Shrinivas Sugandhalaya / Satya / Aastha, Ajaro, Vishwa Shanti, Fantasy, Valley of the Roses

Most people’s initial experiences with incense, including my own, tend to Indian durbars thanks to Shrinivas Sugandhalaya’s super famous Satya Sai Baba Nag Champa aka “blue box.” It would be difficult to find a store that sells incense that doesn’t include Nag Champa. My thoughts on this incense have changed quite a bit over the years, I’ve reviewed it (slightly) earlier on this blog and also have a much more thorough review of it over at Amazon. It’s the gateway incense for many people and one that changed my way of looking at incense at the time. However, it’s an incense that has also been plagued with ingredient changes that move from the natural to the partially synthetic and the scent has suffered from it. Before I found out that this had happened, I remember friends and I trying to rationalize why one box could be so different from another. At the time, we thought some of the boxes must have been old, but in retrospect I wonder if it just wasn’t the change. Because since then, I haven’t bothered to stock it, although part of this reason was stretching out to many other durbar and champa style incenses in other companies.

In reviewing these five incenses from Shrinivas Sugandhalaya (SS), I was constantly struck by the comparisons to other Indian incenses in different lines, most notably Ramakrishnanda (RK) and Shroff Channabasappa (Shroff). Because there’s something about the bases of just about all SS incenses that makes me slightly uncomfortable. Despite the fact that I have my favorites (and two of them are in this review), I’m finding the product from this company to be off just a bit. There’s something of a harshness in the base, whether it’s cheap wood, a synthetic musk equivalent or something else that leavens the scents in an analagous way to charcoal based incense. It’s a quality that’s absent in RK and Shroff incenses, whose bases seem to have a much more natural finish. It’s fortunate that most Indian durbars are heavily perfumed, as these weaknesses can often be covered up, but if you’re like me, fresh off runs of Japanese and Tibetan incenses, the perfumes themselves can be somewhat overwhelming. To this day I tend to find many of these scents to be a bit overperfumed, or at least they are for more intimate settings. And in many cases, SS perfumes can be quite inferior.

First the good ones. Aastha is a spicy, sandalwood oil-heavy durbar that is quite reminiscent of the Rare Essence Precious Sandalwood. That is, the perfume used on the base has such a strong sandalwood oil to it that there are spicy resinous hints that tend to blend quite nicely with the true base spice notes. The density gives the incense something of a chocolate note, while the spice often verges to cardamom and other sweeter scents. It’s an exceedingly rich blend. Like many SS incenses, I’ve found that the quality seems to be better in the larger box, where the dissipation of the oil isn’t so fast. As I mentioned towards the beginning, part of the base does cut through, but in an incense as powerfully scented as this one, it’s a minor issue.

Ajaro is roughly in the same ballpark as Aastha, although in this case the chocolate notes are quite a bit stronger, indeed very pleasant. However, and I’m not sure I haven’t psychologically linked this due to the orange box, there also appears to be a great deal of fruitiness in the perfume oil that reminds me of tropical fruit like mangos or even apricot and orange at times. It’s all quite confectionary like, with hints of graham crackers in smores. However, a surprisingly prevalent trend for SS has shown me at least two totally different recipes for the same scent, a champa style similar to many other SS incenses in a smaller box and a much lighter, tanned durbar stick in the larger boxes. While the incenses seemed fairly similar, it struck me after getting the tanner sticks that they weren’t quite as rich. And in terms of the harsh base, it cuts through here a little more than it does in the Aastha.

Now we turn to three of SS’s more inferior products. The final three incenses seem to be basically oil/perfume variant nag champa styles. That is, the base appears to be very similar among these three sticks, with the typical grey and black flecked champa style common to SS’s smaller boxes. Vishwa Shanti generally comes in smaller boxes, it’s one of the incenses that comes in their “8 Popular Fragrances” variety pack and as such is generally one of the company’s most commonly found brands (as is Ajaro and Valley of the Roses). Unfortunately I’ve never tried a stick of this that set itself apart from the regular Nag Champa, which implies that the base is virtually similar and the differences are in the oil dip. And while there are hints of a different floral oil on top, it’s one that acts more as a slight distraction than a slight improvement. It’s difficult to pick up much complexity or depth in this incense.

Fantasy‘s floral oil is far more overt and unfortunately it’s the sort of rose, carnation or garden sort of perfume that bursts out at you with intensity and flatlines in terms of depth. It really does smell like an inexpensive and tawdry addition to the champa formula and might be the nadir of the 20-30 Shrinivas durbar sticks I’ve tried over the year. The issue, as it often is with perfumes, is the soapy bitterness. Fine floral oils all have a sort of distinction missing in synthetic perfumes, incenses and inexpensive air fresheners, and here there’s actually something of a clash between the oil and the champa base. With the strength of the smoke, it becomes fairly unpleasant over time, although in this case the perfume is strong enough where the base weakness is totally forgotten.

Finally, perhaps the most floral champa in the SS stable is Valley of the Roses. I’d actually tried this after really liking Incense Guru’s Enchanted Garden incense which is also a durbar with a strong floral rose oil. Although I haven’t sampled EG in about 10 years, I remember it being much richer than Valley of the Roses, with a better base and oil. The problem, as I mentioned with Fantasy, is sometimes the oil clashes with the base and in Valley this is the problem, where EG got it right. As in many cheaper rose oils, sometimes there’s an unpleasant citrus note and it goes to making Valley a very difficult burn, not capturing the softer, more complex notes that make natural roses so pleasant an aroma.

Overall, what you’re seeing her is a small selection of SS incenses and over time there will be more to discuss as well as past articles here and here. The company makes between about 50 and 100 incenses, many of them very difficult to tell apart. One issue is the cardboard boxes and their inner packaging, which seem to allow for much of the perfume to dissipate likely before the box is in your hand, a tendency increased in the smaller box sizes. This makes the task of reviewing the incenses an exercise in doubt, as I often wonder whether I’m getting the full impact. However, over time and several boxes sometimes you just have to conclude that faint distinction is often all that separates one blend from another. In many ways an arc from Nag Champa to Vishwa Shanti to Fantasy to Valley of the Roses shows the nag champa base getting a larger and larger floral bouquet to it. Unsurprisingly my interest reduces in just about the same direction. Certainly Aastha and Ajaro with their richness and spicy natures make them a little more akin to my tastes.


  1. March 12, 2009 at 11:23 am

    […] Champa, Super Hit, Satya Natural, Satya Nectar, Black Blossom Beauty, Milan, Supreme Aastha, Ajaro, Vishwa Shanti, Fantasy, Valley of the Roses Hari Om, Rajdhani, Ratha Chakra, Sai Ram Royal, Geet Govind, (T.T.) Loban, […]

  2. Claire said,

    January 30, 2009 at 4:21 pm

    Aastha Incense Sticks
    The first waft on lighting was distinctly vanilla and nothing else but quite quickly a light but very sweet aroma emerged with the vanilla slipping into the background. I lay there (in the bath) pondering on what the sweet aroma reminded me of. It was fruity yet slightly synthetic. The best I could come up with was a warm peach or plum pie. I could have just been hungry of course!

    Unfortunately about half way through burning the stick I started to feel queasy and I wonder if that was down to a solvent (like DPG) being used in the fragrance oils.

    On extinguishing the stick, the peach pie aroma disappeared instantaneously and was immediately replaced with the distinct vanilla aroma again.

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