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. Read the rest of this entry »

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Dhoops / Sree Yadalam, Goloka, Padmini, Bic, Mysore Sugandhi Dhoop Factory

While the word dhoop is sometimes used as a general name for incense, it seems to be most commonly reserved for a certain type of extruded, thick, bamboo-less, sandalwood-based and heavily perfumed incense that is one of the most inexpensive styles available. Many different companies from India produce incenses such as these and they’re often used to fragrance large areas given the profuse amount of smoke they produce. Unfortunately they’re also commonly created from very inexpensive ingredients and often contain bitter, sour or other off scents that bring the overall scent down a notch.

The following is a survey of a number of different available dhoops with a general assumption that the scents are very close and can be described as a group. Usually at core we have a certain inexpensive binder, a decent amount of cheaper sandalwood or other woods, and what often seems like an oil blend that one might generally think of as floral, but often contains ingredients that are woody or citrus-like as well.  As mentioned, the results are very inexpensive with boxes often around a dollar or two.

Sree Yadalam Dhoop Industries’ Sree Sai Dha Sangam Dhoop Stick is an example that falls, perhaps, at the more synthetic end of the equation. The ingredients remain as explained in the previous paragraph, however in this case the perfume is a little too strong. Like many dhoops the oil smells like a mix of woody, citrus and floral elements with a subscent that reminds me of candle wax or the scent associated with a box of crayons. It seems to my nose that the elements one would associate with sandalwood are perhaps approximated rather than provided by the ingredient itself, leaving the experience fairly unsatisfactory. However, this is still certainly well within the standard characteristics of a dhoop.

Goloka Dhoop is probably a little friendlier and slightly richer in sandalwood content, but other than these differences, the dhoop scent is relatively similar. The slightly bitter or sour elements of the previous dhoop’s perfume oil are absent here, but the candlewax-like subscents are still quite present. Goloka Prayer is something of an alternative to the dhoop featuring a very strong resin content replacing much of the wood, perhaps guggal or frankincense in the mix, and the results are closer to certain Tibetan incenses. Of all the dhoops in the list this is perhaps the least traditional, although the resin doesn’t completely cover up the nature of the wood and oil mix commonly found in dhoops. Interesting, but ultimately its basis relies on fairly inferior and cheap ingredients.

Padmini Dhoop is a thinner stick compared to the previous three with a slightly more brick red hue. It’s also fairly removed from the synthetic-seeming and more bitter oils found in the Yadalam and Goloka version, with a bit more of a floral slant, which helps to free up the wood scents a little more. It’s also missing the more candlewax-like elements but perhaps trades these for a bit more in the way of cheaper binder or wood filler. Again, it should be reminded that these are all shades of a degree and that this remains quite close to the standard scent.

Bic Sandalwood Dhoop is relatively more pleasant with the dhoop scent moving to the woodier side of the equation with the lack of the “floral” perfumes associated with the others. It has hints of much more quality sandalwood, with touches of the better crystalline heartwood-like scents mixed in with the more buttery and sawdust like inexpensive outer wood. After the heavier perfumes of the previous four this one came as something of a relief.

Mysore Sugandhi Dhoop Factory’s Chandan Dhoop  is easily one of the more commonly found sandalwood dhoops and is both thicker and shorter than the previous  versions, almost like wood cylinders. Compared to the Bic, the sandalwood seems very mixed down with cheaper woods and I’ve often gotten a more bitter woody scent from these, which tend to be a bit smoky and harsh. Of course given their thickness, they’re probably better relegated for large room use than personal.

Similarly, Mysore Sugandhi’s Laxmi Dhoop should also be used for a larger room as it’s one of the most intensely smoky incenses you’ll find in any style, perhaps the closest an incense will come to setting off your smoke alarm. But unlike the Chandan Dhoop, the Laxmi seems to be of an uncommonly high quality. For one thing it’s not hardened like the others, with a size and consistency like a several inch long cylinder of play-doh. I find this so smoky that I’m more apt to pull inch-long pinches off a log than to burn a full one. The color is of a dark brown and while it has similar characteristics to the candlewax/crayon like scent of the dhoops early in this article, the mixture of herbs and oils seem to be at an uncommonly high level for a dhoop, which perhaps makes this one the most removed from the traditional style. And it’s also fairly easy to recommend in that I can think of no other incense like it, truly a one of a kind experience.

There are lots of other dhoops out there, but you find pretty quick that after sampling a few of them a certain amount of repetition sets in. Certainly the two I’d pick in this batch would be the sandalwood goodness of the Bic and the original and unusual quality found in the Laxmi dhoops, both of which, while you may not burn them often, will stretch the diversity of one’s collection of scents and do so without breaking the bank.