The beginners guide to incense forms

There are many different kinds of incense out there, such as Incense sticks , cones, powder, coils, loose raw incense in natural pieces such as resin and wood, smudge, paper, logs, rope and dhoop – and probably even more.  And inbetween the different styles, there are even more styles, as Incense sticks can be Masala, Charcoal, Resin on a stick, without a stick and so on.

As a retailer, it is very important that you can give the right advice and consultation to your customers and to be able to tell them exactly which kind of Incense will meet their needs.

Incense sticks (Agarbatti)

The most popular kind of incense are by far incense sticks, also called Agarbatti in Hindi, which are long narrow bamboo sticks. There are several types of Incense sticks:

Masala* means, that the bamboo sticks are covered with a sticky and powdery “dough” like substance, commonly made of fragrant natural or chemical materials, such as herbs, plant parts, gums, resins in gum or resin that release the fragrance slowly as they burn. They “dough” is often sovered with powdered wood, to make the sticks stay apart from each other. Many times, aromatic oils are added to the mixture (masala meaning spice blend in hindi). The most popular fragrance is Nag Champa, followed by classics such as Sandal Wood, Rose, Vanilla and Frank Incense. Some of these are also dipped into oils.

There are subsets of Masala Incese, such as Durbars and Champas, they contain different ingredients. Durbars are popular in India, but the scents are too heavy for most european noses. Champas are floral incense, containing a certain substance called “halmaddi”, even though more and more producers use chemical components, as the raw halmaddi is getting more and more expensive.

Charcoal sticks* are very distinct, as they are almost all the times completely black in color. The bamboo sticks are covered in charcoal powder and binding agents, which are then bathed in liquids, such as aromatic oils. At most times, these sticks pour out much more smoke than masala sticks do. Popular fragrances are floral scents, such as Rose, Vanilla or Ylang Ylang.

Bambooless sticks* are more common from Japan, Nepal and Tibet. Often, a package from Japan contains around 150-250 very thin sticks, that can break very easily. They are machine made and do not pour out such a heavy scent as the sticks that are made in India. The fragrances are a bit different, with popular ones such as Green Tea, Coffee, Cinnamon, Honey , Sandalwood and the very expensive Aloeswood, also called Kyara or jinko. The stick from Nepal come in packs of 10-20 and have more floral and herbal smells, sometimes even containing a cow’s spread. Many times, the package is very colorful and contains flowers and handmade paper.

Coreless Incense

Coiled incense* is very popular in China and has once been used as a time tracker, burning at the same rate. They are often hung at ceilings and burn much longer than most sticks, often for hours or even days. It is preferred for long time use, and also great for the eye, too, with it’s unique shape. Very often, their scents are not defined and their names are those of goddesses or have a spiritual touch, such as “River Path” or “Returning Spirit”.

Incense cones* are made from a similar substance as incense sticks, but they ar harder and in the form of a cone, at which the is lighted. They have a very nice look, as they follow their own path, instead of burning in a uniform straight line. As they burn, you can constantly see an ember that trails its way down to the bottom of the cone. They are not only popular in Asia, but also have a long history in Europe, especially at Christmas. The most common fragrances are Frank Incense, Pine Needle and Lavender.

Dhoop Incense* are made either from a hard mixture of saw dust, fragrant ingredients and binding agents or, and these are at most times used to odour outdoor spaces, from a paste that is still formable and can be made into any desireable shape. They turn out to have lots of smoke and a heavy smell, often unpleasant for people from Europe. Laxmi Dhoop is well known for being so heavy, that it is highly recommended not to burn it in closed rooms!

Paper Incense* is being used extensively in a few countries, but not as popular as most other forms. In general a oil fused paper is being sold in blocks and small stripes of paper can be ripped of and burned, which then releases a very short faint of fragrance. Ideal to prepare a nice smell in a room, when visitors are expected.

Rope Incense* is very uncommon and the biggest part of the production comes from Nepal. Powdered Incense material is spread on paper, the folded and twisted and two strings of paper are then twisted together. As the Incense and the paper will burn easily, one end of a rope is lit and the whole string will follow.

Raw Incense

Resin & Gum Incense* are typically used in Churches and Temples. Myrrh, Frankincense, Benzoin, Copal, Pinon, and Dragons’ blood resins* are very common ones. They come in natural colours like amber, brown, white, black, clear and more and in different sizes, varying from very small balls, pea like, to big heavy clumps of a hard substance – which even smells good when they’re not being burned. They are placed on a burning charcoal tablet and thus release lots of smoke and a heavy scent, perfect for making a whole church smell of Frank Incense. This is the purest form of incense that you can have and it can even be proper for small rooms, when an electrical heater is being used and the incense is being warmed up very gently.

Wooden Incense* are made from wood that is powdered or cut. The pieces can vary in size, depending on the source of fire. Very fine cuts and powder is burned on charcoal tablets or heaters and thicker pieces can be lighted on their own, if the wood is resinous enough. Popular woods are Red and White Sandalwood, Cedar, Pine, Juniper and Agarwood.

Sang (incense powder)* is one of the oldest styles of incense and contains ingredients that make it ideal for varying kinds of purification ceremonies. This incense powder is the preferred kind of purification ceremonies as well as other kinds of rituals that require purification and new beginnings. It has been prepared traditionally by Buddhist Monks.

Smudge Incense* is a bundle of herbs, that are held together by a string. The most popluar is Whit Sage*, as once used by the native americans. These are most commonly used for Wiccan or Pagan rituals nowadays. Others are the more common Sage or needles from fir or pine trees. Lavender is also mixed into sage smudge bundles.

For the person trying incense for the first time, cone and stick incense is definitely the way to go. It is the most accessible and easiest to burn without being used to it. If you are looking for a totally customizable experience, however, you may want to look into different kinds of resin incense. While it is the most “complex” kind of incense, you can completely customize the experience and make your own blend.

As mentioned, different kinds of incense give off varying amounts of smell. Depending on how strong you want the incense to be, you have to look at different kinds of incense and make the right decision: cedar and pine incense bases involve a beautiful, woody smell, that is very rich, for example and lingers in the air for a long time. Good woody incense might remind you of the bonfires of your childhood. Others smell more resin like, with sweet and Frank Incense like notes.

You can also look at smudge, paper, rope and dhoop incense, each with its own characteristics that make incense burning a unique experience. The trick is to try varying kinds of incense with different scents and find the right one for you.

Each scent will smell different when it is burned versus in the shop. When you take a whiff of them, remember that the smell when they are burning may not be the exact same. Getting the right incense blend is a little bit of trial and error.

There are common flavours such as lavender, rose, and spice blends. They are the ones that you tend to smell when you walk into incense shops around – Nag Champa, Sandalwood, Rose. If you are choosing to use incense sticks to carry on a religious theme, remember to research it and stick to the right medium like Frank Incense, Myrrh or Dammar Gum.

Incense comes from a long tradition of religious and sacred histories and has been used for medicinal and aromatherapy purposes since ancient times. Some scents and blends are great for purifying the air, others tend to focus more on providing your home with a nice scent. Choose the right method, scent, and blend for the situation you find yourself in and you will find yourself quickly becoming an incense expert one way or another. Take it as a challenge to buy ten different Nag Champa varieties, to see all the difference there – and don’t hesitate to spend some money, good high quality Incense can be very expensive. Look at it that way; Incense has been used as a offering to God – and who would want to offer something cheap?

Incense is a very personal choice that shows anyone paying attention a lot about them. Others see incense as something that is much more about looks and scents than anything else. With all of the kinds out there that are available, it’s easy to get lost in all of the details. Make sure you know what you’re looking for first: start simple with incense sticks and cones, and work your way to the more advanced blends like raw resins and gums or pure wooden sticks like Palo Santo.*

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