I’m so used to seeing Tibetan incense packages from $5 to $10 that when I started coming across packages more in the $15-20 range and even higher, I was very curious. Perhaps in the incense world more than anywhere else, the cost of an incense is quite reflective of its (rare, precious) contents and although there are a few exceptions, I’ve rarely been disappointed with high end Japanese incenses, so I wondered if the same theme would carry over with high end Tibetan, Nepalese, and Bhutanese incenses.
I’ve noticed that with some of the lower end Tibetan incenses that seem to have a large content of inexpensive wood, the ash is almost a dark, bluish gray. Many of these incenses smell like wood with flavoring in a manner that implies that the percentage of original aromatic ingredients is actually fairly low. While this type of ash isn’t particularly common overall (the Paljor incenses, Sonam and the Drepul Loseling incenses are three brands that do leave this sort of ash), it does seem to indicate what I’m calling a “leavened” incense and if it doesn’t imply a low quality base, it does imply a small portion of quality ingredients.
Moving to high-end Tibetan incenses is as shocking and revelationary as moving to high-end Japanese incenses, although the effects on the pocket book will fortunately be less severe. Even if you’re familiar with Mandala Trading, Dhoop Factory, Himalayan Herbal Company and other excellent and affordable Tibetan incense companies, moving to some of the more independent monastery incenses with price tags well into the $15-$40 range, will be a big surprise. Not only are the contents relatively unleavened, but you’re also dealing with ingredients that are likely to be considered transgressive from a Western green-minded perspective. It’s perhaps fortunate that these ingredients, generally real musk and real nagi/pangolin scales, are left obscure. For example if you list nagi, most Westerners are likely to consider it one of a number of unidentified, transliterated ingredients that are basically unknown. And if you list musk, the reader’s likely going to be trained to assume it’s vegetable musk. In many of these high end Tibetan blends, at the very least your nose is going to be telling you quite a bit more. There’s an unparalleled intensity in incenses from Tibetan Medical College, Highland Monastery, Samye Monastery and others that likely can be both accounted for by these ingredients as well as concentration.
As discussed here, there’s an intuitive aspect to burning incense. As with anything intuitive, approaching the subject with words is somewhat counterproductive as words can really never broach this area with any ease. From a personal perspective, the first time I lit a stick of Tibetan Medical College Nectar, the effect was like electricity, a charge of energy similar to the first time one experiences a quality aloeswood. The aroma penetrates like a knife, a combination of woods, herbs and spices that’s almost difficult to discuss due to the aromatic power and consistency. And like any great intuitive experiences, it was followed by a passionate response, an almost disbelief that a scent like this exists. It was as if the coils of smoke totally arrested me. I’ve since started calling this effect Tibetan or incense juju (a creative license) and while I wouldn’t go as far as saying these incenses have medical efficacy in the way Westerners consider it, there’s no question that these scents have an intuitive power that really sets them apart from 95% of the available imported Tibetan incenses.
Holy Land is Tibetan Medical College’s top grade incense and it very well might be the finest Tibetan-style incense available. Having started with the Nectar and moved to this one, I found this to be a step up and I was already over the moon with the Nectar. The central scent to this incense (and very close to the central scent for Nectar) is one of a big bowl of salted pistachio nuts, particularly the ones that used to be more frequently available that were red-dyed. But this is only the beginning. This intensity is mixed through out with a plethora of woods, florals, herbs and spices, not to mention a distinct musk that while not a central aspect to the overall scent, creates a give and take in the aroma that affords it greater complexity. The floral thread is like lily or jasmine, very subtle, but it manifests in the most incredible ways. Outside of aloeswood, I’ve experienced no other incense other than the Highland to continue to invoke scent memories no matter where I am. An experience like no other, this is a hall of fame incense whose relative affordability compared to Japanese sticks makes it an excellent buy.
One session I decided to light a stick of Nectar after the Holy Land and realized I could actually barely smell it. But that’s an observation more on the strength of Holy Land, as Nectar’s as likely to do the same to other Tibetan incenses even if the central pistachio-like center has been leavened with even more floral notes. The reddish color does imply this may be Tibetan Medical College’s “B” grade in some way, with the addition of juniper berries being fairly obvious. But like with the Mindroling Grade B this move doesn’t create a B grade so much as a different incense, with the berries and floral notes imparting rose-like scents to the mix. The ingredients noted in the Holy Land do seem to be here in smaller quantities but that mix was so powerful that it’s still heavily aromatic even here and thus I’d suggest starting here with the College incenses as Holy Land will only seem like another step up in comparison.
Overall these two blends are at the apex of Tibetan incense art. The ingredients are top class, the blends totally original and unlike no other company’s incenses and the intuitive impact, possibly as a result, is heavily subconscious. There be magic here…