Incense (from Latin incendere "to burn") is composed of aromatic biotic materials, which release fragrant smoke when burned. The term incense refers to the substance itself, rather than to the odor that it produces. It is used in religious ceremonies, ritual purification, aromatherapy, meditation, for creating a spiritual atmosphere, and for masking unpleasant odors.

 


Incense is composed of aromatic plant materials, often combined with essential oils. The forms taken by incense differ with the underlying culture, and have changed with advances in technology and increasing diversity in the reasons for burning it. Incense can generally be separated into two main types: "indirect-burning" and "direct-burning." Indirect-burning incense (or "non-combustible incense") is not capable of burning on its own, and requires a separate heat source. Direct-burning incense (or "combustible incense") is lit directly by a flame and then fanned or blown out, leaving a glowing ember that smoulders and releases fragrance. Direct-burning incense comes in several forms, including incense sticks (or "joss sticks"), cones, and pyramids.

Incense was used by Chinese cultures from Neolithic times and became more widespread in the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties. The earliest recorded use of incense comes from the ancient Chinese, who used incense from herbs and plant products (such as cassia, cinnamon, styrax, sandalwood, amongst others) during the rites of formal ceremonies.[8] Eventually, the Hindus adopted the use of incense from the Chinese, but they were the first to also use roots for incense.


Incense was used by the ancient Egyptianss, not only to counteract unpleasant odours, but also to drive away demons and please the gods. They thought that Resin balls were found in many prehistoric Egyptian tombs in El Mahasna. The oldest incense burner found dates back the 5th dynasty. The Temple of Deir-el-Bahari in Egypt contains a series of carvings that depict an expedition for incense.


Some of the oldest references of incense appear to be within the Vedas (ancient Hindu texts) themselves, especially the Atharva Veda, indicating that the use of incense is quite old, dating back at least 3500 years and more likely closer to 6000 to 8500 years old at a minimum.
At around 2000 BC, Ancient China was the first civilization who began the use of incense in the religious sense, namely for worship. The Babylonians used incense while offering prayers to divining oracles. Incense spread from there to Greece and Rome.
The Indus Civilization used incense burners. Evidence suggests oils were used mainly for their aroma.


Brought to Japan in the 6th century by Korean Buddhist monks, who used the mystical aromas in their purification rites, the delicate scents of Koh (high-quality Japanese incense) became a source of amusement and entertainment with nobles in the Imperial Court during the Heian Era 200 years later.


In China, incense usage reached its peak during the Song Dynasty with numerous buildings erected specifically for incense ceremonies.
During the 14th century Shogunate, a samurai warrior might perfume his helmet and armor with incense to achieve an aura of invincibility (as well as to make a noble gesture to whomever might take his head in battle). It wasn't until the Muromachi Era during the 15th and 16th century that incense appreciation (Kōdō) spread to the upper and middle classes of Japanese society.

Cultural variations

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
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 colour.

 

Jerusalem temple incense
Ketoret was the incense offered in the Temple in Jerusalem and is stated in the Book of Exodus as a mixture of stacte, 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 Ayurvedic medical 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.

Agarwood (沈香 Jinkō) and sandalwood (白檀 Byakudan) 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 (伽羅). Kyara is 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.