Holy Smoke and Good Oudh

Jun 10, 2010
*Special to asia!
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Frankincense and myrrh for Catholics and Christians. Oudh and sandalwood for Buddhists and Muslims. Scents from wood and tree resins are a part of religious practices everywhere.

Incense has been linked to religious ceremonies since pagan times. Incense cleans the air and kills insects, a bonus in the smoky incense-filled churches during the Great Plague. Who can forget the huge swinging censer in the film Restoration which starred Robert Downey Jr., a period piece which traced how King Charles II's physician gives up debauchery to save victims of the plague. The clouds of smoke produced in cathedrals were also believed to protect believers from the presence of God which was deemed too glorious to behold with the naked eye.

There are many recipes for incense but is most often made with frankincense, myrrh and labdanum. The Jewish use of frankincense, myrrh, agarwood or aloeswood (called oudh by Arabs) is recorded througout the Bible. The incense helped to alter their spiritual state in worship, prayer and confession.


This box of good grade oudh at Aljunied Brothers costs US$7,000.

This box of good grade oudh at Aljunied Brothers costs US$7,000.

The Song of Songs describes King Solomon as "coming up from the desert like a column of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and incense made from all the spices of the merchant". There are numerous references to myrrh and a mention of nard and "every kind of incense tree" throughout this book of the Old Testament.

After Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, he is annointed with a pint of nard by Mary. Jesus praises her act of devotion to him. The perfume, which originated in India, cost a year's wages even then. Judas betrays Jesus because he would have preferred the nard to be sold and put into the collection for the poor from which, incidentally, he was pilfering.

Scent also plays a big part in Islam. Johari Kazura of Jamal Kazura Aromatics and Sifr in Singapore's Arab Street says that the Koran encourages Muslims to apply perfume before going to pray at the mosque. It seems that cleanliness is close to godliness, but smelling divine is one step better. Hasan Abdullah Aljunied of Aljunied brothers does a roaring trade with the Middle East, especially Oman. In the shop there are bottles of oudh from India, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia. Indian as well as Japanese monks buy oudh perfume for religious purposes.


Johari Kazura at Sifr, a bespoke perfumery, links perfume to worship.

Johari Kazura at Sifr, a bespoke perfumery, links perfume to worship.

Oudh is the wood of the Aquilaria tree which has suffered a fungus attack. It is expensive because it is difficult to tell which trees have the fungus without cutting the tree down. It costs about US$180 for 12 ml (1 tola) of oudh perfume, which Hasan explains is not pure oudh oil.

He reports a rising interest in oudh perfume among affluent young women in Singapore. In the Middle East, women burn oudh wood chips under their burkhas so that the scent permeates the whole garment.

For a modern twist to incense, Kyoto, a perfume by Commes des Garcons is a tranquil mix of cedarwood and incense which evokes memories of visits to shrines in Kyoto.

For Western takes on incense-inspired perfumes, Annick Goutal has a trio called Les Orientalistes featuring Ambre Fetiche, Myrrhe Ardente and Encense Flamboyant which celebrate, in part, frankincense and myrrh.

L'Artisan Parfumeur has a scent and a line of body care called Jatamansi (nard in Sanskrit) which is a celebration of the perfume of the Himalayan nard.

Aesop's Marrakech features sandalwood and Mystra contains frankincense.

Diptyque produces myrrh scented candles.

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vivienne khooOnce a lifestyle editor at a website, a newspaper journalist and a food editor, Vivienne Khoo writes about luxury hotels, food and travel whenever she is not sub-editing. The perfume industry and essential oils are her pet topics at the moment.

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