March 2010’s Top Ten

Mindroling / Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3, Medicinal Powder, Naga Medicine Powder

Mindroling Monastery (please refer to this page for a more detailed history of the monastery) is located in the Lhasa region of Tibet and like many monasteries still within the borders of China creates what we might call high-end Tibetan incense, incense that is remarkably expensive by the time it reaches our shores and uses ingredients that would likely fall inside ecological concerns over the use of animal products. Mind you, this is generally a guess as with most incenses we can only approximate exactly what goes in these incenses, but it’s safe to say that there’s likely animal musk in these incenses, given the potency involved. However the amount used is likely less than when compared to Tibetan Medical College, Highland and Samye Monastery, all entities that could be considered comparable in range to the Mindroling catalog.

Mindroling’s stick incense does have three grades to it, but unlike, say, Nado Poizokhang where there seems to be a gradual drop off in quality from grade to grade as the filler increases, the change in filler material dramatically changes the scent of the B and C grades of Mindroling. Grade A sports a light tan to near white color, grade B is a red stick typical of so many Tibetan incenses, and grade C is a much darker, brickish red. While there is certainly a theme, so to speak, throughout the three incenses, what this theme is mixed with changes the scent of the incenses dramatically. One would have to define this common scent from the ingredients in all three: white and purple sandalwood, musk, saffron, flos caryophylatta, borneol and others.

Grade A is one of, if not the most expensive Tibetan incense on the US market today. It’s a very nice incense as you’d expect but doesn’t necessarily earn its cost as most of the other high end Tibetans do and then some. For one thing, it’s a surprisingly simple incense even despite what seem to be very high quality ingredients. That is, this is not an incense with a lot of filler in it and thus exudes fairly rare qualities. It’s quite a wet and damp incense scentwise, similar in this way to Tashi Lhunpo’s Shing Kham Kun Khyab, but with a much better wood content, the fine sandalwood in the middle being particularly noticeable. There doesn’t appear to be much on top of the wood except for the damp, slighty musky top aroma and it mostly seems to reach for something just out of sight, rather than weaving the sort of intricate aroma you’d expect from a Tibetan stick of this price range. There’s no doubt we’re talking a very pure and high quality incense here, but it doesn’t end up being more than the sum of its parts. But it take me a dozen sticks or more to come to this opinion as it’s essentially so elusive.

Grade 2 has the Grade 1 theme embedded in it and with concentration one can suss out the better materials, but there’s no question there’s a great deal of (mostly quite pleasant) filler wood added to reduce the cost. In particular that evergreen/juniper berry type of scent common to so many Tibetan incenses seems to be prevalent here, although it doesn’t bring along with it the harshness typical of the style, leaving the cherry-ish or berry-like hints mostly unsullied. Mostly absent from the Grade 1 is the overt sandalwood content which is almost completely submerged at this grade.  Grade 2 also loses some of the damp qualities of the first, leaving the scent quite a bit drier. The differences are so pronounced in a way that I find it difficult to see this as a lesser incense, at times I might like it even more than the Grade 1.

Strangely enough, the overt musk content seems to be at its highest in the Grade 3, which almost comes off like a low budget version of Tibetan Medical College’s Holy Land. The herbal theme from the first two grades is almost entirely submerged underneath the musky tones and at the same time the harsher qualities of the filler wood come out quite a bit more here than they did in the Grade 2 (also the thing that sets it well apart from the Holy Land). But with such a powerful musk, some balance is attained, despite that the filler is a bit eye stinging if you get too close.  I doubt too many Grade 3s are this good, it’s less a lower quality version of the first grade than an entirely different incense overall.

Mindroling also features a couple different powdered blends. The superior of the two in price is the Naga Nectar, but I prefer the Medicinal Incense Powder. This blend is like a mixture of cinnamon, cardamom, strawberry, tobacco, sugar powder, tea, nutmeg or mace and other herbs. The central base like many incenses without a lot of filler wood is a sort of tangy cornchip like scent that’s like a cross between Mexican and masala spices, a scent akin to some of the Medicine King products and one slightly stronger when used on charcoal or a makko or dar base. What works for me with this powder is a slight rose and carnation-like floral element which fades fairly softly on a heater. Like many an intricate powder it’s most interesting in this format as the various oils volatize earlier or later, giving the scent a motile quality that’s quite fascinating.

It’s hard to imagine why the Naga Nectar Incense Powder is pricier given that the list of ingredients in the Medicinal powder such as the musk and two aloeswoods seem to imply a greater cost, but scentwise there does seem to be a damper, muskier presence in the Naga. While most of the Mindrolings aren’t particularly dangerous, the Naga Nectar has a funk to it that could be a bit off putting to the westerner, it even had something of a fungal nature to it. It’s not terribly far in scent from the Grade A except for this unsettling quality and an overtone that’s kind of grassy, weedy or drily herbal. Overall it’s not particularly friendly overall, more interesting than pleasant.

Mindroling products are definitely on the pricy side, ranging from just over $40 for a box of the Grade 1 to just under $20 for 50g of the Naga Nectar (the higher price of the Medicinal powder is due to the 100g content). As mentioned, all of these incenses are higher grade and better quality than the lion’s share of inexpensive Tibetan incenses, but at the same time I don’t find any of these really astonish like the product from some of the other entities I mentioned earlier. But make no mistake, these are fairly unadulterated incenses (except for the lowest grade stick) and quite authentic so your mileage will vary.