Sunday, October 9, 2011

Burning Incense

I have grown up with a lot of incense around me. I don't remember a day when incense wasn't burnt at our traditional South Indian home. Incense sticks are burnt everyday, whereas the real solid resinous incense is reserved for special occasions. Incense has always fascinated me, for the smell and the way it burns. I have done my fair share of incense burning. I'm so conditioned to incense that even my young nose could tell from far what particular incense was being burnt!

What is Incense? 
Incense is a resin. It is a sap from the tree bark that solidifies into a crystalline mass and burns readily to emit fragrant fumes. The type of incense depends on the species of the tree. 
The kinds of incense that I'm familiar with are Benzoin resin, Halmaddi, Guggul, Frankincense. They all differ in colour and lump shape/size and of course smell different, each have their won characteristic odour. My favourite is the Benzoin resin which has the most beautiful dense smell and when burnt, the smokiness just makes it heavenly!

Why burn Incense?
'Cause it smells good! There are a whole lot of religious, cultural, medicinal significance both in the West and East. Looking past the relevance or irrelevance of all those things, burning incense has some practical uses. It makes the home smell good, eliminates odours and keeps the flies away! Burning a few incense sticks creates a great ambience for dinner parties. Some people run the smoke of the incense through freshly washed hair. I've had it done to me once and it was an awesome feeling, warm, smoky and so fragrant! It is a treat for women who have just had babies!

How to burn Incense?
Incense is traditionally burnt over red hot charcoal. This is the best way to burn it. You can buy charcoal from many places, just google. eBay has many kinds of self igniting charcoal discs. If you can't get it, you can make your own.

If you read till the end, I have a super easy way to burn it, without charcoal!  Just read on*

How to make your own charcoal? 
You need not be a genius to burn wood! Only you should be fire safe. I have tried making charcoal in various different ways. The best way would be to burn dry mulch (try hardware store or gardening aisle of supermarket) Don't use the ones that are already on the plant bed, wet mulch doesn't burn. Duh!

Another way to do it is by using coconut shell, after trimming off the fibre. It burns well and easy to use. 

Once you get hold of mulch or coconut kernel, ignite a few chips with a match stick and let them burn till they turn black. The backyard or any open place is safe to burn, not safe indoors or near dry grass or inflammable substances. As it is burning and becomes black, put it out and blow hard or fan it till it becomes red and starts to smoke a bit. Blowing it makes it red hot and ready to use for incense burning. You can store the cooled black chips for future use, they burn readily on reignition.
It is best to keep the hot charcoal on a fire proof surface. Try incense burner made of metal or clay. Even a porcelain oil burner would do.

Just sprinkle incense on the red hot charcoal and it fumes up. Keep blowing to keep the charcoal alive.

I recently got hold of some Omani Frankincense called Hajori at a cultural exchange meet. Hajori is very special in Oman and is a high quality frankincense. Bigger the crystals and lighter in colour, the more expensive they are. I put my incense burning skills to test after a long time!
The Hajori Incense came with an earthen incense burner, handy. 

Hajori Frankincense from Oman, looks like it also has some kind of dry herbs in it.

Incense Sticks:
This is the easiest way to burn incense. Incense sticks have a bamboo stick upon which a paste of fragrant material and a combustible charcoal base is rolled. Light it up till an ember forms and smokes. A good incense stick burns for hours, is uniformly rolled and very fragrant because of the concentration of the mixture.
Cheap incense sticks, which are not very good.
But I bought it for the wooden box ($6 at The Reject Shop)

Nag Champa, by far the most popular Indian incense in the west,
made famous by pop culture. Srinivas Sugandhalaya is the most famous brand for Nag Champa. $2 from The Reject Shop
 The address on the pack is the suburb next to our own, back home!
Incense Cones:
They don't have a stick base. They are moulded on self igniting charcoal, which is strong enough to burn on its own. It usually comes with a base for it to stand on. Costs $1 for 10 pieces at cheap shops.
Incense Cone on a porcelain base
*Burning resinous incense, the easiest way:
Now that you have met the incense cone, I'll tell you the easiest way to burn incense without charcoal. Put the incense over a burning cone or two! That way, the cone itself acts as a combustible base because it has a lot of charcoal in it! The incense smokes up real good and it gets mixed with the smell of burning cone! A plus!
Frankincense burning with incense cone

Where to get Incense from?
Resinous incense is not readily available here. You can buy it online but to be honest, I haven't ventured into that yet. I know that Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab/Trading Post sell a limited amount of incense resin in huge bottles through their Etsy store. Nocturne Alchemy also has incense in limited edition perfumes. 

Cheap incense sticks: Spot incense sticks at Hippie/Head shops, Tree of Life, Oxfam Shop, even cheap places like The Reject Shop and Go Lo. Unfortunately, getting hold of good quality incense sticks is hard in Australia. Cheap incense sticks smell like nothing but a stick burning.

Some great incense sticks of good quality can be bought on Scent Addict.

Incense Paper or Papier d'Armenie by Francis Kurkdjian can be bought on Lucky Scent
Comme des Gracons have some great incense sticks.
There are numerous incense based perfumes, too many to name but Guerlain's Bois d'Armenie is a fabulous scent that is inspired by burning benzoin paper (Papier d'Armenie, which was used ages ago to preserve meat in the pre refrigerator era in France). Bois d'armenie is pure awesomeness! Full bottle is on my wish list.

There are some kinds of 'herbal' incenses that are smoked to get high. These are sold as 'legal weed' with supposed psychedelic effects. I have no idea what they have in them and what they do to you!

Word of caution: Be fire safe and smart. Sensibility is a must when handling fire, smoke and such things, which can turn dangerous in minutes. Do all the charcoal experiments outdoors, away from inflammable things. Smoke from incense can set off the fire alarm. The smoke, ash, embers, charcoal are hot substances that can cause burns. Keep away from plastic, wood, paper, clothing, carpets. Never leave anything burning unattended. Wow, the fire safety class did teach me a thing or two!

So, are you a fan of burning incense? Have you tried incense sticks or incense resin? Love to hear your thoughts! 


  1. Thanks for all the information, Su! I love incense sticks and also like it more and more in my perfume. x

  2. My dad still lights an incense stick every morning and evening :) the school where my brother and I studied has an ashram where people make handmade agarbattis (aurobindo ashram) so we have a really beautiful smelling home all the time! I also remember that sari shops and sweet shops in Delhi usually light these cones! :D

  3. I actually really love the smell of incense. I use to buy the incense sticks when I was much younger =)

  4. Rocaille, my pleasure :) I absolutely love incense perfumes too!
    Ki, how nice! Aurobindo Ashram is so famous, you must have gone to a great school :)
    PopBlush, that's good to know :)

  5. I'm not an incense girl. My mom likes it, though. No matter what, it pretty much just smells like smoke to me, and just gives me a headache.

  6. This is really informative! I didn't know much about them. :)

  7. Thanks for all the info! My mom used to burn a few when I was younger, but I am overall not a fan of the smell. I burn candles :)

  8. My sister used to burn incense all the time...but they were more so the cheapie ones

  9. Viji and Larie, I can understand that most people can't stand it. Makes sense since it is mostly smoke :D

    Vintage, I wish I could show all the different resins. I want to get my hands on them :)

    Staci, yeah, cheap ones are almost everywhere and some are pretty good too :)

  10. Wow! What a wealth of information, thanks for sharing all of this knowledge. My mum used to always burn incence, and I wasn't a big fan, but that was perhaps because it was the cheap stuff.

  11. I can't believe I missed this post.Wow! Just look at the color and the size of the crystals of your Hajori Frankincense. Good stuff. Love the smell o Frankincense and incense.When I went to Delhi,the air got fragrant with a heavy scent of incense that the shopkeepers burnt every evening.I just loved that. Thank you for this very informative post.

  12. Great post! I love incense and like you have grown up with it always around. I spent most of my childhoold with my Greek grandparents and incense was always used during daily prayer sessions at home, whenever they visited the cemetary, and at church.

    I remember they used to use a mix of the incense discs and the resin kind. They used to get all of this from small supermarkets owned by Greek migrants (there are a few around Adelaide).

    I remember they had these holders where you placed the incense inside then closed a lid and it had air holes, it had a handle too so you could carry it. They used this to walk around the house and bless the house daily. I can't think of what they'd be called but they were very practical, they're usually gold or silver coloured.

    I don't have anything like that now though. I usually just use the cheap incense sticks. I miss all of the hippie/new age shops that Adelaide had!

  13. Emma, cheap ones can be good but very rarely. Solid incense is quite different from sticks, but then it's a matter of taste :)
    Pandora, thanks for confirming that the Hajori is good! I had no idea about it until I got my hands on it and googled it. Can't believe this was free!
    MissTeaAddict, thanks so much for sharing! I know exactly what you mean by metal containers with burning incense inside them! I'm not entirely sure but you can buy them on eBay. I'll let you know if I come across anything like that in Sydney :)

  14. Hi Sue, I've just discovered your blog, and enjoy reading it.The idea of using the cone as a charcoal is brilliant!
    I almost regret getting rid of my big collection of incense. I did it because it seems to fill the room with dust and I've been told that it is unhealthy to breath it (pleasant as it is). Is it true?
    My favourite sticks (that I kept) called My Love, by Shah Agarbatti. I know it is a shot in the dark, but do you know anything about it?
    It is a very heavy sensual smell- I think I can trace Jasmine, and maybe almond(?).

  15. Hi Juicy!

    Thanks for stopping by :) I can understand the health concerns by inhalation of smoke. I guess it depends on the quantity of exposure and the time length of exposure. It is good to have the smoke in well ventilated areas and with the amount of smoke emitted per incense stick I think the risk is less. Also, if one may be allergic to the smoke, it may trigger asthma attacks. I don't know the statistics but will look it up. Thanks for sharing an interesting point!

    I have not heard of Shah Agarbatti. They sound really nice by your description. If you google them, you may get some info. I will look for them when I visit home next!

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  17. guggal or loban ek hi he ya alag he? Guggal ko english me kia kehte he?

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