What goes into Tibetan Incense?
Tibetan incense is different to Indian and Japanese incense in having an earthier, more herbal aroma. Whereas Indian incense usually has a thin wooden stick, coated in a paste containing perfume oils, and Japanese incense has no wooden stick and a more delicate, pure and refined perfume, Tibetan incense also has no wooden stick but is much thicker and more handmade looking than the Japanese variety.
Burning incense is hugely important in traditional Tibetan culture, to the extent that it has sometimes been banned by the Chinese authorities in Tibet. Traditional Tibetan medicine incorporates incense in the treatment of some forms of sickness and most authentic Tibetan incense formulae originate from monasteries or Tibetan doctors. These formulae often follow a particular lineage within a family or guru practice.
The best Tibetan incense is still produced in a traditional manner using authentic Himalayan herbs and ingredients, often using some herbs local to the vicinity of the monastery or doctor.
In July 2000 we were staying in Dharamsala in northern India, the home of the exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama. Each day I would walk through the woods above the Dalai Lama’s residence and each day I was delighted by the perfume of sandalwood wafting through the trees. For a few days I looked around for the source of the fragrance until I eventually saw sticks of Tibetan incense drying on the roof of a building. The building turned out to be a small monastery and I’d stumbled across the home of Dr Dhadon, the maker of Tara Healing incense.
I’d seen this incense among others in the local shops, I’d bought a few different types and this was the one I preferred. The incense is made at the back of the building and we looked round all the processes from the mixing of the herbs to the spaghetti extruder, which creates the ‘sticks’, and the drying racks on the roof. The people working there were a harmonious mix of Tibetans, Indians and Nepalese.
Ingredients: Although I was drawn to this meeting by the strong but delicate perfume of sandalwood it’s not always noticeable in the finished incense. Tara healing incense contains over 30 ingredients, some similar Bhutanese incense contains far more. Most of the ingredients, only a few of which are disclosed, are Ayurvedic and local Himalayan herbs and the names mean very little to me though others are more familiar: cinnamon, clove, and juniper, kusum flower, ashvagandha, sahib jeera, amala, zipzippus, lachi sabaj, some of which are also known as Indian gooseberry or Indian ginseng. The result is delightful, mysterious, complex and quite unique.
We then sat down, I met his wife and family and he showed me his books on traditional herbs and talked about his father who’d been his instructor. It was by now late in the afternoon and local etiquette demanded that he open a bottle or two of chang, the local Tibetan barley beer. Which was very good.