality of this incense definetly varied from stick to stick, it wasn’t just my nose. The first one I burnt had a very rough smelling burn whereas there wasn’t a hint of that with the second. It was another that was best appreciated by leaving the room and re-entering, upon which there are noticable wafts of what I would describe as men’s cologne (or maybe fresh rosemary) with hints of patchouli (sort of sea and earth combined).

    Lawudo – with the first stick of this I was left wondering whether some of the incenses arrived mixed up in my box. I hated it, it reminded me very much of Riwo Sang Choe (by Lung Ta) which, no matter how many times I seem to sample, I just can’t develop a liking for. Both Lawudo (1st stick) and the Riwo seem to be rough, harsh burns that aggravate the inside of my nose (but with the Lawudo not being quite as strong) – I’m guessing that’s what the catalogue describes as peaty – yeuk! With subsequent sticks I found it still to be quite a rough burn but there was a discernable aroma behind the harshness and it seems in line with how Mike describes it, i.e. “fresh herb-like”. It wasn’t obvious to me that the recipe was very similar to Abhishek – pretty amazing really how the gugul in Abishek makes it less harsh on the nose than the Lawudo.

    Ganden – this was the most disappointing in the set, maybe because I had had the most positive anticipation about it out of the whole set. It seems to light a bit easier than some of the others. At first I didn’t really notice any aroma – just a slightly harsh / acrid smoke although I will agree with Mike and say that it is “lighter” than some of the others. On the next stick, I noticed a smell akin to burning rubber crossed with sage (garden variety rather than desert sage which really is very harsh… you can see why desert sage is used to clear negative energies and spirits, one whiff of that and they’d run a mile). As it continued to burn I noticed the harshness less. On the third burn, there was still the aroma of burning tyres crossed with sage but there was something-else too like a hint of what I guess a red Thai curry would smell like (more sour than spicy but definetly red). Again the harshness seemed to wear off the more it was burnt and that airy quality was more present – like a fire outdoors. I wonder what a fourth burn will reveal to me. It’s growing on me in a slow round about way but I think I need to be in the mood for it. It’s certainly a deceptively complex blend that would be easy to write off as simple and harsh if you hadn’t just heard that it is a late developer!

    Alpine – this one told me that my nose was somewhat insensitive when I first tested these as I didn’t think the aroma was particularly strong although it was quite pleasant whereas subsequently I have liked the smell but found it too strong for my taste (but it may be better burnt in a larger room). The aroma reminded me of shower gels with names like “Mountain Herbs” (more specifically like Radox bubble bath, variety Muscle Ease with clary sage and sea minerals, though I must admit the clary sage essential oil I have smells NOTHING like that bubble bath!). It’s definetly very fresh and airy smelling.

    Sauna – definetly the big brother to Alpine. It has the same aroma only a lot stronger and even herbier, very much like fresh herbs, in fact, which is something I’m not used to smelling in that way in incense (certainly I’ve found that herbs in my home made incense have just lent the incense a generic burnt green vegetation aroma). The aroma pervaded several rooms in the house, which was OK in the other rooms but not the one I was sat in where it was at its strongest and made my eyes water and my throat a bit hoarse. I would reserve this one for burning outdoors as it really is very smoky and strong.

    At $10.80 this gift set is a really affordable way of trying out 7 different incenses. A lot of samplers only have a stick or two of each incense whereas this one has about 7 or 8.

  5. Mike said,

    October 3, 2007 at 9:23 am

    And like every article you hope is complete, not long after I finished this, Dhoop Factory just released a new incense called Akanishta, which can be found at Essence of the Ages, link on right. Looks like a cypress/sandalwood blend.

    Also, Agar 31 appears to have a new name – Medicine Buddha Regular. Still wondering if the only difference between it and Medicine Buddha is the thickness of stick.

  6. Mike said,

    September 29, 2007 at 9:25 am

    I’d check for incenses that have old mountain sandalwood, they tend to have the purest and most high quality scent. I can’t think of any Japanese styles as being totally pure at least if they’re part of a line. I haven’t tried these sticks yet, but from looking around Kyukyodo Yumemachi, Minorien Sandalwood, Shunkodo Sarasoju and Baieido Byakudan Kobunboko all look like they might be as close to pure as one gets in a stick, but I think all of them probably have some sort of extra herb or spice content in them, just less than other sandalwood lines. I also noticed when burning Shoyeido’s Daigen Koh the other night that it had a pretty pure sandalwood scent to it, although it’s also not pure and seems more of a rosewood, but it’s definitely affordable enough to check out. And there’s also Baieido’s high end Byukaden Kokoh, which looks to be the most premium alternative.

  7. Anonymous said,

    September 28, 2007 at 6:53 pm

    Thanks for your explanation.

    A little off topic (well in this tibetan post at least:) I am in search for a japanese sandalwood incense with a more or less pure sandalwood smell.
    I’ve tried morningstar sandalwood but that one had a kind of spicy note which I didn’t like. I’ve also bought some with floral elements which have been very nice but right now I want some with a kind of “woody” character, not a floral or spicy blend. Do you know any that could fit this desription?

  8. Mike said,

    September 28, 2007 at 9:36 am

    I usually burn them by putting a stick in sand in an incense censer. Problem with this is it leaves a bit of a stub, so I’ve been considering another method. I tried a certain burner made for logs, but the dhoop would usually go out after an inch, I assume the logs probably burn hotter and avoid that.

    Smoke: I’d say most Tibetan incenses I’ve tried are smokier than Japanese incense but usually less so than Indian (a general rule with definite exceptions). The Dhoop Factory incenses are about average for Tibetan smoke, as a comparison the Yog Sadhana I wrote about earlier is very smoky, while the couple I’ve tried from The Direct Help Foundation are quite low in smoke, one of them (Ebionite) being very close to smokeless.

  9. Anonymous said,

    September 28, 2007 at 9:27 am

    These Tibetan incenses sure look interesting. They seem a lot thicker than other incense, do you burn them with a tibetan burner? Also, how much smoke do these put out, like cone incense?


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