Which Form Of Incense Is Best and What Is The Difference?

Production is quite the opposite for direct-burning incense. In addition to producing a pleasant scent when burnt, this type of incense must burn completely to a cool white ash with a stable ember. Ideally the incense should burn slowly and evenly with no trace of the supporting core after burning. In order to obtain these desired combustion qualities, attention has to be paid to certain proportions in direct burning incense mixtures:

  • Oil content: Resinous materials such as myrrh and frankincense must not exceed the amount of dry materials in the mixture to such a degree that the incense will not smolder and burn.[ The higher the oil content relative to the dry mass, the less likely the mixture is to burn effectively. Typically the resinous or oily substances are balanced with “dry” materials such as wood, bark and leaf powders.
  • Oxidizer quantity: The amount of chemical oxidizer in gum-bound incense must be carefully proportioned. If too little, the incense will not ignite, and if too much, the incense will burn too quickly and not produce fragrant smoke.
  • Mixture density: Incense mixtures made with natural binders must not be combined with too much water in mixing, or over-compressed while being formed, which would result in either uneven air distribution or undesirable density in the mixture, causing the incense to burn unevenly, too slowly, or too quickly
  • Particulate size: The incense mixture has to be well pulverized with similarly sized particulates. Uneven and large particulates result in uneven burning and inconsistent aroma production when burned.
  • Binder: Water-soluble binders such as “makko” (抹香・末香) have to be used in the right proportion to make sure that the incense mixture does not crumble when dry but also that the binder does not take up too much of the mixture.

Some kinds of direct-burning incense are created from “incense blanks” made of unscented combustible dust immersed into any suitable kind of essential or fragrance oil. These are often sold in America by flea-market and sidewalk vendors who have developed their own styles. Such items are often known as “dipped” or “hand-dipped” incense. This form of incense requires the least skill and equipment to manufacture, since the blanks are pre-formed in China or South East Asia, then simply scented with essential oils.

Compressed forms

Incense mixtures can be extruded or pressed into shapes. Small quantities of water are combined with the fragrance and incense base mixture and kneaded into a hard dough. The incense dough is then pressed into shaped forms to create cone and smaller coiled incense, or forced through a hydraulic press for solid stick incense. The formed incense is then trimmed and slowly dried. Incense produced in this fashion has a tendency to warp or become misshapen when improperly dried, and as such must be placed in climate-controlled rooms and rotated several times through the drying process.

Cored sticks

Traditionally, the bamboo cores of cored stick incense is prepared by hand from the clums of Phyllostachys heterocycla cv. pubescens (茅竹,江南竹) since this species produces thick wood and easily burns to ashes in the incense stick. Through this process, known as “splitting the foot of the incense stick” (剖香腳), the bamboo is trimmed to length, soaked, peeled, and then continuously split in halves until thin sticks of bamboo with square cross sections of less than 3mm ]This process has been largely been replaced by machines in modern incense production.

In the case of cored incensed sticks, several methods are employed to coat the sticks cores with incense mixture:

  • Paste rolling: A wet, malleable paste of incense mixture is first rolled into a long, thin coil, using a paddle. Then, a thin stick is put next to the coil and the stick and paste are rolled together until the stick is centered in the mixture and the desired thickness is achieved. The stick is then cut to the desired length and dried.
  • Powder-coating: Powder-coating is used mainly to produce cored incense of either larger coil (up to 1 meter in diameter) or cored stick forms. A bundle of the supporting material (typically thin bamboo or sandalwood slivers) is soaked in water or a thin water/glue mixture for a short time. The thin sticks are then evenly separated, then dipped into a tray of incense powder, consisting of fragrance materials and occasionally a plant-based binder. The dry incense powder is then tossed and piled over the stick while they are spread apart. The sticks are then gently rolled and packed to maintain roundness while more incense powder is repeatedly tossed onto the sticks. Three to four layers of powder are coated onto the sticks, forming a 2 mm thick layer of incense material on the stick. The coated incense is then allowed to dry in open air. Additional coatings of incense mixture can be applied after each period of successive drying. Incense sticks that are burned in temples of Chinese folk religion produced in this fashion can have a thickness between 2 to 4 millimeters.
  • Compression: A damp powder is mechanically formed around a cored stick by compression, similar to the way uncored sticks are formed. This form is becoming more commonly found due to the higher labor cost of producing powder-coated or paste-rolled sticks.

Burning incense

For indirect-burning incense, pieces of the incense are burned by placing them directly on top of a heat source or on a hot metal plate in a censer orthurible.

In Japan a similar censer called a egōro (柄香炉?) is used by several Buddhist sects. The egōro is usually made of brass with a long handle (柄 e?)) and no chain. Instead of charcoal, makkō powder is poured into a depression made in a bed of ash. The makkō is lit and the incense mixture is burned on top. This method is known as Sonae-kō (Religious Burning).

For direct-burning incense, the tip or end of the incense is ignited with a flame or other heat source until the incense begins to turn into ash at the burning end. Flames on the incense are then fanned or blown out, with the incense continuing to burn flamelessly on its own.

Chinese incense

For over two thousand years, the Chinese have used incense (Chinese: 香; pinyin: xiāng; meaning “fragrance; aroma; perfume; spice; incense”) in religious ceremonies, ancestor veneration, Traditional Chinese medicine, and daily life.

Agarwood (沈香; chénxiāng) and sandalwood (檀香; tánxiāng) are the two most important ingredients in Chinese incense.

Along with the introduction of Buddhism in China came calibrated incense sticks and incense clocks (香鐘;xiāngzhōng; “incense clock”; or 香印; xiāngyìn; “incense seal”). The poet Yu Jianwu 庾肩吾 (487-551) first recorded them: “By burning incense we know the o’clock of the night, With graduated candles we confirm the tally of the watches.” The use of these incense timekeeping devices spread from Buddhist monasteries into Chinese secular society.

It is incorrect to assume that the Chinese only burn incense in the home before the family shrine. In Taoist traditions, incense is inextricably associated with the ‘yin’ energies of the dead, temples, shrines, and ghosts. Therefore, Taoist Chinese believe burning undedicated incense in the home attracts the dreaded hungry ghosts, who consume the smoke and ruin the fortunes of the family.

However, since Neolithic times, the Chinese have evolved using incense not only for religious ceremonies, but also for personal and environmental aromatherapy. Although misrepresented until recent studies, Chinese incense art is now regarded as one of the esteemed Chinese art forms – next to calligraphy, tea, flower arrangements, antiquities, etc.

Indian incense

An Oriental Orthodox congregation in India processes outside its church with palm fronds on Palm Sunday with incense.

Indian incense can be divided into two categories: masala and charcoal.

Masala incenses are made by blending several solid scented ingredients into a paste and then rolling that paste onto a bamboo core stick. These incenses usually contain little or no liquid scents (which can evaporate or diminish over time).

Charcoal incenses are made by dipping an unscented “blank” (non-perfume stick) into a mixture of perfumes and/or essential oils. These blanks usually contain a binding resin that holds the sticks’ ingredients together. Most charcoal incenses are black in color.

Jerusalem temple incense

Ketoret was the incense offered in the Temple in Jerusalem and is stated in the Book of Exodus as a mixture ofstacte, onycha, galbanum and frankincense.

Tibetan incense

Tibetan incense refers to a common style of incense found in Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan. These incenses have a characteristic “earthy” scent to them. Ingredients vary from cinnamon, clove, and juniper, to kusum flower, ashvagandha, or sahi jeera.

Many Tibetan incenses are thought to have medicinal properties. Their recipes come from ancient Vedic texts that are based on even older Ayurvedicmedical texts. The recipes have remained unchanged for centuries.

Japanese incense

In Japan incense appreciation folklore includes art, culture, history, and ceremony. It can be compared to and has some of the same qualities as music, art, or literature. Incense burning may occasionally take place within the tea ceremony, just like Calligraphy, Ikebana, and Scroll Arrangement. However the art of incense appreciation or Koh-do, is generally practiced as a separate art form from the tea ceremony, however usually practiced within a tea room of traditional Zen design.

Agarwoodand sandalwood  are the two most important ingredients in Japanese incense. Agarwood is known as “Jinkō” in Japan, which translates as “incense that sinks in water”, due to the weight of the resin in the wood. Sandalwood is one of the most calming incense ingredients and lends itself well to meditation. It is also used in the Japanese tea ceremony. The most valued Sandalwood comes from Mysore in the state of Karnataka in India.

Another important ingredient in Japanese incense is kyara.  The one kind of agarwood (Japanese incense companies divide agarwood into 6 categories depending on the region obtained and properties of the agarwood). Kyara is currently worth more than its weight in gold.

Some terms used in Japanese incense culture include:

Incense Arts: 

  • Agarwood:  – from heartwood from Aquilaria trees, unique, the incense wood most used in incense ceremony, other names are: lignum aloes or aloeswood, gaharu, jinko, or oud.
  • Censer/Incense burner: – usually small and used for heating incense not burning, or larger and used for burning
  • Charcoal: – only the odorless kind is used.
  • Incense woods:– a naturally fragrant resinous wood.
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