Pure incense is resin or hardened natural gum found on barks of trees that is cut off and broken into pieces. When sprinkled on embers it burns giving out a fragrant smoke, e.g. frankincense, myrrh/guggul, loban.
Incense is also derived from woods, barks, stems, branches, seeds, fruits, roots, rhizomes, herbs, buds, flowers, leaves and grasses.
Incense is indirectly burnt or directly lit to release powerful fragrance during religious ceremonies, for ritual purification, meditation, and aromatherapy. Surprisingly, it is often fortified with animal derived fixatives such as operculum, musk, civet and ambergris.
Bamboo not Agarwood Sticks
The name agarbatti for incense or joss sticks originated as a combination of the words agar (wood) and batti (light). But, agarbatti sticks are now made of bamboo only and one also finds many variations in their ingredients and manufacture. Assam and Tripura are the largest producers of bamboo sticks for agarbattis.
There are about 10,000 agarbatti manufacturing units in the country, but only around 50 branded ones are sold across India. Agarbattis are even exported to meet half the world’s demand. No wonder, in 2009 the Government of India declared agarbatti as a handicraft product and brought it under the jurisdiction of the Export Promotion Council for Handicrafts.
Modern aroma incense stick companies also fall under small scale cottage industries. They use new machines and products to produce different varieties of agarbattis. Depending on the method of production and ingredients utilised, the burning time differs from a couple of minutes to hours.
Since most Indian families use at least one agarbatti a day, it is an ever growing market with new and newer varieties being introduced. Popular fragrances are “sandal” followed by “floral”.
Although there are a few factories (more like small sheds) where the agarbattis are manufactured from scratch, the bulk of agarbatti production is contracted out to women and children (aged 6 to 60) who live in slums.
Agarbattis mainly contain sandalwood, oodh/agarwood, patchouli (bushy herb), vetiver (grass), star anise and cloves that have been ground in a large mortar and pestle along with water and a little saltpeter (mineral potassium nitrate) to form a masala or spice paste that is applied to thin 6 to 12 inch bamboo sticks.
The bamboo stick is coated three-quarters or more of its length with such an aromatic substance masala. The quarter or less of the uncoated bamboo stick, used to hold the agarbatti when lit, could be colour-coded, i.e. painted with a colour unique to match the fragrance.
Depending on the type desired, two basic procedures are adopted: rolling and/or dipping.
Rolling involves first kneading a sticky mixture. The ingredients used vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. Some of them are coal dust (obtained through burning wood powder), sawdust (unburned wood powder), aromatic wood powders (especially sandalwood), fine flour, oil and water. But, jigat powder, a natural binding glue that acts as a water-soluble adhesive is an essential ingredient of this masala. It is the powdered bark of a particular tree, and is also known as patta, makko, and bummi powders.
The sticky masala is rolled onto bamboo sticks placed on slanting wooden boards, following which they are spread out to dry, counted, and eventually tied into bundles.
The sticks may then be dipped into, or sprayed with, a mixture of one part fragrance (of aromatic plants or perfume) and two parts oil, and kept vertically to dry. This last step in production, if done, is usually carried out at the factory after which the dried sticks are wrapped in gelatine/wax paper or sealed in plastic bags, and packed in boxes ready for sale.
Cheap, low quality agarbattis are made by dipping unscented blank or punk sticks in a mixture of perfume and essential oils. Punk sticks are bamboo sticks which have the upper portion of each stick coated with paste made of sawdust from Machilus hardwood. The sawdust is highly absorbent and retains fragrance well. Charcoal is also used to make similar absorbent blank sticks for agarbattis.
Masala agarbattis like durbar and champa are made by blending several solid scented ingredients along with jigat powder into a paste and rolled on to a bamboo stick.
Dhoop is similarly made, but lacks the core bamboo stick and contains a higher percentage of sandalwood.
Certain varieties of agarbattis contain honey.
Animal origin substances
Perfumes used for rolling and dipping agarbattis could contain a fixative of animal origin. It is not commonly known or easily admitted by manufacturers that a fixative called Operculum/Nakhla (gastropod/mussel of marine origin/gill of fish/horny shell of mollusc) is used by agarbatti and dhoop manufacturers in India. After the fishy smell is removed the Nakhla is ground to a powder and used as an ingredient.
Beauty Without Cruelty approached the Development Commissioner (Handicrafts) under which the industry falls with a request to direct all agarbatti manufacturers to mark veg/non-veg on their products. A reply from the All India Agarbathi Manufacturers’ Association (the apex body representing the industry having a membership of over 500 firms) stated that to the best of their knowledge none of the manufacturers were using animal ingredients and the reasons cited were availability of excellent synthetic substitutes and non-availability of animal ingredients. BWC does not accept this as an accurate answer.
BWC has therefore written again to the Development Commissioner (Handicrafts) requesting that an advisory be sent to manufacturers to mark agarbattis and other incense based products with the veg/non-veg symbol because the majority of Indian religions believe in maintaining the purity of vegetarianism when performing puja.