My relative inexperience burning agarwood makes it difficult for me to link the scent of a piece of wood to a particular geographic area. I hope that as I gain experience I’ll be able to recognize the broad similarities that characterize woods from the same place. My notes below are based on a few samples of wood from the named region and I have not reason to believe these pieces aren’t representative. I enjoyed discovering their unique characteristics and hope that the more I burn the better I’ll become at recognizing many more of their individual subtleties as well.

The Maluku, Cambodian and Sulawesi pieces were burned on an electric burner on a low setting. The Banka and Aceh samples were also burned on or next to charcoal.

Sulawesi- Damp, mossy and herbal notes reminiscent of patchouli and oakmoss suggest moist, earthy, brown tones. A hint of white pepper is interlaced with the cool and green scent of watermelon rind. At higher temperatures the wood smells crisp and snappy. When burned on lots of layers of tinfoil atop charcoal (I made a little tower) vanilla finally emerges, but Sulawesi is pretty low on the sweetness scale. One of the things I most appreciate about this wood is that it changes faces which makes burning it a stimulating, as well as a mellow, experience. The pervasive oozy dampness is grounding while the shifts in other notes makes me feel contemplative. The big surprise was that, when burned on charcoal, the wood smelled like tomato sauce with Italian spices and chili powder mixed in! I’ve smelled these tomato and feisty chili pepper notes in ASAQ’s 12 yr old oil and I’ve always gotten a big kick out of them ☺

Bangka Isands- This wood is much sweeter and more vanillic than the Sulawesi. Marzipan, peanuts , cinnamon, nutmeg, white pepper and earthy notes were the ones I was able to decipher. To be honest, I was very frustrated with this wood. It was quite dense and required more heat to burn than I’m accustomed to using. It was the most satisfying on tin foil with charcoal and because, for me, it did best on high heat, this is one I’d use for room/clothes scenting.

Aceh- A lovely combination of vanilla and woods with sharp cinnamon overtones. Occasionally there’s a whiff of fresh, green mintiness. It is primarily deep and woody with a light, chocolate-y sweetness. I found it slightly difficult to tease out the notes until I tried burning it on ashes in close proximity to charcoal. Like the Bangka wood, I think this is nice for room scenting.

The last sample I tried was not Indonesian, but Cambodian and it was my personal favorite. This wood has classic notes of clean, smooth woods, sweet, caramelic vanilla and some dry, bitter, cleansing tones. (I love these bitter notes so please don’t read this as a negative). Brown sugar, maple and jam-y plum notes are most evident on lower heat. The contrast and interplay between these sweet and bitter flavors creates a dynamic dialogue which I found very satisfying,

My thanks go to Gregg King for making these samples available. Gregg is one of the nicest people with whom I have corresponded. He is very forthcoming with information about his woods and he is full of interesting information relating to many different aspects of incense, from its history to its crafting. Thank you, Gregg!


Maluku: Wood from the “Island of the Kings”

Some woods smell super sweet- like melted brown sugar infused with vanilla- and others are bone dry. Gregg’s Maluku, harvested and distilled in a small island off the coast of Indonesia, is agreeably in between. The bittersweet scent of cocoa and the fresh, clean scent of newly sawn wood happily coexist along with the robust, spicy liveliness of cinnamon. My favorite slivers have a very minty green/ cucumber/honeydew scent. The deeper smelling pieces are bold and invigorating; the minty pieces are light, cool and refreshing. Maluku is not the most resinous wood but with an electric burner on a low heat setting I’m able to enjoy even very small pieces for a satisfyingly long time and because it is reasonably priced I feel as though I can burn it liberally without its burning a hole in my pocket.
I was happy to discover that Maluku is perfectly paired with Rou Gui oolong tea. The staunch robustness and cassia flavor of the tea accentuates the vigor and tempered sweetness of the wood. Thank you, Gregg! On this gray and chillingly wet February afternoon your wood is exactly what I needed to sweeten, bolster and fortify my spirits!

Fragrant wood lovers- check out this website

I’m sure you will enjoy it and learn a lot!

Mother’s India Fragrances / Nagchampa / Aravind, Chakra, Govinda, Pavitra, Radha, Rishi

The initial batch of five Mother’s India Fragrances proved to be a line popular enough to expand, with fourteen new incenses hitting the market about two years ago. The company has chosen to expand the line once again with not only these initial six incenses, but I believe there are also six more, although I have not received samples of these yet. Mother’s nagchampas in some ways are a style of their own, featuring halmaddi, sandalwood and additional ingredients in order to create scents that are unlike any other incenses on the market. For one thing, while these aren’t low smoke, they do tend to be a bit mellower than the incenses put out by Shroff and Dhuni and I know there have been times switching back to these sticks where I’ve found them a bit hard to pick up. So I tried to spend a bit of time with these in order to let them open up.

In essence you could almost call at least four out of these six sticks an expansion in the floral/rose direction. This is an interesting move by the company as I don’t think this niche had been quite as worked out yet in the  previous expansion. However, scents like these are usually considered more modern and less traditional and so I think a lot of these are likely to appeal outside the incense crowd and only those within that crowd who can deal with a lot of rose, geranium and jasmine scents are likely to go for most of these. And so I should probably state outright that geranium tends to get on my nerves quite a bit, so keep that in mind in cases where it pops up that this is a reflection of taste and not artisanship.

Aravind Nagchampa is something of a Lotus Nagchampa (Aravind means Lotus) and it combines jasmine, gardenia, rose and champa flower for the first of the florals here. This is the first of four that takes the Mother’s nagchampa center into a pink, “floral bouquet” direction, perhaps for the first time. All four of these incenses share a very delicate and light floral touch. Like a lot of incenses using low cost floral oils, the mix of oils tends to a bit of a generic quality, yet perhaps the surprise is that the overall stick comes off kind of dry and not drenched in perfume like you’d expect for this kind of style. In fact one thing to realize up front is it often takes a stick or two before the bouquet starts to unfold and in this case the results can occasionally be reminiscent of the actual flowers. In fact, this is actually reminiscent of some of the more affordable and better Japanese florals. As to whether this is reminiscent of other Lotus incenses, I’ll leave up to you, as they all tend to vary quite a bit.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in this first bunch is the Chakra Nagchampa which is one of two here that doesn’t go in the pink and floral direction. Well, you wouldn’t know it from the description, which lists fruits, spices, jasmine, tuberose, cyclamen and lily. Once again, this feels like a distinct move to a more modern and mainstream friendly type of incense and it’s reminiscent of one or two of the Nippon Kodo Yume no Yume blends in the way this combines florals and fruits with spice around the edges. Of course the cyclamen note is almost immediately evocative of NK’s Aqua, but seated in the Mothers’ halmaddi base, the results to my nose are a lot more successful. In fact without the spicyness this might not have worked too well, but instead we have something fascinating. This is possibly the first in this group I’d recommend without hesitation, especially as it’s quite unlike previous incenses in the line.

Govinda Nagchampa returns to the floral (sub)style with a mix of sweet champa flower, neroli, ylang ylang and sweet roses. During my first sticks it was instantly noticeable how similar this is in style to the Aravind, except in this case it feels like the halmaddi/sandalwood center seems to come out a bit more. Govinda isn’t quite as dry as Aravind and the overall scent is noticeably sweeter. But like Aravind this is a noticeably more floral and “flower mix” type of scent than previous installments in the line and so when you look at the overall expansion it makes sense to move in this direction, giving the brand quite a bit more breadth. Like the Pavitra, I found that this mix starts to take off with use and like most of the incenses in the line increased use makes you feel like the creators really sat down and made sure they got the balance right. So if you want to try one of the florals I’d either start with this one or the Pavitra, but be sure to try one before expanding to the others as they’re all variations on a theme.

Pavitra Nagchampa might have been the floral in this group I liked the most, if, perhaps, because I spent the most time with it. At this point in taking notes on these incenses you start to run out of descriptive qualities when the incenses still fall into a pink, rosy, “feminine,” floral bouquet category. Certainly they all vary in scent within these qualities, but how to describe this one is difficult because my initial take was that the the top was a bit too strong with the florals of jasmine, rose, neroli, ylang ylang and balsamic orris. But after a few sticks it started to hit me from outside that such a mix works really well with the champa base, perhaps here the balsamic orris is triggering the halmaddi to bring out some more foresty qualities. Anyway if I was to choose one of the floral bouquet champas here to start with it would be the Pavitra, if only because I think it underlines how clever some of these blends are.

Radha Nagchampa is more dry and robust as a floral and includes white rose and spicy geranium. Anything with geranium tends to lose me and this wasn’t much of an exception, but putting aside the personal preference, you’d have to discuss this one in terms of its rosyness. As such this is perhaps the least bouquet-like as a floral, but it moves in the type of floral direction that I tend to find a bit harsh. It does have the same sort of clever balance the rest of the incenses in the line does in terms of the oils matching up with the base, but as this was the fourth incense so close in style, I was started to really run out of ways to separate this from the rest. In the end I’d probably say start with Pavitra, if you really love it follow it up with Govinda.

It’s perhaps a tribute to how modern this latest batch is that Rishi Nagchampa is described as an incense children love, and sure enough this mix of red roses, fruity jasmine  and blue violets puts this square in the inoffensive and fruity berry category. Generally anything this reminiscent of stawberries or raspberries will tend to be fairly popular but as most incense lovers know, you can only approximate these kinds of scents and in doing so the results often come off a bit generic, sure you won’t offend anyone but the results won’t be particularly exciting either. As a result even though this strikes me as a natural incense, the mix of scents leaves this feel a bit synthetic or dull. It’s lightly reminiscent of the smell of a big vat of gumballs at a candy shop or berry candles. It actually is quite well done overall in that it’s a lot better than most incenses this style, but like most of this new expansion it feels tailor made for people with only a casual interest in incense.

Anyway I hope to follow this up eventually with the other six. It should be said that Mother’s has always been incredibly generous with what they send, in this batch I also got a set of essential oils and absolutes they appear to be selling. All of the ones I sampled seemed to be of good quality (I particularly enjoyed the various cinnamon and cassia oils) so if you’re an incense creator this could be well worth looking into. Overall despite that some of these incenses aren’t to my personal tastes, I think this is a pretty clever expansion with every single one of these not repeating the type of scents we’ve already seen. And if you’re a fan of roses and other florals there’s probably some new favorites waiting for you.

A note from Beth on Tibetan incenses

I received the following from Beth Johns at Essence of the Ages in order to clarify some of the issues regarding Tibetan Medical College Holy Land and other Tibetan incenses, based on comments in other threads…



I hope I can clarify a bit of what seems to be happening with the Holy Land incense, and certainly other Tibetan, Indian, and Nepali incenses.

Most of the incenses that I import are 100% natural or contain a very high amount of all natural ingredients.  Certainly Tibetan and Nepali incenses are the most natural incenses made, using literally no artificial ingredients. Now let’s change tracks a bit.

The wines produced from the exact same grove of grapes will taste differently from year to year. The weather has a huge impact on the taste of the fruit. Less rain produces a higher sugar content. More rain, less sweet. There are many other weather factors that also affect the taste of the fruit. Vineyards then call the yearly harvest and resulting wine a ‘vintage’. Even if you don’t consume wine, you certainly can taste the difference from season to season in the fruits you purchase from your local grocery. The taste is affected by the weather in the growing region of the fruit. Here in Minnesota, for instance, the drought from the past 2 summers has produced the most gorgeous fall colors I have ever seen … less rain means higher sugar content in the leaves and more brilliant fall color.

The same happens with the leaves, roots, flowers, et. al. that are used to produce all natural incense. The weather affects ALL growing and living things, including incense ingredients.

To the absolute best of my knowledge, the recipe of the Holy Land has not changed from when I first was able to import it in 2008. What HAS changed are the growing seasons. And I continue to be told by the Monastery that the Holy Land recipe has not changed.

The Holy Land that I currently have in stock was imported in August 2011. I believe it to contain a large amount of high quality ingredients, including animal musk.

This is the best explanation that I can offer. I hope you will try Holy Land for yourself, from my current stock, and enjoy what I consider one of Tibet’s finest incenses.



Beth Johns

Essence of the Ages