Incense of India

Incense being sold in an Indian market in Bangalore

India has a rich tradition of using incense in many social and religious occasions since time immemorial. Incense sticks, also known as agarbathi (or agarbatti derived from Sanskrit word Agaravarthi, gara = odour, agar = aroma, varthi = wound ) and joss sticks, in which an incense paste is rolled or moulded around a bamboo stick, is one of the main forms of incense in India. The bamboo method originated in India, and is distinct from the Nepal/Tibet and Japanese methods of stick making in which a bamboo stick is not used. Though the method is also used in the west, particularly in America, it is strongly associated with India. Other main forms of incense are cones and logs and Benzoin resin ( In Sanskrit Saambraani), which are incense paste formed into pyramid shapes or log shapes, and then dried.

A uniform and codified system of incense-making first began in India. Although Vedic texts mention the use of incense for masking odors and creating a pleasurable smell, the modern system of organized incense-making was likely created by the medicinal priests of the time. Thus, modern, organized incense-making is intrinsically linked to the Ayurvedic medical system in which it is rooted.[1]


Ancient pot with holes used for burning incense

The oldest source on incense is the Vedas, specifically, the Atharva-veda and the Rigveda. Incense-burning was used both to create pleasing aromas and a medicinal tool. Its use in medicine is considered the first phase of Ayurveda, which uses incense as an approach to healing. Incense-making was thus almost exclusively done by monks.[1]

The specific knowledge of incense as a healing tool was assimilated into the religious practices of the time - early Hinduism. As Hinduism matured and Buddhism was founded in India, incense became an integral part of Buddhism as well. Around 200 CE, a group of wandering Buddhist monks introduced incense stick making to China.[1][2]


Agarbatti are an integral part of any hindu ritual. During the rituals an incense stick is lighted to removes unpleasant odours in the air. It creates the perfect setting for an auspicious ritual by filling the air with a pleasant smell. As they release smoke, they also act as organic disinfectant that drives way insects.[3]

It has some psychological benefits.The aroma of the incense stick has healing power that has a soothing effect on the mind. The calming effect relaxes the mind and helps in performing rituals with better concentration. Prayer offered with a calm mind acts like a meditation process.[4]

The Agarbatti also has its own spiritual significance. The incense stick burns itself completely into ashes and yet fills the air with a pleasant smell. This ritual basically denotes human virtue of sacrificing oneself for society.[5]


Various ingredients used in incense

The basic ingredients are bamboo sticks,[6] paste (generally made of charcoal dust and joss/jiggit/gum/tabu powder - an adhesive made from the bark of litsea glutinosa and other trees),[7] and the perfume ingredients - which would be a masala (mixed) powder of ground ingredients. The bamboo stick is rolled into the masala, or is sometimes rolled into a perfume liquid consisting of synthetic ingredients. Stick machines are sometimes used, which coat the sticks with paste and perfume, though the bulk of production is done by hand-rolling at home. There are about 5,000 incense companies in India which take raw un-perfumed sticks hand-rolled by approximately 200,000 women working part-time at home, apply their own brand of perfume, and package the sticks for sale.[8] An experienced home-worker can produce 4,000 raw sticks a day.[9] There are about 25 main companies, who together account for up to 30% of the market, and around 500 of the companies, including a significant number of the main companies, are based in Bangalore.[10]


Halmaddi or mattipal is an ingredient which forms the basis of the 'sticky' quality in some hand-rolled incense sticks, a rare and very desired Nag Champa ingredient. It is an earth coloured liquid resin drawn from the Ailanthus triphysa tree; molasses-like when it is fresh and hardens to a brittle resin with a distinctive balsamic smell when it ages. Some incense makers mix it with honey in order to keep it pliable.[11]

Ayurvedic principles

In accordance with Ayurvedic principles, the ingredients that go into incense-making may be categorized into five classes: ether (fruits), for example star anise; water (stems and branches), for example sandalwood, aloeswood, cedar wood, cassia, frankincense, myrrh, and borneol; earth (roots), for example turmeric, vetiver, ginger, costus root, valerian, Indian spikenard; fire (flowers), for example clove; and air (leaves), for example patchouli.[1]


Masala is a spice mixture. 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).


Dhoops are another masala sub-group. They are an extruded incense, lacking a core bamboo stick. Many dhoops have very concentrated scents and put out a lot of smoke when burned. The most well-known dhoop is probably Chandan Dhoop. It contains a high percentage of sandalwood.


Most incenses are made by dipping an unscented "blank" (non-perfumed stick) into a mixture of perfumes and/or essential oils. These blanks usually contain a binding resin (sometimes sandalwood) that holds the ingredients together.


For most Indians, incense remains an important part of the daily puja ritual, which is a religious offering performed by all Hindus to their deities, especially during the beginning of a new venture, or to commemorate some special occasion. The aspect of the ritual known as dhupa involves the offering of incense before the picture of a deity, as a token of respect. The smoke is believed to ward off demons and cleanse the air around. They are fragmented.

A sādhu will regularly burn incense in this fashion, as a gesture to Agni, the God of Fire. For the sadhu, the world is alive with unseen forces that must be continually propitiated with offerings and cleansing rituals. Their sacred fireplaces, known as dhuni, perform the same function as incense, on a larger scale, which is to transform matter into aether. Burning incense is thus a reminder, of the sacred power of fire to transform, and the ultimate journey of all physical matter towards spirit.


The state of Karnataka, referred to as the Capital of Agarbathi (Incense Sticks),[12] is the leading producer of the agarbathi in India, with Mysore and Bangalore being the main manufacturing centres.[13] The Mysore region is recognised as a pioneer in the activity of agarbathi manufacturing and this is one of the main cluster activities that exist in the city. This is because it has a natural reserve of forest products especially Sandalwood, which provide for the base material used in production.[14]

As of 2016, Cycle Pure was the market leading brand, and held a 15% share in the incense industry of India.[15]


  1. 1 2 3 4 Oller, David. "Incense Making". Retrieved 2013-08-02.
  2. "History of Incense". Retrieved 2009-07-02.
  6. "How To Make Agarbatti (Incense of India) at home?".
  7. Jonathan Mitchell, Christopher Coles (2011). Markets and Rural Poverty: Upgrading in Value Chains. IDRC. p. 50. Retrieved 5 August 2013.
  8. Malcolm Harper (2010). Inclusive Value Chains: A Pathway Out of Poverty. World Scientific. p. 249. Retrieved 4 August 2013.
  9. Mark Holmström (3 Dec 2007). South Indian Factory Workers: Their Life and Their World. Cambridge University Press. p. 16. Retrieved 5 August 2013.
  10. B. Sudhakara Reddy (1 Jan 1998). Urban Energy Systems. Concept Publishing Company. p. 84. Retrieved 5 August 2013.
  11. , (taken from interview with Bhalendra Sunduram , during the 5th International Conference on Ayurveda. Bangalore, June 2012).
  12. Chris Devonshire-Ellis (2012). Doing Business in India. Springer. p. 154. Retrieved 2 April 2013.
  13. "Agarbathi" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-04-09.
  14. "Diagnostic study artisan agarbathi (INCENSE STICK) clutster Mysore (Karnataka)" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on January 9, 2014. Retrieved 2012-04-09.
  15. "Cycle the leader in domestic incense market | Latest News & Updates at Daily News & Analysis". 2012-05-28. Retrieved 2016-06-24.
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