On a trip to Dubai I had the opportunity to visit the spectacular Burj Al Arab hotel, a luxuriously modern and decadent retreat for the rich and famous, often touted as the world’s finest hotel. With its unique sail-shape architecture cutting a stunning profile against a backdrop of deep blue sea, it has become the signature of cosmopolitan Dubai. The lobby greeted me with dazzling bold colors, vivid gold accents, a cascading fountain, and a stunning floor to ceiling aquarium. But, what initially captivated me, and remains etched in my memory, was the memorizing aroma of frankincense. It was an ethereal waft of incense smoke that spun through the revolving door and transported me inside the hotel.
In the growing world of home fragrances we are frequently confronted with new and innovative products – better plug-ins, the next generation in candles, fragrant cleaning supplies – and we overlook the original source of aromatic appreciation: incense. Incense is fragrance in its oldest and purest form. Some thousands of years ago man learned that adding certain woods, resins, herbs, and spices to fire created a pleasing aroma and from there the appreciation grew. Coveted ingredients became common offerings in spiritual practice. Today, incense is still associated with worship throughout the world but you do not have to be in touch with your inner Buddha to become a connoisseur. Evolution has brought us various forms of incense, from traditional to contemporary fragrances, which are well suited to personal use. Burning incense can add a uniquely rich and warm aromatic atmosphere to your home. Experiment with the different styles and forms to find one that you enjoy.
Incense Forms & Use
The most common form of incense sold today is in the form of sticks, either with a bamboo rod in the center or in the form of joss sticks, spaghetti-shaped sticks of pure incense material. Joss sticks are generally of better quality and tend to burn with less smoke because they lack the bamboo interior. Stick incense come in various lengths, making them suitable for many uses, inside or outside. A 3” joss stick will burn for about 15 – 20 minutes and can fragrance a standard sized living room. For a larger space or one with high ceilings you can burn several short sticks, use longer sticks, or try coils.
Incense coils are a variation on joss sticks. Since longer joss sticks are fragile and more prone to break the coil shape was developed. Coils vary in size but a two-inch diameter coil will burn for approximately 120 minutes. They are ideal for larger spaces and active spaces, like at a party or an event. Incense coils are also popular for their appearance. Displayed in an attractive holder they make beautiful home accents.
Cones are another well-known form of incense. Like joss sticks and coils, incense cones are made from pure incense material but their sturdy shape makes them the easiest form to pack around with you. A typical incense cone will burn for about ten minutes.
The oldest form of incense is loose incense, blends of raw ingredients that are burned directly over charcoal. Ingredients can include resins, woodchips, spices, herbs, and dried flowers. This form of incense appreciation takes more preparation and requires some experience but can be a very rewarding and creates a dramatic effect. Burning the raw materials causes more smoke so it must be done in a well ventilated space or outside.
A variation on the traditional loose incense is the Japanese methods of soradaki and mon-koh, the latter of which is used in the Japanese incense ceremony. These methods are suitable for warming fragrant wood chips. They involve the use of white ash and charcoal to just warm the wood so it releases its fragrance. Both require some patience and practice but are quite elegant and nice for a small space. If done properly there is virtually no smoke. Or, a simpler alternative is to use a portable wood chip heater that requires no ash, or an electric heater.
Your Choice of Holders
Once you have made a choice about which incense form to use, you can select an appropriate holder. The holder can be a home décor accent in itself or just something simple and functional. They are available in a wide variety of styles and are made from ceramic, porcelain, metal, or wood. The most common shapes are in the form of plates, bowls, or cups, with some variations on those themes.
Incense plates can be used for cones, coils, or sticks. They often come with a built-in holder for sticks or a separate stick holder can be placed on the plate. Coils are best burned on a smaller holder that elevates them off of the plate for better air circulation. A variation on the plate theme is a wheel-shaped holder which has a hole in the center for incense sticks.
Bowls and cups are the most versatile holders for incense burning since they can be used with many forms of incense. Set a cone inside or position a stick or coil holder on the bottom. Or, fill the bowl or cup about ¾ full with white ash and simply put incense sticks in the ash. As the incense burns the ash will just accumulate without needing regular clean up. Bowls and cups are also used in the Japanese incense methods of soradaki and mon-koh.
When burning loose incense keep in mind that resins can melt onto whatever holder you are using and can be difficult to remove. If that is a concern, use a layer of tinfoil to protect your holder.
Use your imagination! You probably have an old flower pot that could be converted to an incense holder. Add some sand and use it like an incense bowl. Just make sure whatever holder you use is heat tolerant. Also, if it gets hot on the bottom use a piece of tile or a trivet to protect the surface underneath.
Whether you chose joss sticks or loose incense, a simple plate or a designer cup, incense will make a wonderful addition to your home. Enjoy the appreciation of home fragrance in its purest form.