Doma / Agar 31, Relaxation, Ribo Sangtsheo, Pyukar, Mandala, Special Incense

Doma Herbal Incense have a rather sizeable line of Nepali incense products that vary from the inexpensive to the premium ($18). Their products vary quite a bit in style, packaging and quality, but for the most part they tend to be pretty standard Nepali/Tibetan fare with the lion’s share of their sticks tending to inexpensive woods mixed in with light aromatic touches. This review covers about six different packages in the line.

The Agar 31 – Healing Incense (as well as the Relaxation) comes in these unusual flat sized boxes that aren’t really all that easily storable when you consider most Tibetan sticks come in long boxes or rolls. This is what I’d call a pencil shavings incense, even compared to other Agar 31 incenses, this has very little in the way of luster. It even has a strange, light floral note in the mix which is very unusual for this style. The black agar doesn’t appear to be very high grade and along with the herbs it just appears to flavor up a very overwhelming and cheap cedarwood base, which ends up being the dominant aroma.

Relaxation, fortunately, is quite a bit better, but that’s likely because the middle is filled up with resins rather than woods. Not sure if we’re dealing with frankincense, benzoin, myrrh or gugal gum here, although I’d assume it’s a mix of some of these that combines with a bit of herbal swank in the middle. It’s akin in some ways to both Yog-Sadhana and the swankier Heritage (or maybe a mix of the two), as well as the Natural Arogya-Karmayogi or Himalayan Herbs Centre Traditional Mandala. I like all these scents quite a bit, as well as this one, as they’re essentially like resin mixes embedded in Tibetan woods. Don’t expect fireworks, but it’s a good buy for the money and it holds up to any of the comparisons.

Ribo Sangtsheo is one of the biggest rolls I’ve ever seen in a cardboard box. The ingredients listed are cardamom, clove, spruce, hemlock, butterworth and benth, but like many inexpensive Tibetans with dictionary lists of ingredients, the incense ends up as the average. I kind of think of a scent like this as sour wood. It seems to have a great deal of pencil shavings mixed in with the other elements. Nagi? Sandalwood? Saffron? Musk? Maybe in microquantities but I don’t even think straining turns up much in the way of aroma. Then again, most incenses with the Ribo Sangtsheo name tend to be for inexpensive offerings and thus have as much traditional use as aromatic, so perhaps in the end this shouldn’t be held up to too high a standard. As an aromatic it’s not much of interest.

Pyukar is not an expensive incense but at least it doesn’t just smell like spiced up pencil shavings. Like one of the other higher quality Domas, the smoke is fairly low and there’s enough sandalwood to give it a bit of dignity as well as some benzoin and a light touch of spice. It’s still a touch on the sour side, but it’s also a bit similar to Red Crystal and thus bears a sense of familiarity. A touch better than fair.

Doma’s Mandala lists sandalwood, musk, saffron, juniper, and cardamom, but the deep red and thin base speak of cedar and/or juniper wood, and once again it’s difficult to suss out the ingredients on the roll (although strangely the saffron does manage to peak out). Overall this is one of those generic red Tibetan sticks with a strong nod to the campfire, with little to speak for it except for a slight sense of high alititude. There’s lots of incenses like these, after a while it’s difficult to really sense any great difference in quality from one to another.

Finally there’s Doma’s premium priced Special Incense which to be fair isn’t really worth a half or third of its price, given that it shares that tier with much better incenses. Still it’s easily the best Doma in this group. Like the Pyukar this is a low smoke incense and I’d guess in this case that’s due to the myrrh content. The scent is very clean and mellow, with quite a bit of resin and wood in the mix. The major difference to me from other Domas is the base wood quality is a lot higher than usual, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have it’s share of campfire associations. It does have that red berry juniper roundness, but then so do a lot of incenses at much more affordable prices.

Doma have quite a few other products, but based on the handful I tried here, I wasn’t inspired to check out any of the other incenses. In many ways the level of Doma quality is generally what you’d expect as a baseline for Nepali incense, there’s definitely some cheaper companies and a few much better, but what you’ll find in the catalog will generally be traditional and not too flashy.

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Mentsi Khang Bhutanese Incense (Mih)

You’ll need to scroll past the Red Crystals to see this rather obscure incense. It’s fairly unclear from the box exactly what the name is, as “Mih” only shows up on the ends of the box. The box itself carries around 40 sticks, all of which, at least in my box, are kind of bent banana style. With the sort of airy feel to the stick (similar if not airier than the Nado Poizokhang lines, also Bhutanese), it makes the incense seem a little unusual or exotic even.

The ingredients listed are nagi, sandalwood, cardamom, clove, saffron, musk, leaves of spruce and hemlock, butterworth, benth, and other Himalayan aromatic herbs. However while that listing might give one the impression of a complex, multi-spice sort of blend, the results are a lot more consonant than you might expect. It’s actually not particularly unwelcome sorting under the Red Crystal incenses as it has that very woody sort of base, although in this case the woodiness gives way to quite a bit of aromatic depth, implying many of the other ingredients while not highlighting any one in particular. The scent has a peppery sort of vibe with the typical campfire aroma you get from heavy high-altitude, evergreen woods and a fleeting hint of resin or amber.

Overall it’s a rather unusual incense, with an aspect of it managing to trigger subconscious impressions at times, possibly due to what seems like a “fire” element to it with the pepper, heavy woods and strongly consonant finish. At times it seems like a simple incense, until one backs up a little and sees it for the mosaic it is, a picture created from little pictures. And it’s those little pictures that gnaw at you, well beyond the scent’s overall impact as if there’s much more to be found here.

Best Incense – September 2008

[For previous Top 10 lists, please click on the Incense Review Index tab above or the Top Ten Lists category on the left.]

  1. Shoyeido / Premium / Ga-Ho – The price on Shoyeido premiums necessitates some discipline in terms of frequency of burning, but despite all attempts at restraint, I’m closing in on the halfway point of my “silk box” and eyeing the bigger roll and wondering how I can afford one in this sinking economy. I just can’t get enough of what may be my very favorite incense. This one’s dry, unlike any other incense, heavy with high quality aloeswood, and the oil/perfume is stupendous. Just can’t get enough of this one. Extremely exotic and not nearly as immediate as the rest of the line.
  2. Shoyeido / Premium / Nan-Kun – And almost for a different reason, Nan-Kun is nearly as addictive. I think my appreciation for musk is higher of late due to all the Tibetans and while Nan-Kun gets its muskiness likely from the very high quality and heavy use of spikenard, it still itches that same spot while hitting the aloeswood and spice buttons at the same time. This one is very animal and rich, with an almost poignant sweetness to it. Possibly the best buy for money in the Shoyeido Premium line. To my nose, I enjoy Ga-Ho and Nan-Kun as much as the expensive kyaras in the line.
  3. Shunkohdo / Kyara Seikan – Seikan sticks are thin enough to look like they’d break in a strong wind, but their aromatic power for such a size is always startling, even if one does have to quiet down to “hear” it. In many ways this is the kyara incense that really focuses on the wood and while there are obvious ingredients that bolster the aroma, the sweet, sultry smell of the wood is central. A superlatively brilliant incense that I can barely get enough of.
  4. Tibetan Medical College / Holy Land – Down to about 15 sticks left in my box and I practically need disciplined meditation to stay away from it given the wait for a restock (when I go nuts). The very apex of Tibetan incense, a stick that rivals any country’s best work.
  5. Highland Incense – Highland’s the trusty #2 Tibetan brand for me as I wait for more Holy Land, a combination of animal (musk, civet?) and herbal spice that is incredibly comforting and relaxing right before sleep (I often burn about 2 inches of a stick as I drift off). Becoming a standard around here, don’t let this one go out of stock before you try it!
  6. Baieido / Kunsho – My recent musing is wondering whether Kunsho, the third most premium of five in Baieido’s Pawlonia box line, might be equal or better than the fourth, Koh En. As I get to know Baieido incense, more and more do I think you’re getting your best value for money from their products. I could see Kunsho at almost twice the price and still be worth it. Slightly cherry-esque with a very balanced and noble wood to it, this is truly impressive incense.
  7. Shoyeido / Premium / Myo-Ho – Definitely my favorite among the supernal trio heading Shoyeido’s premium line. It still strikes me like an electric muscat, deep, aromatic and sweet with an aloeswood strength that constantly reminds you of the incense’s depth. Another scent that’s painful to watch as your supply dwindles.
  8. Lung Ta / Drib Poi – I am returning to this Tibetan stick fairly often even though in doing so I keep sampling the rest of the line and wonder why I like this one so much more. I think it must be the curry-ish spice to it which seems missing in the others, a green-ish , exotic tinge that brings out the ingredient complexity.
  9. Minorien / Aloeswood – As I cycle through various incenses I often come across this one and am impressed all over again, particularly surprising as the two above it in the Minorien line are more refined and impressive. But there’s something so ancient and hoary about this aloeswood that it tends to scratch that itch I have with aloeswoods that aren’t too sweet. Like Baieido, Minorien’s products have a way of continuing to impress long after one’s initial purchase.
  10. The Direct Help Foundation / The Druid – I’m not sure this incense is still available, it was originally part of the Magic Tantra set and maybe one other, but perhaps it will show up again in the future. It’s actually somewhat similar in its salty herbalness to the Tibetan Medical College incenses, although not at all musky or dense like those. I’m not sure what the active ingredients is here, the mosses or something else, but the results are a very pleasant blend I hope comes back in the future. Because when TDHF get it right like they do here, they’re among the best.

Kuenzang Chodtin Tibetan Incense

[This incense has either been discontinued or repackaged.]

Having had so much success with various high end Tibetans costing anywhere from the teens to the 40s, I thought, like Japanese incense, that you’d generally be safe with anything relatively expensive. While price is still often a good indicator of an incense worth buying, Kuenzang Chodtin (scroll down, second from bottom) incense appears to be one of those land mines worth detouring around.

There are a number of Tibetan incenses that use aromatics that Westerners are likely going to identify with tire rubber or other acrid and/or bitter offnotes. Despite a number of herbs and ingredients that give the impression that Kuenzang Chodtin incense is likely to be superb and an initially positive first two or three seconds for the light, my experience was blindsided when after relighting the stick later, a strange black bubbling tar erupted from part of the incense leaving a strange, ashy foamy deposit on the incense. The smell at this point was so chemical that it evoked for me those incense urban legends of companies who say a particular incense is made of natural ingredients, but aren’t actually giving full disclosure. It’s as if the the resins were switched out with asphalt.

Stickwise, Kuenzang Chodtin is pink in a similar manner to the higher grade Nado Poizokhang sticks. I didn’t have quite the same experience with subsequent KC sticks, but the incense has a number of ingredients that will largely be unpleasant to the Western nose, and I don’t mean that in an acquired taste sense. It’s possible the incense was meant to be a more floral Tibetan derivative in that some of the incense’s top notes seem to have a very harsh, almost Indian masala-like rose scent, which when mixed with the incense’s noxious base gives off very harsh notes.

It’s strange because there seem to be some pleasant elements. That richness when nagi is involved seems to be there in the top, but the base overwhelms this quickly. Sometimes the bitterness is so penetrating it’s like the aroma from a bottle of cheap, charcoal filtered vodka. I did some labwork in an organic chemistry lab a decade ago or so, and that’s always the smell chemicals like this evoke for me. There are incenses that are dull and average, not worth picking up because they have little to offer. Kuenzang Chodtin goes past this to where burning a stick is actually fairly unpleasant at times. Less a pleasant aroma than a chemistry experiment.

Best Incense – August 2008

[For previous Top 10 lists, please click on the Incense Review Index tab above or the Top Ten Lists category on the left.]

  1. Tibetan Medical College / Holy Land – The question du jour: When is Essence going to restock this? Yes, I know I haven’t come close to finishing up the box yet. Yes, it’s probably a waste to burn 50 sticks of this at once, but I won’t know for sure until I try. Anyway, while the answer is certainly ASAP, I hope my (mild) anxiety over this reflects just how totally and completely crushed over Holy Land I am. It’s quite likely to be my favorite incense for quite a while as only…
  2. Highland Incense – …is anywhere close to how I feel about it. In fact Highland here comes pretty darn close as a #2 and as the product of a retired Tibetan Medical College doctor, it’s not difficult to think about these two in the same breath. But where Holy Land gets the step due to its unbelieavable floral middle, which comes out the most when you’re not looking for it, Highland has such a balanced muskiness with a nice sweetness that it also constantly compels me to return to the box.
  3. Baieido / Jinko Kokoh – Every premium series seems to have its own character and style and the kokohs aren’t any different. In fact the defining aspect, at least of the Byukaden and Jinko Kokohs, is more so the ingredients other than the woods. Particularly the borneol and spices which seem to be at about the highest, natural level available in these incenses. They help to make these among the most penetrating incenses available. Would love to see these in long stick form.
  4. Baieido / Kunsho – I think it dawns on anyone using any one of the five Baieido aloeswoods (in Pawlonia boxes) that the series is strong from top to bottom, but it really takes a good half a box to realize just how great they really are. I’d been a little late grabbing a Kunsho box, but so glad I did as every stick is an exercise in reflection. Sweet, deep, classy, refined, this one may be just as good as the next step up Koh En. Or at least I think so this week.
  5. Shunkodo / Kyara Aioi no Matsu – I’m so enamored with Kyara Seikan that it occludes my view on the Aioi no Matsu. The other issue is the AnM suffers pretty hard with aromatic fatigue, given that so much of its majesty is in the very top spice notes. But when you get everything, it’s truly extraordinary with a dozen or so different aspects going on. A tremendously complicated blend.
  6. Samye Monastery / Samathabadra – This would have been a little higher earlier in the month when I was finding it difficult not to burn it a bunch. It’s an unusual incense, more consonant when you’re not paying too much attention but extremely diverse when you are, as you notice all the aspects to it. And there’s really no other incense quite like it, dark, rich, mysterious and ambrosial.
  7. Shoyeido / Premium / Ga-Ho – I just can never get enough of this one, an easy all-time top 5 pick and my favorite Shoyeido premium. It’s dry and spicy/heavily resinated wood one-two attack gets me every time. The day I buy 135 sticks is the day it becomes a #1 pick for a few months.
  8. Encens du Monde / Meditation / Guiding Light – Probably because it’s fairly essential oil heavy, this incense does a fantastic job scenting a larger area over time. I really adore the smell of this one, especially after about half a long stick has burned. Even with all the oils this is at essence a very complex, very woody incense. Just one or two sticks a month tends to push it into my monthly best.
  9. Tennendo / Karafune Kahin-Gold – It took me a while to come around to this series, in fact had I written the review today I’d have compared them to the above-mentioned Baieido aloeswood series as they’re really that difficult to parse. Over time I’ve been noticing just how quality the aloeswood is in this and (in lesser quantity) the Silver. But now these are starting to really grow on me and I’m starting to notice more of the woody qualities. Sleeper hits for sure.
  10. Tibetan Medical College / Nectar – This one has fallen due to the Holy Land, which seems in comparison to be more of a B grade, but this is a B grade better than most A grades. The intensity of the spices isn’t as high and I suspect that’s due to juniper berry. But it’s still one of those incenses you can smell the musk straight off the stick and it only suffers in comparison to Holy Land

Samye Monastery / Samanthabadra

I’ve written about this venerable monastery’s amazing incense in the past, but never really tried for a more descriptive review as my relationship with this incense has really developed since I tried my first sample 6 months ago or so. It was really my first encounter with a high end Tibetan incense and my first reaction was how strange and unusual it was, with an aromatic strength that was perhaps a little unsettling. But since then it’s grown on me to the point where I see it as one of the three Tibetan supernals, along with Tibetan Medical College Holy Land and Highland Incense.

Unlike these others incense, the musk content of Samathabadra is a little more muted and more like an instrumentalist in a symphony than the conductor. In fact the entire incense is a blend of various ingredients that all show their faces during various sessions. My first encounter accentuated the rich nature of any incense blended with nagi/pangolin scales, a certain ineffable spice characteristic. While I’ve noticed its presence in any nagi-infused incense, I probably couldn’t describe it too easily as I’ve never smelled the pure aroma.

Over time, the variety of spices really comes out and with further use the combination becomes more and more addictive. Now I notice spices and aromas like cinnamon and clove, orange, chocolate, coffee and gingerbread. Anyone who has tried the estimable English barleywine, Young’s Old Nick, will also recognize a sort of banana-tinged, hoppy scent (and ironically in finding that link, the second review down says that Old Nick reminds the writer of burning incense :D) in Samanthabadra. The combination of all these scents is kaleidoscopic, each new stick turning up variations that are often surprising, sometimes arresting.

I pulled Samanthabadra out at a dinner party last weekend, along with a number of higher-end Shoyeido and Shunkodo sticks, just as the sun was going down. It’s reflective of how good Samanthabadra is that it inspired as many or more positive comments than Sho-kaku or Ga-Ho. For an incense made in very cool weather it seems remarkably adaptable to a California summer, filling the surrounding area with spices similar to those found in cider and spiced tea. Undoubtedly one of the great Tibetan works of art.

Highland Incense

Incense enthusiasts will undoubtedly have come across Tibetan Musk incenses, however if you’re like me most of them don’t really come up to snuff, particularly given how variant musk can be. With today’s ecological concerns, most musky incenses are created by the use of plants or even synthetic materials, and they vary widely in scent, but one aspect they don’t vary all that widely on is depth. And that’s really the major aspect of real musk that can not be imitated, an organic scent that is much a stamp on the nearby environment as it is an aroma. Moving from incenses with herbal musk to those with the real thing means you really don’t even need an ingredient list to tell. That is, when it comes to the description, you’re rarely if ever going to be told your incense has animal-derived musk, but an incense like Highland, even without the word musk brought up, will make the issue really clear.

Ecological issues aside, musk is the dominant aroma of Highland incense stick and it’s an astonishing musk, with the staying power of a skunk spray but with the aroma of paradise. From the ingredients list you also get white sandalwood, purple sandalwood, agarwood, saffron and pangolin scales along with 20 other medicinal ingredients. All of these ingredients are among the most pricy in incense and they make Highland one of the most richest, indulgent incense experiences available. Fragments of sticks will not only scent your living space but your memory as well, and I’ve carried this deep, musky, aroma in my mind to places far away from an incense burner.

As much as I can talk about this being a prime example of a great Tibetan musk incense, part of the reason is the richness of materials being used, a spicy and multi-faceted base that plays behind the initial aromatic impact and adds character and definition. It’s a great incense from top to bottom, the musk hitting you first, the spices through much of the middle (the musk lingering along; possibly some benzoin or amber) and then slight woody hints that lift it even more. Like the Tibetan Medical College scents (apparently Highland is created by a retired doctor from this college) and Samye Monastery Samathabadra, Highland sits in the very top echelon of world incenses. If you ever wondered why companys go to such ends to imitate this sort of musk, this is the incense to try. I can’t say if it will eliminate bacteria or cure the flu, but based on my mood after a burn, there probably won’t be any evil spirits left when you’re done.

Best Incense – July 2008

[For previous Top 10 lists, please click on the Incense Review Index tab above or the Top Ten Lists category on the left.]

  1. Baieido / 350th Anniversary Sandalwood – This is arguably not even the best of the three incenses in this magnificent (and now deleted) anniversary set, but it was the most revelationary one to my nose, in that this is possibly the best sandalwood I’ve ever tried, with a quality of wood so high it’s like it becomes something else. It’s as if the aromatics and/or wood resins are so fine that they’re like an aged liquor. Given the incenses similarities to Baieido’s Kokoh series (at least the Jinko anyway), I wanted the Byukaden Koko right away. Without this entry I might have given the slot (if a bit lower on the list) to Kyukyodo Yumemachi, not quite as deluxe but still an amazing sandalwood.
  2. Baieido / Koh En – An incense I’ve returned to over and over in the last couple months, there’s something just at the edge of comprehension on this one. For one thing I believe this uses the Hakusui Vietnamese incense, a really gentle yet startling aloeswood, but the spices that accentuate the wood really bring it out. It’s like orbiting a new planet, no matter what spot you’re over there’s something new to look at. This line of aloeswoods might be the most sublime out there.
  3. Highland Incense – I’m over the moon with some of the higher end Tibetan sticks these days, and you really have to credit Essence of the Ages whose archaeological skills are unparalleled at bringing us these really legitimate and otherwordly monastery incenses. Highland’s one of the muskiest, most ever-present incenses you can imagine and will set off subconscious impressions for ages even based on the burn of an inch of stick. It’s about as deep and intense as a Japanese incense even if the aloeswood content is mostly a side note. But the musk here will redefine your experience. I hope they were gentle.
  4. Tibetan Medical College / Nectar (TPN) – If Highland really hit me the most the second or third time around, this Nectar hit between the eyes right in the middle of the third one. It’s an electric, intuition-triggering polyherbal blend like you wouldn’t believe. It reminds me a little of the Tashi Lhunpo Shing Kham Kun Khyab with a massive helping of lama juju. It’s clear, red and has a weird kind of kundalini playfulness to it. It made me want to order the entire college’s catalog.
  5. Shoyeido / Premium / Nan-Kun – A three-way hit of animal depth, spikenard sweetness and aloeswood infinity, it’s the most inexpensive of the Premiums to have this much higher mind impact. Everything above this level refines this sort of sweet musk, but here it’s wild and uninhibited. Starting to become an all-time favorite.
  6. Samye Monastery / Samanthabadra – Soon to be corrected, this is the only high end Tibetan incense I have in stock right now, so the samples of the other high enders have had me returning to this all month. It was my first incense of this level, and found the depth of scent and purity of ingredients to be startling and over time almost addictive. I’m not even sure I could describe this one, except that it’s highly likely the pangolin scales have a real distinct and dimension-adding effect to the overall aroma. Definitely 5x the aroma of most lowest end Tibetans, humming with the essence of the inner planes.
  7. Dzongsar Incense – You get the impression with most Tibetan incense sticks are mostly wood, at least in base and while that’s still true for Dzongsar it’s such a thick and heavy stick one wonders if it’s not made from clay. Aromatically it has similarities to a lot of Tibetan incenses that have difficult (for the Westerner anyway) ingredients (think White Pigeon, the side notes to Mandala Trading Tibetan Monastery, Essence’s Ayurvedic ropes), but in this case they’re refined to the point that it’s a lot easier to see their brilliance. Tangy, rich and definitely multi-dimensional, I think I’ve only barely begun seeing how good this one is.
  8. Shunkohdo / Kyara Seikan – I would feel weird leaving Shunkohdo off of a top 10 list given how much I use their products, many of them are virtual regulars around my place (Yae No Hana in particular nearly makes every monthly list). This kyara blend is always amazing to me due to how penetrating, sharp and sweet the aroma is. Like Baieido, no matter what Shunkohdo do, they never drown out the central wood notes. And I’m finding this one is complex enough to notice different things about it than I did when I first got a box.
  9. Tennendo / Enkuu – If newness wasn’t such a variable factor for these top 10 lists, Enkuu would likely make it every month, it’s quite simply one of my favorite incenses. I’m finding with some of the intense high enders like this that a little goes a very long way and have been finding myself taking out a stick and putting it in a burner and then burning it by thirds. Usually a third of the way down it’s scented the room like most incenses after a full stick. Shoyeido Sho-kaku is also perfect for this and could have interchanged with this selection easily. No doubt that one will be on next month’s again just based on one stick over the last few days.
  10. Lung Ta / Drib Poi – Ever proving the same rule that any incense this complex isn’t revealed in full until at least the fourth stick, I wanted to slip this fantastic, affordable Tibetan (or maybe Brazilian-Tibetan) in here due to its ever-revealing complexity. And it’s the most simple in the line!