From burning raw materials to sticks
The burning of singular raw materials, for their aromatic qualities, is where the Incense market started many thousands of years ago. This took place widely throughout the world, including the Mediterranean region (Greeks and Romans), Arabia, China and Japan. And for a variety of purposes including religious, aesthetic, therapeutic and practical. Common materials in this sense would be Frankincense, Myrrh, Sandalwood and Aloeswood, plus floral and herbal materials such as Rose and Sage.
Incense in a stick format is a relatively more recent invention; hundreds of years, rather than thousands. This has made burning and appreciating incense easier, quicker and less expensive. It also enabled Incense masters to create sophisticated blends of aromatic materials – giving us the blended and complex fragrances we now get, particularly in Japanese Incense, but also with Luxury Indian Incense Sticks.
All stick Incense (Japanese, Indian, Tibetan etc.) use a variety of base materials – otherwise you’d be burning singular raw materials such as aromatic wood pieces, flower petals or essential oils as mentioned above. The Base both acts as a binder for the aromatic materials and fuels the Incense to burn with a self-sustained ember, rather than a flame, as with candles.
Base materials are chosen carefully so that they do not overtly effect the aromatic qualities of the stick. Most commonly, for the combustible elements, they will be materials such as Charcoal* and/or wood powders. The binding agents keeps its form in shape and binds all the ingredients together. Various gums are used such as Gum Arabic, Gum Dammar and Gum Tragacanth.
In the case of dry aromatic materials, these are combined into the base prior to forming the sticks (processes vary by country). When adding wet ingredients such as essential oils, this is done after the stick has been formed, and will be done by hand in the higher-end range, dipped at the lower and cheap end.
Indian Incense Sticks
Indian Incense has been called a ‘Marmite’ choice – you love them or hate them, with little in between. Don’t be too closed minded though, if not already a fan. Trying high-quality Indian sticks may change your opinion forever – it certainly has in our family in the past couple of years. As for price, generally, even at the highest quality end
The common characteristics of Indian Incense are boldness, potency and ability to fill large areas with an aroma.
Tibetean Incense Sticks
Mentioned together, as (for political reasons) Tibetan Incense is mostly made by Tibetans who have been exiled to Nepal and Northern India. This type of Incense is thicker than Japanese, has no inner stick or core and is usually limited to the more woody/herbal fragrances.
Many monasteries use Incense production and foreign sales as a major source of income. Other sources include those established to support local communities and charitable organisations.