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.