Incense from India / Deja Vu, Maharaja, Fantasy, Vision

Almost every time I tackle a line’s series of durbar/champa style incenses I’m always afraid I’ll start ranting on about the lack of halmaddi in them and how much they’ve changed in a decade, while at the same time I often realize that not ALL of them had a lot of halmaddi in the first place, and that my nose has changed quite a bit in a decade as well. Add all this up with the dearth of information we tend to get on incenses due to the language barriers and you’re often wondering what is fact and where rumours and myth get started (I’m always hoping not here). A company like Incense Guru which produces Incense from India, possibly the largest line of Indian incense in the Western World, undoubtedly procures all these incenses from various sources under their label so it’s difficult to know what the original sources are (although that they break them up into particular styles has always been greatly helpful).

I do know, however, when I started buying incenses from this company well over a decade ago, just on a visual basis I can tell they’re different now. Many of the earlier incenses, particularly Maharaja, were definitely more hygroscopic then and pulled apart with quite a bit of wetness, now the incense is as dry as a masala. On the other hand I’m not so sure about Fantasy and the others, I feel like I’m tackling older memories here. But I introduce all of this because this “history” has a large influence on me; I’ve known these incenses for a long time and sense some sort of degeneration in their effectiveness, which means I’ll have a different perspective than anyone coming to these scents anew.

Deja Vu is a powdery and undescribably distinct modern durbar type, both sweet and dry in a way that makes you notice one element and then the other and back again. It’s light, dry and airy in a way that makes you wonder if halmaddi was every involved. It’s also a cousin to Incense from India’s very popular Snow Apricot scent (which from memory was never particularly hygroscopic) in that Deja Vu could also be considered a fruity incense. Unfortunately, in the end, it’s a lot like Shrinivas champas in that so many of them are perfume heavy and don’t have aggressive enough personalities to be particularly memorable. I mean if I was to burn a stick of this today, by tomorrow I’d have mostly forgotten a lot about it except in generalities. Pleasant yes, but ultimately generic, in fact even the company’s description doesn’t go farther than calling this a “stronger Nag Champa type fragrance.”

Maharaja (Mystic Temple has this style as Maharaj) used to be one of the style’s stone classics when it was made with gooey halmaddi, in fact in remembering the incenses that really put me on the road with it all, the original Maharaj was definitely one of them. But the problem with the incenses in this style has always been that even though they’re all remotely in the same aromatic area, they differ just enough with every purchase. And so very quickly, even a year from my first stick Maharaj/a had lost its hold on me. And today even if the sort of anise and spice mix still keeps the modern version roughly similar to what I originally loved, it’s now very dry and the spice cookie/spiced tea like scent that use to merge perfectly with the honey and halmaddi now just seems kind of unbalanced. So in a way this is kind of a perfect example of how memory interferes, as I highly doubt anyone coming fresh to this might not like it.

And speaking of old favorites, Fantasy was another, definitely solidly in my Incense from India top 10 in the old days. But where I have memory of Maharaja transmuting like a chameleon, with Fantasy I remember the early batches and then this one. I do remember it being a bit softer in the old days than it is now, and the bouquet of it does seem drier now, but it’s a lot closer in scent than some other drastic recipe changes. It’s roughly in the same style as the Deja Vu, except it’s scent is much more in the slightly floral, herbal and especially) spice direction with hints of saffron and sandalwood in the mix. And thus unlike Deja Vu I can usually get a mnemonic picture of Fantasy’s aroma in my head. While I do enjoy it now, it seems sort of mediocre compared to the Shroff, Pure Incense and Mother’s fragrances we’re seeing now.

Vision perhaps due to them all being part of the same review, reminds me a bit of a mix of Deja Vu and Fantasy (it probably is partially because these are all relatively skinny champa sticks). There’s more patchouli in this and something of ammoniac smell I’m starting to notice in some Indian incenses, but ultimately it’s still that sort of sandalwood, vanilla and sweet oil sort of scents that most champas are like these days when they’re not deluxe. Ultimately it’s hard to break down the elements more than this as so much of the scent is derived from a fleeting perfume scent. Perhaps the fact that I don’t have as much of a memory of the original incense makes it hard to dig up further impressions, but like Deja Vu this is another one of those generic champas that have lost their ability to force impressions.

So this is sort of an unusual quartet in that ten years ago I might have picked at least half of these out as examples of the best champas available, however now, I’m starting to feel these, some of the Mystic Temples, so much of the Shrinivas and Nitiraj lines are all sort of in the same boat, pleasant undoubtedly but not up the best of what’s available out there.

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SAMPLER NOTES: Incense from India / Amber Musk, Indigo, Red Sandalwood, Sweet Patchouli

Those ordering from Incense Guru know that you’ll tend to get a few samples from the rest of the Incense from India line, which is nice when you consider they have over 200 scents in the line alone. With their incense, I tend to stick to their durbar incenses, but the samples are generally a nice way to find out about their masala and charcoals as well, and when I get them I like to log them here as it’s fairly unlikely I’ll buy enough for a true review at least any time soon. Here’s the previous example of sampler notes on a few of their incenses and if you click on the Incense from India category on the left you can find some true reviews of other scents in this line (and there will be more to come eventually). Anyway these are all nice scents, but considering a lot of what I’ve been reviewing India-wise, these aren’t really of comparative quality, so do keep that in mind.

Amber Musk, like all but the Indigo here, is something of a standard masala, in that it’s not uncommon to find similar incenses in other lines. Like it says on the label, it’s a combination of amber and musky herbal qualities and as such it is slightly reminiscent of similar Shroff efforts where the Amber has musky subtones. In this case it’s a much thinner stick, less aromatic and perfumed and not very distinctive, but it’s not unpleasant despite the relative high ratio of bamboo to incense product.

Indigo is really a weird name for a green color and greenish smelling incense stick, something of a friendlier and sweeter take on a patchouli type of incense. It’s also a dry masala with a thread of sweet citrus mixed in. At least in this case it’s difficult to draw comparison to incenses outside the line, but at the same time such a thin stick leaves little impression.

Red Sandalwood is a somewhat distilled and lightly perfumed approximation of the true red sandalwood giving the scent far more personality than the wood has on its own. The sweetness of the wood is enhanced and quite pleasant, with a slight spice in it that bears slight comparison to the Shroff Red Sandal without truly approaching that fine incense’s intense bouquet. A modest stick yes, but again there’s certainly finer work out there.

Finally, the Sweet Patchouli, a type of scent I also tend to find relatively common in Indian incense with a green color and strong hints of distilled patchouli leaf and a surprisingly appealing clay-like subscent that sets it apart from the types of patchoulis that work only with oil. It’s not an incense everyone’s likely to enjoy and it really doesn’t deliver as much on the sweet aspect as you’d think, but over the years I’ve found myself enjoying it. However, I’d say, for example, that the Triloka or Primo versions (both just called Patchouli) are a bit friendlier.

I’ll close this by saying that at one point I found some of these masalas a lot harsher than I do now, I’m not sure if that’s part of the way my room was ventilated at the time or that my nose has adjusted or if the masalas have improved in some way. They’re not on the same level as the Shroffs, Purelands, and Pure Incense masala styles, but really only fail in comparison, on their own they’re quite pleasant.

Incense from India / Amber Resin, Sanctuary, Shanthi Sai Flora, Snow Apricot

Incense from India 1
Incense from India 2

Today’s group from Incense from India’s gigantic incense line is another quartet in the durbar or champa style. I’ll mention up front that in some or all of these cases the base of the incense lack the softer, wetter halmaddi content that they used to and that it affects each incense to a greater or lesser degree. But even with those changes there is still a quality perfume and spice mix at work on all of these incenses and that they still represent some of the better incenses in the style. Two of these on the bookends represent two strongly scented durbars well off the champa theme, while the other two are definitively in the Sai Flora style that one tends to find in Shah Agarbatti’s line such as the already mentioned Sai Flora, Sai Deep, Sai Leela and others.

Amber Resin is an incense I’ve encountered elsewhere via a different company and name, although I haven’t been able to remember either. I just spent some time going over Shroff’s very different line of ambers but in general Indian amber sticks often come in a few different variants. There’s a dry masala with a pinkish color that gives off something of a powdery variant (this is the Amber found in the Blue Pearl line and I believe Mystic Temple has a variant called Amber Essence). There’s the black, more oil-based stick I mentioned as Royal Amber in the last Shroff review. There’s one often called Amber Champa which is very similar to the Shrinivas/Satya T. T. Loban stick. And then there’s the variant found here which tends to be a lot heavier, a bit more sour and intense than the other blends. Why it’s called Resin I would assume refers to the density and the fact it gets more of its aroma from the base than the wax and other ingredients. However, the sour and rich scent really covers up the usual benzoin tendencies of the amber. There are hints of clay and toffee in the mix, but overall this is the sharpest amber available. I’ve found it to be a stick you only bring out so often, but perfect for the right mood. I dare say it’s something of a classic scent and certainly worth a look, but it could be an acquired taste.

Sanctuary is one of the Sai Flora variants I just mentioned, a very thick extremely aromatic stick that puts out a great deal of smoke like all its variants. The thing about both Sanctuary and the Shanti Sai Flora is that these both tend to be less earthy and a lot more sweeter. While most Golden Champas get their name from the color, Sanctuary remains a dark brown as if it’s mostly base rather than added powder. Mystic Temple’s Reservoir of Pleasure used to be much different ten years ago but now resembles  this stick to some extent. I’ve found this one in either form to be pretty popular among friends, it’s definitely fresh, intense and very friendly. It even has some hints of cola or sasparilla in the mix along with the sugar powder to make it seem a very Western sort of aroma.

Shanthi Sai Flora is even better. When this first popped up in the Incense from India catalog, it was at the same time as the red boxed Shantimalai Nag Champa started being imported and in fact there’s also a a Shanthi Nag Champa available as well. I’ve never seen a red box Shantimalai Sai Flora, but roughly remember both Nag Champas being similar and wondered if these two incenses come from a similar source. I’d particularly like to know because when you compare the Golden Champas of Blue Pearl, Mystic Temple and Incense of India along with Sai Flora and all its variants, the Shanti Sai Flora to my nose is the most pleasant of all of them, certainly the most accessible. It’s lost a bit in the interim due to some base changes that have tilted it a bit towards the harsh side, but with a stick as smoky and aromatic it’s not likely to impinge on one’s enjoyment. In fact it’s not far from Sanctuary, with a bit more sugar and spice to it, just a little more complicated. However it’s not far from it in price either and unless you buy in bulk both are likely to run you a 25 to 50 cents per stick. But they’re also not far from being worth that price as they’re two of the most premium Indian offerings.

Snow Apricot is one of Incense from India’s most popular and distinctive incenses. It’s a drier durbar with an almost unbearably potent fruity apricot oil on top. I don’t think there’s a variant of apricot called the Snow Apricot, but it did make me wonder as the scent here is much more powerful than your average garden apricot with a sourness that’s more in the peach direction. Of the four incenses here the alteration in base has probably affected this the most, or at least the perfume verges slightly synthetic at times (and the base is a little harsh), but on the other hand it’s a pretty accurate fruity incense that you’re not likely to find a duplicate of anywhere else.

In the end all four are probably worth checking out for the durbar hound even if I make the caveat that the Snow Apricot isn’t a personal favorite, nor what it used to be. I do, however, try to keep the former three in stock when I can and have no problems recommending any of them. Certainly if you like the huge, earthy Sai Flora, Sanctuary and the Shanthi version will certainly be up your alley.

Incense from India / Golden Frankincense, Green Durbar, Enchanted Garden, Silver Temple

My first review (or sampler notes) of Incense from India product wasn’t particularly flattering to the incenses, so I wanted to make my second installment more on the positive side and feature a few of my old favorites, recently revisited. Incense from India, perhaps the largest and far reaching of the Indian lines exported to the US, are distributed by Incense Guru in the United States and specialize in durbars, masalas and charcoals. They generally excel, however, with their durbar incenses, which number close to 20 or so.

Like every Indian manufacturer, whoever creates these incenses has likely been hit by the same halmaddi shortage every company has, or at least that’s how I explain the difference in some of the scents I received recently from the ones I bought frequently 7-10 years ago. I’m pleased to say, however, that in three of the four cases here, the incenses are still very successful, relatively unchanged and among the best the durbar style has to offer. It should also be mentioned that these are among the more premium and high end Indian incenses and unless you buy in bulk, you’ll be paying at least 50 cents a stick for these (bulk pricing brings this way down).

Golden Frankincense is basically the classic Frankincense Champa. I first discovered a variant of this in a Mystic Temple sampler found just off of Haight Ashubury and was immediately impressed by its character. Unfortunately at the time, the company didn’t sell the scent by itself, so it was a while later that I realized Incense from India had a variant (Mystic Temple did pick it up later, but it seems to be a completely different incense). It’s distinct from Mystic Temple’s White Frankincense by having a lot of peppery and woody notes along with the orange/citrus of the base frankincense scent. To my nose this aroma remains remarkably unchanged from the way I remember it making me wonder if it was low in halmaddi content from the beginning. It always seems to use a fine quality of resin in the stick, slightly sweet and spicy and the combo of citrus and wood is amazingly elegant and enticing. Definitely a must for frankincense lovers (although I may give the nod to the Mystic Temple White Frankincense stick, which although it loses the wood and pepper, gains a bit in quality Omani frankincense).

Incense from India’s Green Durbar is another classic style durbar that finds analogs in both the Mystic Temple (called Dragon Temple Blend) and Shroff Channabasappa lines. This version is ultimately too powerful for its own good. If my memory serves me, the scent I remember from years back seemed to be higher quality but it also had a hard time staying lit, making me wonder if a change was made in order to make it work a little better. Unfortunately, like many incenses in the Shrinivas and Nitiraj lines, the resulting ingredient changes leave the incense harsher, which doesn’t help a stick this aromatic. The green is basically that pungent, herbaceous, verdant quality you find anywhere from patchouli to mint to green tea to vetivert to evergreens, although having aspects of all qualities, it doesn’t particularly resemble any individual scent. It’s almost like I want to like this one more, but there’s a harsh chemical like scent interlaced that seems new to this blend, it’s extremely smoky and way too intense overall. The Mystic Temple version seems far more balanced and the Shroff is different enough to not be entirely comparable (although with that said I think it’s the best of the three as is often the case).

Enchanted Garden is one of Incense from India’s true triumphs, a heavily floral durbar with a lot of similarities to the Shrinivas Valley of the Roses scent, except this is superior in every way. Perhaps the defining difference is the wonderful lemon like note that shares time along with the florals, almost like the scent you’d get from opening up a tin of lemon drops. It’s also not quite so specifically rose like, in fact I have some trouble defining the floral oils as more than a bouquet scent. A gorgeous, cooling incense that really has no other analog, very mellow and not harsh at all.

Silver Temple is another of my very favorite Incense from India incenses, apparently from the looks of the Incense Guru catalog there must have been an absence of it in their catalog for some time as they’re calling it new. This is a very wood-heavy durbar , sweet, powdery and spicy with a high content of quality sandalwood oil. It’s very distinctive overall, with a bit of jasmine on the top of the scent, reflecting the silver/moon like nature of the stick quite nicely, sultry and very mysterious (it reminds me a little of the Mermade Temple of the Moon resin blend). A great contour to the scent and quite cooling (although no lemon like the Enchanted Garden).

Many more Incense of India scents to come in future posts, we’ve only just gotten our feet wet with this company. But the three of the four above are among the best in their catalog and well worth checking out.

Song of India; Incense from India / India Temple; Damascus Cedar, Golden Sandalwood, Shimmer, Russian Rose

Incense from India may very well be the largest line of Indian incenses in the US market. Their website claims to have over 200 different fragrances. I first discovered this line of incenses in the mid 90s and while my tastes have changed quite a bit since then, many of my early favorites came from this line. To name a few that used to be at the top of my list but that I haven’t ordered since I started in on Japanese incense: Enchanted Garden (like Shrinivas Sugandhalaya’s Valley of Roses but much better), Golden Frankincense (resiny and peppery), Honey Dust (like Satya Natural) and Snow Apricot (a slightly fruity durbar). I’ve probably forgotten more scents from this line than I currently remember, but five came in as samplers a while back and I thought I’d log my impressions. But be assured that I don’t consider the incenses in question here among the line’s best by any means.

Incense from India, like just about all Indian incense, is very affordable and most if not all packages are well under $5, although the number of sticks per package may vary. One of the things I remember about the company is they sell bulk and it’s usually in that category where you can tell how deluxe a particular stick is, usually the durbars tend to be the high enders in this category (although, a charcoal dipped in white sandalwood oil, one of the few incenses that vein I’ve liked, was the highest at one point). The five incenses in question seem to all be masalas of a sort except for the first one, which is also a charcoal incense dipped in oil.

And as you can imagine, I don’t care too much for India Temple incense. It appears to be made by Song of India, and my sample came with the statement “Smells just like temples in India” which appears to fit the description. Well I’d like to hold out a bit better hope for how Indian temples smell. Like most charcoals, this is rather unpleasantly smoky, with an overwhelmingly spicy and floral oil that becomes cloying not soon after lighting. It’s difficult to tell what’s the oil and what’s the punk at times, all which mark a very low quality incense.

Damascus Cedar appears to be charcoal based on description, which would account for its off notes, but it appeared more like a masala to my eyes color wise. It struck a fairly decent balance between the superior Himalayan cedar trees and the ones that smell like pencil shavings. It’s fairly rich and dry, but like most charcoals and masalas the smoke makes it overwhelming at times, although at least in this case there’s no true bitter notes to exacerbate the aroma. From memory, I believe the line has better cedar incenses.

I do remember IfI’s Golden Sandalwood, after all it’s a slight variation on a classic masala blend (I seem to remember Blue Pearl having one similar, at least). While I tend to prefer oil heavy sandalwood durbars, it would be impossible to say Golden Sandalwood is unpleasant, rather it almost strikes me as the typical average Indian sandalwood, with many poorer and better on either side. Many of IfI’s incenses starting with Golden are often their best, but this wouldn’t be one of those. At least it has the buttery and spicy sandalwood smell, accentuated over the pure wood by other aromatics.

I don’t see Shimmer in the catalog anymore, maybe it was discontinued or perhaps it was pulled for its low quality. This is the sort of harsh and somewhat cheap or synthetic masala blend that while aiming for a sort of old school temple blend in style, ends up being something of a mess. I thought it was quite soapy and bitter overall, it’s hard to believe someone would burn this for pleasure.

Russian Rose is a masala and I have to come out in front saying I generally really dislike Indian rose masalas, in fact it wasn’t until I just tried Shoyeido/Royal/Rose that I actually found a rose I enjoyed, so I’m already fairly biased against this scent. Like most floral masalas the base tends to compromise the top notes and in this case that top note is a somewhat pungent rose oil that’s almost abrasive in its intensity. The overall aroma comes off like many commecial spray deoderizers, but at least it’s not as inferior as some I’ve tried.

Overall, the existence of this article is to note these in passing. While I’d love to enthuse over the better incenses in the Incense for India catalog, given that I’m finding most of my old Indian incenses sitting more in drawers than in holders, it’s hard to imagine when that would be. But I did want to make a point of this so that people aren’t necessarily turned off of the whole catalog by this unrepresentative handful.