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.

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Sera Monastery Incense

Sera Monastery Incense is noted as containing 25 ingredients, including laxangia tsaoko, saffron, sandalwood and clove. From a quick look on the internets the former ingredient is basically Chinese black cardamom, and I believe it’s something you can pick up in the foreground with all the other ingredients. The clove seems pretty mellow for a spice you can normally pick up right away but that saffron tang definitely seems there right in front, in fact this reminds me of some Indian saffron sandalwood sticks. In fact the incense this most reminds me of is the long deleted Saffron Medicinal Incense from Medicine King, it has that incense’s heavy woodiness mixed in with denser ingredients with a sort of corn chip note in the middle (it’s also a little mesquite-like). So all in all it’s definitely a familiar traditional blend that doesn’t, perhaps, pop up as often as some of the others. I will note that the woodiness of this one is beyond just the sandalwood and moves a bit into campfire levels of bitterness, so it could be too strong for some; however, I think the other ingredients are richer and full bodied enough to make it worth checking out anyway, certainly if you miss the Medicine King incenses like I do.

Nado Poizokhang / Zhingkham Kunchhab Chhoetrin (#2)

Zhingkham Kunchhab Choetrin #2 (ZKC) is a “purple” stick incense from Bhutan’s largest incense manufacturer. We have documented at least some of this company’s incenses through the years, a chore made a bit harder by some accusations of bootleg Nado incenses roughly a decade ago but all of this has largely settled down under incense-traditions.ca, and Stephen’s most recent review is a good starter guide to the line’s classic Bhutanese scents. Honestly Bhutanese incense, at least to my nose, doesn’t vary in scent all that much, even across companies, they are usually red, purple or tan color incenses that mostly vary depending on how much sandalwood is included. Any general scan of our reviews here are likely to be referential of previous reviews as my initial take is usually something like “that’s kind of like the last one.” ZKC would be little different, it has a very traditional blend, featuring hints of sandalwood, berries, gentle spices and a bit of sweetness, a whole conglomerate of aromas that largely form a traditional Bhutanese scent (it’s listed ingredients are clove, nutmeg, saffron, red and white sandalwood and other medicinal ingredients). These are a bit fuller than most Nepalese brands, not quite as wild or variant as the monastery incenses from Tibet and are generally pretty friendly. ZKC is perhaps a little bit more astringent, there’s a bit of chalkiness in the scent but overall it still largely has that tart red berry topped smell most of the incenses in the style that are not tan colored have. If you’ve never tried a Bhutanese this is good a place to start as any, in may ways it could be the mean scent in that there are probably better and worse incenses of the style. So it’s perhaps a little generic. I also believe I got a sample of the #1 which looks like the same wrapper but white instead of pink, but I am not sure if they are different.

Gangri Thökar Nunnery / Snow Mountain Gathers Incense

So I was just talking about the similarity of certain nunnery incenses and how a few of them have an almost amber-ish/balsamic quality to them when one comes up that isn’t quite like that at all. In fact I had to read the fine print at incense-traditions.ca to realize Snow Mountain Gathers Incense was a nunnery-sourced incense, and it sure is a fine one. And hey how wonderful it is to get a rather large ingredients list to look at: black myrobalan, white sandalwood, red sandalwood, clove, nutmeg, saffron, alpiniae katsumadai seed, fructus amomi and herb of tabasheer. I had to look up what half that stuff is, but some of the less seen ingredients seem to impart a number of really interesting new notes for this nose, herbal qualities that mix the fresh and familiar with some neat differences. One of the things I love about these deep Tibetan picks is the aromatic variation and newness, the hope that the monks and nuns are bringing forth some ancient recipe in all of its wonderful, healing glory. And honestly this is one that will keep your sensory apparati busy, it’s rich, full bodied, has both friendly and funkier notes weaving a dance together, and it has that quintessential freshness that is the hallmark of all the best Tibetans. Make no mistake, if the more dangerous Tibetan sticks aren’t to your style, this one may be a bit challenging, but for me it’s just the right amount of balance of sour/dense to high altitude/invigorating and it has a bit of brown sugar spice and sweetness on top that gives you so many places to sense the interactions. Another Hart-curated wonder scent.

Absolute Bliss, Happy Hari / Absolute Sandalwood, King of Saffron, King of Sandal, Oudh Saffron, White Lotus Oudh Saffron (new versions)

Absolute Bliss has recently gotten in a big restock and while I’m not entirely sure if this covers everything with significant scent differences (I am told there is also King of Musk which I would have absolutely jumped on had I known), it definitely covers five sticks that range from slight to significant improvements in aroma.

The first, Absolute Sandalwood, was enough of a trainwreck that I didn’t review it originally. Corey at Absolute Bliss is basically as aware as we are when something ships over that is not up to snuff, so in that sense I don’t really relish a blistering review of something we all know isn’t good. The new version of Absolute Sandalwood may not be the greatest sandalwood every extruded but it presents a really unique sort of woodshop-like take on it. Where the previous version did not get this mix right in the slightest, this new one actually really started to intrigue me after a few sticks. Think of that mix of turpentine, glue and fresh wood dust you’d get in a shop and then kinda bolster that with some level of sandalwood in the mix and you’re onto what this one smells like. I’m sitting here with my third stick from a 10g package and actually really starting to like it, in the sense that it’s actually complex but the complexity is almost like these specific woodshop elements one at a time. It has a strange quality of richness with these elements that elsewhere might not be to a lot of people’s tastes. So while I’d probably caution one not to go hogwild, I would also highly recommend checking out a small package of it to see if it’s your speed. I’m actually starting to love it.

King of Saffron is not the King of Saffron I remember from many years ago when Paul Eagle was running the shop – that stick I remember being brown and very different from this one. The current King of Saffron should be familiar to those with some experience with Indian incense as it’s essentially the very thin, extruded, yellow dusted stick often called saffron sandalwood or some other name in plenty of catalogs through the years. I probably came across 3 or 4 versions of the same incense in the Vedic Vaani catalog this year except Absolute Bliss’ version is definitely better than all of those, and incredibly reminiscent of when the Mystic Temple version was a classic. The only other incense I’ve tried in the last 25 years that reminds me of the glory years of Indian incense is Temple of Incense’s Extreme Sandalwood. King of Saffron not only has the dryness, the saffron spiciness and a level of wood but it has that incredible floral finish that these incenses used to have but have usually just disappeared. It also has a wonderful camphor thread through it which has always been one of my favorite things about this particular scent. And remember these sticks are thin enough that 125g of this is likely to have has many as two times as many sticks as you usually get by that weight. So this is one you want to jump on for sure.

The King of Sandal is also very different from previous versions and it’s not really so much a pure sandalwood stick now as a sort of sandalwood champa type mix and a really beautiful one at that. It’s actually not easy to balance the sweet and woody of these two elements, and I come across plenty of these mixes that are off in some way. This new stick is halmaddi rich and probably leans in the sweeter direction but it’s rather perfectly balanced for a sandalwood top note and not only that it’s a very accessible scent. In many ways it’s not unlike the Oud Masala in this sense, where the sweeter base really creates more of a blend than say a charcoal with oil would. I actually was kind of wondering if part of this is that the sandalwood here isn’t turned up too high where the woodier notes might conflict a little more. Needless to say this is another highly recommended new find.

The last two incenses, the Oudh Saffron and White Lotus Oudh Saffron are now in a different format, moving to a bit larger of a charcoal masala base than the previous versions. These are incenses that are largely carried by the oil mixes on top and when they are, the mixes tend to vary a little from batch to batch. This is my third batch of the White Lotus and it’s largely the same incense, just maybe a little bit different. The second batch may have been a tiny bit more dialed back in the woodiness where this new batch turns it back up a bit. The Oudh Saffron however, actually strikes me as quite differently formulated. I am not sure how to explain this except that this new formulation seems a bit more complex and rich than the prior one. I think that the inherent woodiness in Indian oud incenses is generally pretty rare because there usually isn’t any real oud in them and so the approximation doesn’t account for the deeper and richer aspects you’d find in wood or wood-heavy aloeswood incenses like you’d find in Japan. Instead Indian oud incenses tend to approximate that a bit and go for more of those spice tones you tend to find at the top of ouds. Saffron itself is also pretty multifaceted, even among incenses called saffron sandalwood that stretch beyond the one I reviewed above, the note can be anything from floral to spicy and all places in between. Here I think it ends up pushing the usual Indian oud spice mixes into something a little richer. It still has the same sort of almost licorice like middle in it the previous stick had, but of course when the batch is fresher you’re likely to catch all of this more up front.

So ultimately a stock well worth going back for. As always, there are no current plans to actually put these incenses up at the Absolute Bliss website so it is highly recommended and encouraged to contact Corey directly using the methods at his contact page. My experience is that you can find what you want and ask him for a Paypal invoice. Please note that currently Absolute Bliss only ships to the US.

Nado Poizokhang / Happiness Incense, Jaju Grade 1, Jaju Grade 2, Cinnamon

I like to think of Nado as something like the Nippon Kodo of Bhutan. They definitely seem to be the largest and most widely exported, but surprisingly, in the West, they are also sold by disreputable sellers who are selling fake Nado. This has led to Nado, to me, being very inconsistent. Sellers like “Incense Guru” sell fakes that come with names like “Bhutanese A” or similar, and when you get them, they have Nado Poizokhang labels with little stickers over ‘made in Bhutan’ and replaced with ‘Made in Nepal’.

I bring this up because, at this time, only Incense-Traditions sells non-counterfeit, authentic Nado incense in the west. All others I have purchased from have unabashedly sold me counterfeits and when I bring it up to them, I either get ignored, ghosted, or have my account deleted from their site.

Starting off with Happiness Incense. The bamboo case it arrives in proclaims that it is a product of Bhutan, the country of Gross National Happiness. I’ve always appreciated that in the 70s and 80s, the leadership of Bhutan was so turned off by crass capitalism that when they showed up to a world summit, other leaders were asking what their GDP was and the king answered, “We don’t measure out output in money, we measure it in the happiness of the citizens”. I am familiar with this and have bought this many times from multiple vendors. Of all the recipe changes, this one surprised me because I had imagined these were ancient family recipes that you only change at your peril. Compared to my notes in my incense journal from 2015, this stick has changed a bit. I find it is less sweet and more on the ashy/bitter end of the spectrum, which feels like a misfire because my 2015 notes say that this is a spicy and sweet stick.

What I’m getting from this is a more muted sweetness, covered under a smell similar to burning slightly dirty charcoal as the base scent and then adding the spices and a touch of sweetness to it. If I had one complaint about Bhutanese incense is that it all tends to smell very similar to each other, so with this change in the recipe, you actually have something that comes across as more unique in the Bhutanese incense because I feel like the bitter/ashy component brings more gravitas and presence to the incense. However, as “Happiness Incense” I feel like this reformulation misses the mark because to me, I feel like the sweetness and spices of the original was more ‘happiness’ than this profile, but that could just be me.

Cinnamon is a really interesting creature. The bamboo case it arrives in proclaims it as “Cinnamom” (see top pic for this) which leads me to jokingly call it the “Mother of all Cinnamon Incense”. This incense lists only one ingredient, the bark of a cinnamon tree. This produces a very delightful cinnamon scent that is surprisingly complicated for one ingredient. This makes me feel like other incenses that use it are using only a bit to get a hint but since this is 100% cinnamon, you get all the notes, from sweet to spicy and the interplay keeps it from falling into a boring one-note drone of an incense.

Unlit, the stick smells like a freshly opened bottle of cinnamon sticks. But when you light it, you’re treated to a whole spectrum of cinnamon-based smells, from the candy-smell of the cinnamon oil to the bitterness of the wood, to the overwhelming denseness of the central cinnamon scent, this smell is concentrated up close, but if you get into the next room, it does smell like someone might be baking cinnamon cookies.

Jaju Grade 1 sticks come in a paper wrapper, which is completely green compared to Grade 2 which comes in cellophane. These tan sticks are about 50% thicker than the Grade 2 sticks, making the 2 sticks for daily use and the 1 sticks for special occasions. Lighting one of these up is easy thanks to the nicely ‘fluted’ edges. Immediately, the smoke comes off this with sweetness like opening a box of raisins. My understanding of Bhutanese incense is that all the ingredients are macerated into the wood powder in a special vessel and left to age together in these cold mountain monasteries. At least, the traditional incense came like that, since Nado is a factory, I’m uncertain if this is still produced traditionally like in the videos.

As I dive into this, you get a chance to feel a bit of each of the ingredients here, and I’m going to guess there is milk, honey, wine, along with aloeswood and sandalwood of different grades, as this has notes that shows off a bit of each, but the notes are definitely married together notes and not single notes that define exemplar scents. So no salty sandalwood, just a woody presence that mutes the milk and honey into something less food-like so I’m not thinking about eating while smelling them.

Spending more time with this, I have found that there is a spicier, saltier tail to this scent that gets picked up by me after I’ve spent time with the sweeter part and start looking for something more. I can sense some of the cinnamon, clove and saffron in here now, hiding behind the sweeter front scents. Definitely a good incense for those who love the Bhutanese style.

Jaju Grade 2 sticks are exactly the same length, but thinner than the Grade 1. While they look like they are made from the same dough because they are the same color, lighting this up shows off that they share different formulas. I’d say this comes across more with an opening like a spicy raisin. Like a raisin rolled in li hing mui, sugar and cinnamon. This definitely has a bit of a ‘rough around the edges’ like maybe it has lesser quality ingredients or perhaps they don’t age it as long. However, it does come across a few dollars less per roll and with it being thinner, there are more so this seems to be made for economical daily use.

Overall, the two scents are close to each other, and doing them back-to-back has helped me spot a few of the differences. I think because this one is a bit smokier in its undercurrent(I notice my clothes smelled like smoke after sitting next to it for a bit) that this one definitely has the cheaper ingredients.

Pure Incense / Bulgarian Rose Masterclass, Saffron & Rose Masterclass, Camphor Masterclass, Connoisseur Laos Agarwood

This (final for now) installment of the most recent Pure Incense 2021 reviews ends up as something of a miscellaneous section, but includes a couple rose incenses.

The first of these is the Bulgarian Rose Masterclass. One might consider this the most high end upgrade of the Connoisseur Rose, even if it is geography specific, as it still has a lot of similarities. This latter formula is one of the incenses that has maybe traveled the most in scent through the years. In many ways any Pure Incense Rose I’ve sampled is still the conglomerate aroma of the rose oil being used along with the vanilla, charcoal and sandalwood of the base, and it can be fairly difficult to comment on the rose perfume being used without being cognizant of how much this base shifts that. In this case the base provides something of a sweet note that certainly cuts in, but I don’t think it obscures the fine delicacy of the rose oil being used here, which has enough resolution to it that it actually starts to resemble the actual scent of roses and not an approximate pitch at a related floral. Before telecommuting I used to work across from the California State capitol park which has a very sizeable rose garden in it and when this thing is in bloom, walking through it is a veritable lesson on what a lot of roses smell like at once. I will say, first, that it’s something of a confirmation that roses may not be my most personal favorite scent even at its most natural so I’m not always the one to give the right take, but I would say the Bulgarian Rose Masterclass comes as close to any natural rose scent as I’ve seen on an incense and that is highly commendable. For one of the few times I’ve ever said this I actually wonder what this oil might smell like without the ever competing vanilla scent and on a more pure charcoal delivery system because it really seems like a fine absolute. But certainly if you love the scent, you will want to check this one out.

The rose is moved to a bit more of a back note with the Triple Saffron and Rose Masterclass. Here the saffron is in charge and it’s a reasonably resolute saffron note with that sort of tangy, spicy-herbal note you tend to find in most saffron incenses. Saffron is of course the stamen of a crocus sativa flower and so even the raw materials tend to break down a huge supply of these flowers into the cooking spice and then one might have some idea at what it would take to turn even that material to an oil, absolute or otherwise, with the expense of such perhaps raising the question to how much real saffron is in this. The rose becomes less resolute in the face of such saffron heft and, as a result, loses some of its clarity to become a complementary note. I do feel with this one that the intensity of the oil does tend to mask the base more so it’s not cutting through as much and it tends to prevent this mix from getting too sweet. There is, fortunately, some level of interplay to the saffron and rose that makes it interesting nonetheless, but I would guess that whether you like this or not entirely depends on how much you like saffron. High end Pure Incenses can be pretty successful with saffron, for instance I very much enjoyed their Saffron & Musk incense, so again this may also be where I sit with rose as described above.

The scent of the Camphor on the Masterclass stick is actually much stronger on the fresh stick than during the burn, which disappointed me a bit because that note is almost exactly what I’m hoping for (camphor is one of those medicinally-related scents that not everyone likes but I most assuredly do). Alit, the vanilla of the base comes through almost shockingly loud and while you think it might create a conflict, once you get used to it it’s actually surprisingly comfortable. At this point the camphor tends to fade back into roughly the same place that it fills in some of the agarwood or oud sticks. There’s some intriguing dryness to this scent as well, almost as if some level of buttery sandalwood also wanted to be part of the profile. Overall though one thing I do like about camphor wood and it’s even true to some extent on a campfire is that kind of weird cooling vibe that it exhibits (I mostly remember using it for cold sores). So while this stick may be much more than the single note itself, it’s a nice stick nonetheless. And it is certainly different enough to feel more like a genuinely unique incense stick than just a variation.

And finally, perhaps circling around to the Oud group in some way, is the Connoisseur Laos Agarwood. There’s some level of similarity to the camphor on the fresh stick but it’s a bit sweeter here and not as pure a note. This is actually quite an intense agarwood, similar to the general Connoisseur but quite a bit denser in aroma. While it’s labelled as an agarwood and not an oud I have to stretch the imagination a bit to even say what the difference could be as this seems like it could fit in with the oud reviews fairly easily. It’s perhaps not as spicy as some of the others, but generally speaking this sort of wood tends to have that element even at its mellowest. Like the Oud Kathmandu, this has some level of actual wood presence in terms of resolution and definition. In fact based on a recent box of the generic Connoissuer Agarwood I’d easily recommend this one over it, perhaps because the oil seems pretty intense. Like most Pure Incenses there’s still some level of vanilla in the base but the oil mix more than makes up for it. In the end I think if you’ve tried any of the ouds I recommended in that review then it depends on how much you like them in terms of whether you want what are essentially variations on a theme, but then again most of the variations are all the kind of incenses that aloeswood lovers are going to go for.

Lopen Tandin Dorji Poizo Khang / Tara Puja Incense

I might have this a bit off but in Bhutan a Poizo Khang/Poi Zokhang translates to something like a house of incense. Nado Poizokhang appears to be the largest of these incense houses, but there’s quite a few small ones as well and most seem to include the creators in their name (Mr. Nado is considered the father of Bhutan’s commercial incense industry), in this case one Lopen Tandin Dorji. While you will see what looks like two incenses in the pictures, about the only thing that seems different to me from the two packages is the color. The ingredients listed on both wrappers include red and white sandalwoods, juniper, species of fragrant plant, camphor, the resin of the Sal Tree, saffron, three sweets of sugar, honey and molasses, and three with milk, curd and butter. You may be happy to know there is no meat, alcohol or onion in this incense. Tara incenses relate to the meditation deity Tara in Vajrayana Buddhism and the colors relate to different forms of Tara, so it is assumed the incenses are intended for the specific forms. However, for Western noses, both of these incenses (green and yellow wrapper) seem aromatically identical and if there are any differences in recipe they are beyond my threshold to be able to tell. I lit both sequentially and at the same time to compare.

Tara Puja is actually a very friendly incense overall and the ingredients all seem high quality. I find that it reminds me a little of the long disappeared Lung Ta line which also claimed to list foods like honey or milk in the ingredients and however they formulate these (because imagine burning either on their own), they impart a bit of their own richness to the mix. But outside of these you’re essentially getting something of a woody and spicy blend. They actually seem a bit more akin to Nepalese incenses more than say the red/purple or Jaju styles normally found in Bhutanese incense houses, but there are still some similarities. The sandalwoods, juniper and the saffron seem well up in the mix, and the spice accentuates the sort of high altitude, evergreen feel without leaning into campfire directions. Whichever wrapper you choose, this isn’t a bad choice for an entry point into Bhutanese incense, and if you are stocked up on the traditionals you may still find this to be a different take, not to mention nice and friendly.

Tanak Thupten Ling Monastery / Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3, Grade 4, Grade 5

Any time I see a new (more accurately, new to me or ORS) monastery or incense company with grades on their incenses, it’s unlikely that I’m going to like all of them. First of all you have to take a look at the pricing, while not forgetting that sometimes stick length and even thickness can play a part in cost. Honestly for the most part, price decreases down grades tend to be fairly gradual. Mindroling is a good example of a graduated sort of scale and Nado Poizokhang used to have something like 6 grades that were available, although that seems no longer the case. Grades don’t always mean an indication of decreasing quality as the numbers rise, but they often do. So you tend to expect a #1 is just simply going to be a better incense than #5, not to mention more pricey.

None of this is really the case in this wonderful line of Tanak Thupten Ling Monastery incenses, or at least as the grades go down you’re not left thinking the lower incenses are worth skipping. Where I often dip into a sampler and then only buy a roll or two that I like, I went with the #1 and #3 first and then over time decided to get the rest. It doesn’t hurt that four of the five come in really beautifully designed cardboard rolls. Once again we must tip a hat to the great incense-traditions.ca for continuing to expose us to the many fine treasures of Tibet.

These are all wonderful, classy, complex and unique incenses that you come to expect from the area. The ingredients list in all of them are white sandalwood, wormwood, saffron, nutmeg, cloves and cypress;, although, you should note right away that the incenses vary a lot more than just what this list is telling you. Grade 1 is unquestionably the line’s treasure. Where later sticks get longer, Grade 1 is a modest sized stick popping with aromatic complexity. It’s literally beautiful and arresting from the first light and immediately popped up into my top 10 Tibetan incenses, it’s just that good. Repetitive burning has not changed my mind on this. Every ingredient in that list can be found here, popping with high resolution and sitting right next to each other, it’s got fine woods, great tanginess, that sense of herbal wildness you get from the wormwood and so much more. It has an aromatic intensity that even a lot of other monastery incenses don’t have. Just now I noticed some almost like spice rack sort of side note, peppery and piquant, which I hadn’t even noticed in the first five or six sticks. I love to use the word kaleidoscope when it comes to incenses like this that are so resolute and intricate, you still notice new things about them as you go. Incredible incense, extremely highly recommended.

Grade 2 changes quite dramatically and it’s funny of the five grades here this is the one I’ve found hardest to get used to. It brings out the more dangerous qualities of the wormwood a bit more so that it runs close to, say, some of the Dzongsar monastery incenses. It goes for a much drier profile than the Grade 1 and seems to not be quite as complex, although if you concentrate on it a bit you do still notice that the ingredient resolution is still pretty high. It feels like a lot of the spice content is a lot more dialed back so that the overall profile ends up being a lot more herbal, in fact there’s something of a grassiness or hay-like scent in that would seem a lot more barnyard if it wasn’t just completely missing any musk. Had I just experienced this incense as a sample on its own, I might have foregone a roll, but in the grade scheme of the entire Tanak Thupten Ling line, it’s actually kind of fascinating the way it fits in and contrasts with the other grades. And as you get used to it you realize that the overall dryness and herbal content hides a bit of the depth that experience will bring out with use. This is not what I call a Western friendly incense overall, but nor is it cheap or low quality. Perhaps its defining strength is that like with the Grade 1 it has a definite wood contour in the middle. But make no mistake this one has a learning curve.

Grade 3 is an incense that actually reminds me a little of my extreme favorite monastery incense Wara. I’m actually starting to feel like I go through an entire package of Wara between every mention of it and the desire to sing its praises threatens to take over sometimes, even from this review. Part of the similarity is there is some crossover with Wara with whatever makes up this sort of almost tarry blackened resin-like element in both incenses. Grade 3 veers away from some of the deeper, more complex and almost undefinable characteristics in Wara but increases some similar, more woody and evergreen elements that serve more as side notes in the Wara. The wormwood is much more subsumed in this incense, much more of a side note, and the cypress and spices are more obvious than they were in the Grade 2. So despite the same ingredients list, you’re talking about a third, completely different incense in this range. Naturally I liked this a lot and notice that it’s the one TTL incense that’s out of stock as I write this. Anyway some other notes in this are a bit of clay, peat, and juniper and in the end has some level of a fresher forest-y note somewhere in the middle that gives it some character. It’s wonderful stuff and the second one here I would recommend unequivocally. Not sure there are a lot of Grade 3s this good and there’s a bonus in that from this grade on, the sticks get a bit longer.

Grade 4 is maybe the first one in the line that starts to feel like there’s some level of ingredient shift as well as some level of similarity to one of the higher incense grades, but it’s still a remarkably strong incense. It’s fairly akin to the Grade 3 in that sort of dark, somewhat resin-heavy feel, but there feels to me less wood and a bit more heavy an emphasis on the spices. There’s a net tangy sort of thing that often shows up somewhere in the clove, nutmeg and cinnamon territory and it’s a level of spice that you really don’t get in the first three grades. In fact, if you step away and come back you can feel the wormwood a bit more, although not as crackly and herbal on top like it is in a higher resolution, more just like a bit of the Tibetan funk. I like the way this blend tends to merge with Grade 3’s darker profile. I will say that my expectations on this had me thinking I’d get tired of it, but the stick did the absolute opposite and continued to surprise me with reuse. Honestly at about $15 it’s quite decently priced and really doesn’t have the same sort of quality drops that, say, Mindroling does when it reaches its Grade 4.

The price of Grade 5 drops quite a bit to $12. But imagine simply if you did not know this was a grade 5 and was just evaluating it as a new Tibetan incense at this price. I think you would find it remarkably good. What is interesting about it is unlike the previous four grades, this incense seems to be more of that salty sort of blend you find in Holy Land and numerous other Tibetan classics except the herbal quality of the wormwood weaves its way in that blend which makes it a little unique. I think a lot of the more heavier wood aspects you find in the previous two grades are dialed back for this blend. And it actually feels like the muskier qualities are more active than in the previous four as well. So I would definitely just completely throw out the grading system at this point because this is really as good as any of the previous incenses or better, except the Grade 1, which is in a class of its own. Honestly in a lot of ways its like getting a slight variation on a big long stick roll of the Holy Land grade 2 except with a valid alteration in personality. One thing I really liked about this one on reuse was just how complex it is, how arresting the burn is. There’s no feeling at all along the TTL line that cheap wood filler is being used to replace quality at all. Its the capstone to an absolutely terrific, fascinating monastery line – a bravo to incense-traditions.ca for finding more new and interesting scents for us to try.

Zurkhar Herbal Incense

Zurkhar Herbal Incense includes “37 types of herbal and therapeutic ingredients which include red and white sandalwoods, saffron and nutmeg.” So basically a fairly in the pocket Tibetan for sure. It’s interesting because the most central scent I notice isn’t really any of these things, it’s really the concentration of the other woods in the blend, probably the juniper, cedar and mild evergreen qualities. Around these I notice the sandalwoods a bit more and then outside of this the spices. Strangely the saffron doesn’t seem quite as heavy or noticeable as it usually is in incenses that list it. So although this is the mild and woody incense it’s advertised as, it’s also a little bit on the campfire side, just not harsh enough to make that a pejorative. I will say though that this is different to the salty-tangy Tun-Da blends and the more evergreen Aba Prefecture incenses, it’s much closer to Nepali incenses except the commonly imported Nepalis will not wow you with distinct and quality incense notes like this one will. I find Zurkhar mostly fascinating because it’s a bit of a chameleon and has a few other notes it likes to surprise you with. This one’s a bit of a work of art, I’m not sure it’s herbal in the sense I usually think of it, but it’s certainly quite pleasant. And under $10 it’s nicely priced too.

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