I cannot deny it: I have become somewhat of an incense fiend. I am completely addicted to the warm, sweet-smelling odour that permeates my home and greets my senses when i walk in the door. It’s a cozy, homey smell that you can’t get from nauseating glade plug-ins, or, God forbid, Febreze. It’s punchy, but not overpowering, and I love the old world spiritual significance that it has too.
I talked about my (re)discovery of incense in this article, so I won’t repeat myself here, but I will say that since that time I have a hard time resisting checking out any store that looks as though it might sell some incense…
It was sort of a happy accident that the first incense I bought was the really good quality stuff. If the inn I was working at didn’t burn the nag champa made by India’s Shrinivas Sugandhalya company, I might just as easily have bought some crappy American made stuff. Then again, if they were burning crappy American made stuff I probably wouldn’t have ever taken a liking to it…
I’m the sort of guy that likes to try new things, and when I find something new that I like, I tend to try it as many ways as possible. So naturally I wanted to try more incense, and having tried nearly everything appealing the little new age store here has to offer, I decided to head on over to Google. One of the first results on Google caught my attention. it was the online store of a vendor I remembered seeing at the local flee-market my dad used to drag me to as a kid. I won’t say her name, but it rhyme’s with banana’s incense, which is one of the scents she makes. (Oh by the way, the fact that she makes a banana scent should have been a red flag since it can only be made by artificial means, but curiosity killed the cat, right?) I hemmed and hawed about placing an order for this “hand-dipped fresh incense”, and ultimately decided not to order it because as it happened I was soon to be passing through the town where her retail store is on a road trip and decided to stop in then.
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Fast forward a few weeks and I came home with a few packages of this supposedly fresh better smelling incense. One of the scents I got was called Nag Champa, but it wasn’t really a nag champa because real nag champa it made from a paste called masala and rolled onto the stick and dried. This “nag champa” was dark brown, just like all the other scents on offer… …but it still smelled quite nice in the package. I couldn’t wait to light one up, but when I did I noticed something odd, it seemed to light too fast! Good incense is usually a bit stubborn to light at first, you have to hold the match to it almost until the match is used up and your fingers are burning, this stuff lit instantly, and what’s more the flame wanted to engulf the whole stick, and would have if I hadn’t blown it out. Once it was lit I noticed it was very smokey, and I actually found the smoke smell overpowering in the scent, but I decided to give them a chance anyway.
It wasn’t until I went outside for a while and returned that I realized how bad this stuff was, hours after it finished burning, there was an unpleasant after-odour in the air, that lingered for days. In contrast to the sweet smells that lingers after burning good incense, this smelled like burnt, chemical soaked wood. And in fact as I now know, that’s exactly what it was. You see, these “hand-dipped” incense sticks are made from something called a punk stick. These punk sticks are made cheaply in china and are designed for lighting fireworks. They look something like an incense stick, and it’s very lucrative to dunk these things in smelly oils and sell them as such. In reality these are nothing more than sawdust on a stick, full of impurities and toxins. And they don’t smell very good once you light them on fire. This is the kind of stuff that causes some people to say incense hurts their eyes or gives them headaches.
So how do you identify bad incense? As a rule of thumb, if it’s advertised as “hand-dipped”, avoid it. Also incense made from punk stick it usually longer that real Indian incense. The stick is thicker and almost perfectly round and uniform, as opposed the fine, irregular and often flat bamboo sticks used in the good stuff. Indian incenses are made with a masala paste which is grey and smooth once it’s on the stick, or from very pure charcoal which is also smooth. The punk stick stuff is brown and rough-looking, like sawdust, because, well, er, it is.
Stay away from it, and instead choose only high quality Indian, Tibetan and Japanese incense varieties.