By David Oller
A Brief History
Incense has its roots back in mankind's first experiences with fire itself. It is unlikely primitive man would have missed that certain woods had more pleasing aromas and indeed varying emotional effects. Incense artifacts, thousands of years old, have be found in throughout the world, and appear to be a part of virtually every culture. The connection between incense, religions, medicine, and shaman practices is obvious, it would be impossible to separate them, or say which proceeded the other. Historically it is difficult to trace because it has always been largely an esoteric and oral tradition evolving in relation to both religion and medicine.
There are many myths regarding incense as well. Several modern sources include the use of Salt Peter (Potassium Nitrate) in making incense. This is undoubtedly a much later addition that arose in the commercialization of incense, primarily in the last 40 years.
Incense has appeared in many forms: raw woods, chopped herbs, pastes, powders, and even liquids or oils. What most of us think of as incense today is joss-sticks or cones. Cones as we know them were an invention of the Japanese and introduced at the World's Fair in Chicago in the late 1800's. I cannot say, at this time, when the Joss Stick or Masala incense first appeared. We do know that it was brought to China by Buddhist monk's around 200 ce. as both incense materials and Buddhism traveled the various routes of the Silk Road. The process of extruding incense sticks and coils from finely ground incense materials seems to have begun in China, as well as the use of these types in time measurement.
Herbal incense is blended primarily for effect. Scent is the secondary consideration in many cases, but in "all" cases, the scent is designed for the burn. Many natural incense ingredients have almost no aroma until they are heated. Notably, Aloes wood as well as many other resins have little or no aroma until they are smoldered over the incense fire.
Incense and Herbalism go hand-in-hand, and the oldest sources we have regarding herbalism and incense is the Indian Vedas. The primary references are in the Athar-vaveda and the Rigveda. This is commonly considered first phase of Ayurveda and deals with the subject in a more magical and religious approach to healing. Examination of early Vedic texts indicates that the herbalists, or healers were a second tier of Hindu priest that emerged out of the agrarian areas. They appear to assimilated their knowledge of herbalism with the rituals and beliefs of the orthodox or "Sacrificial" priests. However, they remained two distinct classes and were scorned in the later days of this phase by the sacrificial priests who considered them unclean because of their association and medical treatment of all classes of people. Around 200 bce. They were excluded by law from participating in sacred rites. Even before this, the medical priests had begun associating with wandering mendicants and ascetics who were renouncing sacrificial rites and orthodoxy, and among these were the Buddhist or bhikkhus. Pali sources indicate that the Buddhists were the principal means by which these emerging physicians organized, developed and disseminated their emerging art. This begins the classical phase of Ayurveda and the great healer Atreya emerges among others at the medical university at Taxila. Among his students were Jivaku (Buddha's Physician).
Later, Brahmanization of certain medical texts amends the heterodox practices in light of a more orthodox view, and Buddhist medicine appears to split with Ayurveda. From this point, incense evolves in both traditions in association with medicine and herbal remedies, and becomes even more a closely guarded secret passed down primarily in the oral tradition and apprenticeship.
Breaking down the five elements and their Ayurvedic relationship to plants and common incense ingredients we find them falling into five classes. The following chart shows the relationship:
1. Ether (Fruits)
2. Water (Stems & Branches)
Sandalwood, Aloeswood, Cedarwood,
Cassia, Frankincense, Myrrh, Borneol
3. Earth (Roots)
Turmeric, Vetivert, Ginger, Costus Root,
4. Fire (flower)
5. Air (leaves)
By Buddhist traditions, the 5 primary ingredients are:
1. Buddha Family
(Transmutation of Ignorance)
2. Vajra Family
(Transmutation of Aversion)
3. Padma (lotus) Family
(Transmutation of Desire)
4. Ratna Family
(Transmutation of Pride)
5. Karma Family
(Transmutation of Envy)
The process of making herbal incense without the use of salt peter, or even charcoal is actually quite easy. However, perfecting the art is another matter. Perhaps the easiest way is by using a binder commonly called Makko. Makko not only serves as a water soluble binder, but as a burning agent as well. Makko is a natural tree bark from an evergreen tree and contains no synthetic chemicals, charcoal, or salt peter.
To make incense, simply mix the desired ingredients, in powdered form, with makko, and add some warm water. Knead the incense-dough thoroughly and form into cones or sticks and let them dry slowly. Japanese makers have ways to control the drying time. About a week in the summer and ten days in the winter.
Sandalwood is common to almost every incense formula, and serves as a wonderful base aroma as well as a burning agent of its own right. If you were making an incense of sandalwood alone, the amount of makko required may be a little as 10%. However, resins like Frankincense are more difficult to burn and must be used in much lower percentages to burning agents such as sandalwood or makko. Otherwise, your incense won't burn properly, and may me too smoky or keep going out.
Tabu no ki (Makko)
Makko really just means "Incense Powder," but when we refer to Makko we are talking about a specific incense powder called Tabu no ki. It is the bark of a tree that grows in Southeast Asia, the Machillus Thunbergii tree. Makko comes in four grades, and the the higher grades have less aroma than the lower ones. What makes this powder so special is its water soluble adhesive properties, an almost odorless characteristic that seems to be entirely lost when mixed with other ingredients, and its abilities to burn smoothly and evenly.
What is Makko?
Powdering Incense Materials
The picture to the right is a machine used by Japanese incense companies to powder ingredients. It pulverizes the materials instead of grinding them in an electric powder mill. This keeps the material from being overheated and losing aromatic integrity. This is very important because materials like Sandalwood will lose some ranges of aroma entirely, as well as generally weakening the overall aroma.
There are a couple of methods you can use at home that work well:
Another way is using the Mexican culinary Molcajete shown here.
One is using the hand crank coffee mill like the one shown here.
Sometimes you can find ingredients already powdered. Ingredients like Clove, Cassia, (Cinnamon) Spikenard, etc. can be obtained from Spice and Ayurvedic herb suppliers. Cassia is usually called "Vietnamese Cinnamon" and you should look for one with 4% oil content or better. Some Baieido incense retailers stock some of these ingredients.
Mixing Incense Materials
Each incense ingredient is carefully measured and then mixed together in the mixing container. Once they are completely mixed they are put through a sieve to remove impurities and sifted for uniformity. The powder should be very fine for the incense to blend, knead, extrude, and dry properly.
You can do the same by using a flour sifter after you mix your ingredients. Makko is also added to the other ingredients for proper burning and binding. At least 10% makko should be used, and depending on the other ingredients, more makko maybe required for proper combustion.
Next the powder is put in a machine to knead it into a uniform paste called "Tama." Water is added to make the dry powder into tama.
For making incense at home you can use a medium or large porcelain mortar and pestle. Be sure to add a little water at a time and knead the tama until it is consistent.
The next step is extruding the incense sticks in much the same way as pasta is extruded. Baieido uses a hydraulic extruder in Japan. It requires considerable pressure to push the tama through the extruder. When making incense at home you can either form the tama into cones at this point, or you can roll the dough flat and cut in thin strips. Then follow the same procedures in the rest of this demonstration.
What you see to the left is the extrusion of incense paste (tama) into long strands. These strands are captured on a board and cut to a fixed length. .
Next the incense sticks (senko) will be separated from sticking to the board and then straightened
The next step is to cut the incense sticks to various lengths according to their uses.
Once the incense sticks (senko) are cut to the proper length they are placed on drying trays and placed in racks to dry. It takes many days to dry the incense properly, and during the process the incense sticks are adjusted with a board to remove the space between the half dry incense, and make certain the sticks remain straight.
Finally the incense sticks are bound together in bundles to prevent any bending.
As you can see, Japanese Style incense is quite an art. Every part of the process requires careful attention and skill. There are ways to shortcut the process, but this is the method that produces the finest incense in the world!
Many thanks to Baieido Ltd. and the Sakai Small Business Promotion Association for information and photos used in this presentation.
For more information on Japanese Incense you will want to visit the Japanese-Incense.com website.
© Copyright — David Oller 2000-2002