Happy New Year (including Gokula and notes on Mermade Magickal Arts)!

I just posted the last two articles for my Gokula series today as Gokula is running a 20% off sale through 1/8, so I figured if you hadn’t checked the line out yet now is a perfect time! There are some definite goodies in their gigantic line and there’s actually a whole back half I didn’t review that are Mahavadhas sourced, so if you come across any of those that are good, do let us know in one of the Gokula post threads! Anyway, this takes us nearly to the end of the reviews stored up from last year, there may be a couple more to trickle in. More on this in a sec…

As I’ve been taking it easy over the holidays, I haven’t had too much of a chance to review or evaluate anything, but I did want to mention a few more Mermade Magickal Arts goodies. These aren’t intense reviews as I basically love all Mermade incenses which definitely all deserve deeper dives, but Katlyn tends to always be really busy during the holiday season and releases quite a few new vintages and I wanted to get in my thoughts before they’re gone. It was really nice to see Baccy Claus again, it’s at least the second vintage but I would guess the batch I had previously was before we started ORS up again. This one seems an improvement, never a surprise with Katlyn’s work, almost as if the middle had been brought up to match that peppery herbal note that makes this a scent unique in her catalog (think a mix of tobacco and herbal with the greener evergreen notes cradling this top scent). This one even has some unique elements in the mix with a touch of Amanita and Sativa, I’ve had the pleasure of an incense or two in the long past where Kat will mix something like this in and the results are always special and a bit different from the normal catalog. So certainly this is one to add to your cart right away.

Also checked out was her latest vintage of the Classic Kyphi, as I have long stated on these pages the Mermade kyphis are always well worth checking out, although I have been really unable to plumb the depths of this one quite yet. It’s really impossible to evaluate something this complex after just a sitting, but this will certainly be out right next to the heater over the next month. Some of the most recent kyphis strike me almost like drier wines compared to the sweeter ones, if you need an overall take. Forest Honey seems like a new experimental merging of two of her lines (say Sweet Medicine and Wild Wood for example) and is quite a bit different from Kat’s usual green holiday mix and a welcome variation. As always you get that great balance that allows you to experience both sides of the scent. But once again, I still need to dig out the time to really sit with it. Similarly with the Jasmine Dreams. I spend a lot of time both reviewing and evaluating and largely getting really fatigued by jasmine incenses over the last year, so it was great to get back to one that really highlights how good it can be. Perhaps part of the reason is this has a lot of green frankincense and repeat customers generally know how high quality this frankincense can be from Mermade. But this has a real nice peach note (resin seems to help bring this out) that you can often get out of the better jasmines and it seems like a perfect match with the better frankincense. So overall and as usual, it’s impossible not to recommend all these new treats, not to mention that it looks like Mermade has several Esprit de la Nature goodies in as well which always go really fast. I haven’t tried any of these but they’re always great as well. I would bet Bonnie probably has more at her site!

So with that said while there are probably a few more reviews in the wing to go, we’re reaching the end of the current “season.” This year is unique particularly in that there’s also very little in the current queue to review as well. I think we’ve debating internally that there are things like Satya incenses that I’ve sort of had on the table, but with less time to really review things of late it can be difficult to force yourself to take a look at incenses better worth avoiding. There’s a Review Information link at the top left if you’d like us to review your incenses, just let us know. Happy New Year everyone!

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Gokula Incense / Rose & Saffron, Royal Vrindavan Flower, Sandalwood & Myrrh, Sandalwood & Saffron, Shiva Nag Champa, Tulsi Vrinda

Agarwood & Musk, Agar Sandal, Aloeswood & Jasmine, Amber & Frankincense, Celestial Fruits, Chocolate & Vanilla
Flora Fluxo, Floral Bouquet, Gold Sandal, Jasmine & Lotus, Jasmine & Nag Champa, Lotus & Kewra
Marigold & Juhi, Musk & Amber, Musk & Champa, Musk Heena, Musk & Patchouli, Pink Rose

This is the last of four in a series of Gokula Incense reviews, please see the first installment for an introduction to the company.

Rose & Saffron is a natural pairing for incense and this one acts as a very different incense to the Pink Rose I covered last time. For one, this isn’t as sweet, but you can still feel some similarities between the two incenses around the base. Strangely enough I detect something like a chocolate note but I also felt what is stepping in for the saffron here might be more obvious on the fresh stick than on the burn. It also has some sort of camphorous-cooling elements in the mix as well. This is very different from, say, the Vedic Vaani Saffron Rose and that’s a good thing as this combination of elements doesn’t really remind you of other incenses and keeps it fresh. In the end I kind of love the minty sort of top on it. Quite a bit to explore on this one, there’s a lot going on.

Every time I see an incense with Vrindavan in it, it’s kind of like musk or lotus, they’re so different from stick to stick that you can’t always be sure what you’re getting. But Gokula’s Royal Vrindavan Flower is a really gorgeous stick and mostly presents a champa-ish incense with a really beautiful and somewhat unique floral oil that I can’t remember every placing in an incense before, at least exactly. I’m not even sure how to describe it because it strikes me as being sort of pink, sort of lotus like, but ultimately really balanced. It’s a touch soft, so likely a bit of halmaddi is in the mix, but overall I love the pretty after effect of burning, it’s as if some of the perfume is separate from the smoke. Definitely one I’d put on your Gokula shopping list, this one’s quite special.

So I had almost forgot until I checked my notes but there was a slight snafu with my order (no worries the kind Gokula folks cleared it up right away) but I think there was one non-Madhavadas I did not get and then one Mahavadas I did get and that’s the Sandalwood & Myrrh. Madhavadas sourced incenses, of course, have their usual base (vanilla, sandalwood – often an equal aromatic note in any of their incenses) which, while the company tends to have a huge arsenal of top notes that are very good, can be quite fatiguing if used frequently. I’m not really quite sure if something like this would have been to my tastes whatever the source, but it does seem like a reasonable low grade sandalwood/myrrh mix, although the combination really evokes something different rather than the listed ingredients. The resin seems a bit more in front of the wood and certainly the base plays a part in it, but overall it feels a bit musky and a touch mysterious. I am pretty sure I have tried this before, may have been Pure Incense but it could have also been Primo, but ultimately it sort of gets on my nerves over the burn.

Visually, the Sandalwood & Saffron seems to look a lot like the yellow dusted thinner masalas we’ve seen so recently with the Absolute Bliss imported King of Saffron. This isn’t a really successful version of it, if it is, in fact it seems strangely a bit closer to a champa, except the combination of ingredients seems to leave the aroma sort of bitter and a bit incoherent. It’s almost like you can tell what they were going for but without distinct notes of either ingredient, it feels more like a sort of sour or bitter mix (perhaps a bit camphorous as well) with vanilla and other more sweeter accompaniment, and as a merger it doesn’t really work for me too well. I’m not sure if that’s because it doesn’t fit my expectations visually, but it just strikes me as a really odd mix. Saffron and sandalwood mixes really only work well if the resolution is higher and the qualities are kept to woody and dry.

Although Shiva Nag Champa is not a Madhavadas incense, the top perfume does remind me of some of the Pure Incenses champas I’ve tried over the years. These perfumes aren’t all that reminiscent of say the Blue Box/Satya Nag Champa perfume or even the Gold Nagchampa/Vintage Nag Champa types you get from AB or Temple of Incense (it’s sort of like Nag Champa vs champa flower maybe?). This doesn’t have the powdery qualities of that scent and is instead much sweeter and piquant. It verges ever so slightly on bitter during the burn which seems to be aspects of the citrus in the mix as well, gulp, as a touch or urine or something. It’s a strangely complex and involved top note for what may seem like a critical perspective, but it could cause a bit of flip flop in impression because it’s like a mix of pleasant and notes that most are probably not going to like too much.

Tulsi Vrinda is an herbal incense that leans a bit in a spicier direction while still having a lot of the same powdery characteristics of Gokula florals. It’s cousin to something like the Kerala Flower in the Temple of Incense line or Happy Hari Samadhi Sutra. This isn’t Tulsi (basil) in the same way the Temple of Incense stick is, but it has some hints of that scent buried in an overall base. It’s enough to perhaps give this incense a bit of personality that some of the others don’t have. There’s also a bit of woodiness in the mix that prevents it from getting too pink or sweet.

So this installment wraps up the Gokula reviews! As you can see there are some definite highlights in the last four reviews, for sure the Musk & Amber and Royal Vrindavan Flower are really strong, and just coming behind those I’d recommend the Jasmine & Nag Champa, Lotus & Kewra, Musk Heena and Rose & Saffron (so all six would make a good starter order). A lot of other scents could be growers in hindsight as well, with a number of solid scents in the middle, but for the most part this is a decent quality line overall and at least this “half” of the line has a profile that might be different than what you’d tried before.

Gokula Incense / Marigold & Juhi, Musk & Amber, Musk & Champa, Musk Heena, Musk & Patchouli, Pink Rose

Agarwood & Musk, Agar Sandal, Aloeswood & Jasmine, Amber & Frankincense, Celestial Fruits, Chocolate & Vanilla
Flora Fluxo, Floral Bouquet, Gold Sandal, Jasmine & Lotus, Jasmine & Nag Champa, Lotus & Kewra

This is the third of four in a series of Gokula Incense reviews, please see the first installment for an introduction to the company.

In the latest installment I wrote about three very good floral incenses, some of which used marigold and/or juhi in the aromas. However the Marigold & Juhi as an incense on its own is probably the first Gokula incense I’ve come across I found actively unpleasant. Floral charcoals often have pitfalls of having bitter, sour or other off notes and this one seems to have the middle quality. The lemon or citrus qualities (described on the site as citric floral) are a too loud and while the charcoal often isn’t too bad in Gokula incenses, it’s unwelcome in this sort of combination. Perhaps this is just my own feelings about citrus floral mixes and I admit I don’t usually like them so if you do you might like this one better.

Then we go from maybe the worst to probably the best incense in the catalog that I’ve tried, Musk & Amber. In the last year I’ve sampled a number of great Vedic Vaani musks and this one is akin to those that lean more in the animalic direction rather than the sweet. Amber always seems to pair really well with musk and there is a thickness to this scent that a lot of the catalog doesn’t have as much. There’s something about amber that brings out some balsamic qualities in the middle that really compliment the musk so it’s almost a perfect merger. The site also describes this as having frankincense, hina and sandalwood in the mix and while I wouldn’t expect any of these notes to be loud they certainly help with the complexity. I know this is one I would bulk up on with a repeat visit, it’s just extraordinary so I’d certainly recommend adding this to an order.

The Musk & Champa incense is a scent that I’ve gotten really familiar with through the Vedic Vaani catalog. VV have a gigantic host of sticks that are dark brown colored and usually have some level of halmaddi in the mix. They’re a faint cousin to some of the darker flora/fluxos but in something like 8 out of 10 cases the top note is something that doesn’t quite come together with the rest of the stick. This note often kind of reminds me of crayon or an oil used in a candle. For sure whatever the musk here is very different to that used in Musk & Amber and is much moved over to the sweet side but I’d guess that element is either synthetic or created from a combination of elements. This probably includes the agarwood and saffron given as side notes. Where the champa is soft and powdery in the florals I described last review, everything in this incense blots out those gentle elements. Don’t get me wrong, this is likely to be something ORS readers will like, but I will admit these sort of incenses are heavily fatiguing me. But I have tried a couple that got the balance right outside of Gokula, although I will have to discuss those another day.

One of my new favorite aromas of late is heena (also hina), the leaves from the tree that impart a lovely green note very different from western trees. Like amber, and sometimes included with amber, heena imparts a really different characteristic to incenses that tends to make the aroma a bit more complex, because being fairly unique it tends to broaden any profile its put in. While I’d love to see what Gokula imports could do for a Musk, Amber and Heena incense, the Musk Heena here is still a really lovely scent with the heena sorta of tempering the animalic qualities of the musk. It keeps a sort of bitter but somewhat evergreen meets herbal freshness to the scene that a lot of these other musk incenses don’t quite have as much. So this is a yummy goody as well, well worth checking out.

It’s strange that with some of the Gokula musk incenses being so powerful that the Musk & Patchouli would be such a mild incense and not really be strong in either ingredient. Perhaps some of this profile is because of the additionally listed ingredients of sandalwood, frankincense and neroli. It seems more like this was going for a champa-ish incense without really evoking musk or patchouli all that much. The incense is instead cooling, camphorous, powdery and has quite a bit of vanilla. So it’s a relatively mellow scent but seems to have a bit of resolution nonetheless. The incenses tilts largely over to a dusted charcoal but even some of these that are quite firm seem to have a bit of halmaddi in them. I wouldn’t really get this for the musk or patchouli, and nor would I recommend this as a starter incenses but there’s little wrong with it. It just doesn’t leap out and grab you and I would guess it doesn’t end up being particularly memorable.

Finally, we have the Pink Rose with a similarly colored masala. All roses these days are usually created from something else as it’s rarely been an affordable oil. This often results in incenses well off the aroma and some can be painful. Gokula have the right compromise which is basically something of a sweet floral hybrid, a very common take on a recipe (think Krishna Rose at Absolute Bliss for example). This is certainly a pleasant version of it and while it’s not really all that near rose, it’s likely to be well appreciated as long as you’re not overstocked in this area.

Gokula Incense / Flora Fluxo, Floral Bouquet, Gold Sandal, Jasmine & Lotus, Jasmine & Nag Champa, Lotus & Kewra

Agarwood & Musk, Agar Sandal, Aloeswood & Jasmine, Amber & Frankincense, Celestial Fruits, Chocolate & Vanilla

This is the second of four in a series of Gokula Incense reviews, please see the first installment for an introduction to the company.

My general impression of flora/fluxo incenses is they usually come with an orange dipped stick (either full or just the end). And Gokula’s variant (one of them really) is actually called Flora Fluxo. I have reviewed or burned so many of these types of incenses in the last couple months that they probably feel more redundant to me than they actually are, but if you’re not familiar with the style then usually the standard version (kind of like how blue box Nag Champa is – or maybe used to be – the standard for those incenses) is the red package Sai Flora and it’s a reasonable baseline although it is heavily perfumed and often stronger than those I have reviewed lately. Gokula’s version is somewhat muted and not quite as bright and brassy as Sai Flora. Most floras and fluxos have earthier levels in them but they’re usually much more buried than they are here, which tends to give me an August, almost Dionysian vibe like prunes or grapes. I am not sure the balance maybe quite works for me on this stick, but I would not take that as gospel because most are just minor tweaks from one to the other and if you like the style, you’re likely going to search for the one that works for you. This is certainly a reasonable quality take.

Floral Bouquet actually does what it says it’s going to do and presents a floral mix that’s very pink and sweet. It’s a bit of a masala although still fairly firm but it’s worth noting because it doesn’t feel like it’s battling charcoal but is more of a blend with a bit of woodiness. I’ve gone on record many times the pitfalls of presenting general florals, but this one has no bitterness or off notes and it’s probably friendly enough to be kind even to incense muggles. It actually reminds me a little of some of the old Dhuni incenses, perhaps in a more manageable form than that, but approaching that kind of pleasantness (I keep being reminded by the sadly lamented Dhuni Frangipani for some reason). It feels like it has something like pink Valentine’s candy at heart, but the structure of it seems to balance it out in a good way.

Gold Sandal seems to be a cousin to the Agar Sandal we reviewed last time, but like a lot of midline Indian sandalwood incenses, they really don’t smell a lot like sandalwood. There is some inherent woodiness to the incense but there are bitter/sour off notes as well as some really strangely placed fruity notes like peach or apricot in the middle. One wonders if this was an attempt to build a sandalwood out of a different set of ingredients. The Agar Sandal actually felt a bit closer to me in getting to that note or at least it ended up being more genuinely woody than this one. Certainly, the overall bouquet of the Agar Sandal is much more coherent, so I’d suggested starting there before heading to this one.

Even though I am going in alphabetical order, the next three incenses share quite a few of the same ingredients and operate very closely in style. The Jasmine and Lotus (and according to the description juhi, kewra and parijata) is an interesting blend for sure in that you’d expect that to be tilted way over into jasmine when the noticeable lead aroma seems to be something similar to the blue lotus that’s part of the Madhavadas catalog. It’s a very pretty, powdery sort of scent where if you can imagine it, the jasmine kind of faintly provides a background color to give a bit of complexity to the lotus scent. And honestly I think that is where jasmine is at its best. So after introducing some incenses Gokula imports that may be wobbly, this is one that I think has a rather distinct sort of mix I haven’t turned up in other catalogs and that is indeed what one often looks for in an incense.

And better yet, the Jasmine & Nag Champa may be one of Gokula’s best. While I’m not sure either aroma is dead on, they are both close and the juhi and lotus they meld with work well together. Whatever one has in mind for a mix like this, it’s going to be a bit different than you expect. While the champa perfume isn’t the classic style you get on something like the AB or TOI Gold Nagchampa, it does have a much more powdery bottom to it that evinces maybe a bit of halmaddi in the masala. The top note is very pretty and while you can kind of sense jasmine in there somewhere it’s not unlike the previous incense where it seems to mostly come out in some aspects of the bouquet as part of a merger. And overall, it leans over into pink florals a bit.

Finally the Lotus & Kewra is a very interesting experiment. This stick is a lightly dusted charcoal, but even moving back from a more masala like approach this still seems to have the same sort of warm and gentle powdery qualities of the last two incenses, which I like very much. The charcoal does spike a little through it as is always the case with floral charcoals but the perfume mix is quite nice nonetheless with what seems like either a balsamic or vanilla like quality in the middle. And yes there is even a distinct kewra note through the middle! Screwpine is definitely an aroma I’d like to see more often as it’s such a distinct and different scent to anything else. While the lotus isn’t quite as distinct as it is in the incense above where it’s paired with jasmine, and this may be because of the kewra, the resulting merge is certainly worth it. The incense description also describes the blend “in a sandalwood base with swirling notes of champa and marigold.” The powdery quality is certainly champa-esque and the marigold can be faintly ascertained but to my nose I don’t get any sandalwood and nor would I think you’d need to. Whatever the case this is definitely a Gokula winner.

Gokula Incense / Agarwood & Musk, Agar Sandal, Aloeswood & Jasmine, Amber & Frankincense, Celestial Fruits, Chocolate & Vanilla

With the assistance of a reader, I made a 24-incense order of Gokula incense earlier in the year, basically all of the ones I was informed were not sourced by the Madhavadas family as these often overlap with other companies like Pure Incense. So these are divided into four reviews of six incenses each. My order arrived somewhere in the middle of several early orders to Vedic Vaani which largely eclipsed my entire incense year and while I went through all of the Gokulas, it felt like a good idea to sample and then let them rest a bit and come back to them with a fresh nose. With some exceptions in either direction, Gokula import a lot of decent scents and I might generally rate this half of the line as being on par with some of the Prabhuji’s Gifts incenses. All of these came in 20g packages although I do believe 250g bundles are also available. In my experience Gokula scents are either dusted charcoals almost entirely made from oil mixes or a step into masalas with occasional incenses being a bit softer to the touch.

So up front we’ll start with a trio of aloeswood/agarwood incenses. The Agar Sandal is definitely a masala and one way I can tell is that my package of it showed a number of places on sticks where parts of the masala had crumbled off (you can probably see in the photo) and even if the stick is relatively hard it definitely feels there is a noticeable amount of halmaddi in this. So in a way this is something like a cousin to Absolute Bliss’ King of Sandal in that it’s a bit of a “sandalwood champa” type. The agarwood doesn’t feel like it’s particularly woody or perhaps even the real thing, but whatever they are using does modify the aroma away from it just being sandalwood heavy on its own. I have noticed a lot of incenses like this in the Rare Essence or Prabhuji’s Gifts catalogs and this is basically on par with those, but perhaps not quite up to the resolution or balance of King of Sandal. There’s a feeling that at this level a lot of the aromatic functions of an incense tend to blur together to its detriment. But don’t get me wrong, this is still a pleasant burn, but unless you’re new to Indian incense it won’t be much of a surprise.

On the fresh Agarwood & Musk stick you really do get something of an idea of what the musk is supposed to be like here. And in the burn, it’s in there somewhere. But like the previous incense, there probably isn’t any actual agarwood in this, rather it feels like a mix of things meant to approximate it. So the overall aroma is almost like a collection of notes in between both of these things with the musk pulling the other elements over in its direction. It’s a reasonably pleasant scent overall but lacks a bit of distinctiveness, although I do like that this isn’t a sweet musk. For a charcoal it has some surprisingly masala-like characteristics and it reminds me a little of the Parrot Green Durbar that Shroff used to carry 10 or 15 years ago. The issue in the end is that the description isn’t quite what you get, but it for sure isn’t anything like what a Madhavadas incense would be with the same description. But it reminds me too much of what is missing from better incenses, which may not be an issue for everybody but it pushed it out from being a keeper.

I will admit that I am at a place in incense life where jasmine incenses are getting on my nerves, no matter how good they are, so I may not be the best judge of Aloeswood & Jasmine. Unlike the previous two incenses I don’t smell a lot of anything that might fall under the aloeswood category here but there does appear to be a reasonable jasmine perfume here in the sense that it’s that sort of weird mix of floral and peaches. This incense verges slightly in both bitter or astringent sort of areas which may be part and parcel of having jasmine in it because even some of the better Absolute Bliss, Temple of Incense or Vedic Vaani variations tend to still have these aspects (for example the deluxe “tube” Vedic Vaani Jasmine Sambac incense is one of the few premium tubes they do I don’t really like much). But it’s also possible some of this is where the “aloeswood” comes out. My opinion has often been that even in the best cases some of these florals either don’t work out or just as likely I’m not naturally fond of them. So definitely a YMMV sort of thing.

Amber & Frankincense is a recipe somewhat similar to Samadhi Sutra in the Happy Hari line. In Indian incenses, particularly those that are more akin to champas and have a little halmaddi, frankincense often sort of appears in a more peppery-spicy sort of form often with like a touch of licorice and these remind me a bit of frankincense champas and more of an old school recipe like Maharaj. It’s the green dipped tip that often identifies the formula as well. The amber, of course, gives it a bit of balsamic heft and an overall richness, so it’s a nice merging. This is really as good of a place to start with the formula as any, but if you’re familiar with a lot of Indian incense it’s likely you will know this one already.

With Celestial Fruits I’m largely out at the name. It’s the sort of incense that tends to inspire mini rants from me on why fruits are usually not a good idea in incense and this is even more so when it is a fruit salad sort of scent like this one. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not unpleasant but it’s definitely way too generic. The lightly dusted charcoal sticks gives it away and it’s essentially what I’d call a fruity floral in that I would guess the bouquet is probably a combination of elements all used to approximate fruitiness that is akin to something like one of those canned fruit cocktails by Dole or something. It’s soft, powdery, inoffensive and ultimately dull. And even though it’s supposedly in a sandalwood base I don’t sense much in the way of that.

Chocolate & Vanilla runs similar risks to the Celestial Fruits but incenses that cover coffee or chocolate are usually a bit more on point. However this is a bit softer of a masala which implies there’s a bit of halmaddi in the mix. I’ve tried a Vedic Vaani or two that had a similar profile to this and even though this doesn’t explicitly say so there’s a bit of coffee in this mix as well. The masala like elements of the stick do tend to help when it comes to moving this a bit farther away from a purely charcoal stick and for sure there are some elements of the burn that feel more traditional. But I would not go into this thinking you’re going to really get much in the way of an actual chocolate and/or vanilla scent. But it is kind of intriguing as a scent, there’s some level of woodiness (identified as sandalwood but more generic to my nose) along with something that roughly plays along the chocolate to vanillla to coconut axis. I actually enjoy a stick like this here and there but it’s the kind of scent I find fatiguing with overuse. It’s still quite a ways away from the kind of smell you get from baking or melting chocolate or so forth.

Ramakrishna’s Handmade Incense / Special Nag Champa, Special Loban, Special Ramkrishna, Dhuni

In my past few years of exploring Indian-styled incense from multiple different establishments claiming things like ‘all-natural’ and ‘handmade’ and similar, I kept wondering if there was some sort of smallish operation doing things in a more old-fashioned way, using the more traditional ingredients rather than perfumes and synthetic substitutes that are common in 95% of the Indian Incense world.

The problem is that if you read everyone’s marketing copy, they all claim they are “all-natural” using traditional recipes. So in the end, the proof is in the product.

I first was suggested by a friend that I might want to check out this expensive shop on eBay that sold handmade incense. It took me a while to get around to it because it didn’t look all that fancy. Finally, I made my order. I have been excited to try everything they make since making this order. This is really wonderful incense.

If you find yourself interested in purchasing a larger assortment and don’t want to pay eBay prices, the seller, Goa Bay Trading, will also sell to you in rupees on their website and send you a Paypal invoice and add 1000 rupees for shipping/handling. I’ve been finding their service good, though the site seems a bit sketchy since it doesn’t have a proper checkout, they send you a Paypal invoice.

I’m going to start with a few I think are winners. First, they put ‘special’ in front of several sticks and this seems to mean that the sticks are thicker with extra halmaddi, so much so that you have to peel these thick sticks apart from each other.

Special Nag Champa

I am relatively new to appreciating Indian-style incense. I don’t truly know if this is what the old incense was like but this stick was kind of mashed because it is so soft, flattened in places. It is a thick hand-rolled masala dusted with brown finishing powder. As a Nag Champa, this goes in some kind of apple-pie and orange blossom direction with cinnamon, apple, and orange blossoms. I don’t get the typical salty sandalwood/Champa flowers scent of a nag champa but then when I dig down and put my nose in the smoke I start smelling like these thin angel hair threads of nag champa smells mixed in with the other smells. The more I lit these, the more I like them. They have a complicated bouquet dancing around a recognizable core of the “Nag Champa” scent. I’d rate this 9/10.

Special Loban

I have encountered Loban to smell like a wide range of things, despite it actually supposedly translating to benzoin. Note in the picture that this one crumbles and be careful because I had this fall apart as it got exposed to air. This is a natural stick with a very soft masala that crumbles a bit but can be mushed back together, it is finished with a brown powder that marbles into the moisture of the masala. This is unlike any of the Loban sticks Vedic Vaani or other suppliers sell, and is a really strong masala that seems to be made from halmaddi and loban and sandalwood and smells like all three are the highest quality. The smells blend together and create a magic carpet ride of scent that I imagine Mike will say reminds him of something he used to get from Mystic Temple. I really like this one, definitely a 9/10.

Special Ramkrishna

This is a deluxe version of “Ramkrishna” in all dimensions, it is thicker, softer, and easy to mush around, in fact, they kind of stick together and you have to ‘peel’ the sticks apart in the package. They’ve been misshapen by shipping somewhat. Otherwise, this is the regular Ramkrishna turned up to 11, it is sweeter, more expansive, the floral note is both more present and more mysterious, and feels like instead of an attar they went for the real essentials. This is a very charming stick and makes me immediately happy to be smelling it. It’s really just a very familiar smell yet somehow this is like going from a Prius to a Rolls Royce while keeping the whole smell mostly the same, there is none of the ‘cosmetic’ smell I got from the non-special Ramkrishna, just what I take to be geranium and a maybe a drop of rose. 8/10

Dhuni

Like most Ramakrishna’s, this appears like many others, natural stick, soft charcoal masala, and light brown powder finish. This has a sharp musk different than other musks, it has a sweet and vanilla note but otherwise, it’s got a funky BO-but-in-a-good-way kind of scent. Also, urine notes but also in a good way. I realize that adding ‘but in a good way’ to both BO and urine might be suspect but I have a hard time describing this musk other than it has notes from both but neither are the repugnant notes. I really tend to like when incense gets funky and takes me to a barnyard or similar olfactory experience. This is one of the more animal-like musks I’ve encountered and surprisingly more musky than the ‘Musk’ or ‘Kasturi’ sticks from these artists. 9/10

Holy Smoke / Bloom, Cardamom, Dammar, Free Spirit, Nag Champa

Holy Smoke is the name of a domestic incense creator that can be found on both Etsy and its own website. The company states, “All our ingredients are natural and directly from nature. We try to source the best ingredients to produce the finest products. Our incense sticks are hand-rolled using honey, gum resin, botanicals and pure essential oils. Each stick will burn for an hour or more.” This in particular got my attention because even some of the best Indian incenses (and Holy Smoke sticks are Indian-style for sure) out there can be completely charcoal based which has never really been one of my favorite bases for a scent. And one must admit Holy Smoke present their incenses in a very attractive way at their sales sites. So I was very interested in checking out some of their scents.

First of all I was a bit disappointed in that the incenses I received did not have the bright colors that the presentations on line hinted at. This is of course not a deal breaker for a scent, but it IS part of what had me scrambling for a purchase. The incenses do vary a bit in color but one must come to the impression that the lighting may be bringing out what you see a bit more than the reality and in fact if you look at my own pictures in this review, the flash is definitely helping some on that account. In my experience a lot of Indian sticks that use colors may not impart any scent variations through the colors themselves but there is often something psychological about using them and I once raided the Vedic Vaani catalog trying to find the brightly colored ones and this often led to some of their better incenses. So be sure to temper one’s expectations from the pictures.

So that lovely purple color on the Bloom picture at the Holy Smoke website I don’t really see at all in the actual incense, it turned out to be much redder. This is described as a mix of rose, musk and patchouli, but what you immediately notice is just the overall blast of scent coming from the stick, it’s literally drenched in perfume oils. In fact I did not mind at all letting these sit for a while hoping to temper the power of them a little and even in doing so they still strike me as strong and powerful, perhaps even too much. So it’s probably worth setting one’s expectations that a stick like this at an hour burn and this powerful is likely something you don’t want as close to your space. The other issue, which not all of the sticks have, is that the combination of the oils being used often reminds me of air freshener type scents rather than any of the specific ingredients. As we know getting a legitimate rose oil from an essential is virtually impossible at this price range, but the overall floral scent does seem to be largely drowning out whatever is being used as the musk and patchouli. You can certainly sense both in the mix at some level but the combination still adds up in a way that reminds me if your levels on your CD are too high.

The Cardamom is very different to the Bloom. It was actually nice to see this rarely represented spice in an incense and the overall levels turned down a bit. Cardamom is a fairly unique spice but tends to appear as drier in incense which matches a bit better with the honey and resin base. But it does appear that there is more in play than the just the spice (as well as the question of how much of the spice is the actual spice and how much is in the oil). I wondered a bit about some of the natural resin in the midst of it coming through as it seemed somewhat basic quality, perhaps a touch gravelly, but it wasn’t ultimately problematic with the top note. There is some level of a floral feel to this as well as if the base or additional ingredients contribute quite a bit to the overall aroma. It’s an interesting and fairly unique aroma overall, very different to the others I sampled from the catalog. But once again, the sheer strength of the overall stick feels like it gets a bit overwhelming during the burn, something that might be mitigated by burning half sticks.

Part of the issue with incenses whose essential oil mixes are this loud is they tend to resemble household products and that’s the main issue with Dammar, an incense with a resin whose lemon-like tendencies push the overall aroma into furniture polish territory. The thing is, where in the Cardamom I could detect some level of actual resin burning here, the lemon characteristics supposedly coming from this resin all seem to be on the oil level. The issue is that it feels a bit chemical on some level in the sense where fruitiness in an air freshener or cleaning product ends up being too cloying. This also runs into having a bit of a bitter edge to it. Unfortunately, it has probably been a while since I tried the actual resin to see how close it is but it seems like here there’s much more going on than just the resin. I don’t mean to doubt the creators claim that these are all natural but sometimes the mixes can still perhaps not work quite as well.

Free Spirit is a blend of Nag Champa, Lotus, Jasmine and Ylang Ylang. One thing that originally struck me about this mix and the plain Nag Champa (below) is that it seems like the company may use a Satya-sourced Nag Champa oil or something very similar as it has an extremely familiar scent to it. The difference in base, then, is made more obvious by contrasting it with this oil which does make you notice the honey and resins a bit more. This is a bit of a drier mix but it still feels a bit crowded with florals and one starts to come to the conclusion that not unlike Madhavadas sourced incenses, the base of these tends to be aromatic enough to be part of every aroma in a way that makes them all somewhat similar. There’s a fruity sort of scent that seems common to all of these incenses that tends to mute all of the specific named notes. And so the mix ends up being quite a bit different from any one scent and in a largely generic sort of way.

Nag Champa on its own is a lot more familiar, and maybe here you can mostly sense what this base is all about as it’s easier to mentally isolate that one note. What it probably does the most is show what this sort of oil smells like outside of the usual halmaddi and sandalwood mix, that is, it’s quite a bit different without those notes and with what is the unique Holy Smoke honey and resin mix. But like the Cardamom, not having the extra oils is a bit more pleasant to my nose. But overall this doesn’t really smell all that much like a traditional Nag Champa so much as the use of that scent in this format.

Overall, with all of these incenses getting some idea of whether you like their base is going to be key where you fall with any of their aromas. But even if you like the base, the predominance of certain oil mixes is very likely to overwhelm if you are not careful. So I might recommend checking one of their samplers first, if available.

Kunjudo / Kan Ken Koh / Breath, Sleep

Early in 2021 about when I reopened ORS I covered an interesting new incense Japan Incense had gotten in stock called Kan Ken Koh/Healing. This was an interesting charcoal-based mix of oils packaged in these neat little glass test tubes. As it turns out this incense is part of a series from which Japan Incense has turned up two new ones, Sleep and Breath. With a bit more data one can only come to the conclusion that these are really essential oil mixes rather than what you usually see in traditional Japanese sticks, and almost feel like they could have been targeted at a more new age or even co-op sort of audience. As such, they’re quite different than what you’d normally expect.

Breath lists magnolia kobus, eucalyptus oil, artemesia princeps and borneol as ingredients, with the eucalyptus being the focus. You absolutely get that eucalyptus leaf oil scent from this burn, in fact it’s a bit tea-like in a way and I’d assume the artmesia (mugwort) probably helps get it there as well, moving the overall aroma in an herbaceous direction. The borneol content seems rather small in comparison, hanging just onto the edges and the magnolia seems to be used more to ground this in a friendlier direction rather than being a feature on its own. It’s a neat stick overall because of its herbal qualities and quite natural smelling, definitely recommended for those who enjoy eucalyptus. That tree’s sort of slightly bitter and unique scent has really been given justice by this stick.

Sleep lists cedarwood, chamomile, thyme and hops, something of a very unusual mix I would guess; however, the link between chamomile tea and a bit of drowsiness seems fairly common in US herbal tea culture as well. Overall Sleep isn’t terribly different than Breath but where Breath seemed to have some high resolution oils in the mix, Sleep seems a bit more dialed back, perhaps intentionally. Cedarwood would actually not be the kind of aroma I’d imagine would help me sleep and it’s fairly strong here, but the rest of the herbs seem like they’re pulling it all a bit more in the right direction and it feels like that thyme and hops mix gives the edge of the scent a bit of luster it might otherwise be missing. But of the two in the series this feels less individual and realized than the others in the sense that the other two aromas really pop out at you while this one feels a bit more blended.

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.

Meena Perfumery Industries / Meena Supreme, Meena Flora, Meena Indian King, Meena Nag Champa, Siddanth, Meena Sambrani Stems

It wasn’t long ago I bought what I thought was Meena Supreme, but when I took it out, I was somewhat nonplussed. ORS has been around a while and I was originally introduced to Meena Supreme by Paul Eagle when it ended up being Happy Hari’s second incense to distribute after the Gold Nagchampa. I received a surprising number of samples at the time and some of these incenses came in Happy Hari style labels but quite a few also came in little boxes like the ones pictured here. Meena Supreme, I would guess, has to be one of the top five “name” incenses known well inside and outside India, with maybe Nag Champa and Sai Flora at the top and this one right after it. And there is a reason why, it’s a very distinctive incense, a unique combination of materials and perfumes that I reviewed way back in the day and archived on this post.

So imagine my surprise when I heard from Everest Traders on Ebay who said they were the distributor for the Kabadi family’s Meena Supreme Incense from Bangalore, India. I was very glad to hear this as this hasn’t been carried by Absolute Bliss for a while and you basically have to order overseas for it. Also, Everest Traders is California based! The box I received for review is exactly how I remember it looking all those many years ago and the aroma is as well. In fact my original review in the above link is still so in point I’m going to repeat it here first and include a link to this new source…

“But even if you can’t count on incense nirvana, usually something so prized is usually going to be quite good and for the most part Meena Supreme succeeds from just about every angle and if it may not be the best incense ever created, I’d definitely say it’s one of the more unique and desirable of Indian incenses and certainly one I’m going to add to our Hall of Fame. Meena Supreme is a fluxo incense which means it’s solidly in the genre inhabited by Sai Flora, Sai Deep, Sai Leela and the like, which also means it’s a big stick, highly aromatic and something of a major smoke producer. This is perfect for me, especially during the dawning of spring where various allergies often make smelling Japanese incense very difficult, but if Indian incense smoke is too much for you, Meena Supreme will likely be too. In fact during the first two sticks, I wasn’t even sure if I would end up liking it, but it was likely because it was just too much at the time.

Since my initial foray into Meena Supreme, I think I’ve burned three to four boxes of it if not more (the size box I got fit about 6-8 sticks I believe). It is a highly addictive scent once you get it, as most signature scents are, and is also very hard to describe. Meena Supreme starts with the same earthy, almost stable-like background tones of Sai Flora but that’s where the similarity between incenses ends. Where Sai Flora goes in a bright, heavily floral, brassy direction, Meena Supreme is much more sultry with a mix of woods, rose, cocoa, coffee (with milk) and most importantly a feeling that all the subscents have been blended and aged. Most importantly Meena Supreme had the ability to make me think about it a lot when I wasn’t burning it, which has led to a lot of impromptu reaches.”

I would only add here in 2022 that the sticks may be a bit smaller (and maybe less smokier?) than I remember (which may of course be more my memory than the stick) but I love that all the notes I listed here are still completely relevant. I came to love the mix of earthiness and sweetness almost like a mix of fresh soil and brown sugar. So anyway if you love Indian incense and haven’t tried this yet now’s your chance!

Everest Traders also sent over some other Meena Perfumery Industries incenses, which also were a lot of fun (and I would mention here the ET packaging is really nice, very cognizant of protecting all the incenses from damage). One thing I came to find out rather quickly is other than the Sambrani Stems, which I will get to last, all of the other Meena incenses share a similar base to the Supreme and share a lot of the same aromatic notes, which makes it a little harder to separate one from the other. You might want to think of these in the sense that there’s probably a top perfume mix that differs from incense to incense. So the first one of these is Meena Flora, described as a “fluxo incense.” We have, of course, reviewed several from this style over the years, the most famous being the red package Sai Flora, but we, perhaps most recently, took a look at a couple of El incenses in the same category, These are thick stick, very distinctive incenses and so you might not only consider the Meena base for the Meena Flora but the flora/fluxo style as well and consider it a mix of those things. It still has a lot of the cocoa/coffee/brown sugar/earthy base to it, but it’s a bit more heavily aromatic than the Supreme with some of the same aspects that Sai Flora has. It’s not quite that brassy or sparkly, in fact it’s quite subdued compared to a lot of other incenses in this style. My most recent personal burning has been the Vedic Vaani Sai Flora which is much more refined and well on the other side of the red packet on the earthiness-to-refined axis. It’s actually probably more different as a flora than it is as a Meena incense.

Where both the Supreme and the Flora are small 8 stick boxes, the Meena Indian King has a higher stick count (as do the rest of these incenses) and the incense itself is certainly less weighty than the Supreme and Flora. While you can still recognize the same base I have mentioned in the previous two incenses, the Indian King feels a bit drier. It’s described as a durbar bathi, which has often been a category incenses like champas fall under, and this one does feel a bit more like a Meena-style Nag Champa variant to me. I’m not sensing enough halmaddi to keep it soft but there may be a little in there, but it’s actually overall not quite as sweet as the Supreme. It’s kind of elegant in a way and very traditional. And a walk in and out of the room shows it dissipates quite nicely too with a slighty tangy-meets brown sugar edge on top. Given it’s not all that different from the Supreme, it could be considered a more price-conscious alternative given the stick count.

One of the reasons Indian King struck me as a champa type is because it’s not terribly far off from the Meena Nag Champa. Seriously the description of this, at least if you were familiar with Meena Supreme, is imagine Meena doing a Nag Champa. It feels like champas are so variant these days that we’ve almost lost what we might have considered the standard because the Satya Blue Box is such a shadow of what it used to be. And in that sense, the Meena isn’t terribly different from the more modern hard stick variants that tend to send most of the aroma up on a charcoal base. This is definitely still a masala base and may have a little halmaddi in it but most notable it’s a little sweeter than, say the Happy Hari/Temple of Incense Gold or the AB carried Vintage Nag Champa. Some of these vedic champas feel like they could pull rain out of the air with their driness and while the perfumes are probably a bit more in the pocket than this one, this stick’s combination of some aspects of Meena Supreme (like, say, the earthiness and brown sugar) make it just a bit more interesting. With so many champa variants out there and it basically a virtual impossibility to go back to the great stick of yesteryearm I lean towards wanting variation more, so I like the differences on this one.

So then there’s Meena Siddanth with a dude beaming om symbols, and, gulp, a couple of swastikas in the mix, probably not the most popular symbology in the west. As you might know this has a much different meaning in India than it does in the West so I’ll just move on to the incense itself. This style is considered a “dhoop bathi” although it’s really difficult to tell how all of these sticks vary in style from looking at them; however, this is just a wee touch softer than the previous incenses. This has a more diverse aroma, it’s still a Meena stick at heart but it has a mix of fruity, powdery, herbal, and a touch of wood oils that make it probably the most distinctive stick so far. In fact this seems like quite the lovely and complex incense with all sorts of things going on and it’s by far the least earthiest of five sticks. Perhaps if you have just tried the Supreme, this might be the one I’d recommend next.

Now the Meena Sambrani Stems are a completely different style of incense. Looking around on the net it seems like Sambrani Cups got a bit of notoriety for a bit when this style of using cow dung to heat up resins came to a bit greater attention and a search of these cups show some rather offputting visuals. However cow dung is not the only way to heat resins up and it looks like the outside of these dhoop-like cylinders are probably based on charcoal, although like any incense I can’t give a comprehensive list of what’s actually in these (and I can’t say I’ve every tried the straight up base note of cow dung to be informative). All I can say is this is possibly the most intriguing incense in this batch. Sambrani, like loban, is one of those terms that seems to shift in meaning depending on who is using it and both seem to be anything from resin mixes to specific resins like benzoin or frankincense). Ultimately the aroma is almost thoroughly resinous and intense with a lovely bit of spice and a touch of caramel. Unlike a lot of Indian masalas where the resins really get watered down with the stick base, the level of resin is really nice and strong here with a fruitiness you usually won’t find in a loban or other highly resinous stick. So yes this is a lovely batch of (sort of) cones, like many dhoops they’re really smoky and will fill up a large space fast.

So ultimately the new or casual browser is recommended to check out the Meena Supreme if you haven’t and certainly the Sambrani Stems and Siddanth next, but I enjoyed all of these. Nothing is quite like a Meena incense, they have a distinctive personal stamp to their style that is quite recognizable once you get to use. it. And we certainly encourage Everest Traders to bring more of this line to the west!

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