In early June I made a small post on Tashi Lhunpo monastery, when some friends of ORS sent me a box of Shing Kham Kun Khyab almost simultaneously with the monastery’s incenses coming into Essence of the Ages. Soon after this post, Ross gave us his thoughts on the monastery’s high end Himalayan Healing-Agar 31 blend. In this article, I’ll discuss all five incenses currently exported to the United States. Tashi Lhunpo, an exiled Tibetan monastery now based in South India, creates four very affordable incenses and one agarwood blend that is surprisingly high end for a Tibetan-turned-Indian monastery. What’s particularly interesting about these incenses is, except for the Agar 31, Tashi Lhunpo’s four remaining incenses are all remarkably similar.
After spending a lot of time sampling a number of various Tibetan incenses, various styles and commonalities become clearer. One of the most common styles of Tibetan incenses is what I’m currently referring to as the “red stick.” While not all of these incenses actually have a red color, including one of the Tashi Lhunpos, the red coloring seems to go hand in hand with what I’d consider a very berry-like aroma that’s generally very soft and friendly. I’d probably make the leap to say that this is a quality of the juniper berry, but while juniper does seem to be an ingredient in these blends, the harshness that it often brings with it tends to be missing. Most of these have dozens of ingredients to them, belying what are basically simple and smooth aromas.
Shing Kham Kun Khyab is probably the best of these incenses in the Tashi Lhunpo category. It’s the one incense in the catalog that improves on this generic berry aroma, featuring a much deeper and even damper aroma. Like most “red sticks” there’s a middle that implies an herbal mix that gives the incense some depth and in SKKK’s case the contour of the scent is almost dead perfect. The folks who introduced me to this incense said it reminded them of a morning after a rain and it’s an image impossible to shake when burning this incense, due to the damp aroma that really does have that “after the rain” sort of fresh smell to it. This richness is almost reminiscent of cherry kool-aid powder, although never getting too sweet.
Mount Everest also works thematically around this berry-like aroma, although as with most incenses named after Everest and the Himalayans, there’s a concentration on high-altitude evergreen woods. Mount Everest loses the red color, but not necessary the smell, although it moves well away from the distinctiveness apparent in SKKK. The incense, as a result, loses quite a bit of power to it, while the berry center keeps the evergreens from getting too much of that tire/burnt rubber smell. Overall it’s a bit of a wash and perhaps the roughest incense in the catalog.
Himalayan Healing – Agar 31 is not only unusually priced, but is aromatically a totally different incense from the other four. It’s among the highest priced incenses sourced from India, likely due to a substantial agarwood content. However, unlike Japanese agarwood incenses, there doesn’t appear to be a particularly high quality level of wood here and the effects are quite a bit different. The wood, which does exude something of a resinous quality to it, a true rarity among Tibetan aloeswoods, is quite upfront, but it’s what’s happening in the middle that gives it a slightly distinctive edge over other incenses with healing or agar 31 in the name. There’s a mysterious tangy and even minty note that occasionally gives of hints of anise and combined with the dark woods and black stick give it a mysterious and unique aroma. It’s also relatively low smoke and its subtlety hints at a possibly long learning curve. The saffron also comes through in a similar but slightly different way to Medicine King’s Saffron Medicinal Incense.
Local and Lha Yak returns to the standard red color and berry aroma and are the line’s two long sticks. Both are so similar it’s difficult to tell them apart. Local may be the most standard of the red sticks with lots of berry and herb, and a slight hint of tobacco or sage as part of the scentscape. Overall it’s a very inexpensive incense and also fairly thin and indistinctive, but certainly pleasant and benefitting from the herbal edge. Lha Yak is like a fusion of the Local stick and Mount Everest, still at heart a berry/red stick but with a much woodier and heartier middle. In particular the cherry/strawberry patch-like smells come out there, possibly due to it having the spiciest presence of the five Tashi Lhunpo incenses. Neither of these two incenses really compete all that well next to the SKKK, which I’d definitely pick as the one to start with in this catalog.
There’s a freshness and quality to the ingredients in the line, best expressed by the Shing Kham Kun Khyab incense. However other than this incense and the Agar 31, the rest of the line lacks quite a bit of distinctiveness. While the incenses are terribly friendly and unlikely to put anyone off, the lack of danger or an edge in most of these also makes them standard and unnecessary if your incense stock already has a red stick or two. Of course, the very low prices on all of them also mean they’re not a bad place to start in the style, although if you’re like me you won’t see any improvements on the SKKK, which is something of a minor classic.