Mandala Art & Incense / Ancient Tibetan Nagchampa Incense; Natural Nepali Dhoop / Pure Aromatic Nagchampa Dhoop; Traditional Nepali Dhoop Pvt. Ltd / Om Nama Shiva Dhoop; Unknown / Golden Nagchampa, Trimurti

In addition to the Meena and other Indian incenses Everest Traders sent over, they also sent over a quintet of Nepali incenses. Since Essence of the Ages left the incense business, there has been a big hole where a solid source used to be for these incenses, as incensetraditions.ca carries primarily Tibetan and Bhutanese incenses only. Hither and Yon seems to be the primary source for Nepali incenses these days (note as always that “Tibetan” is also used as a style in the sense it means incense that does not use bamboo sticks through the middle, a distinction I need to make for later in this writeup) and there are a few others, but we’re always interested in hearing about new sources.

And it was interesting in looking around a bit that the first incense that pops up at Hither and Yon is Mandala Art & Incense’s Tibetan Nagchampa, because Everest Traders is carrying it at a little over half the price. You have to go back to 2009 the last time I reviewed incenses by this long standing company and I don’t believe any of them were these tubes of 5″ incenses. But that brings me to one distinction I have to make. Nagchampa incenses, of course, are still some of the most popular incenses you can buy, but the Tibetan style versions of these are very different. Indian nagchampas, at least at their best, were only part the perfume from the aroma – part of their success was the marriage this scent had with a halmaddi-rich masala base, a combination often missing even from Indian versions these days. And so what you get from a Tibetan version like this one is the powdery and accessible floral scent on the base of a Nepali-Tibetan style. I have tried some Tibetan nagchampas I couldn’t wait to dump the package of, this version almost feels like it could be a standard to compare others to. Like a lot of Nepali bases there is a feeling that some inexpensive woods are used to ground the incense, but it at least gets over the hump of not having a bitter or conflicting base to it and the top note is certainly pleasant. Amazingly at times it even has something like a Japanese woodiness to it which is quite intriguing. And at this price it’s certainly well worth checking out to get an idea of what one of these is like.

So how does the Natural Nepali Dhoop Pure Aromatic Nagchampa Dhoop compare? This Natural Nepali Dhoop incense is part of a large line that are mostly formatted as “Pure Aromatic Something Dhoop” and tend to be carried by shops that import Nepalis. Back in 2011 I was extremely nonplussed by the four incenses I tried in the line, or at least I think it was the same line, because I don’t remember the packages claiming what company they were from (which obviously could have changed in all this time). My issue with poorer Nepali incenses in general, when they show up, is that the bases use very cheap filler woods, I would guess poor quality juniper or pine, and at their harshest these impart bitter and campfire like notes that basically sabotage whatever it is the creators are trying to do with them. And I mention this as context as the incenses I reviewed back then were very much like this, but part of the issue was the oils used were also not pleasant. Fortunately the oil on the Nagchampa isn’t harsh but it also doesn’t have quite the resolution of the MA&I version and while the base isn’t too bad there are still some notes in the mix that are a bit distracting. It’s also perhaps a touch less sweeter. But it does have some interesting floral notes and the base is certainly more workable than what I would have expected. I’d certainly start with the MA&I version as ultimately they are close enough in style where you’d only need one or the other and I would expect this latter version to end up fatiguing.

So in order to properly review Traditional Nepali Dhoop Pvt. Ltd.’s Om Nama Shiva Dhoop (I could not find an ebay link to this at present, but will add when I’m made aware of it) I thought it worth queueing up the great Steve Hillage. Of the incenses in this review this is probably the most traditionally Tibetan of the five. It reminded me that outside of the great Dhoop Factory and a restock of Yog Sadhana it had been years since I tried a Nepali incense like this and it’s a bit of a shift from the Tibetan incenses from the autonomous region. The difference I think is largely in the base still and we’re given natural essential oils, flowers, spices, aromatic herbs, natural resins and other aromatic substances as ingredients, so basically the whole kitchen and then some. And like many of these incenses all of these things are blended as a whole and difficult to pick out separately, although I find this blend to be an interesting almost peppery meets tangy herbal mix on top of the woody base. The issue with many Nepali imports is whether they rise to level of something distinctive like so many of the autonomous region incenses do. So I would have to say that while this is distinctly aromatic and pleasant, it may not quite reach that level, but after a few sticks I’ve started to notice the resin peeping out a bit amongst all the herbal qualities so it may very well be a grower.

Moving to the Golden Nagchampa and Trimurti, we’re also moving from the Tibetan style to the bamboo stick centered Indian masala style. Both of these two incenses are from a gigantic line as well, although I’ve never known what company produces them from the wrappers themselves and never got around to reviewing any back in the day. Like the Pure Aromatic Dhoop, my experiences were not always positive in the past, nor have they been recent enough to remember all that well, but perhaps with these two we have a good example of what works and perhaps doesn’t. Golden nagchampas just by name usually imply a flora or fluxo style, in fact back when halmaddi was more prevalent, a golden nagchampa was likely to be a Sai Flora like incense in some fashion. That’s true here as well although mostly because the perfume has that similarity in the front, the stick here is generally not thick enough to be a true flora style. It’s mostly a dusted charcoal but it feels soft enough to perhaps have a little halmaddi in the mix and sure enough it’s overall a sweet and pleasant scent. And perhaps in the middle there’s a little bit of woodiness or base that will remind you it’s not an Indian stick, as I can’t really think of another Indian scent I’ve tried recently that fits this general area. It’s also quite a bit drier a burn than say so many of the vedic incenses I have been sampling lately that it also makes a nice contrast. One of the better Nepali-Indian hybrids I’ve tried.

The issue with Trimurti and this is one ORS staff discuss a lot is that when incenses are named after religious or spiritual concepts, gods and goddesses etc, it can be tough to get a bead on what’s actually going on in the scent and so I’m limited in my description to say how successful the Trimurti is for what it’s trying to accomplish. From my perspective Trimurti barely gets past its base which is some sort of nebulous mix of evergreen woods. It’s also a bit spicy and I would guess there might be a bit of something like myrrh or gugal gum in the mix. What is perhaps missing and I can compare this to the Golden Nagchampa (which has it) is an intensity in aroma that makes it a bit more memorable and attention arresting. I do seem to remember the line was full of incenses like this. It may be entirely because the line is using 100% natural ingredients and not any sort of perfume wizardry, which would largely be in keeping with many Nepali incenses. But keep in mind as well if this is something you might recognize as an aroma you like you could feel differently from me.

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Mandala Art & Incense / Guru Padmakara, Kalachakra, Mahakala, Medicine Buddha, Vajrakilla (Phurpa Dorjee), Yellow Jambala

I’ve covered one other line from Nepalese company Mandala Art & Incense in the past, basically a six incense series of very thick and close-to-smokeless incenses sticks that were mostly very similar in style and aroma, only varying with one main ingredient. These were wrapped in paper with a Boudha leaf and an attached tag describing the incense. The company also has a second line whose six incenses can be found in both stick and powder form. I’ll be covering the stick versions here with the assumption being made that the powder versions are probably a bit more pure due to the lack of binder ingredients.

Like the paper wrapped line, these incenses are all very similar, with bases that seem quite common from scent to scent. Even with a list of, usually three, ingredients the commonality of the scents is increased. The thing about this company is that their incenses are relatively modest, affordable, decent quality but relatively unspectacular. That is, you get what you pay for and for the most part you’re not paying for a lot off off notes, but you are paying for a great deal of common evergreen wood that is very common to Nepali incenses in this price range.

Guru Padmakara lists its main ingredients as cedarwood, spikenard and ambergriss, although given the line’s claim that are no animal extracts used and the low price, we’re assuming this is an herbal ambergris approximation rather than the real thing. Like all the incenses in this line, we have some basic cedarwood and juniper wood making up the lion’s share of the scent and while these scents are generally quality enough that the harsh rubbery scents that come along with evergreen mixtures are subsumed, the large quantity of these woods along with the binder relegate the other ingredients to slight notes. Fortunately they’re quite nice in this one and the spikenard gives the scent enough of its attractive aroma to make this one of the most friendly incenses in the group. It even approaches real ambergris in scent due to a slight saltiness in the mix. Again, the base prevents this from being astonishing but at a few dollars a roll it’s a very fair price for what is a standard Nepali scent.

Kalachakra lists agaru, ghanten khampa and juniper berry, the latter two ingredients also common to another couple of incenses in the same line, starting a series of scents that are perhaps too close to truly differentiate. This seems to have the same very low quality agarwood common to most affordable Tibetans, basically unresinous and slightly musty, but the lesser qualities are balanced by a nice cherry-like flavor from the juniper berry and a tangy herbal quality from the ghanten kampa (assumed because this quality is present in all the incenses here that use it). Although unspecified, the middle has a bit of cinnamon-like spiciness to it which helps to bring this to the same level as the Guru Padmakara, a decently tinged but ultimately average Nepali scent.

Mahakala contains anthopogon (which I believe is a species of rhododendron), ghanten khampa and titepati. As previously mentioned, the herbal tang from the ghanten kampa is also in this one, however the rest of the ingredients don’t give this scent a great deal of its own character with the evergreen base and binder material coming through in a much more generic fashion. There appears to be a bit of sweetness to it, which I’d assume is the titepati (a scent that can really make an incense shine in certain cases) , and a slight touch of anise or licorice, but overall this is a very mediocre scent even for the line.

Medicine Buddha differs very little from the previous two scents or perhaps it strikes a medium with its sandalwood, juniper and ghanten khampa. Only the sandalwood presence, which almost seems slightly toasted, sets Medicine Buddha apart and there also seems to, perhaps, be a very small presence of agarwood in the mix, which is fairly common for this style of incense. The overall effect is kind of tea-like, but despite a little spice and tanginess, like Mahakala, its basic presence is still closely definitely by the common woods and binders, leaving the whole fairly undistinguished.

Vajrakilla (aka Phurpa Dorjee) contains juniper berry, red sandalwood and gurgum, and like most incenses with a decent amount of red sandalwood comes off fairly dull and somewhat middle-less. Overall it’s a very basic incense with very little personality, and the lack of spice or tanginess renders it all fairly boring.

The best of the line is Yellow Jambala, possibly because it was the first one I tried, but over time I think it’s because it’s the most potent beyond each incense’s basic woods and base. This one contains juniper, beddellium, nagi and ambergriss, although like I mentioned before we must assume the latter two ingredients are herbal clones. Needless to say pehaps the slightly larger list of ingredients helps to give the basics a bit more character and this incense has an almost banana-like scent with a great deal of spice and tangy qualities in the mix. For some reason it just seems a bit richer than the others with a slight kick to it. Of all six scents this would be the one to start with.

Perhaps the powdered versions of these have quite a bit more presence and less filler material, as this line suffers a bit of monotony while at the same time not sinking to the worst of Nepalis incenses and staying quite affordable at over $3 a roll. Yellow Jambala is the best and certainly well worth trying at its price, but it’s hard to recommend the others unless one is starting from scratch with Nepalis and needs some basic every day incense that’s quite inexpensive. Overall they’re tough to call because while not being unpleasant, they’re so basic they’re almost hard to describe with the woody characteristics and filler material being a bit too dominant for them to excel. But their lack of true harsh notes is certain a plus for the whole line.

Mandala Art & Incense / Amitayu Buddha, Avalokistesvara, Green Tara, Manjushree, Namathasoey, Samantabhadra

Mandala Art & Incense have at least three incense ranges, two are identical in names and scents, but are basically stick and powder versions of  the same line. The third is a thick stick line that comes in paper rolls decorated with a bodhileaf and an attached tag describing the incense. There are six incenses in this line and all six have one particular ingredient in common. It could be said that most of these incenses seem to have a base in common with each having a different ingredient riding on top, leaving many of the scents quite similar overall.

The odd thing about all of these incenses is that for how thick the sticks are (about a half inch in diameter), you would think that these would be profuse with smoke (think of the output of, say, Yog Sadhana). But the opposite is true, these in many ways are low smoke incenses with very mild aromas. They are so mellow that they’re fairly difficult to appraise. The aromas are completely natural with a base that tends to the evergreen and a top aroma that is extremely delicate and in some cases fleeting. In many ways there are really no other incenses like them, certainly I can’t remember too many smokeless or low smoke Tibetan incenses I’ve come across (only TDHF’s Ebionite really comes to mind). As a result they actually remind me a little of wood powders on a heater. The names of the incenses appear to come from Buddhist gods and goddesses, acting as the themes for each particular aroma.

Amitayu Buddha is a pine incense, but it’s quite a different pine than, say, the resinous backdrops of many Fred Soll incenses, the aroma being far more about the wood than the pitch. Like all the evergreen incenses in the line, the overall main ingredient seems somewhat submerged in the base, acting more as a note than a dominant theme. Also similar to the rest of the line, there’s a gentle sweetness to the scent that helps to balance out the base a little bit. In essence, it’s probably the mildest pine incense I’ve ever encountered and for the most part I missed the sharp pungency usually found with this evergreen variant.

Avalokistesvara is a eucalyptus incense, but again this is not a eucalyptus incense with a strong oil content by any means and is unlikely to clear your sinuses. Perhaps that’s to its strength as the result is a lot more gentle than you would expect with the characteristics of the tree leaf faint and not overwhelming. It’s actually slightly menthol-like in a way and overall this is one of the better in the line in terms of not having a base that clashes with the overall scent. Of course the result is low smoke and combined with its gentle nature it can be hard to pick up at times. But I found it fairly remarkable how restrained it is, given how eucalyptus can easily overwhelm any blend it’s a part of.

Green Tara is perhaps the line’s most successful incense, it could almost be the low smoke version of the Pilgrim incense that’s part of the same line with Yog Sadhana and Heritage. Green Tara is a sandalwood incense with a nice, fresh, slightly minty and, naturally, green scent. In some ways it’s the odd one out in the line, the least evergreen in nature with a slightly more apparent herbal content than the others. The mint has a very attractive spearmint-like flavor to it which is always fantastic when balanced like this (not as strong as the Mandala Trading Himalayan Herbal Incense, but in that direction). It’s a wonderfully sublime incense and of the six perhaps the smokiest by a slight margin.

Manjushree features vetivert, although it’s a somewhat mild vetivert and certainly not the earthy, herbal scent you’d expect. As such it leaves this incense without much of a personality, one not terribly different from the Amitayu Buddha or Avalokistesvara scents, where the mildness of the top ingredient lets the underlying woodiness through. The stick’s somewhat brick red in color and overall, similar to the pine, it doesn’t hit the notes like I’d expect. Due to the less smoke format it’s kind of tough to really get any herbal notes from the scent and the result is one of the more generic incenses in the line.

Namathosoey features myrrh which is kind of a natural for this format as it’s a large part of the above-mentioned, low smoke Ebionite. Like with the pine, the myrrh isn’t particularly resinous here, mostly what you get are i’s typical top notes without the underlying sweet resinous base. The myrrh in this case is mild enough where the wood competes a little too strongly, even clashing a little bit. But given the lack of smoke it never gets particularly harsh. Like most of the incenses it has a slight fleeting quality to the burn that’s the line’s biggest strength.

Samantahadra features juniper and thus seems the most inexpensive and woodiest of the bunch in terms of the scent. Like most incenses with juniper up top, the scent is campfire like and occasionally harsh, although like the rest of the less smoke line, it’s not an irritant. But perhaps as it’s the sixth incense in the line alphabetically it smelled a bit like the base alone in comparison to the others. What’s kind of impressive overall is the format, which helps to temper the harsher qualities, leaving the scent with a slight mintyness, a characteristic that about half of the line seems to exhibit.

In many ways the six incenses here are all so similar in base that they seem like variations on a theme rather than six separate personalities. Perhaps only the Green Tara bucks this trend, perhaps due to the sandalwood dominating the base, but also because it seems to have some minty spice to it that really bolsters its  case. But the dominant theme here still seems to be a low smoke incense in a thick stick base and because of this style, it’s really impossible to tag any of these as completely unpleasant. A few of them lack a bit of personality overall, but in quiet moments one might be impressed by how quiet and restrained the aromas are, and given so many smokeless incenses rely on charcoal bases and less natural ingredients, it’s kind of impressive to see a line that does the same thing while remaining fairly untempered.