Incense Route

  • Posted on 15th August 2017 by Guest - Emma

  • The latest addition to Penhaligon's Trade Routes Collection, transport us to India. Agarbathi embodies the peacefulness of the temples of India, with hints of sandalwood, fir balsam and a heart note of velvety incense.
     
    What springs to mind when you think of incense? Buddhist shrines? Catholic mass? hippies and patchouli? For most, incense conjures up images of ritualistic worship in the exotic lands of South Asia and the Far East, however, incense originated somewhere slightly closer to home. The ancient Egyptians began using incense in roughly 2400BC and, whilst they believed it helped ward off evil spirits, its main use was to overpower the wretched smells of day-to-day living and also in medicine as a cure for poisonous snakebites. As incense travelled beyond Egypt, this combination of religion and pragmatism accompanied it on its journey around the world.
     
    From the pharaohs and physicians of Egypt, incense spread both East and West. It arrived in Britain via the Roman Empire and the word incense comes from the Latin incendere meaning ‘to burn’. Whilst most of us are familiar with the Spice Route, the lesser-known Incense Route thrived between the 7th century BC and the 2nd century AD, allowing the trade of exotic fragrances, such as frankincense and myrrh on a triumphant path running from the bustling Mediterranean ports through Egypt and the Middle East and into northern India. Although religious uses were common, incense was used to a wide range of ends: to ward off the plague in Israel, to give an aura of invincibility to the helmets of samurai warriors in Japan and even to tell the time in China. Oh, how versatile those humble little sticks are!
     
    The pomp of incense in religious rituals and ceremonies is undoubtedly its most iconic usage. Huge clouds of smoke fill Buddhist shrines in China and Taiwan, where large incense coils swing from the ceiling and throngs of worshippers waft bundles in the air as their chants echo through the intense fragrances. A more sombre ceremony can be found in orthodox churches in Europe, where puffs of smoke billow from the swinging thurible, particularly during Eucharist. And nowhere is incense more ubiquitous than India. From Rajasthan to Kerala, incense plays a crucial role in Hindu puja and prayer rituals, not only in the temple, but also in the home. Incense sticks made of bamboo can be found in street markets across the land; their colours as vibrant as their scents. Indeed, the fragrances we most associate with incense in the UK today were all first used in India: precious frankincense, delicate sandalwood and exotic cypress. In ancient Egypt, pinewood, grasses and cinnamon would have been far more common.
     
    The English have had a slightly more reluctant attitude to incense. It was banned in religious worship at churches in Elizabethan England as it had come to be associated with petty superstition and sacrilegious idol worship. However, this didn’t stop its pragmatic usage, even in churches. Cheeky churchwardens regularly used incense to perfume the church and rid it of more ominous odours. Whatever its use, its powerful and vivid scent allows incense to truly change the mood of a room in an instant. It releases tension and revitalises energy. 

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