Pure Incense / Amber & Rose, Frankincense & Rose, Parijata, Pavitra Vastu, Saffron & Rose, Yellow Rose

It has been a while since I sampled any new Pure Incense scents after reviewing most of their range in the last few years, so was pleased to receive some samples in the mail, although without much in the way of explanation, I’ve had to put two and two together from looking at their revamped product line. Almost all of the samples came labelled, but at least half of them weren’t tagged as Connoisseur, Absolute, Premium or Classic. It seems  that almost everything I was sent is part of their Premium range, which I assume is just the revamped Absolute range. At the same time I received a sample of Yellow Rose but can’t find it anywhere on the site.

Anyway if you’re new to Pure Incense, I’d recommend looking here for previous reviews and to try some of their long standing catalog before trying most of these, many of which are hybrids of other scents. For those that don’t know, in many ways Pure Incense is like the United Kingdom outlet of the Madhavadas family, in the same way Primo is in the United States, however unlike Primo, Pure Incense extends the Madhavadas line into Connoissuer levels, and many of these like Blue Lotus, Nepal Musk and Agarwood are well loved at ORS. The theme common to most Madhavadas incenses is their base mix of charcoal, vanilla and sandalwood. In many cases the vanilla is strong enough to be part of the bouquet of their scents and so it’s good to know if you like the style early. Fortunately the company is a master at this type of incense, often using very high quality perfumes for maximum enjoyment.

We’ll start with the Amber & Rose which is largely a variant of Pure Incense’s Connoissuer Rose. The amber in this case reduces the heaviness of the floral oil, which also brings the vanilla/sandal base to the fore. You can sense the line’s actual amber in the background, largely because the floral perfumes drown a bit of it out. Overall it’s hard not to like this one, it’s familiar in its elements but other than wishing the amber was a touch stronger, the merging is quite well done: soft, pink and pretty.

The rose element in the Frankincense & Rose is much more subdued to the frankincense and acts to give it a subnote rather than the 50/50 hybrids you usually see from Pure Incense. This is a neat trick as the florals touch the citrus notes of the frankincense a bit more than you usually find in Indian incense. The main issue is this is still very close to the regular frankincense that you might not need both, but given this caveat, I’d go with this one as it’s more complex.

The Parijata is a somewhat generic fruity flora, with quite a sandalwood presence. It delivers a light, powdery and floral pink type of aroma without any particular element standing out. It’s interesting because I remember trying both the Absolute and Connoisseur versions of this previously and thinkings they were quite good, so I was surprised to be a bit lukewarm here. Anyway you’re probably safer with my original review – this sample did say it was Connoissuer but I remember that stick being much better.

Newcomer Pavitra Vastu is a spicy and herbal evergreen incense with a pleasant green scent mixed with a noticeable woodiness. This has some similarities to Shroff’s Amir, a certain saltiness in particular drew my attention to the comparison. It has more of a juniper needle and cedar oil note in front that is very nice. Overall a very masculine, Jupiterian type of incense and one I’d love to try more of.

The Saffron & Rose (labelled Connoisseur if my memory is correct), like other incenses with this mix, comes off somewhat furniture polish-like to my nose. The floral perfume is modified in a way that brings out the lemon or citrus qualities a bit too much. The rose character without the mix is a lot more identifiable (if not totally authentic due to expense). There’s a bit of a saffron note, but it’s not really in the right spot. Perhaps it’s just personal taste with this, but of all the samples I received, this came with the largest supply and over the batch it ended up wearing me out more often than not.

I’m not sure if Yellow Rose has been discontinued, but I couldn’t locate it at the web site. It’s a typical charcoal rose with its incumbent harshness, at least the aroma mixed with vanilla is quite nice, the sort of soft and gentle floral you tend to get from yellow roses. I also got an amber, which I had review before, but even though it struck me as slightly different I’m not quite sure which product I’m looking at.

Anyway I’m still glad Pure Incense is with us, they’ve always been a class act with great incense and beautiful packaging and if you haven’t tried them yet, I recommend checking out a sampler or two.

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Natural Arogya Dhoop Incense/Bodhisatwo, Karmayogi, Mahadhup, Meditative, Vaidhyaraj

There isn’t a company associated with these five incenses that’s on the wrapper, but each has a full name that goes Natural Arogya-xxx Dhoop Incense, with each of the five specific names going where the xs go. These are fairly common Nepali blends you’ll likely find at most incense outlets, all of them packaged in paper wrappers and like most common Nepali blends, most of these really aren’t worth the cedarwood chips in the base.

One thing I’ve noticed really frequently when it comes to many inexpensive Nepali incenses is just how many ingredients can add up to zero. All of these incenses have long lists of ingredients, but when the full list really only makes up a small spot on the roster next to filler and binder wood, the list starts to feel less than trustworthy. It does me little good to know, for instance, if there’s agarwood or sandalwood in the incense if the quantity is microscopic. It’s almost like someone telling you they’re friends with a famous celebrity only to realize they just waved at them at an airport.

The first of these incenses, Natural Arogya-Bodhisatwo Dhoop Incense, smells of pencil shavings and juniper with a sour or bitter tang in the mix. Naturally, the list of ingredients includes solukhumbu, gosaikund, himla, jimla & mustang along with haro, barro, aguri, krishagur, gokul (one of the few I recognized), cinnamon and others. A teaspoon of sugar in a cup of coffee makes a difference, but that same teaspoon in a swimming pool full of coffee isn’t going to make much of an impression. None of the ingredients in the list do anything to distract you from the cheap, irritating smell. The list, however, does make me curious as to what it would smell like to burn a pencil fire.

Natural Arogya-Karmayogi Dhoop Incense is a resin heavy Tibetan stick in a style you’ll come across in other Nepali lines. I’m assuming from the ingredients most of what I’m smelling is the saldhup embedded in the red and white sandalwood mix. The somewhat marshmallow-like astasugandha is also fairly prominent, helping to give it some herbal depth. This isn’t a rare scent overall, but it’s one I usually like and so I’ve always considered this the best in this group. This is largely because the resins have the presence to make you forget about the binder wood, and not so much a judgment of its quality, which is still relatively low.

Natural Arogya-Mahadhup Incense (see how they did that?) lists sandalwood, gurgum, sunpati, jattamansi, rupkeshar, and dhupi. The jattamansi is fairly noticeable as the soft element in the front, to help make the overall bouquet somewhere between floral and woody, but this is largely because the florals are competing with the cheap woods dominating the whole stick. At least in this case the woods give off a little bit more than pencil shavings with some hints of Himalayan evergreen, but overall the incense still lacks too much personality.

The Natural Arogya-Meditative Dhoop Incense lists sugandhabal, bakchi, kut, ambergris, cloves, and cardomom, all of which seem to promise a rather excellent incense. The intensity of this stick lies somewhere between the Bodhisatwo/Mahadhup and the Karmayogi, in fact it shares a certain swankiness with the latter. It has a nice spiciness in the middle, a combination not very far from Mandala Trading’s Tibetan Monastery incense. This is a good example of where ingredients can transcend the base and not make you feel like you’re burning cheap stuff (relatively speaking). This has a nice clove burn to it and a genuine firey atmosphere I quite like.

The ingredients for Natural Aroga-Vajdhyaraj Dhoop Incense include kapur, dhupi, kumkum, saffron, nutmeg, and cinnamon. The black color of the stick makes me wonder if this is an Agar 31 attempt, but again, like with the Karmayogi and Meditative, the herbs are pretty swanky. Here you get that with the wood center, and the reuslts will remind most of tires and campfire wood. This is a good example, I think, of how certain Tibetan herbs aren’t likely to go down as aromatics with most westerners. And after so many sticks, this is one I feel like I can do without. The only ingredient that really comes out for me is the nutmeg.

Overall this is more or less your standard Nepali line, almost typical of what you’d get from a surface overview of the style. Like many inexpensive Tibetan incenses, these are heavy in cheap materials and rarely reach the promise found in their ingredient lists. Both the Karmayogi and Meditative will do in a pinch, but generally speaking you’ll find better incense elsewhere.

Ramakrishnanda / Bala Krishna, Govardhana, Madhurya Rasa, Shringara

Ramakrishnanda Part 1
Ramakrishnanda Part 2
Ramakrishnanda Part 3
Ramakrishnanda Part 4

My relationship with Ramakrishnanda incense has kind of hopped all over the place. I first encountered their line when it first came out in a local new age shop and was immediately impressed by the quality of scents based on how the incenses had almost permeated the whole store. But I found out quickly via the sampler packs that there were some incenses that were almost atrociously bad as well, and I also found out that much of the amazing aromatic qualities of the incenses had largely faded after six months (which is fairly typical of most Indian incenses). So in a year I went from thinking they were one of the better incenses lines on the market to somewhere in the middle.

There was also a small batch released about a year ago (covered in the Part 4 link above) that I found somewhat average, especially to what Shroff and Mothers were starting to release at the time and this sort of cemented my opinion that Rama were not quite as good as the new premium incenses coming out, but they were certainly better than the Satyas and Nitirajs. And with this new group of four incenses, I think the brand has brought the quality up a little, especially on (at least) two of these which are well worth checking out.

Ramakrishnanda’s Bala Krishna is not really a new incense as much as an old one in a new package. Sublabeled as saffron and frankincense, Bala Krishna is the classic dry saffron sandalwood masala (Mystic Temple has a version for example), the thin yellow stick with a mix of sandalwood and camphorous qualities with a nice saffron spice on top. Personally I find it pretty hard to even locate where frankincense might be in this one, as it’s never come to mind with this aroma, but I’ve always liked this one as it has a sort of “chandan” sandalwood type of scent to it that merges nicely with the saffron. It’s not really a surprise this one keeps popping up, it’s quite dependable and varies little from company to company.

As traditional as the Bala Krishna is, the Govardhana is nice little innovation in the world of champas with loban and coconut featured as the two main ingredients. I can’t even think of another incense that’s tried this combination before and I usually find coconut incenses to be almost disastrous, especially when they evoke cheap suntan lotions. The results here are impressively complex and inexpressibly beautiful. The loban isn’t anything like the gravelly benzoin scent you get in other sticks or resins, here it’s nice and cooling, even a  touch fruity without being overbearing. Well worth checking out this one, the subnotes even create some nice vetivert and/or patchouli associations.

Where Govardhana was a complete success, the combination of the khus and almond in the Madhurya Rasa blend doesn’t work at all. There’s something in the perfume that kills an essential part of the khus aroma and a part of the base that adds too much biutterness to the mix. This is very typical of the other incenses in the Ramakrishnanda line that don’t work, there’s an obvious clash at work. Even the almond isn’t particularly identifiable, which is quite disappointing, especially when you do think a combination like this could work.

There’s one more success in this new group, the combination of citronella, patchouli and geranium in the Shringara. I burned a stick of this late last night which caused me to bump this review a ways up on the list just to get the word out on this and the Govardhana. This is a big red colored champa that seems to have quite a bit of spice in the mix as well to go with the very interesting combination of three oils. One wonders if the same perfumers who create clashes like with the Madhurya Rasa also create the alchemic wonder of something like this, where the more cloying aspects of citronella are balanced so nicely by the patchouli and geranium. Perhaps the only issue with this stick might be that because the oils are so intense, I can imagine they’re probably going to fade quite a bit at some point. But if a cherry red, loud, brash scent amplified by lemongrass and patchouli sound up your alley, it’s well worth a look.

Anyway even if there’s one failure in this group, I still love the fact Ramakrishnanda are still up for experimenting with formulas and trying new things, because they can add two successes to their list.

Shri Loman Ngagyur Nyingma Buddhist Charitable Society of Bhutan/World Peace Grade B

I’m not sure how long this one’s going to last, since it’s buried at the bottom of this page but I wanted to bring this traditional Bhutani stick to attention. I’d be curious to try the Grade A on this as World Peace Grade B is a remarkably good Nado Poizokhang clone and roughly the same quality as Nado’s own grade B. This version is created from sandalwood, astasugandha, ambergris, and saffron and is in the classic Bhutani style, with a pink color and an almost plastic-like consistency. The aroma is typical, a nice berry, spicy, woody and peppery blend and won’t surprise anyone familiar with Bhutanese incense. Perhaps the best part is comparatively it’s a lot more affordable than Nado. So it’s well worth picking up if you need to check out a traditional Bhutani stick.

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.

Huitong / Cure Disease, Taizhen, Solemn, Golden Light, Plum Blossom, Sky Dragon, Yun Hui Incense Powder

While we do see a lot of incenses coming in from the Tibetan region within the political boundaries of China, Huitong is the first Chinese incense company we’ve been in contact with. In many ways Huitong might be considered the Chinese analog of Baieido in that all of their incenses seem to be made without the use of perfumes and oils, using only ecologically sound ingredients. What this means is that it’s been very difficult to do their incenses justice as to even pick up on their subtleties means you have to approach them like you do with Baieidos and “listen” to them.

This is essentially sort of a hybrid style, using extruded Japanese-like sticks to format what are essentially very Tibetan-like scents. So the most obvious comparison would be to Bosen’s Tibetan traditionals or even some of the Korean incenses, except as already mentioned that Huitong doesn’t use oils as Bosen does and the scents will be friendlier to Western noses than many of the Korean incenses. But one thing most of the scents have in common is they all have multiple ingredients and thus often don’t have the dominant sandalwood or aloeswood notes that tend to make categorizing Japanese incenses a little easier.

Cure Disease is described as a “kind of historic incense, which is mainly used for cure disease and health preserving. It was originated from Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.) and recorded in ancient books that burning this incense regularly could help to strengthen us both emotionally and physically.” The ingredients are listen as figwort root, spikenard, cypress seed, rhubarb, aloeswood, storax and clove.  As such, this type of mix reminds me a lot of some of the sweeter TDHF Tibetan ropes with a bit of fruitiness  in a much more refined format. Like with most mainland incenses, the aloeswood is quiet and mixed in but it works quite well to give the incense some heft. The results are quite pleasant, especially as the scent builds, almost like a mix of woods and grape.

Taizhen incense is the second of three Huitong incenses packaged in beautiful cardboard rolls. The incense “originated from Imperial Consort Yang of Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) Consort Yang known briefly by the Taoist nun name Taizhen, was one of the four beauties of ancient China, she was the beloved consort of Emperor Xuanzong for many years. According to legend, Consort Yang treasured this incense very much and named it by her own Taoist nun name. Taizhen Incense is made from various famous and precious Chinese traditional materials according to the ancient spice formula.” The ingredients listed are sandalwood, Chinese eaglewood (aloeswood), saffron, cloves, jave amonum fruit, saussurea involucrata, rue, cogongrass etc. In this case the sandalwood is noticeably up front in a sort of freshly cut wood way. The other ingredients sweeten this base scent up in the same way they do in wood powder heavy Tibetan ropes. The Chinese Eaglewood gives the aroma a bit of roundedness and the front has a fruitiness not dissimilar to the Cure Disease, In some ways it’s like a nice, smooth low wned aloeswood crossed with Tibetan-style spices.

Solemn Incense is one of the previous Buddhist incense. It was originated from Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) when Buddhism was popular in the society. According to legend, when burning this incense, all the gods will pray to Buddha all together. It is usually used for practice Buddhism or reading at the home.” Like the previous two incenses, this is packaged in a cardboard roll. It contains sandalwood, aloeswood, mastiche, galbanum, and saruma henryi among other ingredients. It’s a very light sandalwood and aloeswood blend, with a slight fruitiness akin to the Taizhen (one wonder if this roll series might have some thematic similarities). It’s quite pleasant, again largely due to the fresh wood powder scent at the center. It seems like the galbanum might give the scent the fruity subnote. Like all good meditation incenses, it also has a slight ineffable quality about it. Solemn may not be as rich as the previous two incenses but in a way it’s the most successful.

Golden Light moves the packaging format to boxes and presents another tradional Buddhist formula from the Tang Dynasty, its name originating from the Golden Light Sutra. The ingredients are given as sandalwood, frankincense, basil and cypress seed and the incense definitely smells like a variation on a combination of those first two ingredients. As such it’s not terribly far from, say, a less refined Kyukyodo Yumemachi as if it was done as a Tibetan stick. This puts the incense in the general catgeory of the “daily incense” in that the ingredients here have less luster than in the other sticks. For the most part this is a woodshop sort of scent and as such it is also similar to the Incienso de Santa Fe bricks.

I’m about 95% sure the next incense I’m reviewing is Huitong’s Plum Blossom. Although the box wasn’t clearly labelled, the graphics seem to match the story which goes like this. “Plum Blossom Incense was created by Princess Shouyang, the daughter of Emperor Wu in the Nan Dynasty’s Song Era. Princess Shouyang was a plum blossom lover, according to the legend, one day when she slept beneath a tree, a plum blossom fell on her forehead, leaving a floral imprint. With the imprint, she looked much more beautiful. Soon, all the ladies followed her to paste plum blossom shaped ornaments on their foreheads. It was then called Plum Blossom Makeup. Hence, Princess Shouyang was crowned Goddess of Plum Blossom and this incense was also name Plum Blossom incense.” Plum Blossom is a coil incense (the coils are the same shape and size as many mainland aloeswood coils) and is made from spikenard, aloeswood, radix angelicae dahuricae, cortex moutan, clove bark and sandalwood. It’s interesting to see spikenard listed first as I didn’t sense it taking up a lot of the scent. Instead you seem to have the mainland take on something like Baieido Kobunboku done Tibetan style. That is the incense itself is centrally woody but it supports a sort of light floral mix that creates the plum blossom aroma and does so without the off scents one would expect with inexpensive perfume. It’s not spectacular so much as understated and like all the Huitongs, nicely done given the boundaries.

“Sky Dragon is a kind of precious Chinese traditional incense. It was originated from Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) when Buddhism was popular in the society. According to traditional recipes, the incense requires several days of cellaring during production process.” Sky Dragon has a huge list of ingredients: rosewood heartwood, cloves, sandalwood, valeriana jatamansi, cogongrass, rue, frankincense, benzoin, ageratum, galangal root and cypress powder. The rosewood appears to be the central ingredient and the mix gives this stick a very different bent from the previous incenses which all have a substantive sandalwood component. It makes for a nice change, slightly anyway, because the rosewood doesn’t have quite the depth to carry it completely. Even the spices mixed in the other scents are missing here, leaving this one with a sort of campfire scent.

I didn’t receive any information with the last incense here, Yun Hui incense powder. This seems to be the deluxe item in the batch, as the powder has an intense richness that none of the sticks quite approach. Even fresh out of the box the spicy, fruity blend pops out of its small ceramic interior container. And maybe it starts with that container but it makes the whole incense reminiscent of Japanese kneaded incenses mixed in with the woody and powdery elements of Tibetan powders and ropes. This scent seems highest in good aloeswood content with subnotes of tea, caramel and butter on the heater. In order to get this review up in even a remotely reasonable time, I had to forego a sample of it on a charcoal burner but I may come back and add that. Needless to say, this is very good powder, reminiscent to some of the better Tibetan powders and I’m hoping to be able to get to know it better.

We’ll have some more Huitong incenses up for review somewhere down the line. Overall what reviewing these did for me, is really question the idea of what effects perfumes and oils have on an incense’s immediacy, because without them one’s work is a lot more difficult in trying to describe a scent as all of these, with perhaps the exception of the powder, are very quiet and gentle scents which will make you stretch to understand. Which is not at all a bad thing in my book. I’m actually overall very impressed with the sheer class and visual impression of Huitong. However, there’s one disclaimer and that these incenses aren’t easy to get at the moment, at least in the US and as I finish this up I realize I don’t have a URL. So I’m going to first direct you to Frankie’s blog where I assume one can leave a comment if you’re interested in purchasing, and I should be back in a few days with something a bit more direct.

Stupa / Spikenard, Dorjee Samba, Healing (Agar 31), Austa Suganda, Champabati

Stupa Incense Industry creates a number of incenses under the hand of Lama Dorjee, several of which I’d count in the upper class of Nepali incenses, in that the quality ingredients in any of the scents is always of a high enough content to push past the bland. I’ve reviewed several of these in the past (which you can access by scrolling down this page). As I mentioned in one of the previous reviews (the Buddha set), there are a couple boxes that actually include more than one incense and there is one of those sets here as well.

Spikenard is a pretty rare scent to be found in Tibetan style catalogs, perhaps due to its cost. In Japanese incense kansho’s musky caramel sweetness is a pivotal player in high end incenses and in my opinion is often just as important in the bouquet as the woods. On the other end of the spectrum you have this rough and ready Stupa version which is actually quite impressive for its cost. Yes, there’s definitely a lot of base wood in this (Himalayan pencil cedar) incense, but it manages only to seat the general spikenard scent, which here has a bit of coppery or brassy vibe to it, and doesn’t have the refined sweetness you find in the Japanese incenses. Otherwise the muskiness and slight caramel aroma still manages to more or less get the aroma right. In the end this is a solid incense for the price and unlikely to duplicate what you might own.

The Dorjee Samba blend gets top billing by Lama Dorjee and consists of an impressive blend of saldhoop, kud, agar, holibasil, nutmeg, cardamom and other hebs and spices. Despite this list of ingredients the most notable part of this bouquet is a strong, green, pungent evergreen scent that has similarities to Bosen’s Pythoncidere as well as the high altitude campfire like scent you’d find with the Dhoop Factory’s Alpine. And as such this is an incense I like very much with the sort of tire-like elements you tend to find with heavier woods reduced to a reasonable amount. In fact I’d wager a guess that the balancing sweetness here is the saldhoop (often considered an amber). In a list of good Nepalis this is definitely one that would be high up the list for me.

If the Spikenard and Dorjee Samba are fairly unique Nepalis, the Stupa Healing Incense (Agar 31) is in a pretty common class of Tibetan incenses. Here there are three kinds of black aloeswood, various herbal flowers, cloves, saffron and red and white sandalwood listed as ingredients but like all Healing/Agar 31 incenses the result doesn’t evince so much complexity and is somewhat nondescript (that is, if you’re looking for the Tibetan equivalent of a Japanese aloeswood, this and any of its brethren come nowhere close). It’s even difficult to describe as a scent as it doesn’t have the same woody/campfire qualities of high juniper and cedar levels nor the subtleties usually found in incenses with aloeswood, sandalwood or saffron. Of course incenses like this one seem less designed with aroma in mind rather than the supposed healing properties they may or may not have, in fact this one claims it will alleviate flatulences. Duh, right?

The final two incenses here come in one box, with a roll of Lama Dorjee/Stupa Austa Suganda and another of Champabati. The former contains pencil cedar, valerian, holy basil, gum-guggul and sandalwood, along with, I’d assume, the key ingredient in the name. The result is a very tangy sort of Tibetan that has an aroma fairly close to the paper on many ropes and a bit like toasting marshmallows over a fire. It’s a fairly static scent and probably only likely to appeal to some. Overall I find it a bit plastic-like in this form and that almost every ingredient listed can’t be detected over the austa sugandha.

The Champabati definitely has a strong campfire/tire/rubber-like base, which is somewhat uncommon for a Stupa, it also does a fair job at imparting a champa-like aroma on top. Unfortunately the competition of such a gentle floral scent with all the strong woods doesn’t create a particularly memorable incense and I’m once again fairly convinced the champa scent doesn’t work particularly well in a Tibetan style incense. If you’re experiencing even a hint of aromatic fatigue this will come off probably more bitter than intended. Rare are the good Nepali florals…

Stupa has some other incenses in their catalog including sandalwood, juniper and jasmine, although I’ve foregone checking these out for fear of duplication. But I’d think eventually this would be one of the catalogs I’d revisit as I’m fairly confident that the quality will be high.

Pure Incense / Absolute / Cedarwood, Cedarwood & Lavender, Cedarwood & Rose, Cedarwood & Sandalwood, Saffron, Vanilla

This is the fifth installment of the large Pure Incense catalog and as it has been a while since the last one, I’d suggest clicking on the Pure Incense tag on the left to see the others as this is a mighty fine series of incenses with a diversity that probably won’t be self evident just from this particular subsection. Here I’ll be discussing several cedarwood blends, the Absolute Sandalwood and what perhaps could be considered the line’s most basic incense in the Absolute Vanilla. You may have guessed that these are all part of the line’s standard series, although in the case of many of these incenses they are the highest quality versions of their particular aroma.

As the Madhavadas family is the source of these incenses, it’s no surprise that their Absolute Cedarwood is more or less the exact same incense you’ll find in many lines such as Primo and Triloka, if not very similar to those from Incense from India and Mystic Temple. It’s a sweet and perfumed cedar, perhaps even more obviously so after trying Shroff’s most recent version, which is completely different. I’ve always had a fondness for this scent and consider it unique in comparison to other cedarwood scents, which often have little depth and are closer to, say, pencils than aromatic wood. No doubt this is due to an oil, but I’d guess its sweetness is also due to the line’s ubiquitous vanilla-enhanced base. I’d consider this the place to start before moving on to the hybrids as you’ll then be able to see how brilliantly a second ingredient tends to transmute the cedar aroma.

The first hybrid is the Absolute Cedarwood & Lavender whose added lavender perfume changes the entire contour of the cedarwood and as a result ends up in a very different lavender as well. The overall scent has definitely changed to the floral and just as the charcoal, vanilla and sandalwood base changes based on what is being laid over, the cedarwood also seems to go chameleon. It’s not even a combination I probably would have thought of and the result is something almost entirely new with neither main ingredient resembling what they do on their own. In fact you’d think this might be sweeter than it is, but it almost seems like those elements are cancelled out in the new equation.

The stick is a bit darker with the Absolute Cedarwood & Rose perhaps implying an adjustment of some sort to the base. To my nose the oil Madhavadas used on this stick strikes me as being a bit more “authentic” than the lavender and thus find this a very successful incense, the combination bringing out the darker and more mysterious aspects of both ingredients. It adds up to one of the more heavier rose incenses, but unlike many that are rough, this one has a pleasant roundedness. When I originally tried it as a sample, I ended up ordered a full 50g package. It’s only weakness is a slight ammoniac presence common to the occasional perfumed Indian stick.

Perhaps a more obvious pairing is the Absolute Cedarwood & Sandalwood and it’s probably not a surprise that the aroma is tilted more in the favor of the former ingredients and much closer to the base than the previous two mixes. The sandalwood does help to make this a much drier incense and as such it will be seen as an improvement for those whose tastes lie that way. It actually ends up with some rather unique combo notes, with the sandal presence taking the place of the cedar oil on the very top. There even seems to be a little patchouli in the mix, although I’m not sure if this is due to the combo or not. It’s actually quite an unpredictable scent in some ways.

Like the Cedarwood, I find the Absolute Saffron to be a fairly prevalent scent in Indian incense, although I’m not sure they’re all exactly the same given the possibility of diversity in such a scent. This version may not have the classic saffron scent per se, in fact it reminds me more of what I’ve occasionally seen classed as a saffron sandalwood, and that may very well be part of the base playing here. It’s an extremely dry incense, with a bit of spice in the middle as well as the usual vanilla subscent so common to this line of incenses. And there are even hints of some resins in the mix, or at least that’s what I’d guess is giving the incense its intensity and pungency. Quite nice and somewhat complex as well.

For those who have sampled many Pure Incense incenses, the Absolute Vanilla will probably strike you as the very base of the style, in that it really IS the Madhavadas Vanilla. For one thing, it’s relatively less powerful, as if the other oils have been subtracted. On the other hand it’s almost as if you can pick out the vanilla in most of the other incenses before you can with this one, where it’s very dry, as if the rest of the base is less disguised, such as the charcoal and sandalwood. Personally I find vanilla a rough thing in incense (perhaps my favorites are the Shroff Vanilla and Vanilla Balsam, neither of which is particularly comparable here), very difficult to get right and I’m not sure this one is particularly close, unless you have the predeliction for drier masalas.

Next installment will cover some patchouli and sandalwood variations and hybrids and beyond that I think there are a few newer scents I’ve not managed to try out yet, so still more to come.

Tengboche / Ceremony, Offering

Nepalese monastery Tengboche creates three incenses that come in the customary small and long sticks forms. Based on samples of two of them, the incense seems to be safely ensconced in the upper quality level of Nepalese incenses with aromas that are robust and not scuppered by the use of too many generic woods. That is, both of these have assertive personalities.

I’m particularly fond of the Ceremony incense, which takes the usual berry wood combination found in many Nepalese lines, lowers the smoke quantity to gentle while still retaining a very pleasant scent full of evergreen woods, a general berry scent and hints of tobacco-like herbs. The key here is the balance, none of these elements get in the way of the others, which helps to keep the incense interesting along the burn. In fact when thinking of a berry Nepali incense this one’s now actually pretty close to the top of the list, although it’s probably entirely because of the herbal notes.

Offering is completely different and a bit less accessible with a tangy, herbal blend with some strong coffee notes in the mix. While the specific scent is perhaps not quite to my taste as I’m not unusually fond of coffee incenses, it’s no less undiluted than the Ceremony and thus certainly worthy of attention if you feel differently. This also has one specific ingredient mentioned (other than the generic woods and flowers description), saffron water, although the incense didn’t strike me as having any particular saffron like subscent. And I should say for as much as I notice the coffee scent, there’s also something of a Lipton-ish iced tea one in the mix as well.

In the end it all depends on just how high your Nepalese stick count might be as the Ceremony covers a solid version of a familiar scent and the Offering an unusual blend that may or not appeal, but if you’re new to the style of incense this appears to be a solid brand.

Mother’s India Fragrances / Nagchampas / Agni, Amrita, Atma, Bhakti, Jyoti, Lila, Moksha

After being introduced to and living with Mother’s India Fragrances’ original five Nagchampas, I can’t imagine anyone wouldn’t have asked the question “How come there aren’t more of them?” After all the originals are a phenomenal quintet of nagchampas in an era where the form has mostly degenerated. Where so many companies have either eliminated or reduced the content of halmaddi in their products, often creating inferior recipes that only resemble the incenses they used to create, Mother’s have managed to continue a line that not only still contains the ingredient (also called mattipal) but considerably expands the art form.

That is, when nagchampas were made 15 years ago or earlier, the incenses were so full of the gum that the sticks remained so wet you could easily pull them apart. The Mother’s Nagchampas don’t aim for a similar effect and while the incenses are still quite damp, often visibly through the inner packagaing, they all have a uniform consistency that follows the original five scents to what is an incredible 14 new scents. And for those of you already well familiar with the original five, these are going to surprise and elate you as in most cases they have brought the form up to a new level of complexity. Almost all of these incenses have as many as five or six different oil or material sources not even counting the halmaddi/mattipal and honey base. The results are so impressive that it’s difficult to feel that even after sampling several sticks of them that the full story has been told.

I’d like to thank both the home company of Mother’s India Fragrances and their Dutch distribution company Wierook for not only making Olfactory Rescue Service aware of them, but by providing a bounty of gifts and samples in time for me to get some reviews out just before the products come to the United States (not to mention one of the most informative and descriptive English language documents I’ve ever seen for a line of incenses, something that strongly assisted my reviews). Where it was difficult to label only five incenses as the finest Nagchampa line available, now that the total is up to 19, there’s really no question that this is the top line of its format, with a fascinating and aromatically superior range that doesn’t stop to recreate any old recipes and instead uses superior essential oils and absolutes to create a wide range of impressive and intricate scents. This installment will cover the first half of these 14 new incenses with the second half to follow shortly.

The first of these incenses is Agni Nagchampa. Perhaps the most simple description is that this is more or less a musk nagchampa, but it’s far more complex than that. It’s essentially a French Musk sort of scent, which bears some comparison to Shroff’s incense of that name or even the old Blue Pearl Musk Champa, however we know from the description that the central musk scent is created from ambrette seeds. My experience with musks created this way is that they usually aren’t quite this sweet, so one has to look to the other ingredients to see how the bouquet is formed. Obviously the halmaddi and honey anchor this quite nicely at the base as they do for all of the incenses here, so it’s really the middle of the aroma where the magic is. The pivotal ingredient here is neroli or orange blossom oil, an aspect which is the first of many through these incenses that show an incredibly clever perfumery at work because it’s a scent that is mellow and doesn’t overpower while anchoring the musk to the base. The cedar seems to bring out the balsamic aspects to the scent more which both balances the neroli and ensures the fragrance doesn’t go over the top on its way out. Make no mistake, this is still a decadently rich and sweet incenses as any sweet musk would be, but you can almost feel the restraint nonetheless.

As rich and sweet as the Agni is, the cinnamon-laden Amrita Nagchampa is almost a study in contrasts. Even with the amazing halmaddi and honey base, the results are very dry and of this seven, this could be the most direct incense. The cinnamon is very beautifully drawn, in fact the description the company uses is “edible,” something easily understood with a sample. However the cinnamon does have its supporting actors, including patchouli, cedar and some unnamed woods and resins. There are some elements in this that remind me of Nippon Kodo’s Silk Road incense except with a much more genuine feel) but the comparison hints at an exotic subnote that really helps to transmute the base to support the overall dryness.

The Atma Nagchampa is also a restrained piece of work, but in this case it doesn’t transmit a single essence like the previous scent did, instead it portrays a balancing act with a number of different notes at work. What’s amazing about it is that even with so many players the composite aroma remains gentle and subtle. On top we have the dominant floral oils at work, some lavender and what seems like a closer mix of geranium and kewra (pandanus or screwpine) notes. But like several incenses among the new aromas, Mother’s have chosen to contrast these floral elements with a spicy backdrop (including clove), something the company is clearly adept at. The results are actually akin to a standard (if exceptional in quality) nag champa with a soft floral in touch. What it loses without a particularly aggressive bouquet, it gains with a gentle aura and since everything seems to work on such a subtle level, it’s one of the most difficult in this group to get a hang on. But by the last stick I had out it was really starting to get under my skin.

Bhakti Nagchampa is something of an instant classic. As mentioned with the previous incense, Bhakti goes for a floral spice mix that is extraordinary in that it seems possible to pick out the individual elements as they interact with each other. The rose/tuberose/geranium mix on the top could be the best among a number of incredible floral elements across all these incenses and this is perhaps because they not only have strong definition but they’re contrasted perfectly with the patchouli and cedar base. In fact the only question I have is whether a scent like this might lose some of this fantastic definition with aging, because the balance here is like a highwire act with all the base elements a stage for the florals to dance lightly over.

Jyoti Nagchampa has some similarities to the cinnamon heavy Amrita, but here the scent is less monochromatic and more of a tangier multi-spice blend. In fact, it seems likely some of its spicier attributes come from the mix of myrrh, vertivert and patchouli, a group of ingredients that all have great transmutational qualities in different blends. In fact any time Mother’s uses a larger amount of resins in its incenses, it seems to trigger the more balsamic and sometimes evergreen qualities of the base. The mix definitely leaves me very curious about the quality of benzoin used in the ingredients as I recognize none of the usual subnotes and a quality that is truly exquisite. Again this mosaic (which also pulls in kewra to a slight degree) really hits a great balance with a vanilla and spice presence that is just perfect.

Lila Nagchampa is a patchouli heavy incense whose other ingredients really shift the whole tonal balance you normally associate with the herb in new and fascinating ways. For one, this is an incense as sweet as the Agni or Moksha blends, something particularly unusual for something so prevalent with patchouli. Sharing the stage with the patchouli on the top is tuberose, which has already shown its effectiveness in the Bhakti, but where that incense contrasted the floral and spicy, the Lila goes for the composite approach, like a rainbow color chart changing from one end of the spectrum to the other. Undoubtedly the vetivert changes the patchouli element some, always a great partnering, but perhaps where the benzoin and oakmoss lies is where the true transmutation occurs as it falls into the sweet base. The informational material also calls chocolate as a note as a result of the benzoin and you indeed find a powdery cocoa-like subnote in the mix of all this interaction. Like so many of these beautiful scents this seems like one that will have a learning curve as long as the best incenses because it’s not at all what you’d expect in the long run. It’s better.

Moksha Nagchampa …. well if you think it couldn’t get any better than what I’ve already run through then we’d have to at least call this a gamechanger. Champa users may be familiar with a lot of the intersections between style and addition, but the incredibly lily of the valley scent (muguet) that crowns the Moksha is positively ecstatic. And Mother’s doesn’t shy from the contrasts here either, setting off on a trail of oriental woods and saffron notes that end up creating a very rich depth before giving one a floral shock that starts with the rose notes, part of which are described as “citrusy rose petals” which seem to be what I’m picking up as a slight melon-like fruitiness. It all results in the most incredible, kaleidoscopic aroma that has the feminine, floral notes of so many modern perfumes but with the depth of the traditional. I’ve had a few incenses with lily of the valley in them, but none quite so stunning as this one.

One thing you’d expect from a great company is that in expanding what was a really impressive quintet, Mother’s haven’t sat on their laurels and tried to spin similar variations off of an already established success, they’ve possibly surpassed them, or if not, they’ve added such an incredible amount of variation to their line that it breathes new life into the whole line and makes you want to go back to the original quintet for reevaluation. With each stick I became far more deeply involved with each one to the point that picking a favorite is very difficult, there’s really not a blend here I wouldn’t want consistent stock on. There’s just no question that this is the crowning line of the modern nagchampa and I’m fortunate to be able to bring seven more to your attention in the next installment.

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