India has a rich tradition of using incense in many social and religious occasions since time immemorial. Incense sticks, also known as agarbathi (or agarbatti derived from Sanskrit word Agaravarthi, gara = odour, agar = aroma, varthi = wound ) and joss sticks, in which an incense paste is rolled or moulded around a bamboo stick, is one of the main forms of incense in India. The bamboo method originated in India, and is distinct from the Nepal/Tibet and Japanese methods of stick making in which a bamboo stick is not used. Though the method is also used in the west, particularly in America, it is strongly associated with India. Other main forms of incense are cones and logs and Benzoin resin ( In Sanskrit Saambraani), which are incense paste formed into pyramid shapes or log shapes, and then dried.
A uniform and codified system of incense-making first began in India. Although Vedic texts mention the use of incense for masking odors and creating a pleasurable smell, the modern system of organized incense-making was likely created by the medicinal priests of the time. Thus, modern, organized incense-making is intrinsically linked to the Ayurvedic medical system in which it is rooted.
The oldest source on incense is the Vedas, specifically, the Atharva-veda and the Rigveda. Incense-burning was used both to create pleasing aromas and a medicinal tool. Its use in medicine is considered the first phase of Ayurveda, which uses incense as an approach to healing. Incense-making was thus almost exclusively done by monks.
The specific knowledge of incense as a healing tool was assimilated into the religious practices of the time – early Hinduism. As Hinduism matured and Buddhism was founded in India, incense became an integral part of Buddhism as well. Around 200 CE, a group of wandering Buddhist monks introduced incense stick making to China.
Agarbatti are an integral part of any hindu ritual. During rituals, an incense stick is lighted to remove unpleasant odors in the air. It creates the perfect setting for an auspicious ritual by filling the air with a pleasant smell. As they release smoke, they also act as organic disinfectants that drive away insects.
It has some psychological benefits. The aroma of the incense stick has healing power that has a soothing effect on the mind. The calming effect relaxes the mind and helps in performing rituals with better concentration. Prayer offered with a calm mind acts like a meditation process.
The Agarbatti also has its own spiritual significance. The incense stick burns itself completely into ashes and yet fills the air with a pleasant smell. This ritual basically denotes human virtue of sacrificing oneself for society.
The basic ingredients of an incense stick are bamboo sticks, paste (generally made of charcoal dust or sawdust and joss/jiggit/gum/tabu powder – an adhesive made from the bark of litsea glutinosa and other trees), and the perfume ingredients – which traditionally would be a masala (mixed) powder of ground ingredients, though more commonly is a solvent of perfumes and/or essential oils. After the base paste has been applied to the bamboo stick, it is either, in the traditional method, while still moist, immediately rolled into the masala, or, more commonly, left in the sun for several days to dry, and then dipped into the scented solvent.
Many Indian incense makers follow Ayurvedic principles, in which the ingredients that go into incense-making are categorized into five classes: ether (fruits), for example star anise; water (stems and branches), for example sandalwood, aloeswood, cedar wood, cassia, frankincense, myrrh, and borneol; earth (roots), for example turmeric, vetiver, ginger, costus root, valerian, Indian spikenard; fire (flowers), for example clove; and air (leaves), for example patchouli.
Halmaddi is a fragrant binding ingredient which is used in traditional masala incense. It is an earth coloured liquid resin drawn from the Ailanthus triphysa tree; as with other resins, it is a viscous semi-liquid when fresh, it hardens to a brittle solid as it evaporates and ages. Some incense makers mix it with honey in order to keep it pliable. Due to crude extraction methods which resulted in trees dying, by the 1990s the Forest Department in India had banned resin extraction; this forced up the price of halmaddi, so its usage in incense making declined. In 2011, extraction was allowed under leasing agreements, which increased in 2013, though production is still sufficiently limited for the resin to sometimes be stolen via improper extraction to be sold on the black market. Other tree resins or gums are also used as a binding agent, such as amber, myrrh, and frankincense, and these will add their distinctive fragrance to the finished incense; some resins, such as gum arabic, may be used where it is desirable for the binding agent to have no fragrance of its own.
Production may be partly or completely by hand, or partly or completely by machine. There are semi-automatic machine for applying paste, semi-automatic machine for perfume-dipping, semi-automatic machine for packing, or fully automated machines which apply paste and scent, though the bulk of production is done by hand-rolling at home. There are about 5,000 incense companies in India which take raw un-perfumed sticks hand-rolled by approximately 200,000 women working part-time at home, apply their own brand of perfume, and package the sticks for sale. An experienced home-worker can produce 4,000 raw sticks a day. There are about 25 main companies, who together account for up to 30% of the market, and around 500 of the companies, including a significant number of the main companies, are based in Bangalore.
The state of Karnataka, referred to as the Capital of Agarbathi (Incense Sticks), is the leading producer of the agarbathi in India, with Mysore and Bangalore being the main manufacturing centres. The Mysore region is recognised as a pioneer in the activity of agarbathi manufacturing and this is one of the main cluster activities that exist in the city. The largest agarbathi company in India, Cycle Pure Agarbathies, is based in Mysore. This is because it has a natural reserve of forest products, especially sandalwood, which provide for the base material used in production. In recent years, growth in the production of agarbathi (incense sticks), Dhoop-Deep has been seen in the district of Indore. Major brands such as Zedblack and Feelings are based in Indore.
Dhoops are an extruded incense, lacking a core bamboo stick. Many dhoops have very concentrated scents and put out a lot of smoke when burned. The most well-known dhoop is probably Chandan Dhoop. It contains a high percentage of sandalwood.
For most Indians, incense remains an important part of the daily puja ritual, which is a religious offering performed by all Hindus to their deities, especially during the beginning of a new venture, or to commemorate some special occasion. The aspect of the ritual known as dhupa involves the offering of incense before the picture of a deity, as a token of respect. The smoke is believed to ward off demons and cleanse the air around. They are fragmented.
A sādhu will regularly burn incense in this fashion, as a gesture to Agni, the God of Fire. For the sadhu, the world is alive with unseen forces that must be continually propitiated with offerings and cleansing rituals. Their sacred fireplaces, known as dhuni, perform the same function as incense, on a larger scale, which is to transform matter into aether. Burning incense is thus a reminder, of the sacred power of fire to transform, and the ultimate journey of all physical matter towards spirit.