Top Ten for January 2011

Happy New Year, everyone! May 2011 be a good one for you, bringing health and happiness, and lots of great incense!

It’s my turn up at bat for the Top Ten for Jan 2011. The top ten can be difficult at times due to the sheer amount of great incense out on the market, and the many personal faves that I have. However, for this month, I’ve decided that the following ten incenses are my favorite this January. In no particular order, they are:

-The Direct Help Foundation Eternal Maiya incense. A lovely blend of sandalwood and patchouli, where the sandalwood provides the expected woody note and the patchouli a light airiness that is both earthy and slightly sweet.

-The Direct Help Foundation Oum Pure Sandalwood incense.  Sandalwood incense done up Tibetan style that has sandalwood and sandalwood oil. The sandalwood and the sandalwood oil are a one- two punch combo that makes this superior incense, one with a truly delightful sandalwood aroma.  This is not high end incense like Shroff’s natural sandal that runs north of $150 USD. This is much more modest incense, but one that still manages to be quite good.

-From Chagdud Gonpa Foundation, Sitar Dorje’s Unsurpassable Healing Incense (P’hul-Jung Men-Po).  This is absolutely lovely incense that ranks right up there with Dzongchen Monastery and Holy Land, in my opinion. Unsurpassable Healing Incense is like a first cousin to both, having similarities to Dzongchen and Holy Land, but is still different enough and with its own character that make it unique. This is another earthy, resiny, floral, musky blend. It’s an “all rounder”, hitting all those aforementioned bases, and has that special mojo that is both calming and uplifting at the same time. Some of the ingredients are aloeswood, white and red sandalwood, frankincense, saffron, valerian, magnolia, musk…etc. The scent itself manages to be both fresh and floral, with a darker resinier base and herbaceous endnotes with a touch of musk.

-Holy Land Grade 1. Well, I finally bit the bullet and bought this once it was back in stock over at EOTA. I’m glad I did, though, as that it is definitely a worthy purchase. I won’t write too much about this one due to the fact that it’s been covered extensively here on the ORS. Suffice to say that this incense that as Mike might say, “has mighty mojo that borders on being mystical.” The scent is darker, muskier, and less floral than either Dzongchen or Unsurpassable Healing Incense. If Holy Land incense was a food product, I’d say that it’s more savory than sweet (if that helps any in getting an idea of its scent and description).

-Mother’s Fragrances Lotus Incense. A singular and linear incense and scent, where there’s no complexity but dang if this isn’t a good one. Slightly sweet, and of course floral, this is incense that is very calming and is a good room scent. It’s one to use when having guests over as that it gently perfumes the room but isn’t overwhelming perfumey or ostentatiously showy.

-Mother’s Fragrances Atma Incense. The Mother’s incense catalog is simply superb, with their Nag Champa line being quite a standout. One of my favorites from their Nag Champa collection is Atma. A delirious blend of various ingredients, with floral notes and sweetness from halmaddi and honey. This is a tough one to describe because so many things are going on, and it’s all going on at the same time, the ingredients are working together and not against one another. It’s a symphony of scent, with lead violin being performed by the lavender, the cello is geranium, piano is vetiver, and the triangle is clove with halmaddi as the composer, and honey is the conducter.

-Hougary frankincense resins. A hold over from last month’s Frankincense and Myrrh review, but when incense is this good, it’s going to pop up continually in a lot of people’s “best of” lists. Bright, citrusy, fresh and fragrant, this is frankincense royalty. If you like frankincense at all, do yourself a favor and get some hougary.

-Duggatl al Oud Wardh Taifi. My favorite rose incense of all time, and one that provides an astonishing authentic fresh rose scent. There are many rose incenses out in the market, but this one stands head and shoulders over them all, in my opinion. Simply gorgeous and a must try for rose lovers.

-Mermade Magickal Arts Faery Call. I don’t know about you, but in the midst of winter, I often dream about and long for spring. This incense brings a touch of freshness and brightness and evokes spring and summer in appearance and scent. Literally garnished with dried flowers of marigold petals, rose petals, and lavender buds, and deliciously scented with neroli and other top notch ingredients, this incense is sure to put you in a cheerier mood and drive away the winter blues.

Shunkodo Haru no Kaori. The name of this incense translated into English means ‘smell of spring.’ Can you tell that I’m tired of winter? 🙂  This is great incense, more subtle than Faery Call, but equally good in its own way. As to be expected, it’s more refined being Japanese incense, with a less in your face scent bouquet. There’s the added touch of aloeswood, which adds that certain “je ne sais quoi” quality, that extra special touch that puts this incense into the category of wonderful.

The above incenses can be found at various retailers on the net. The Faery Call incense can be purchased from Mermade Magickal Arts, and the Sitar Dorje’s Unsurpassable Healing Incense from http://www.tibetantreasures.com/tthtml/ttmerch/incense.htm. Incidentally Tibetan Treasures will be going offline from February 7th to March 7th for a site renovation, and will return on March 8th. As such, if you want to purchase the Unsurpassable Healing incense, I recommend that you do it soon to avoid delays in processing and shipping.

What are the incenses that you have been burning lately? Are there any that are your “go to” ones to beat the winter blahs? Chime in and share your thoughts!

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Himalayan Herbs Centre / Traditional Mandala, Nirvana A, Nirvana B, Nirvana C

Himalayan Herbs Centre incenses are quite wonderfully packaged. In essence you get two choices, you can buy the bamboo tube roll alone, which isn’t always ideal as the hole you make in an end isn’t easily closed without that something extra, or you can spend the extra money to get what are rather striking silk coverings, which do the job and look quite nice (not to mention looking reusable for refills or other similar bamboo tubes). Basically you get a red silk package for the Traditional Mandala and Nirvana A, a yellow for the Nirvana B and a blue for the Nirvana C.

Unfortunately, except for the Traditional Mandala which comes with inner packaging, the three Nirvanas are loose in the bamboo tubes which given the make of the incenses, leads to increased breakage across  the entire batch. In all three of the Nirvanas, over 50% to 75% of the sticks were fragmented. I take it that part of this was because of the lack of a bundle with inner packaging but it’s also clearly because these incenses are formulated differently than most Tibetan incenses, leaving the finished product brittle. On the other hand this same style leads to a fairly improved product for rolls under $10, and the HHCs are actually among the best incenses in the price range. And given how long Tibetan sticks generally are, it didn’t bother me terribly that the sticks were in fragments, but do be warned.

The Traditional Mandala Incense (second from bottom) could be the best of the four incenses. Despite its ingredient list showing nagi, jattamansi, kapur, cloves and red and white sandalwood, the dominant impression is of a very resinous, frankincense-heavy incense in a wood base.  Even though the base of red and white sandalwood (quite high quality I might add) is obvious and the clove spice fairly prevalent, the stick largely gives off a very orangey, resin-like aroma which reminds me a lot of some of the church resin-like blends except with the obvious woody base a stick brings with it. Overall it’s the least complex of the incenses in this grouping, but it’s extremely friendly and very pleasant and among my favorites in under $10 Tibetan incenses.

The Nirvana line is labelled A through C, but in all cases I would think it’s because of a difference in style rather than grading. As mentioned before, all three of these incenses are quite brittle and fragmentable, but this appears mostly to be due to an unusual base, one that weakens the binding across the incenses. Like the Traditional Mandala, the Nirvana A contains kapur, nagi and jattamansi, and I’d go as far to guess it probably shares the red and white sandalwood base as well. But overall it couldn’t really be more different, although it does share the woodiness and a bit of orange spice to it. The difference is the lack of a greater resin quantity in the A, leaving it spicy, pepper and largely woody. It’s actually quite strange that for such a woody stick that it has as much complexity, although I’ve been using this for about a year it still seems fairly mysterious at heart. It’s not terribly far from the original Red Crystal but doesn’t share that incense’s herbal and sage-like mix.

Nirvana B uses agur, chandan (sandalwood) and dukura, yet had I mixed up the ingredient lists with the names, I’d have guessed the B contains amber, both due to its pinkish color and obvious amberish tones. It’s this aroma that leaves this incense as the most accessible and friendliest of the trio, and is also one of the most high quality and aromatic incenses you can find at the $7.95 range. The mix of sandalwoods common to the previous two incenses is also prevalent here and let me mention again that it seems to be an uncommonly high quality mix for the range (although I suppose the chandan tag might have something to do with it being so noticeable in this one). Overall it’s light while still dense and aromatic, fairly complex and sweet with a bit of pepper for kick.

Nirvana C is the least accessible of the group and contains saffron, tsampaka, pangpay, sandalwood and amber/sal dhoop in its ingredients . I’ve mentioned incenses that resemble corn chips before, but this one is probably the most foodlike incense I’ve experience, like some new concoction from the Frito company. Very tangy with an almost mesquite-like quality in the mix, it’s a hard one to get used to, although I’ve found its complexity tends to help with the learning curve over time. Overall it’s one I’d probably leave until you’re sure you like the other three.

Anyway I’m quite fond of these incenses, not only do they look good in the silk coverings, but they are rather unusual mixes that don’t really resemble  most other incenses (although the Traditional Mandala does resemble the Natural Arogya-Karmayogi due to its high level of resin and typical binding style). You might want to take a pass on the Nirvanas if excessive fragmenting bothers you, but in doing so you’d be missing out on some of the better Tibetans in their price range.

Kaqyudpa Monastery/Drikung Charitable Society – Red Crystal & Dhundup Wangyal – New Red Crystal

In reviewing Blue Sky a few weeks ago, I’d thought it might be Drikung Charitable Society’s only incense, only to realize that they were responsible for the plentiful and abundant Red Crystal incense, something of a mainstay of your local new age or yoga supply store. I’d take it some of this is the price difference, with a big box of Red Crystal costing you about a third a box of Blue Sky. The other element is there’s been some confusing copyright or claims staking surrounding Red Crystal, giving way to a new and completely different incense formulated by one Dhundup Wangyal called New Red Crystal. And of course there’s the Boudha line, all of which are roughly similar in style and use the same graphics boxes and sometimes even text as Red Crystal and kin.

Red Crystal itself is something of a budget classic among Tibetan style incenses. It’s one of those worth growing into, I remember thinking its tobacco and alkaline hints were quite offputting at first, until I’d gone through about half a box and it got under my skin. For one thing, whatever’s red about this incense is more in name, although the sandalwood colored stick does have a very slight tint in that direction. Sandalwood is the operative ingredient here, and not only does the incense smell of a decent quantity but the quality is quite good as well. It’s a very thick stick, nearly a club, and it has a very subtle and slightly dangerous level of spice in it that ranges from the abovementioned tobacco and sage to light hints of cinnamon. It’s a subscent that really starts to impress after a while, the incense’s cooling qualities and fresh sandalwood winning you over after a while. It’s one Tibetan style incense in the lower ends perhaps worth shelling out for in a shop, although one’s nose will take a bit of time adjusting to it.

New Red Crystal (drop down one item on the above link) isn’t nearly as distinctive and the comparison is fairly unflattering given the stick is obviously more in the evergreen/filler wood direction. Fortunately it goes for a Dhoop Factory/Alpine like scent with it, meaning you do get a bit of harsh wood as a backdrop but also the same woods’ better, high altitude freshness and slight resinous qualities as well. Strangely it also smells a bit like Drikung’s above-mentioned Blue Sky with hints of raisins, berries and a dash of cinnamon. I can imagine liking this one more after getting used to it as well, provided one’s own catalog isn’t full of incenses similar to this.

I’ll likely be referring to these later when I tackle the trio of Boudha incenses, which are all in the same regions as these two, using similar packaging but managing to be their own animal(s) too. Red Crystal’s kind of a classic in its own way, well worth a sample at the least. New isn’t always better, as they say, but lovers of woody and fresh high Himalayans might want to give it a whirl as well.

Medicine King / Saffron Medicinal, Mandala Special Medicinal, Five Zambala Powder, Special Medicinal Powder

A while back, I made some notes on two Medicine King sticks, but as can be the case I’m not sure I did them much justice initially, as this is a truly impressive line across the Tibetan spectrum, up there with the best Tibetan incense has to offer. While Medicine King doesn’t seem to be allied with any specific monastery, they create incense from ancient recipes, information for which can be found at the product link at Essence of the Ages, at the bottom of the page.

Medicine King export four incenses here, two sticks in very attractive boxes, and two powders available in 100g and 200g packages. All of these incenses are extraordinarily complex and sophisticated blends that represent the higher end of Tibetan incense and earn the asking price. The ingredients appear to be very low (if not completely absent) on inexpensive woods and fillers and feature so many facets as to be difficult to cover entirely on initial burns or even two or three experiences. I initially found the sticks to be a bit on the dry side, but my opinion on this has changed, perhaps because the bundles tend to dissipate much slower than samples. Over time, my opinion on all of these has improved substantially and I consider them nearly on par with the best Tibetan incense has to offer (Tibetan Medical College, Highland, Samye Monastery etc.)

The Saffron Medicinal incense certainly has the saffron present in both the fresh stick and the burning aroma. The sticks smell amazing even unlit, almost like spicy gingerbread cookies, but this aroma takes a bit of a back seat when the incense is burning. The saffron aroma is woven quite tightly to the other elements in the incense. Like many better quality Tibetan incenses there is a an almost corn chip like woodiness that’s central to the scent and which dominates early burns in scent, until one begins to pick up the panoply of herbs and spices mixed in. At this point the sweet spices come out a bit more, giving the whole experience a dry and rich feel. It’s an incense with a long learning curve for sure, one I don’t feel I’ve reached the end of.

Overall the Saffron Medicinal is something of a drier alternative to the Mandala Special Medicinal incense. Without the obvious addition of saffron, a lot of the spicy middle comes out in this incense and it’s one that has periodically made my Top 10 lists, it’s terribly addictive. I’m very fond of incenses which exhibit different characteristics from burn to burn and even within one stick, and this is a good example of one of these. Like the Saffron stick it still has that corn chip-like woodiness in the middle, but if that was the regular brand, this version has something of a barbeque or even mesquite like tang to the middle, a characteristic I occasionally notice in the high ends (not to mention a good indication we’re not in a cheap or filler wood territory). Perhaps without the strong presence of saffron in the incense, the other elements come out. It took me perhaps 10 sticks to realize this has quite the (animal?) musk presence to it, which really took it to another level for me once I noticed it. And just faintly there’s a defined agarwood presence – many Tibetan sticks count it as an ingredient but rarely is it an actual presence like it is in Japanese sticks. Like the Saffron, I still feel there’s a great deal to be learned about on this one, and it should be telling that in writing this I’m getting the urge to go burn a stick, one I can recommend without reservation.

The Five Zambala powder utterly electrified me on my first burn, like electricity shooting up my spine. It’s one of those Tibetans I’d describe as having a certain medicinal juju to it, an aspect common to most of the truly excellent and rare high end Tibetans (almost all of which seem to come from the Lhasa area). It’s astonishingly high grade and brilliant with a bright crystalline energy and the powder I’d say competes with the Highland as the best of the Tibetan powdered incenses. It’s salty, musky, sweet and rich, similar in some ways to Holy Land, but a bit sweeter and more overtly floral. What separates it from incenses in other line is a verdant greenness to it, in fact it almost has a snappy, green pepper like aroma on top of it that adds to its freshness. Most of this aroma comes out a bit stronger on the heater, on dar I found it a bit hotter and spicier and I assume that’s due to the floral volatility that knocks out some of the more subtle notes early on due to the heat. Again, this is one you don’t want to miss whatever your method of using incense powder is.

Comparatively, the Special Medicinal Powder isn’t quite as intense and seems to hit a more traditional note. It’s not so much a powder version of the stick as a totally different incense. It shares some of the same salty and green notes as Five Zambala, but in this case I notice a lot more benzoin/loban content in the middle, mellowing the sharper edges. On dar I found it to be sweeter and richer than on the heater, with the woods coming out quite a bit more (some sawdust here) and the tangy corn chip smell common to the sticks more prevalent, but this is quite a bit more sugary and sweet than the stick is upon burn. Given that the Special Medicinal stick smells quite sweet before the light, I’d suspect part of this is the method of burning being used. On dar it’s also less salty than on the heater. Of the four incenses here this is the one I know the least, so it’s perhaps a bit more insular to my nose than it might be down the line.

This is really an amazing company, one of the leading lights of modern Tibetan incense using the old recipes. Although you’ll be paying into the teens on these incenses, the quality you’ll be getting and payback are certainly higher than it would be for an incense a quarter of its price and you’ll likely marvel at just how impressive the Tibetan art is at its apex. Go with the Special Medicinal stick and Five Zambala powder for starters and if they impress, the other two should impress with their variation.

*For a couple weeks from the posting of this article, one can get a free box of the Medicinal stick with a purchase of Tibetan Medical College Holy Land Grade 2 and Mindroling Grade 3 at Essence of the Ages. I notice very little drop offs on these two from higher grades by the same company so figure this is something of a steal while it last.

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.

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.

Kaqyudpa Monastery/Drikung Charitable Society – Blue Sky

Blue Sky may be a common name for Tibetan style incenses but in execution incenses can be wildly different. Kaqyudpa Monastery’s version(incense listed second from last on page),  the home of Ayang Rinpoche, for example, is completely different than the Himalayan Herbs Centre version and generally far more deluxe, with a higher content of quality ingredients.

Where HHI’s Blue Sky met the color requirements, Kaqyudpa’s version is colored a more brick red and while it’s certainly a friendly scent, it’s not quite as airy. The stick’s aroma is rather clean and polished, smooth with a strong tilt to a raisin or prune-like fruity scent, one that tends to the earthier side, almost like a vineyard in late summer.  Like most Tibetan incenses there’s at least a hint of spices in the mix, but only as coloring, both the woods and aforementioned fruity, herbal scents are the two strongest elements here. The woods tend to juniper and other evergreens and there also seems to be a decent amount of red sandalwood in the mix, possibly contributing to the overall mellowness of the burn. As a finish there’s something of a metallic or coppery vibe, which adds a bit of intricacy to what is overall a fairly uncomplex stick.

It’s an interesting incense overall, it seems to tend to high quality ingredients like nearly all incenses at its price range, while manifesting a very airy and light aroma, certainly one that’s not as dangerous as most premium Tibetan sticks. Overall it has quite a late summer/early vibe to it and as such it’s quite a bit warmer than most Tibetans with strong evergreen wood content in them. There’s even a pleasant caramel-like touch in the finish.

Zambala Tibetan Incense / Single Powder Packs (by Nancy)

This incense line is named after Zambala, the Buddhist guardian of the north and bestower of posterity. He is also keeper of the yakshas, nature spirits who live with him on Sumeru, a mythological mountain central to Buddhist cosmology. All of the herbs in these blends are wild crafted in Tibet, formulated according to ancient scriptures, and blessed with sacred prayers for 49 days. From harvest to packaging this line is infused with great care and intention, giving these incenses a tangible spiritual weight.

There are six selections in this line and each is available as sticks, loose powder, or single powder packs. The single powder packs are a great introduction to this line, and I decided to pick some up as a low cost way to do some sampling. They are individually wrapped to preserved the aromatic oils and look like little paper sachets with crimped edges. Each one is filled with about a tablespoon of loose, granulated herbs. To use them you basically light the whole thing and let it smolder. The packs burn best if upright so I recommend using a traditional incense burner filled with sand or ash for support. The whole thing goes up, paper and all, in less than ten minutes, releasing copious amounts of smoke and fragrance as it goes. These are purifying incenses so their fumigating quality is more like a smudging than like burning incense sticks. The sachets can also be carried in your pocket or purse as a charm or amulet.

These formulas are intended to be used as offerings to specific deities and each comes with a unique set of protections and benefits as listed on the outer wrapper.
Kurukulle (red): win over men and gods, remove obstacles, gain power and prestige, bring familial harmony, fulfill wishes.
Manjushree (orange): remove obstacles, attain a sharp and powerful mind, subdue fears, perfect wishes.
Zambala (yellow): accumulate merits of wealth, receive protection, remove obstacles, fulfill wishes.
Green Tara (green): bring protection, satisfy those you owe from previous lives, fulfill wishes, overcome obstacles and disasters, brighten your inner power, increase positive merits, obtain riches and auspiciousness, bring wealth.
Medicine Buddha (blue): subdue physical and mental disease, brighten your inner power, fulfill wishes.
Vajrakilaya (indigo): remove obstacles, disasters of inauspicious nature, and local evil spirits.

Unlike Japanese incense or other more refined styles, these blends have an assertive rustic quality. Their general scent is decidedly earthy and herbal, a sort of sage and cedar with hints of chamomile, juniper berry, and camphor. Thought there are some subtle differences between the six blends, each packet states the same ingredients: “countless precious and rare fragrant medicinal plants, the precious nectar of the four traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, and other blessed materials.” The complexity of the formulations tends to muddle the scents a bit, making it hard to distinguish individual ingredients or to compare one blend effectively with any other.

Keep in mind that these blends have been designed primarily for their spiritual qualities and not for olfactory enjoyment per say, so they are not as individualized as other lines would be. Though highly aromatic, the herbs in these blends have been chosen more for their spiritual and religious significance than their smell. With incense like this it is more about the intention and offering than the aesthetic enjoyment of the bouquet. I would recommend these if you are interested in trying a very traditional incense that has been designed for its spiritual connotations. For ease of burn and intensity of smoke the straight powder is probably easier to manoeuvre, though these single packs offer a good sampling without a large initial investment.

Gurung Int’l / Black Pigeon Incense

As far as I can tell, Black Pigeon (fourth item down) is the only incense exported to the US by Gurung International. It’s a long stick Tibetan style blend of 31 ingredients, with the lion’s share of those ingredients seeming to be evergreen and inexpensive woods. However, in the case of an incense with “western unfriendly” tendencies, this leavening of ingredients is not a bad thing.

Like the Essence of the Ages White Pigeon stick, there’s an earthy, tangy and somewhat funky herbal presence here that’s likely to be difficult for many westerners, except that in Black Pigeon’s case, these elements tend to be notes in the overall incense, rather than the dominant aroma as it is in White Pigeon. While White Pigeon is the superior incense in terms of quality ingredients, Black Pigeon is likely to be considered the more friendly scent, as the herbal content is shared with resinous and spicy notes that, while tending to make the scent a bit more generic, also make it a bit less difficult to grow to. While the juniper and cedar woods tend to lessen the overall impact, the slight spice (in the cinnamon direction) helps to give it some presence in what is a rather average Tibetan stick.

Nub Gon / Lama Chodpa / Clean Environment, Flower Incense, For Meditation, For Relaxation

Lama Chodpa incense, assumedly named for the recipes’ creator, is made by the Friends of Nub Gon Monastery rather than being a monastery incense per se. Rather than creating four different incenses, the Lama Chodpa line almost seems to be variations on a theme, or at least the standard tube the incenses come in is basically stamped with the formula name, with the incenses all being roughly close in scent, with just enough differences to lack repetition. Strangely enough, it seems that the promo names and the names stamped on the rolls vary a little, and, in the same order, Essence of the Ages has these incenses listed as Cleansing, Flower, Meditation and Relaxation.

The quality of these incenses fall somewhere in the middle, not quite up to the heights of Chinese/Tibetan masterpieces like Tibetan Medical College Holy Land or the Highland line. At the same time, they are aromatically dense and made with quality ingredients setting them apart from the inexpensive variants and subsequently more on the level of incenses by Stupa, Dhoop Factory and Zongkar Choede. All four incenses come in smaller 5″ and larger 8″ rolls and are essentially very affordable.

Lama Chodpa Clean Environment/Cleansing incense is a deep red stick with a lot of potency. Roughly a red berry, somewhat standard incense, the addition of asta sughanda (or at least a combination of ingredients very similar to that scent) gives the incense quite a bit of tang and a hint of sourness. There’s quite a bit of wood here, possibly some juniper and a strong camphor element, not to mention a bit of cinnamon and cardamom presence that adds to the incense’s overall richness. I like the strength of this one, although it does have that rough, earthy and somewhat gravelly presence that Tibetan incenses with a lot of evergreens tend to have.

Flower Incense also has this very woody Lama Chodpa core to it and isn’t really a true floral like you’d expect from the name. It’s actually more of a standard Tibetan red with just as much spice content as the rose and other flowers. Like Clean Environment, the aroma is quite full, but the two scents diverge, as this is a much sweeter and friendly-to-the-Western-nose incense than Clean Environment and is perhaps the line’s most accessible scent. Like all the incenses here there’s a freshness and quality of ingredients that are nearly perfect for the price. Perhaps the one to start with.

For Meditation has the most noticeable rose content of the three incenses that list it in the ingredients and is really the most floral of the four. Unlike many rose incenses that bring out the sour burnt petal-like scent, the aspect is well balanced, although I assume some of this balance is due to the line’s heavy wood content. Like Clean Environment, this has a bit of tang to it, which undoubtedly is part of the two incenses overlapping ingredients. The biggest difference would be Meditation’s basil content, which gives it a stronger herbal content. Overall it might be the least distinctive of the four, and is generally the hardest one for me to remember after burning.

For Relaxation is the spiciest incense of the four and despite lacking cinnamon in the ingredient list, seems to have the most noticeable content, probably a byproduct of the nutmeg, clove and cardamom. It’s generally a red/berry sort of scent, which seems to be the standard middle through all of these incenses, but it moves in a drier and mellower direction. Perhaps the most unobtrusive of the four scents here, with an almost metallic sheen with some sublime qualities the other three scents don’t seem to evoke.

Overall all four of these incenses, at heart, are quite similar at core, which might be best described as quality generic; that is, while these follow traditional and familiar formulas they have a strength of ingredient that keeps them at a remove from other heavy wood Tibetans that lack richness. At times one or two of these will stand out, in particular I found the rose content in several of these to differentiate themselves from other lines, but these differences are mostly noticed with attentive listening rather than casual burning, during which the differences among the four will be less noticeable.

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