Incense materials are available in various forms and degrees of processing. They can generally be separated into “direct-burning” and “indirect-burning” types depending on use. Preference for one form or another varies with culture, tradition, and personal taste. Although the production of direct- and indirect-burning incense are both blended to produce a pleasant smell when burned, the two differ in their composition due to the former’s requirement for even, stable, and sustained burning.
Indirect-burning incense, also called “non-combustible incense”,is a combination of aromatic ingredients that are not prepared in any particular way or encouraged into any particular form, leaving it mostly unsuitable for direct combustion. The use of this class of incense requires a separate heat source since it does not generally kindle a fire capable of burning itself and may not ignite at all under normal conditions. This incense can vary in the duration of its burning with the texture of the material. Finer ingredients tend to burn more rapidly, while coarsely ground or whole chunks may be consumed very gradually as they have less total surface area. The heat is traditionally provided by charcoal or glowing embers.
In the West, the best known incense materials of this type are frankincense and myrrh, likely due to their many mentions in the Christian Bible. In fact, the word for “frankincense“ in many European languages also alludes to any form of incense.
- Whole: The incense material is burned directly in its raw unprocessed form on top of coal embers.
- Powdered or granulated: The incense material is broken down into finer bits. This incense burns quickly and provides a short period of intense smells.
- Paste: The powdered or granulated incense material is mixed with a sticky and incombustible binder, such as dried fruit, honey, or a soft resin and then formed to balls or small pastilles. These may then be allowed to mature in a controlled environment where the fragrances can commingle and unite. Much Arabian incense, also called “Bukhoor” or “Bakhoor”, is of this type (Bakhoor, actually refers to frankincense in both Lebanese and Arabic, and Japan has a history of kneaded incense, called nerikō or awasekō, using this method.Within the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition, raw frankincense is ground into a fine powder and then mixed with various sweet-smelling essential oils.
Indirect burning incense does not have any stringent requirements except for achieving a pleasant smell when lit. Mixture of incense materials can be joined by powdering the raw materials and then mixing them together with a binder to form pastes, which are then cut and dried into pellets.
Incense of the Athonite Orthodox Christian tradition are made using similar methods by powdering frankincense or fir resin, mixing it with essential oils. Floral fragrances are the most common, but citrus such as lemon is not uncommon. The incense mixture is then rolled out into a slab approximately 1 cm thick and left until the slab has firmed. It is then cut into small cubes, coated with clay powder to prevent adhesion, and allowed to fully harden and dry. The product visually resemble cubes of Loukoum. In Greece this rolled incense resin is called ‘Moskolibano’, and generally comes in either a pink or green colour denoting the fragrance, with pink being rose and green being jasmine.
Incense coils hanging from the ceiling of an East Asian temple
Direct-burning incense also called “combustible incense”, generally requires little preparation prior to its use. When lit directly by a flame (hence the appellation) and then fanned out, the glowing ember on the incense will continue to smoulder and burn away the rest of the incense without continued application of heat or flame from an outside source. This class of incense is made from a moldable substrate of fragrant finely ground (or liquid) incense materials and odourless binder.The composition must be adjusted to provide fragrance in the proper concentration and to make sure even burning. The following types of direct-burning incense are commonly encountered, though the material itself can take almost any form, according to expediency or whimsy:
- Coil: Extruded and shaped into a coil without a core. This type of incense is able to burn for an extended period, from hours to days, and is commonly produced and used by Chinese culture
- Cone: Incense in this form burns relatively fast. Incense cones were invented in Japan in the 1800s.
- Cored stick: This form of stick incense has a supporting core of bamboo. Higher quality varieties of this form have fragrant sandalwood cores. The core is coated by a thick layer of incense material that burns away with the core. This type of incense is commonly produced in India and China. When used for worship in Chinese folk religion, cored incensed sticks are sometimes known as “joss sticks”.
- Solid stick: This stick incense has no supporting core and is completely made of incense material. Easily broken into pieces, it allows one to determine the specific amount of incense they wish to burn. This is the most commonly produced form of incense in Japan and Tibet.
- Powder: The loose incense powder used for making indirect burning incense is sometimes burned without further processing. They are typically packed into long trails on top of wood ash using a stencil and burned in special censers or incense clocks.
- Paper: Paper infused with incense, folded accordion style, lit and blown out. Examples are Carta d’Armenia and Papier d’Arménie.
- Rope: The incense powder is rolled into paper sheets, which are then rolled into ropes, twisted tightly, then doubled over and twisted again, yielding a two-strand rope. The larger end is the bight, and may be stood vertically, in a shallow dish of sand or pebbles. The smaller (pointed) end is lit. This type of incense is highly transportable and stays fresh for extremely long periods. It has been used for centuries in Tibet and Nepal.
Direct-burning incense of these forms is either extruded, pressed into forms, or coated onto a supporting material.
The disks of powdered mugwort called ‘moxa’ sold in Chinese shops and herbalists are used in Traditional Chinese medicine for moxibustion treatment. Moxa tablets are not incenses; the treatment relies on heat rather than fragrance.
Picture of joss sticks in a Chinese temple
Joss sticks are used for a variety of purposes associated with ritual and religious devotion in China and India. They are used in Chinese influenced East Asian and Southeast Asian countries, traditionally burned before the threshold of a home or business, before an image of a Chinese popular religion divinity or spirit of place, or in small and humble or large and elaborate shrine found at the main entrance to each and every village. Here the earth god is propitiated in the hope of bringing wealth and health to the village. They can also be burned in front of a door, or open window as an offering toheaven, or devas. The Chinese word “joss” for Joss (god) is derived from the Latin deus (god) via Portuguese.
Joss-stick burning is an everyday practice in traditional Chinese religion. There are many different types of joss sticks used for different purposes or on different festive days. Many of them are long and thin and are mostly colored yellow, red, and more rarely, black. Thick joss sticks are used for special ceremonies, such as funerals. Spiral joss sticks are also used on a regular basis, which are found hanging above temple ceilings, with burn times that are exceedingly long. In some states, such as Taiwan, Singapore, or Malaysia, where they celebrate the Ghost Festival, large, pillar-like dragon joss sticks are sometimes used. These generate such a massive amount of smoke and heat that they are only ever burned outside.
Chinese incense sticks for use in popular religion are generally without aroma or only the slightest trace of jasmine or rose, since it is the smoke, not the scent, which is important in conveying the prayers of the faithful to heaven. They are composed of the dried powdered bark of a non-scented species of Cinnamon native to Cambodia, Cinnamomum cambodianum. Inexpensive packs of 300 are often found for sale in Chinese supermarkets. Despite that they contain no sandalwood at all, they often include the Chinese character for sandalwood on the label, as a generic term for incense.
Highly scented Chinese incense sticks are only used by some Buddhists. These are often quite expensive due to the use of large amounts of sandalwood, aloeswood, or floral scents used. The Sandalwood used in Chinese incenses does not come from India, its native home, but rather from groves planted within Chinese territory. Sites such as belonging to Tzu Chi, Chung Tai Shan, Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Buddhism in Burma and Korean Buddhism do not use incense.