Champacopia – Contemporary Nag Champas

Back in August 2007 I left one of my rare Amazon.com (of the  world famous, best selling incense Shrinivas Sughandalaya Sai Baba Nag Champa) reviews here. If you browse around a little you’ll find that even with a 3/5 star rating, my review is easily one of the most critical for that product and at the time I still hadn’t quite learned exactly why I was continuing to notice a variation in this product from box to box.

Wikipedia’s Nag Champa entry describes Nag Champa, saying “Champa incenses contain a natural ingredient indigenous to India called “halmaddi”, which is a semi-liquid resin taken from the Ailanthus Malabarica tree. It is what gives Nag Champa its characteristic grey color. Halmaddi is hygroscopic which means it absorbs moisture from the air. This can cause Nag Champa incenses to have a wet feeling to them.” What it doesn’t say is the the resin halmaddi was also reponsible for the large portion of the incense’s scent.

However, halmaddi has become increasing rare and now is part of biodiversity conservation measures to prevent the declining population of one of many non-timber forest products in India. And about a decade ago, without a word, the Blue Box Nag Champa incense, famous worldwide for its quality, changed its recipe by removing most, if not all halmaddi from its champas. What was once an incense institution now left users scratching their heads and trying to figure out why things weren’t the same. But not only did this shortage affect the famous Nag Champa, it laid a trail of devastation through several companies and has unfortunately laid waste to most of the Shrinivas Sugandhalaya catalog. Super Hit, Satya Natural and many others are just not the incenses they once were.

The most obvious way of telling the halmaddi has been reduced is that the incenses are not wet anymore and the deep and resonant honey and vanilla scent of the halmaddi has become a shadow of itself. What’s perhaps interesting about all of this is that halmaddi hasn’t completely disappeared, if you look around you can still find the resin itself. So it’s likely it’s just too expensive now to be an ingredient in a box that retails for only a few dollars. But as no company has taken it upon themselves to create halmaddi champas in a more premium price range as of this writing (I suppose I’m still crossing my fingers that the two new Shroff wet masalas might fill this niche), perhaps there are other conservation regulatory complexities I’m not aware of.

This write up is going to talk about a group of champas in the modern age. I’ll state right at the front that while a few of these are quite good, there’s not a one of them that truly resembles the old Blue Box, none of them have the semi-wet, gooey consistency the original had and while I’d guess maybe one or two of these do have a slight hint of halmaddi, none of them have enough to cause the incense to display the hygroscopic tendencies it used to.

I’m not sure if Goloka Nag Champa was ever an halmaddi champa, even back in the day when I could find them, Goloka’s “yellow box” nag champa seemed dry and different, but since the style’s been around since well before I was born, I can’t be sure. But even today with standards down, it’s not what I’d call a great incense, in fact it’s not terribly far from today’s Sai Baba version. I’ve heard some unusual stories about replacement ingredients in champas that I won’t repeat here, they being rather repulsive and unsubstantiated as far as I can tell, but whatever has happened it’s left the base scents rather harsh as if something unpleasant is anchoring all the vanilla, low quality sandalwood and floral oils in the mix. Even more confusing, Goloka Nag Champa seems to have at least two variations that are marked by small subtleties in packaging that I never truly absorbed. Of course these are variations mostly noticeable when comparing one stick to another, compared to other champas I believe these to be understated and somewhat dull in comparison. Of course despite my misgivings about the yellow box scent, while it may not be as popular as the blue box it’s still a well-loved incense and likely among the most popular brands out there. But one can do better.

Nitiraj also have a Nag Champa in their Masterpiece line, however when planning for this write up, I thought I’d instead take a look at the anomaly in their catalog (that is, the only one I’ve seen that isn’t part of a subline), the Nitiraj Original. When I first tried this it struck me as a rather in the pocket champa, but over time, I’ve come to notice more and more the unique oil mix on top that does set it apart to some extent. The vanilla scent that tends to be ever present in these styles is much more toned down, and the oil has a much earthier scent, perhaps vetivert or patchouli in the mix along with a touch of fruitiness and even some herbal musky notes. It’s always fairly difficult to guess what’s in Nitiraj incenses beyond the initial ingredients (which are missing for this one), given they have four or five dozen different mixes counting the Atmosphere line, so one has to decide if the mix works and for me, I find this one doesn’t, as if there’s something of a clash of styles. On the other hand there are enough ingredients for it to have an intriguing complexity with a rather nice sandalwood oil somewhere in the center. At the very least it’s more robust than the previously mentioned blue and yellow box champas, although it’s perhaps not a fair comparison. But it does share the same place the others have in that it seems to be marketed as the line’s “vanilla” or #1 incense.

[The following paragraph refers to a previous recipe, Bam Champa no longer smells like this and is inferior product. Avoid.]  R-Expo Bam Champa is also a scent that deviates a little from the main nag champa scent, but in a way they’re the standard argument over why making the adjustment seems to be the way to go. Again, the absence of any particularly wetness implies that we don’t have a halmaddi presence at work here, but they’ve managed to at least adjust the formula to remind you of that scent. Like the five incenses in the Mother’s Nagchampa line, the fabulous blends whose switch to mattipal resin assured both their success and originality, Bam Champa has a spicier component to it with a fresh cinnamon like aroma mixed in with the vanilla sandalwood and slight anise-like hints to it. And most importantly it doesn’t come off as harsh like our previous examples. The result is actually soft, complex and gorgeous and despite its adjustments it has fleeting similarities to the way the old blue box used to smell.

We’ve talked about blue box and yellow box, and still around is what’s considered the red box, the classic Shanthimalai Nag Champa. I first remember this showing up in an Incense from India catalog in the late 90s. I’m not sure if that’s when it started up or if I came in in the middle of a lull, but at the same time Incense from India added both a Shanthi Nag Champa and a Shanthi Sai Flora and I remember the former being virtually identical to what’s in the red box. What’s amazing is that the blend doesn’t seem to have really changed that much through the years, which makes me wonder if it started up without using a major component of halmaddi in the works. It’s not wet really but it still has the complexity and depth of the old nag champas. I always found this version to be muskier than the Sai Baba Blue Box, which gave it enough of its own personality to be worth owning alongside it. It’s also not quite a sweet and has a unique almost seaside-like note in the mix that also distinguishes itself. And of course the bonus is that purchase of the incense directly benefits a public charitable organization that serves the impoverished region of Tamil Nadu. In fact my only issue here is I’ve never seen a box of the Shanti Sai Flora sold alongside, which is too bad as it’s one of the finest versions of that style to be made.

Raj Laxmi Agarbatti gets points taken off right away for having one of the most annoying tube packages I’ve ever come across, or at least when I finally got the steel cap off one side, it never fit on again. On the other hand if I was to guess there was once incense in this batch that actually has some halmaddi in it, it would be this one. Certainly there’s not enough to turn the stick damp, but the vanilla honey scent I associate the the resin seems to be here as a coloring, or perhaps they’ve just creatively evoked the smell. Like with some of the earlier examples, I think this stick has a slight touch of harshness in the middle. As always there’s a lot of sandalwood in the mix and the scent is definitely close to all the “vanilla”/standard Nag Champas that have been discussed, but for some reason I was much more pleased with this on first lighting than I am now. Perhaps the Bam and the Mothers’ quintet have something to do with this, because really, on its own, it’s still one of the better variations available.

Vijayshree Fragrance Golden Nag Champa initially implies we might be dealing with one of the two common “golden” variants, either the flora or the masala style we find from Pure-Incense and Purelands, however the result is really closer to the standard Nag Champa. Surprisingly it’s quite an excellent and pleasant version, gummy like Surya’s Forest Champa and sweet, but with a very nicely judged oil presence that restores some of the richness other champas are missing. It also shares a bit of Shanthimalai’s muskiness but most obvious is the almost extract-strength vanilla in the mix that probably just falls of short of being unbalanced. Along with Bam, this is one of the versions out there without any overt harshness and as it’s quite new, I happen to be enjoying it quite a bit.

I’ve left several other champas out of this article as I think they’ll probably do better when compared within their ranges, for example Blue Pearl’s Classic Champa and Mystic Temple’s Raj Laxmi (and we’ve discussed Shroff’s rather fine Champa), but even with those included I still think in the modern age one is likely to be more pleased with Bam, Shantimalai, Vijayshree or one of the five Mothers’ Fragrance variations than with the more popular Shrinivas and Goloka variants. But at the same time differences are probably slight enough where everyone will have their own opinion of where they’ll sit. But one thing’s for sure, things aren’t what they once were and I hope the classic style eventually returns to our catalogs one day.

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13 Comments

  1. Jeff said,

    February 19, 2016 at 9:32 am

    Reading the review of Shanthimalai Nag Champa not being wet? I just pulled out a stick of a new box and you could see the discoloration where the wetness of the masala was seeping through. The first lighting lasted about 3-4 minutes. I was wondering why the room wasn’t flooded with fragrance. So, to cut it short, I don’t think one has to worry about Shanthimalai for the time being. It’s still a rich and lovely Nag Champa, perhaps just not quite as smooth as Ganesha Incense’s version, but a worthy stick to stock.

  2. Madhav Bhole said,

    July 5, 2013 at 4:13 am

    The real Nagchampa Flower looks like https://www.google.co.in/search?gs_rn=17&gs_ri=psy-ab&tok=2c7bfEa98EYIe_L-KiXysA&cp=6&gs_id=o&xhr=t&q=nag+champa&bav=on.2,or.r_qf.&bvm=bv.48705608,d.bmk&biw=800&bih=505&um=1&ie=UTF-8&hl=en&tbm=isch&source=og&sa=N&tab=wi&ei=kqnWUZ7MM8iGrgeYnIHIBw#um=1&hl=en&tbm=isch&sa=1&q=nag+champa+flower&oq=nag+champa+flower&gs_l=img.12…0.0.1.32399.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0..0.0…0.0.0..1c..17.img.qIwxUTs7Fco&bav=on.2,or.r_qf.&bvm=bv.48705608,d.bmk&fp=99d6341fb3a15a49&biw=800&bih=505&facrc=_&imgdii=_&imgrc=wy-wjCt3hy_e-M%3A%3BhzetCznYN64lSM%3Bhttp%253A%252F%252Fi1.treknature.com%252Fphotos%252F4304%252Fdsc04363.jpg%3Bhttp%253A%252F%252Fwww.treknature.com%252Fgallery%252Fphoto122533.htm%3B800%3B630

    It is also said Nag Kesar and mostly used by devotees of Lord Shiva. The other Nagchampas are just fake nagchampas

  3. amar420 said,

    April 12, 2012 at 8:45 am

    Vijayshree makes a lovely natural nag champa but I prefer their Gold Chandan which is a champa with creamy sandalwood. My current favourite in this style.

  4. May 4, 2011 at 9:33 am

    […] removed R-Expo’s Bam Champa from our hall of fame after being sent two samples showing the incense has completely changed and […]

  5. Carrie said,

    April 26, 2011 at 12:59 pm

    After reading about Bam Champa here, I went looking for it on Amazon and bought a vendors last 4 boxes. I absolutely LOVED the incense when it got here, so much so that I immediately went looking for more to stock up. At that point, a lot of people were out of stock. One vendor emailed me back saying he expected to restock by the end of the week. He did, and I ordered many boxes.

    So the new batch comes and I light one up and it smells quite different from the older batch I first received. It smells pretty harsh. I still had a few sticks left and compared them. The earlier stuff is mellow, the new batch not mellow at all.

    What I’m wondering is, do you suppose, Mike, that aging might mellow this new batch out? I think it’s maybe the cinnamon oil.

    • Mike said,

      April 26, 2011 at 1:55 pm

      Carrie, that actually seems like some disappointing but not atypical news. Since ORS started approx four years ago there’s probably been about half a dozen incenses or more whose recipes have changed without notice. Sometimes this is just a matter of varying ingredients, but sometimes it’s because an ingredient change was needed to keep costs down. Usually when that happens you do see a move from mellow to harsh. So that would be my first guess, that there’s been an ingredients change. If so, it’s probably the rare or expensive ingredient and thus is maybe the halmaddi? Halmaddi’s a bit hard to describe if you haven’t tried it alone but it’s usually where the balsamic character of a champa comes from. Is there a difference visually between the new and the old? If the new batch is drier, I’d definitely suspect it’s a halmaddi issue.

      My experience with aging in Indian incense is largely that the real subtle aspects of any oils and perfumes are more or less gone in 6 mo to a year and after that they age much more gradually.

      Carrie, if you haven’t sent off what you mentioned in your e-mail (I won’t see any replies until later), if you want to throw in one of the “harsh” sticks I’ll compare it to my Bam when it arrives.

      • Carrie said,

        April 26, 2011 at 2:11 pm

        Ok, I’ll send samples.

        Both of the Bams I have seem pretty dry. The new boxes have the ends of the sticks dipped in green dye, the old box doesn’t.

        Tonight I’m going to compare them again just to make sure my sense of smell wasn’t having an off day. 😉

        • Carrie said,

          April 26, 2011 at 4:37 pm

          Well, I wasn’t imagining things.

          The new stick is pretty bad compared to what I got earlier this year.

          This makes me very sad. If it’s not going to get better with some aging, there will be 30 boxes of Bam Champa in my garbage. 😦

  6. funkdiver said,

    November 12, 2010 at 5:12 pm

    After burning Mother’s Nag incense with Halmaddi for awhile, I can almost say for certain that the Shanthimalai Nag Champa (red box) also contains Halmaddi. They have are ever “wetter” than the Mother’s line, it seems.

  7. July 1, 2010 at 11:01 am

    […] Damodhar & Co., Incense, India, Janak Perfumery Works, Shah Agarbatti) In December I wrote a piece surveying several incenses in the Nag Champa style, after all if there’s anything that might […]

  8. January 6, 2010 at 10:23 am

    […] Wet Masala line. The idea of a wet masala evokes many of the ideas explained in my recent Champacopia article, regarding halmaddi and its presence or lack of presence in champa and durbar style […]

  9. C.J. said,

    January 4, 2010 at 11:32 pm

    Best post I’ve read yet in helping understand what the deal is with the scent changes in this range of Indian incense. What a pity! Could there be a future in the world for gourmet High-Quality Indian Incense? Not Just something that is dipped in a high-quality perfume oil, but an incense that is comprised of high quality original (natural) ingredients?

    I would buy something (15-30 sticks say) around the 10-25$ range for real, quality ingredients you could SMELL. Question for these comanies is…how would the marketing go? Let’s face it. Most of these folks make their money from quantity sales…Y’all know…something that covers up the smell of WEEEED (ech), something that goes en mass to the young folks who haven’t figured out how to divine good from “meh”.

    Odd, ain’t it, that in our culture we eschew the teachings of the mind (medicine, physics, chemistry, literature, anthropology), the SIGHT (sculpture, drawing and painting), SOUND (music in so many luscious forms), TOUCH (everything from stuffed animals to the lachiviously stimulating), and TASTE (gourmet chefs to street cooks cater to it)…who really caters to the nose, alone? Ignoring opbvious connections to the nose with the palate (food, wine, yaddah-yah)….

    What happened to SMELL? Why does it seem that there is such a ~small~ cadre of diverse individuals such as ourselves out and about parsing scent, going into each new age or Japanese souvenier shop we find with such hope? Worrying about Halmaddi and Agarwood and the purity of Sandalwood…Is this an economic problem? A supply-demand problem? Or a big misunderstanding between the appreciators, and the mere consumers?

    Yeah, that may sound arrogant. I don’t mean it to. Just that that old adage about pearls before swine…is it reeeeeeally necessary? Is a pot head going to go on an angry rant about the quality of the nag’ after a great high?

    Say…who can send these good folk in india a memo? I don’t want to miss out on the good stuff–INCENCE!!! Pooh on the pot.

    Happiness,
    cj 🙂

    • Mike said,

      January 5, 2010 at 8:48 am

      CJ, I think some of your wishes have already been fulfilled. For sure the 11 stick packages of Pure Incense Connoisseur fit the bill, they’re as glorious and high class as you’d want from Indian incense and most of the Absolute line isn’t far behind. And of course there’s the vast number of Shroff incenses you can buy, most world class, and you only have to pay a few dollars for a few of these. All of these I think have more than made up for the change in champas and durbars. I found it fairly telling to see most of the Shrinivas products in the closeout bins at Essence for January, I think perhaps word is finally being spread about the good things you can buy.

      As to the lack of interest in smell in our culture, I think you’ve largely caught on to some of it already. For the most part it seems to be tied to the head or new age cultures, neither of which are likely as a group to pay premium prices for good incense, because really that’s the truth of it, if you want something good, you may not have to pay a ton for it, but you’ll be going from $4 a package to maybe $10 a package and in these times I think even that’s a big difference for folks. And of course it takes some research to find out what’s out there, even a site like ours still has some goals to meet in terms of creating some basic documents to cross the bridge. But we do intend to…

      But seriously, I recommend dipping into Pure Incense, Shroff, Pure Lands and the Mothers Nag Champas, all extraordinary Indian incenses and worth the attention of any connoisseur.


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