All About Incense

Ever since getting back from India, having brought back some incense similar to what my grandma used to burn as well as my own clay incense burner (it has elephants on, so cuute), I've very much fallen in love with incense. I also feel like I've already said 'incense' way to much...start as you mean to go on, I suppose...

My childhood consisted of waking up early and going downstairs with my grandma to watch her say her morning prayers at her altar with a couple of diyas and one particular type of incense which she always used. I was used to seeing incense being used in Hindu temples too but that's pretty much all I know... I don't know exactly why it's used in prayer, what the spiritual connotations are or whether or not different scents have different effects. Seeing as burning incense has now become a regular in my life, I thought I'd satisfy my curiosity...

What is Incense?

The term 'incense' refers to the aromatic plant material it's made of rather than the aroma it produces when burned. The smoke it releases is fragrant due to the material being infused with essential oils. 
There are two main types of incense;
Direct Burning; lit directly by a flame, then fanned or blown out leaving a glowing ember which releases the fragrance as it smoulders. This type of incense comes as either a paste formed around a bamboo stick or a paste which is shaped as a stick or cone.
Indirect Burning; raw, unprocessed and unshaped, it requires a separate heat source to burn. For example, putting the material into an incense bowl over burning charcoal.

Incense in Different Cultures

In China, Incense has been used for over two thousand years for religious ceremonies, in ancestor veneration, traditional medicine and everyday life. Buddhists used to use incense for timekeeping and ever since neolithic times (!) incense has been used for both personal and environmental aromatherapy. Sandalwood and agarwood are the most important ingredients in Chinese incense.

The bamboo stick incense or 'agarbatti' is the main form used in India as this is where it originated. An adhesive made of tree bark coats the stick and either a masala type spice mix or perfume liquid is added. 

According to the Book of Exodus, Ketoret was the incense offered in Jerusalem temples. 

In Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan, incense commonly has 'earthy' scents to them and are thought to have medicinal properties to them as they are based on centuries-old Ayurvedic medical texts.

Koh-do or incense appreciation is practised, generally, as a separate art form to a tea ceremony thought usually practised within a traditional tea room. Their incense appreciation folklore includes art, history, culture and ceremony and, like in China, the most important ingredients in Japanese incense are agarwood and sandalwood.


- Prevalent in all the main religions and many different cultures, usually as an offering to a deity.
- Overcoming bad smells or repelling insects, e.g. citronella in incense can repel mosquitoes.
- Purify or improve the atmosphere of a room.
- In aromatherapy, where incense is used, amoungst other materials, to alter someone's mood, physical, psychological or cognitive well-being.
- In meditation as incense can have a calming effect.
- In rituals to help raise energy
- Just for fun because it looks pretty and smells pretty.

Incense Safety

- Obviously the burning end will be hot, so use caution.
- Burn the incense in an open space to ensure nothing will catch fire, so preferably not underneath hanging clothes or curtains.
- The smoke may also cause discolouration (there's already a light yellow circle above what is now where I used to burn my incense...woops) 
- It's also a good idea to keep incense away from young children or pets. 
- Make sure the incense is safe from any draughts so that it won't be blown over.
- You should still keep the room well-ventilated though.
- Make sure you are burning on a heatproof burner on top of a heatproof surface. It's definitely more convenient to use a burner that also catches the ash as ash can discolour surfaces and furniture or could even be a fire hazard. 
- It's best not to leave incense unattended.
- For indirect-burning incense, make sure the material is cold to the touch before throwing away.
- For stick incense, the end can be broken off, dipped in water or in sand to extinguish and the stick can be re-lit.
- For coil incense, break off the tip and discard in water.
- For charcoal, use tweezers to remove and discard the burning embers in water.

10 Common Incenses and their Benefits

Cinnamon - Best for raising energy as it is associated with Fire elements (and fire deities, and feelings of passion, lust, sexual desire. It can enhance concentration, focus and creativity as well as help to prevent infections. Often used to create balance too so is great for meditation.
Chamomile - Can help boost confidence, increase motivation is great for overcoming insomnia.
Frankincense - Most used for promoting calm and peace to release any stress or anxiety and tension, resolving conflict. In this sense, it is believed to have healing properties. It can boost creativity and help fight depression.
Jasmine - Associated with the night and with love. It is said to heighten sexual desire but more in terms of mental and emotional connections, bringing out someone's inner beauty, so to speak. Helps to balance hormones.
Lavender - Water associative, promotes beauty or attractiveness. Can help to enhance concentration and focus as well as reducing tension and anxiety and is great for overcoming insomnia. Mostly though, it is known for it's calming of both body and mind, helping you relax deeply.
Musk - Associated with the Earth element, it's great restoring balance and order, aligning one's energies and releasing negativity. Can increase motivation, boost confidence and can help with overcoming insomnia.
Myrrh - Sun associative, an incense of purification. Great for overcoming insomnia.
Rose  - Associated with love, sex and desire. Great for relieving headaches and enhancing concentration and focus. Often used to create balance too so is great for meditation.
Sandalwood - Fire and water associative, mostly used for purifying or cleansing the energy in a room, ridding any negativity. Is said to help those fighting depression as well as helping with overcoming insomnia. Used spiritually to help create awareness.
Vanilla - Associated with the Air element as well as mental thought and intelligence. It also is said to heighten sexual desire.


Where to buy?

- There are so many online incense shops, for example, Spiritual Scents, Sacred Elephant or Incense-Shop, just do a little Googley and find the shop that resonates best!
- Incense is also available on Ebay or Amazon - just make sure to check the reviews, incense can be handmade easily so you want to make sure it's all, y'know, legit.
- Home ware stores or big department stores with home ware sections often include fragrances in said home ware sections. 
- There are also many wholesalers online if you prefer to buy in bulk.
- Personally though, I prefer to find local, little shops that specialise in this type of thing, they'll often be able to advise you on which incense to buy. If I can't make it to a local shop though, the next best thing would be to find specialist online stores selling good quality, natural incense. 
I bought so much incense while in India though, so for now, I'm good ;)

What I most love about incense is that it brings you to the present, helping you to connect to the elements and plays with your senses, everything from lighting the incense and watching it burn, to the smells. It calms you, helps to clear your mind and relax. It also helps you appreciate experiences for what they are, letting them go once it's over. The smell sometimes lingers, like a memory, the incense is no longer burning, but it was, you don't focus on the fact it no longer is, but instead, the smell, the memory you are left with. You don't wish it was still burning, you just appreciate the moment for what it was and move on. Typical me may have looked too deeply into that haha, but it's a lovely thought, no?