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.

Shroff Channabasappa / Wet Masalas / Ruby, Shanti, Shran, Super Star

Shroff Channabasappa Part 1
Shroff Channabasappa Part 2
Shroff Channabasappa Part 3
Shroff Channabasappa Part 4
Shroff Channabasappa Part 5
Shroff Channabasappa Part 6
Shroff Channabasappa Part 7
Shroff Channabasappa Part 8
Shroff Channabasappa Part 9
Shroff Channabasappa Part 10
Shroff Channabasappa Part 11
Shroff Channabasappa Part 12

For a bit more introduction to this series of wet masalas, please be sure to read Part 12 above.

Red or pink colored durbar or nag champa sticks (for instance Mystic Temple’s Kali Champa or Incense from India’s Red Poppies) are all fairly common in scent, they tend to be floral on top, usually in a rose-like direction. Even back in the days when halmaddi was more available very few of these stood out in any way and nowadays they’re almost interchangeable. So it’s fortunate that Shroff’s Ruby approaches the same formula and finally makes it go somewhere. For one thing the perfume that tends to be bland in other similar sticks is done much better here as you’d expect, with an interesting mix of rose and strawberry notes. The incense really fits its name, akin to a berry scented candle, but much richer. This one was something of a late comer for me, but now I’d consider it one of the best in this excellent range.

Shanti has the same perfume strength as Little Woods, but moves in spicier and herbal directions. The ingredients list this as a sandalwood and vetivert combination, but like Drona which shares these two ingredients, Shanti is much more distinct, and probably distinct enough in a way that you’ll either like this or not. The sandalwood is very noticeable on this one, at times it even seems concentrated, giving the whole scent a deep richness. This too has a caramel subnote and even a bit of sweet muskiness, but it seems to be something not on the ingredients list that sets this apart, as again, I’m not detecting any massive amounts of vetivert in this, but I do detect and herbal quality it might be providing through the combination.

Shran is an incense for screwpine/kewada lovers, as in many ways this might be described as a kewada champa. Unfortunately I’m not sure it works all that well as an incense, but then again I might not really count myself so much in the screwpine tent. The ingredients seem to be as high quality as any other incense in the range, including some rose and sandal notes in the mix, the former more or less overlapping some with the screwpine. It’s a mellow scent overall but I don’t find the base and perfumes to work all that well together, in fact it seems that any of the sweeter, richer notes in the base are actually fighting with the screwpine notes, which seems like it works better with more dryness.

Super Star seems to be modelled on Satya’s Super Hit, or at least the first time I burned a stick it reminded me of what Super Hit used to smell like when it was brilliant instead of dull. This is a beautiful combination of sandalwood, rose and what Shroff calls in several of these incenses “oriental” notes. The result is a very sweet champa with an accessible rose-infused aroma in front. In fact this scent has the breadth and richness of old school champas and is quite reminiscent of the kinds of scents Shrinivas did in its heyday. It’s quite easy to recommend this as it’s friendly on every level.

More Shroff reviews to come, this is one company that’s almost impossible to stay ahead of.

Shroff Channabasappa / Wet Masala / Darshan, Drona, Little Woods, Nag Champa

Shroff Channabasappa Part 1
Shroff Channabasappa Part 2
Shroff Channabasappa Part 3
Shroff Channabasappa Part 4
Shroff Channabasappa Part 5
Shroff Channabasappa Part 6
Shroff Channabasappa Part 7
Shroff Channabasappa Part 8
Shroff Channabasappa Part 9
Shroff Channabasappa Part 10
Shroff Channabasappa Part 11

There are probably enough comments on Shroff’s last batch of wet masala incenses in various threads on ORS that reviews at this point are near redundant. This is partially because this batch is easily one of the best to be imported to the United States in years (perhaps only the batch with Pearl, Jungle Prince et al was more celebrated). In terms of quality to cost ratio, you may not find better incense out there.

Previously there were only two wet masalas, French Musk and Saffron. I think the French Musk probably fits better in style with the group represented by Pearl, Jungle Prince et al, which leaves Saffron as the best comparison for the new batch. However these don’t strike me as wet masalas in the same way the old halmaddi-rich champas did, they’re not particularly gooey or easy to pull apart. But they’re all very rich, powerful and high quality scents based on some combinations that you might not have come across before.

Fresh on the stick, Darshan is redolent of candy green spearmint and you’ll need to like that to like this incense. The other ingredient here listed is musk with citrus, but there aren’t any really overt citrus elements that come to my mind, such as lemon or orange. What happens is that the mint and musk end up combining with the sugar and spice base to give off an aroma not far off from baking Christmas cookies. There’s even an unusual caramel note in the mix that helps to increase its sweetness. If you’ve familiar with past spice champas (the one that comes to mind is the long, sadly deleted Blue Pearl Spice Champa) you’ll have the general idea, but the spearmint really makes this a one of a kind stick. I find it particularly impressive because mint oils are often powerful enough to overpower most other notes in an aroma, so the balance struck here is clearly the work of a very impressive recipe. I fell in love with this one instantly and never grow tired of it. I’m likely approaching 100g already burned already.

Drona could be the weakest of this new group of eight, but relatively speaking that still puts it way above the incenses in recent reviews like Nitiraj or Sarathi. The ingredients here are musk, sandalwood and vetivert, however only the musk strikes me as particularly obvious and you can definitely compare this incense in part to Shroff’s French Musk. It ends up being a little on the generic champa side and shares the caramel notes of the Darshan, but other than the slight vetivert teases along the outside, no other element in the incense is any louder. The aroma ends up being kind of light and fluffy, with slight touches of vanilla and cocoa powder, but unfortuantely it doesn’t really have much of a hook or personality to sell itself. One might think of a mild nougat scent, slightly creamy, even certain latte types are reminiscent.

Little Woods is quite simply one of those incenses ORS was created to tell people about, it’s a triumph on every level, simply one of the very best incenses you can buy at its price level. The ingredients here, perhaps confusingly, are listed as fouger, oriental, rose and ambery sandal. The former element appears to be particularly important, and rather than describe it myself, I’ll just send you here. Of course any really classic incense is going to have a blend so perfectly balanced that to break it down would be difficult, and that couldn’t be more true for Little Woods. I find some similarity between this and N Ranga Rao’s woods, particularly the way certain wood subnotes merge with almost citrus-like evergreen touches on the top, but that’s as far as the comparison goes, because the perfume on Little Woods is much richer. But part of why such a strong perfume works is because it’s grounded in a superior base, with a mix of floral notes, leather and spice tea. In fact even well in excess of 100g burned, I still notice new elements of the incense, in fact I’m sitting here now going, yeah I think I get some of that ambery sandal too. Anyway, essential. In caps and boldface.

Shroff’s Nag Champa is interesting because it came out so close to the Dhuni version with so many similarities that they’re worth comparing, however Dhuni’s own brand has actually improved and changed enough that newer versions probably aren’t so comparable. Anyway Shroff’s entry is very traditional, almost definitive in some ways, although like Dhuni it’s a bit thicker than what you’ll find from Satya, Shantimalai etc. In fact the red box is probably a good comparison, but Shroff’s Nag Champa  is not as close to that as Happy Hari’s Gold Nag Champa because it’s so much drier. Shroff’s version also, unsurprisingly, bears the hallmarks of their brilliant perfuming skills, but it’s to the point that you end up thinking most of the aroma is carried by it, and let’s face it, a nag champa entirely succeeds or fails on its base. I do have to admit, I’m actually starting to get worn out by nag champas, largely because outside of Dhuni, I’ve yet to see any that haven’t managed to disguise off base notes or even sometimes the bamboo stick and while Shroff’s version manages to be really clever with the gentle plumeria-like scent on top, you need a much more resonant base to make me forget the formula is still missing something it used to have. On the other hand, I do think the Shroff version gets the scent to affordability ratio down perhaps better than any other version, so if you’re a fan looking to get away from Satya, this will be a good choice.

Next up: Ruby, Shanti, Shran, Super Star…

March 2011 Top 10

  1. Shroff Channabasappa/Wet Masala/Little Woods – Quite  simply this is one of the best Indian incenses you can buy. I think I’ve lost count how many sticks I’ve gone through at this point, there have been times where I’ll just burn one after the other. In fact I’ve been meaning to get to this latest and finest batch from Shroff, but haven’t found the time yet, but this one is described as containing fouger, rose, ambery sandal and oriental scents. It strikes a balance I can barely describe, but has an oil mix that’s extremely addictive.
  2. Shroff Channabasappa/Wet Masala/Darshan – This spearmint fronted work of magic could be interchangeable with Little Woods, as I’ve burned nearly as many sticks of this. This is an Indian incense I think almost everyone will like, it’s redolent of minty, spice cookies and very friendly.
  3. Kyukyodo/Musashino – Kyukyodo have a kyara and it’s a lot different from the dark and resinous kyaras you’ll find in, say, Shoyeido’s stable. In fact the first time I tried a stick it was difficult to describe because it has a lot of similarities with other Kyukyodo green sticks (Denpo for example) in that it’s kind of light and foresty. But once you get used to it and the green kyara note comes through, it becomes breathtaking. Like most kyaras it’s an expensive buy (given other Kyukyodo prices, my guess this would run $350 or so at 20 sticks if it was imported here) but in this case there’s really no other kyara like it.
  4. Meena Supreme – There’s an up and coming new company in Britain who’s set forth trying to import some incenses not generally seen outside of India and Meena Supreme was the first one (a more indepth review is forthcoming) I received. This was described to me with a hail of superlatives and has managed to live up to most of them. It’s a fluxo style incense, very thick and smokey with some earthiness in the background making it somewhat akin to Sai Flora. Quite frankly I’d have trouble describing the aroma even after going through two boxes of it, except to say it’s extremely addictive.
  5. Dhuni/Kashi (new version) – I’m not sure what’s going on in the Dhuni labs of late, but their latest care package was absolutely astounding despite there only being one true new scent. What else arrived was improved versions of three of their incenses. The new Kashi seems to increase the thickness and richness of the sticks. If you’ve ever tried Honey Dust or Vanilla or Satya Natural then you’ll know this scent, but I guarantee you’ve never smelled it at this level of luxuriousness. For me, it rejuvenated a scent I think I’d grown rather tired of.
  6. Dhuni/Special Amber (new) – The one stick sample of this I received is possibly the largest stick of Indian incense I’ve ever encountered, in fact I wondered if I could use it to defend myself. And bigger is better is definitely the case with this new version which seems to increase the content of the fine amber resins being used because at times this stick is like burning a fine resin mix, very sublime and much more balanced and measured than the original version (which was pretty great in its own right as it was). This is definitely one I’ll want to restock.
  7. Kyukyodo/Murasakino – It’s difficult to tell for sure, but other than the Musashino above, I’d probably put Murasakino at the top of the premium Kyukyodo aloeswood list. It comes in a variety of different boxes and packages but the silk roll in pawlonia box is probably the standard version. This is a potent, green aloeswood with that wonderful sharp acridity good wood always brings. And unlike Haru-no-yama, this is different enough from the Sho-Ran-Ko to make it feel not too duplicative.
  8. Dhuni/Khus – Much thanks to the Dhuni group for stocking me up on this utterly fine and fantastic vetivert champa. I had left a stick of this burning upstairs last night and remember just how incredible the aroma it left. Vetivert is often described as cooling, which isn’t something I always pick up in incenses it contains, but this one has absolutely nailed that vibe. This one’s an essential.
  9. Shroff Channabasappa/Ruby – I’m a little slower burning this one because I haven’t nabbed a 100g box yet and it took me a few sticks, but when it comes to the red colored, floral/rose type of champa, this one is the supreme version by a long way with a perfume intensity that’s unusual for this style. Very well rounded and gorgeous.
  10. Tibetan Medical College/Holy Land – What can I say that I already haven’t on this one. Still a staple around here and just polished off another box (third maybe?). In a class of its own.

Unknown / Pure Frank Incense, Pure Aromatic Jasmine, Pure Aromatic Pine, Pure Aromatic Vetivert

In terms of unfavorable reviews this one’s going to be in nuclear territory, so if you don’t like them I’d skip this one. These are four incenses out of a total of at least 30 different kinds that all fall under the “Pure” appelation and nowhere on the wrappers of these four is any indication who’s responsible for these, in fact my guess is they wouldn’t want to own up to it. In fact it’s already problematic at the wrapper stage, these incenses are bound so tight that to get them out you nearly have to destroy the packaging.

In many previous reviews related to Nepali incenses and those Tibetan monasteries now in India, I’ve often compared them to poorer incenses, well these are a really good example of the poorest of the poor. Quite frankly these incenses seem designed to get rid of large quantities of cedarwood, by adding a dash of “flavor” to each one. My guess the cost to make these is almost negligible. In fact each individual scent is barely worth discussing on its own. The Frank Incense is perhaps the strongest of the group in terms of the individual scent, but the reason for that seems to be the perfumey nature of what ever frankincense oil or synthetic they happen to be using that ends up covering up some of the wood. The Jasmine is even more cloying, there’s no way such a gentle floral should ever smell this awful, it smells like a bad soap. I can’t even really detect pine in the Pine, it mostly smells like burning pencil shavings. The Vetivert is at least somewhat detectable but overall it’s little different from the Pine in terms of getting a noseful of cheap burning wood.

Based on the these four, I wouldn’t touch the others in the line, especially since Nepali incenses are all roughly in the same price range where you can easily find much better incenses (like from the Dhoop Factory). I should also mention that I did these reviews based on maybe a stick at the most of each one, it’s really all I could bear.

Mother’s India Fragrances / Arjava, Hansa, Lavanya, Om, Purusha, Sattwa, Yajna

Since the last installment on the newly released Mother’s Fragrances Nagchampa incenses, the company kindly sent me what I’m dubbing the “Nag Champa Construction Set,” which is a series of ingredients that go into making their fantastic bases. One thing I learned fairly early about incense is that information from the east on these treasures has actually been remarkably sparse and so I’m extremely thankful to have received a further education from the creators. Not only has the set helped to show me where the sandalwood works into the base, but in particular having a sample of halmaddi resin has really helped to narrow down just where this works into these incenses. And overall my already high respect for the creator of these incenses has grown when I consider what the base smells like compared to the finished product. These are just works of art on every level.

So I wanted to say a few words about halmaddi resin before getting to the “back seven” nagchampas. This ingredient is particularly interesting in that the actually fresh smell of the resin itself (almost like a combination of chocolate and turpentine elements) is completely different from the smell while it’s burning, which is floral (likely that element similar to the champaka flower), slightly bitter and very balsamic. Not only is this obvious from the resin, but also from the base stick. Even on its own this a pleasant scent but what struck me is how much of a chameleon halmaddi must be since the oils that go into the incense change the nature of the relationship. Also, the Mother’s bases, while soft, aren’t gooey like the resin or many of the incenses I used to burn 15 years ago and as I intuit from the oils, there’s a really impressive level of balance and restraint here.

I wouldn’t have even recognized the base stick in the Arjava Nagchampa, which is the first of four incenses in this group that was not part of the original 12 incense sampler I received months ago. If there is a slight wildness to the halmaddi, you wouldn’t find it in this incense, which has a level of gentleness that is quite surprising. Where the descriptions of many of the other incenses list as many as 5 or 6 ingredients, there is only one specific listed here: rose. It’s interesting in that this is one of the new 14 that really stands out as being quite different, there’s an unusual herbal note at the top that is quite exotic and unique. The central scent is almost akin to some of the herbal-rose combinations found elsewhere and this all lies on a wood level that has been turned up a notch, while remaining pillowy soft. While it could be said that this is another wonderful contrast of spice and floral elements, the results aren’t quite so piquant as they are in the other scents, leading to a very sublime finish. Particularly because when I burn this I feel like I’m always trying to reach a description of the end, one that’s essentially elusive and mysterious. Like all great incenses the final notes end up as part of one’s memories.

Hansa Nagchampa is similar to the Arjava only in that it also has a fairly noticeable woodiness in the mix, but essentially this is a scent that returns to the floral/spice mix of many of these incenses. A lot of the main players in the whole line are in this one, including kewra, vetivert and lavender, but as always the addition of other ingredients modify the aromatic contour substantially. In fact, of the entire line this is perhaps the incense I find the most difficult to describe as the ingredient combos seem familiar, but the overall scent has been changed enough to be completely unique. Perhaps part of this is the golden champa scent in what I’d describe as the fourth fifth from top to bottom.  The amber here isn’t as strong as it is in the Om Nagchampa but it definitely flirts with the attention around all the floral notes and in many ways actually accentuates these notes so one feels that the florals are dominant to the spice mix in the background. And overall it’s the Kewra and Lavender that make, incrementally, the boldest statements in the mix. But in the end it’s puzzling because perhaps the best word to describe this incense is kaleidoscopic, because at any different time it’s possible to see new interactions among the ingredients. Which means in the end any static description won’t do this justice, as the base and the vetivert that tie it all together are really the only constants.

Lavanya Nagchampa really clicked with me after a couple sticks when it became obvious that the central part of the incense is very evergreen and spicy. I’ve discussed some of the incenses that contrast florals with a spice that could be roughly described in the cinnamon/clove/hot area, but this seems to get part of its spice from the use of resins as well as cedar, so that the spice note feels more green than red. Users of resin blends may have come across those that are resonantly foresty and that would be the comparison here. But it’s only a beginning and a platform because what dances on top is the jasmine and ylang ylang, and like the Arjava the results are just so delicate. It constantly strikes me that among Indian incenses, many of which can be incredibly strong and aromatic, that these are among the most refined and gentle, something only a master perfumer could gauge so perfectly. In the end it’s almost as if your aromatic senses try to convince you of its floral nature as the bewitching, rich evergreen and liqueur like background bubbles underneath, creating an almost yin/yang like paradox.

In fact as you use these incenses it’s really hard to separate one masterpiece from another, but there’s something in the Om Nagchampa that has made it my fastest used incense in the whole line, I literally have trouble trying to keep from burning my stock up in a couple days. It basically presents a triangle of amber, vanilla and cassia that is simply breathtaking and close to my sense of aromatic nirvana. My idea of the perfect incense is something that manages to be dry and rich at the same time, hinting at sweetness without being cloying. The cassia in this incense is just so perfectly placed that it’s a sheer delight and the amber notes are virtually flawless. As this scent burns it becomes so sublime by the end of the stick that it manages to represent the concept of Om in a way that might evoke ain ineffable response in the user. In fact it’s even difficult to want to burn another incense after this as it leaves such a powerful energy in the air after the last elements go up in smoke. By a long shot my top incense of August and it could be a reigning favorite for a while now.

Purusha Nagchampa is another of the dominantly lavender incenses in the line, which follows the absolute success of the Ganesh Nagchampa. Mother’s uses a number of different lavenders, however, and in this case we’re seeing an English lavender at the front, a note that is probably the most dominant lavender scent in any of these incenses. But while sitting on the top, the ingredients from the base up do a lot to modify the scent. For one thing this is one of the few, if not the only incense that has a sage note, an ingredient that seems to be far more common in American incenses (specifically southeast or Native American blends). Here it’s used to modify the lavender, and the results seem to bring out some of the wilder, herbier elements the two ingredients have in common. I’m not as familiar with orris, but I suspect this has a great deal to do with the more unfamiliar middle subscents that help to give this incense its individual personality. Closer to the base, the patchouli blends with the balsamic nature of the halmaddi to help make sure the top notes don’t go overboard. In the end this is definitely on the sweeter side of the Mother’s range, but it’s got just that touch of wildness to rein it all in.

Sandalwood is a main ingredient in all these incenses but it perhaps makes its presence most known in the Sattwa Nagchampa. With kewra, lavender tuberose and vetivert in the mix, this is definitely something of a cousin to the Atma and Hansa blends, if you can imagine the biggest change to be an increase in the amount of woodiness used. The vetivert here also seems to be turned up enough to give the scent a pleasant and sharp subnote and adding this to the woods and halmaddi base helps to balance the florals without reducing the richness of the scent. Overall this is a very pretty incense with a lot of activity in the mix and it’s among the bolder scents in the line. And like its cousins, the mix seems gauged to reveal its complexity slowly over time, something a review really can’t account for without an excessively lengthy preparation period.

Continuing a number of incenses with a strong lavender element is the spicy Yajna Nagchampa. However, if some of the Mother’s scents tilt more to a floral side, this is a decidedly spicy incense with woody notes, nagarmotha oil, patchouli and oakmoss all combining to imply a spice that also reminds me of cinnamon toast. This is also a very woody incense, however the type of wood scent it reminds me most of is akin (but far superior to) Satya’s Patchouli Forest scent, with that sense of crystalline, green resin that that incense evokes. Not only is the Yajna spicy, but it’s also devilishly complex in that there seems to be a lot of elements that make up this level of the incense. The oak moss is particularly noticeable here, almost more than a subnote at times, and with the patchouli it grounds the scent as something far more earthy the fire-like. In the end as you notice all this spicy, grounded activity it makes the presence of the lavender on top such a surprise and delight.

I’ll have to admit nearly every incense in this line is at a level of intricacy that they’re very hard to do justice to in words. So many of them are like a puzzle, because I feel that in a lot of other incense lines you wouldn’t expect some of these ingredients to work together like they do and in the end appraising them is like looking at a beautiful painting and switching between the singular elements and the composite final work. I may have mentioned strongly how much I love the Om, but over time I have no doubt that I’ll switch from favorite to favorite because in the case of complex aromas like found in the Hansa or Yajna, you get the feeling that it will take at least 10 sticks to feel that you’ve got a full grip on what’s going on here. And in the end I think this is the real joy in the use of incense, that what you have has the potential to continue to surprise and elate you as changing circumstances provide the varying viewpoints to smell new facets of complex bouquets. Because in the end with this line of Mother’s Nagchampas, all 19 exquisite treasures, you have some of the finest incenses available, particularly at an affordability that is quite astonishing. And please do check out the previous article for buying options, as I suspect in less than a month’s time they should be widely available to most of our readers.

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.

SAMPLER NOTES: Nippon Kodo / Elemense

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that at least 75% of Nippon Kodo’s US catalog isn’t really marketed at my sort of nose. But it’s interesting that the most recent two lines they’ve released, including Elemense, have been roughly traditional incenses, or at least both this and the Kohden line are sandalwood-based incenses that stay fairly close to traditional ingredients, even if it seems clear that perfume art is used in most of these cases to get the aromas. Elemense incenses are actually quite a bit more inexpensive than the Kohden lines and perhaps maybe not as clear in their aromas. They all seem to retail around $5.95 a box.

The Elemense line seeks to embody the five classical elements in five different incense blends, using Space as the fifth point (rather than, say, Spirit or Akasha). In doing so they tie down each element to a geographic location, or as some of the spiritually inclined might say, a mundane chakra. Having reviewed Mermade cones that followed a very similar pattern recently, I was constantly reminded of the similarities and differences between these two lines as the sorts of blends they come up with are similar. However, as mentioned before, Mermade cones are definitely all natural while there are synthetic aromas used in the Elemense incenses.

We start with Earth which is described as having bountiful hints of vetiver, cypress and patchouli and is tied to El Mirador, Guatemala. Where Mermade’s Earth cone was very strong in the patchouli era, it seems to be very mellow or blended in this one, in fact I didn’t pick it up at all. Like many of NK’s incenses that use three ingredients, the result is more of a blend that comes off like one ingredient, and in this case the more citrusy/evergreen qualities of the cypress came out the strongest. If I see patchouli and vetiver in ingredients I do tend to expect a certain earthiness not apparent here, instead they just seem to give off milder spice hints to give background to what’s a very strong, and mildly cloying perfume oil.

Water doesn’t have an ingredients list unless you count green mist, ice water and musk. Personally I don’t really have much of a line on the ice water or green mist aromas, but let’s assume this is roughly the fragrance around the Detifoss waterfall in Iceland. I found this to be pretty loudly aromatic, the sandalwood base front a very intense floral perfume that reminded me of the Free Pure Spirit line, with a scent that dissolves into soapy, synthetic-ish back notes. It evinces the trouble I have with a lot of this company’s incenses, a desire to combine so many fruit and floral elements that the result is something indistinctive and washy. In fact I assume the fruity qualities are supposed to come close to water, but as with the Earth incense, I didn’t find this particularly elemental.

Fire was the most successful of the five incenses in terms of nailing the element itself. This stick burns hot, with a lot of spice and sweet benzoin notes (I was thinking amber, so this is likely more a Siam Benzoin). Along with benzoin are Philippine Mango and clove, supposedly evoking the Mayon Volcano in the Phillipines. The overall effect is dry and crispy, but like all the incenses in this line the oil is pretty strong and synthetic-like and thus more intense than some of the Kohden incenses I might compare this with.

Air introduces a combination of anise, tomato leaf and galbanum, the middle ingredient evocative of the Fragrance Memory incense Siesta Siesta. This is quite different of course, and I found myself picking up more a watermelon vibe than tomato leaf. Usually with air incenses you tend to get a strong lavender note, but there’s no such thing here, perhaps none grows on Ecuador’s Mt. Chimborazo. I got quite a bit of spice on this one, in the thyme or rosemary vein (perhaps the anise), which did give it some very airy qualities. It made me feel a bit edgy overall, which I’d also attribute to the company getting pretty close to the element on this one.

Space would be the most difficult one to nail of course, and the idea is embodied here by Erg Chebbi’s “transformative mysteries.” In reading the ingredients list I was quite surprised, the saffron, cinnamon and amber implying something much spicier than the heavy floral notes at work in this incense. I was getting rose, carnation, gardenia and/or daffodil similar in ways to arabic ouds, except no oud of course. Unfortunately any sort of floral incense at this price is likely to have a lot of off notes and this one is no different, with a very strong soapy, alkalline vibe to it. While the idea of something so intensely floral should work for the element in question, I found the overall stick to be fairly unpleasant and unbalanced.

At least in the case of Elemense, one’s not going to be putting out a lot of money on a risk, but I’d suggest sampling them first if you’re not familiar with the company’s incenses. As they’re probably the most visibly marketed Japanese incenses in the country, they’re subsequently not the sort of scents those looking for wood and spice are going to go for. Unfortunately for the most part the scents are fairly shallow and often strike aromas without a lot of intricacy. Compare a $6 box of this to a $6 roll of Baieido Kobunboku if you don’t believe there can be a big difference even at very low prices.

{Afternote: It seems that the 5 incense Elemense series seems to match up in both name and number of incenses with NK’s Naturense line. Having tried only one incense from that line, I’m not sure how much more they do match up, but thought it was worth noting.]

Top 10 – June 2008

1. Tokusen Syukohkoku / BaieidoThe Aloeswood and spice combination of this mix just consistently has me lighting another stick. One of the truly great of the “Plum Blossom” style. There are no oils in this stick, it stands on just the woods, spices and awesome talents of the blender. I have blown though over a 100 sticks in the last two months. I may have a problem.

2. Kun Sho / BaieidoCambodian Aloeswood in all its glory. It’s sort of presented as a single note incense, but really the play between the Aloeswood and the very light touch of Borneol Camphor and some spices just make this a stand out. Its name “The Rising Scent” is very appropriate to how it reaches into the imagination, It’s an incense that I like to burn when I have the time to really enjoy it. There are so many levels to it but it is a very pleasurable learning curve.

3. Sho Ran Ko / KyukyodoThere’s not much more I can say that hasn’t been said already. It’s just a great classical, slightly floral, Japanese incense that is worth the investment (and really, it’s a deal considering the size of the bundle, it made me very happy when I first opened the box) I love this late at night before falling asleep, it’s so mellow and calming.

4. Ranjatai / ShunkohdoOne of my all time favorites. I find myself hoping one day to find a box of “extra thick sticks”. Just a great scent that has a very slight almost floral note , mixed with quality Aloeswood and musk, mesmerizing and tends to pull your attention right in. Beautiful.

5. Yoshino no haru – Long Box / ShunkodoI have what are called the “thick sticks” of this, which I really like. The scent is a wonderful, classical Japanese floral, somewhat sharp in nature yet with a gentle sweetness around the edges. The thick sticks put out quite a lot of scent. It is light, uplifting and just generally tends to brighten up the mood and energy of the room. There seem to be Essential Oils in this one but no synthetics so it’s a very clean smell, quite marvelous and each stick lasts for a long time.

6. Babylon / Mermade Magickal ArtsA Bakhoor style loose mix made for a heater or charcoals. Quite possibly the best rose scent I have yet found. The Aloes and Sandalwoods pieces in this give the rose scent a really nice boost. It’s not cloying or over blown, but it is very rich, smooth and elegant. If you are looking for a rose scent and have given up hope of finding something you might want to consider this. Really nice and the amount you get goes a long way.

7. Houshou / ShunkohdoThere are a lot of incenses from Shunkohdo in my list. They make really good incense at very good prices. Like this one! Aloeswood and spices. The overall impression I consistently get from this incense is chocolate ( and no, its not because I am hungry 🙂 )The scent can change up depending on what you had going before, but in general the chocolate comes through. This is a great one to use to introduce someone to incense. At around $20.00 for the roll it’s a great deal.

8. Ka Cho Fu Getsu / ShunkohdoThis is just a great all around incense at a very affordable price. Sort of Han style or Chinese herbs with Aloeswood. Lots of spices playing off the woods. Cassia, clove and a whole bunch more, At 200 sticks for around $32.00 it’s a really great deal and something you can burn at any time of the day. I really like it when I wake up, very refreshing and uplifting.

9. Deep Earth / Mermade Magickal ArtsThese are incense cakes, or little blocks/bricks of resins and woods made for an incense heater or placed nearby charcoal (not directly on top). This one is composed of Hogary Frankincense, Myrrh, Copal Negro, Aloeswood, Patchouli EO, Vetivert and dusted with powdered Aloeswood. It smells very clean and fresh and also very grounding. Not a bad thing to go with after coming home from work! These are pretty much hand made in small batches and smell as if they use very high quality materials.

10. Myo-ho / ShoyeidoI got the sampler pack of this five months ago. It blew me away then and still does now. In fact I lit this for some people in an incense class I was giving recently and watched them get, well, high 🙂 actually, just on the scent of the spices and Kyara. Pretty amazing. It’s not cheap, but it is really good and as someone said recently in the blog “I am glad I have had the pleasure of smelling it in this lifetime.” I think this is one of the masterpieces of the Art of Incense.