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.