Tibet is a land shrouded in mystery for westerners, many of whom got their first taste for eastern exotica when seeing the movie Shangri-La for the first time. A country that is perched on a high mountain plateau, Tibet is old and has a long history, much of which has been taken up by conflicts with invaders and subsequent changes. Home of the Dalai Lama and a branch of Buddhism that emphasizes ascetic practices, monastic life and somewhat supernatural beliefs and ideas, the mystery surrounding it comes from its inhabitants as well as its history.
Incense traditionally made in Tibet had its origins in ancient medicinal science; a system of knowledge handed down from untold ages ago and practiced with care for the legacies involved.Tibetan medicine is related to Hindu Ayurvedic systems which hold that there are certain components of the universe that make up our bodies. These elements go out of balance for a variety of reasons and ultimately these imbalances cause disease and illness. Part of the healing process was the use of incenses, fragrances that were carefully formulated to heal specific maladies and to create a healthy body. Aromatherapy can thus be shown to have originated in Tibet, long ago.
At the same time, incense began to be used as a special offering to the various deities of the old religion, and when Buddhism became the dominant religious practice, incense was adopted as a ceremonial tool. It was believed to purify the devotee and create an atmosphere of reverence and holiness, while aiding meditation and contemplation. Today, Tibetan incense is used in the temple and at home for the purpose of helping to create a sacred space and a sense of devotion.
While many different types of Tibetan Incense are available today, the traditional formulations had very distinct characteristics which set the products apart from the incenses of other countries. Like their cuisine, Tibetan recipes for incense are very simple, earthy, yet hardy and sustaining. Typical base ingredients are woods and resins, then a variety of herbs that are indigenous to the plateau and surrounding regions.
Added notes originate from a limited palate of essential oils such as musk that give the incense its intense qualities. Incense made in Tibet following the historical, ancient formulas are very herbal and earthy, elemental, with a distinct lack of emphasis on floral, sweet-smelling ingredients. These recipes are practical, simple yet inspiring, serious and majestic, and have healing, medicinal properties not associated with other incense sources.
Much of the incense that is today labeled Tibetan is being manufactured by Tibetans who are refugees from their homeland. These conclaves of expatriates gather in India, a sister in many ways, and attempt to make a life for themselves.
Fortunately for the west and the rest of the world, small fair trade companies that use traditional recipes and make their products by hand in the old-fashioned way have become numerous, and have been successful in getting their handiwork exported to other lands. In this way, incense that reflect the traditional values, beliefs, and customs of an ancient land can now be enjoyed and savored in modern developed countries. And so the legacy of Tibetan incense lives on.