Decoding Obscure Notes Part IX-B: Religious Uses and Cultural Significance of Agarwood

The top consumers globally for agarwood products are the United Arab Emirates, Saudia Arabia, Japan and Taiwan. Singapore and Hong-Kong are the largest re-exporters of agarwood from its countries of origin (i.e.: Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, etc.).

Agarwood uses are mainly in incense, for both religious and cultural purposes; and to a lesser extent (because of its dear cost) in medicine and perfumery. The list of commercial perfumes using agarwood is rather short, because agarwood is very expensive and cannot be replicated very well with synthetics. Besides, the scent of agarwood is an acquired taste that has only recently become more trendy in the Western world.

Religious and Cultural Significance
Agarwood is used in religious rituals and ceremonies of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. Agarwood culture have reached its height in popularity and sophistication in both Arabia and Japan – even though it is not native to either of these regions, and in both cultures it has become significant for both religious purposes and for pleasure, thus becoming a rich component of these two cultures. Because of its enormously high price, only select few people can enjoy agarwood, and even fewer can enjoy the highest grades of agarwood.
Agarwood is mentioned in the bible only in later books of Psalms and Canticles. Although both books are very holy to the Jews, the context in which agarwood is mentnioned in both books seems to be for lucury and personal use, rather than religious purposes (it is not mentioned in the holy incense or anointing oils of the tabernacle).

References and sources for entire agarwood series:
CITES: The Use and Trade of Agarwood in Japan
CITES: Agarwood Use and Trade & CITES Implementation for A. Malaccensis
The Cropwatch Files 1
The Cropwatch Files 2
Royal Oudh
Bo Jensen

Decoding Obscure Notes Part IX-C: Oud in Arabia & Perfumery

Agarwood has made its way from Southern Asia to Arabia by way of the spice caravans, and is known as “oud” in the region, which is also the name for wood, and for an Arabic musical instrument resembling the lute. The nomadic cultures of the Arabs and Bedouins have grown fond of oud’s fine and intense aroma and use it for both religious purposes and for pleasure. Oud has become an inseparable part from Arabic culture.

Oud chips and incense are burnt in an incense burner called mabakhir during the holy month of Ramadan, after breaking the daily fasting with a meal and showering, and before the evening prayers at the mosque. It is also incorporated into the Hadj ceremonies and is burnt during Eid.

Burning oud is considered a great honour, and is part of the customs of guest welcoming (when the host can afford it!). Hospitality is a custom that is held in much regard, and is considered a virtue in Arabia and in the Middle East. The hosts share their best commodities with their guests, no matter how rich or poor they are. What began out of necessity for survival in the desert by offering clean water and a feast to break the wonderer’s hunger has evolved into entertaining with more precious commodities such as coffee, sweets and burning the finest and most precious incense the host possesses.

Oud is also used to scent clothing by saturating the garments in agarwood smoke, a custom that interestingly enough is common to both Arabia and Japan.

Grading: Agarwood manufacturers classify agarwood into four distinct grades:
Grade 1 Black/True Agar: mainly exported to Arabia as incense Grade 2 Bantang: mainly exported to Arabia as incense Grade 3 Bhuta or Phuta: sometimes extracted for a superior oil Grade 4 Dhum: used for oil (Source: Cropwatch)

The Arabs are particularly fond of oud oil, dehn al-oud, which they use as a personal fragrance. Because alcohol is forbidden in Islam, Arabian perfumes are traditionally either essential oils that are worn neat on the skin, or based in an oil carrier.
Agarwood is the most expensive natural essence known in perfumery, and therefore mostly been used by the royalty or nobelty, or wealthy merchants. Agarwood is more often than never used as a single note from a specific country and grade. And less often it is blended with other notes such as rose, sandalwood, musk, ambergris, etc. And as mentioned in the 1st part of the series, it is not uncommon for the oil to be adulterated with lodh oil and several synthetics.

Oud is also used in a lesser extent in Indian perfumery. I have with me a sample of “musk oud attar”, which is a very dark, musky, animalic oud distilled with other secret plant materials into sandalwood oil. It has great tenacity and longevity.

Agarwood is an unusual woody note that is rarely used in perfumery, because of it prohibitive cost. There is an increased interest in agarwood in the past decade, perhaps triggered by the release of M7 by YSL in 2002, which was the first Western commercial perfume to use agarwood as a distinct note. Until than, agarwood oil was mostly used by Arabian perfume companies (i.e.: Ajmal, Arabian Oud, Madini, Rasasi) and the odd niche perfume house (i.e.: Montale’s oud line).

Agarwood is used in luxurious Oriental and woody compositions. It creates a sensual, resinous-animalic or clean-woody warmth and blends well with resins, balsams, spices and precious florals to make outstanding perfumes. A little touch of agarwood can turn an otherwise simple and ordinary scent into a magical phenomenon.

Examples for contemporary perfumes with agarwood:

Oud Abu Dabi

Oud Wood

Arabian Aud (Ayala Moriel) - one of a kind

Click here for more perfumes I've created containing agarwood.

P.s. We will come back later with more insights on oud in perfumery.

Decoding Obscure Notes Part IX-D: Jin-Koh in Japan

Japanese Incense Ceremony, originally uploaded by verhoeven2008.

Agarwood in Japanese is called Jin-koh, meaning “sinking incense” or “sinking fragrance”. It was introduced to Japan along with Buddhism, about 1,500 years ago, in the 6th Century, through the Korean peninsula. At first, it was used primarily as part of religious ceremonies, and gradually become a symbol of status and was incorporated into the rituals and ceremonies of the Imperial court around the Nara period (710-794 AD), and continued that way until the Meiji Restoration (1868), when such rituals have ceased. Most of the jin-koh consumption in Japan today is in fact for religious purposes rather than for the koh-doh ceremonies.

The first recorded history of jin-koh is in 595 AD in the Nihon-shoki (Chronicles of Japan):
“…aloeswood drifted ashore on the island of Awaji (near Kobe). It was six feet in circumference. The people of the island, being unacquainted with aloeswood, used it with other firewood to burn for cooking; the smoky vapour spread its perfume far and wide. In wonderment, they presented it to the Empress”.

In Buddhism practices, jin-koh was the best offering that can be made by burning it as incense. Incense was used for purification of the prayer space, and while studying the Buddhist sutras. This is not surprising, considering the effect of agarwood in increasing concentration and awareness. It is also used in powdered mixtures of spices and woods as a body incense, in order to purify the hands and body before entering a holy place. Jin-koh today is burnt as incense, on its own or blended with other fragrant woods, spices and resins as incense sticks. The Japanese incense makers usually blend agarwood with sandalwood, spikenard, patchouli, cloves, camphor, benzoin, cassia and galagal. Jin-koh incense is used in temples as well as in home altars for the ancestors and during funerals and by grave sites when commemorating and honouring the dead.

Like in Arabia, the Japanese also used incense to scent their clothing, a practice called soratakimono. This custom emerged around the beginning of the second millennium, and has developed into a game among nobelty, to guess the differences between different materials comprising the incense. Around the 1300’s, this practice led to the burning of individual incense raw materials rather than the blended incense (as was imported from China), which was the beginning of koh-doh.

Jin-koh has become a status of symbol in feudal Japan, when only the wealthy nobles and the warriors could possess it. At first, only men of the imperial and noble families and warriors burnt agarwood and practiced koh-doh. This art of burning incense was enjoyed together with other Japanese high arts such as Ikebana (flower arrangement), Chadoh (tea ceremonies), poetry, calligraphy and Noh drama. Incense burning rituals were referred to as koh o kiku or mon-koh (“listening to incense). It wasn’t until the Edo period that women were allowed into the world of incense. The art of Koh-doh was passed only verbally from koh-doh maters to accomplished students, a tradition that is maintained until now (with the exception of some books that were written recently).

Grading of Agarwood in Japan
Japanese classify agarwood in a system that is called go-mi rikkoku, meaning “six countries, five flavours”.

The five flavours were:
1) Sweet (resembling the smell of honey or concentrated sugar),
2) Sour (resembling the smell of plums or other acidic foods)
3) Hot (resembling the smell of red pepper when put
in a fire)
4) Salty (resembling the smell of a towel after wiping perspiration from the brow, or the lingering
smell of ocean water when seaweed is dried over a fire)
5) Bitter (resembles the smell of herbal medicine
when it is mixed or boiled) (Morita, 1992).

(Source: The Use and Trade of Agarwood in Japan).

The classifications vary between Koh-doh schools. The following is a classical classification that originated in the 16th century by Koh-doh masters that were appointed by the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa:
A name originating from the Sanskrit kara, meaning “black”. The highest quality variety
of agarwood and possessing all five component flavours (as listed below), kyara is prized for its noble and elegant scent – like an aristocrat in its elegance and gracefulness. Sourced from Viet Nam.
A sharp and pungent smell similar to sandalwood and possessing bitter, salty and hot
flavours – reminiscent of a warrior. Sourced from Thailand.
With a great variety of scents and rich in resin ingredients and possessing mostly sweet
flavours – coarse and unrefined, like a peasant. Believed to be sourced from the east (Malabar) coast of India, and perhaps from Indo-Malaysia.
Among the scented woods, this type has a rather shallow scent and is not strongly related
to any of the five flavours – light and changeable like a woman’s feelings. Sourced from Malacca (Malaysia).
A quiet scent with a light and faint flavour, with good quality sasora mistaken for kyara,
especially when it first begins to burn – reminiscent of a monk. Believed to be sourced from western India, but this is uncertain.
Rich in resin ingredients and sour at the beginning and end, sometimes easily mistaken for
kyara – reminiscent of something distasteful and ill-bred, like a servant in his master’s clothing. Sourced in Sumatra (Indonesia). [Source: Kaori no Techo (Scent Handbook) (Shoyeido Corporation, 1991); Morita (1992)]
Source: The Use and Trade of Agarwood in Japan.

Types of Incense in Japan
Japanese incense comes in several forms:

1) Jin-koh for Koh-doh, which is the raw infected wood, cut into very small pieces, the size of a mosquito-leg. Incense prepared that way is traditionally named by the Koh-doh master preparing them, and kept safe by individual storage in labeled and folded envelopes. These envelopes are a sort of a family heirloom that is passed from generation to generation, some of which are part of the imperial treasure house.

2) Shoh-koh is chipped agarwood mixed with other materials, usually 5, 7 or 10 in total, including sandalwood, cloves, ginger and ambergris. Shoh-koh is burnt on charcoal inside temples.

3) Naru-koh is incense balls, which are blended from as many as 20 different raw materials, ground into fine powder, bound together by honey or plums, rolled into balls and than placed in clay pots and buried underground to age and improve, usually for about 3 years.

4) Sen-koh are incense sticks in various thickness depending on how long they are designed to burn. Some sen-koh contain jin-koh,, and the proportion of it in the formula, as well as the grade used affect the price of Japanese incense sticks. These sticks are burnt for pleasure as well as in home altars and rituals to commemorate the ancestors who passed away.

5) Ensui-koh – incense cones, which are less popular than the sticks, and are essentially the same but made into a different shape.

6) Nioi-bukuro – sachets, which are placed in drawers to scent clothes and stationary, or tucked into kimono sleeves.

Decoding Obscure Notes Part IX-E: Medicinal Uses of Agarwood

Uses of agarwood for medicinal purposes was also passed mostly orally through generations of practitioners of TCM, Ayurveda, Unani and more recently – aromatherapy.

In Traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, agarwood is used for its warming properties. In Tibetan, Ancient Greek and Arab medicine it is used for balancing. It is mainly used for ailments of the digestive and the respiratory systems.

According to Imam Bukhari, the Prophet Muhhamed said that agarwood can treat seven
diseases: "Treat with Indian incense ('oud al-Hindi), for it has healing for seven diseases; it is to be sniffed by one having throat problems, and to be put into one side of the mouth by one suffering from pleurisy."
(Source: EveryMuslim.net)

Tibetan medicine uses agarwood to treat emotional, nervous and psychological issues, through its effect on the mind bringing it to a deep meditative state. It is also used as a local tranquilizer. Only the highest grade of agarwood (black agarwood) is used for these purposes.

Agarwood has similar uses in Japan, for its sedative properties, detoxification and fort the stomach. It is never used alone, but always blended with other ingredients, as in the patent medicine rokushingan, or the children remedy kiougan which strengthens the heart, lungs and liver, and treat sore throat because of its analgesic properties. Agarwood is used in other Japanese remedies (i.e.: Kannougan, zui-sei), but the use of all is decreasing because Western medicine have become more widely used than the traditional medicine in Japan.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), agarwood is used to relieve spasms, treat the digestive system, relieve pain, regulate the vital organs (heart, lungs, liver…), and to lower and redirect energy levels to support he kidneys. It is used to treat tightness in the chest, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea and asthma.

Ayurveda uses agarwood primarily for its warming qualities and for its profound effect on the mind when burnt as incense – centering the charkas and bringing the mind into a deep meditative state. It is also used for some skin diseases, and the powdered heartwood is given for treatment of diahorrea, dysentery, vomiting and anorexia.

In Unani (Classical Greek &Arabic medicine) it is used as a “stimulant, stomachic, laxative (purgative in large doses) and as an aphrodisiac”.

In aromatherapy, agarwood is considered “purifying and balancing, relaxant, rejuvenating, transformative, clairvoyant and transcending actions”, albeit it’s important to note that because of its high price, it is rarely used in practice.
(Source: Cropwatch)

Decoding Obscure Notes Part IX: Precious Parasites

Gaharu Buaya, originally uploaded by naz1098.

Did you know that the two most prized woodsy perfume and incense materials owe their existence to parasites?

East Indian Sandalwood (Santalum album) is, in fact, a parasitic tree which feeds on neighbouring trees through its roots system. And the most expensive natural raw aromatic in the world, agarwood, smells like nothing special until the tree is injured and becomes infected with parasitic molds and fungi, which causes it to produce a dark resin in the heartwood and inside the roots.

Formation of Agarwood
Agarwood is a resin that develops in several trees from the genus Aquilaria. Several different fungi are associated with the presence of agarwood, including Phaeoacremonium parasitica, but it remains unknown what exactly causes the formation of agarwood. It has been associated with physical injury of the tree, bacterial and fungal infection that cause production of resin, and also is reputed to be more likely found in older trees (between 20-50 years old).

The resinous (meaning infected) Aquilaria heartwood, aka agarwood, is unusual comparing to other woods, because it sinks in water. The Chinese name for it Chén-xīang means exactly that – “wood that sinks”; and the Japanese Jin-Koh means incense that sinks.

Only the resinous wood is called “agarwood” and is valued for incense and essential oil production. There are about 8 out of the 15 of the genus Aquilaria that produce agarwood. Aquilaria agallocha, aka Aquilaria malaccensis is the most highly prized in most places (also called “black agarwood” in Tibet).

The Trees

Agarwood is formed in several indicidual species, all from the Thymelaceae family. The main one know is from the Aquilaria genus, and to a lesser extent Gyrinops, It is very difficult to tell from what species a piece of agarwood was originated from, even with sophisticated technology and expert knowledge. Most of the time, agarwood’s species of origin is recognized by its place of origin, which can indicate what species grow there that form agarwood. For a full list of agarwood forming speices click here.

Aquilaria malaccensis aka A. agallocha is an evergreen tree, about 15-30 meters tall with a trunk up to 1.5-2.5 meters in diameter. It is native to Southeast Asia and is widespread in that region. It grows in Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Aquilaria is quite an adaptable species, and grows in many different habitats and altitutdes, including sand, rocky slopes and even near swamps. They grow in areas with average daily temperature of 20-22 degrees C.

“Spikenard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all frankincense trees, myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices.” (Canticles, 4:14).
Agarwood is also referred to in the bible as “ahalot” or “ahalim” and is mentioned in the same breath with myrrh in several books of the bible (including Canticles and Psalms).

Agar is the Hindi name for it, where as in Assam it is called ogoru. In Western literature it is called aloes, aloeswood or eaglewood; in Arabic and Muslim countries where it is most admired, it is called oud, aud, audh gaharu; in Indonesia and Malaysia; and kyara is the name for the highest grade of agar in Japanese – to name just a few of the titles it goes by.

Description of the Scent
Agarwood oils posess a woody, animalic, musty, fungus-like, slightly medicinal, warm, musky scent. Some agarwood oils resemble sandalwood and spikenard, especially ones that are lighter in colour. Darker agarwoods, such as the cultivated agarwood CO2 produced in Assam, India have a scent like no other woody oil, that can be described as intensely animalic, reminiscent of ambergris but stronger and more penetrating, with an underlining note that is sweet and raspberry-like.

As for the incense, which is how agarwood is used more than any other – it varies greatly depending on the quality and resin content. The one agarwood incense that I have experienced was a Japanese incense stick of Kyara, and it was extremely refined and transcended above any other incense experience I’ve had. It was smoldering yet delicate, and brought an immediate sense of peace and depth to my existence. I have 4 little agarwood chips from 4 different places in the world, and some very basic koh-doh incense tools, but I am still waiting for the right moment to burn them. With this feature article, the moment have arrived, and once I have burnt them I promise I will write about each of them here on SmellyBlog.

Harvesting, Sustainability and Ethical Issues
Although only infected trees are odorous and possess potential for monetary value, many uninfected trees are felled and chopped in hopes of finding agarwood within the trunk and roots. This poses a serious danger to the species of Aquilaria in general, and Aquilaraia malaccansis in particular.

Pemilihan Kayu/ Teras Minyak, originally uploaded by azizilajis.

Only 7-10% or wild Aquilaria trees will develop agarwood. There are varying opinions and evidence about relationship between the age of the tree, its size and the yield of agarwood it may offer. Some say that the larger the tree, the higher agarwood content it will have – and that trees should be harvested between ages 20-50 to maximize yield of agrawood. On the other hand, there is evidence that agarwood occurs in trees as young as 3 years of age.

Although there could be some relation between dying trees (indication to that are dry brown leaves, leafless branches and bumps on the trunk and brances), aquilaria trees may show little or no signs of having agarwood within them. The tree has to be felled and split open to discover the precious resinous agarwood within. Unfortunately, this led to over-harvesting of aquillaria and the trees have become an endangered species to various degrees as a result. The (misinformed) belief that agarwood develops in the tree after it is chopped down also did not help in the matter.

In the past 10 years or so, some actions are finally being taken to reduce the risk of agarwood’s extinction, including research, regulations (mostly by CITES - Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) development of more sustainable harvesting practices, and finally – plantations of aquilaria trees for agarwood production.

inokulasi pokok gaharu, originally uploaded by ahmadkamal.

gaharu subintegra, originally uploaded by ahmadkamal.

By using new methods of harvesting, agarwood trees can stand and continue living: the tree is injured by making a hole in the bark, and once the agarwood is produced in the tree, it is scooped out so to speak, yet without cutting down the whole tree. Sometimes, a piece of round clay is used to keep the hole ajar so that agarwood can be collected repeatedly in the future (see above photos).

Hand repotting of 4 month old Agarwood saplings, originally uploaded by Plantation Capital.
Sustainable agarwood is also produced in agarwood plantations (especially in Assam, India), where using methods of injuring and infecting the trees with pegs carrying the agarwood inducing fungi and molds, to produce agarwood in the trees at a younger age. Similar methods are also used now in the wild, so at least this avoids unnecessary felling of trees that don’t even bear agarwood.

Forms of Agarwood Available, Grading and Pricing
Agarwood is sold in the wood in several forms, or as an essential oil. The wood can be extracted into either an essential oil or by a CO2 extraction, which is a relatively new method.

The wood is sold in powdered sawdust form, wood chips, wood pieces and to a lesser extent – as whole logs of wood.

The whole wood is mostly in demand in Japan for building private shrines. As an incense material, it has a near guarantee for no adulteration; but it will provide no consistency as some parts of the wood will be more infected than others, and some may not be infected at all. So its use for incense is not so practical for the end consumer.

The wood comes in many different sizes, forms and grades. Wood chips are more common, because they are easier to carry, transport, grade and use by shaving off small pieces for incense burning rituals. Wood chips will be graded based country of origin and their quality, which is based on both resin content and the particular demand within the country they are sold. The price for agarwood is oftern based on rarity rather than quality. So if you intend on buying agarwood, you should really know agarwood well and know what you will be using it for - rather than buy the highest price you can afford.

Another important thing to know when buying agarwood pieces for incense is that the appearance alone is not enough for deciding on the quality; neither is the smell of the wood as it is; it must be burnt as incense to fully evaluate its quality and scent.

Adulteration of the Wood
Agarwood powder is the most prone to adulteration or low quality. Agarwood powder is extremely lower in price comparing to agarwood chips and pieces of wood. This is because it is usually either by product of the agarwood oil manufacturing (i.e. the powder of the wood after it has been distilled and the true agarwood resin has been removed from it); or is simply sawdust from the uninfected Aquilaria. It is mostly used for incense production, as an odour-neutral base for incense sticks and cones.

Agarwood chips aren’t risk-free for adulteration either. According to traders from Mumbai, India “common chip adulterants were ‘lodh’ (possibly Symplocos racemosa) and ‘astrang’ (possibly Mandragora officinalum)”. (see: HEART OF THE MATTER: AGARWOOD USE AND TRADE AND CITES IMPLEMENTATION FOR AQUILARIA MALACCENSIS by Angela Barden, Noorainie Awang Anak, Teresa Mulliken and Michael Song )

Some traders will also mix resinous chips with uninfected wood to increase the weight and their profit.

Other forms of adulteration of wood include impregnating sculptures or beads carved from other woods, with agarwood oil. Aquilaria (the non infected wood) is very soft and difficult to work with, and even more so can be said for agarwood.

Adulteration of the Oil
High quality agarwood oil has a unique scent that cannot be reproduced synthetically, and any effort to do so will be very costly. As mentioned before, there is far more demand for agarwood than there is supply (thes supply is only 40% of the world-wide demand).

Agarwood essential oil is the most expensive essence in the world. Grades vary quite greatly, but it is not uncommon to find agarwood oil sold for $14,000-30,000 per kilogram! All of these factors make agarwood very attractive target for adulteration, mostly with other essential oils that have similar odour profile, i.e.: woody, musty, etc.
“Agarwood oil is adulterated with lodh oil, five or six other chemicals and/or agarwood powder that imparts
the fragrance of agarwood”.
It may also be blended with other natural oils that have some resemblance to agarwood and can extend its aroma (although in some cases the cost for using those is still rather high), including sandalwood, vetiver, spikenard, amyris (West Indian sandalwood), etc.

Next: Religious and cultural significance, medicinal uses, and use of agarwood in incense and perfumery.

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