The “Wood of the Gods” has at least a 3,000 year history in the Europe, Middle East, India, Japan and China. It was believed that only Kings and the very wealthy were able to benefit from its powers.
The tragedy of the agarwood industry is that the whole of the tree has to be felled to obtain the valuable inner layers. Not all trees contain the agarwood in the wild and there are occasions where 10 trees will be cut down to find agarwood in only one. Unsustainable Agarwood harvesting in natural forests has resulted in near extinction in many areas of South East Asia.
Agarwood and the World’s Cultural Development
Incense has always been an important medium in the promotion of cultural development. Driven by the demand for prestigious incense, merchants made a lot of effort in developing inter-territorial trade, which led to the development of inter-territorial roads. Explorers started to discover new continents and new lands through “The Incense Trail” which promoted trade, communication, technological and cultural exchanges in the East and the West. Incense was used to produce perfumes.
Agarwood and Faith
The king of incense, agarwood is used as an offering by Buddhists, Taoists, Catholics, Christians and Islam.
1) Buddhism: It is stated the fragrance of agarwood can penetrate the three domains, which makes it an important offering. Pieces of agarwood are agarwood powder is used in meditation, scripture chanting and other holy ceremonies. Agarwood is also used in making malas to be hung around necks and wrists. It is common for a Buddhist to hold a malas in his/her hand when reciting the scripture. Being warmed by body temperature, the agarwood mala would then release a fragrance that induces clarity and the peace of mind.
2) Taoism: Agarwood is burned for meditation as well as when exorcism is being practised. The “smoky” scene is a representation of how the “qi” – energy – of heaven and earth is being unified. To practise the Taoist exercise for health, it is very common using agarwood to help awakening and enlightenment.
3) Catholicism and Christianity: After Jesus was crucified, his body was covered with myrrh and agarwood. It was also an ancient Christian tradition for the bride and groom to plant an agarwood tree for their marriage. Agarwood is not only prestigious in Catholicism and Protestantism, but it is also used in the anointment ceremonies of the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church and some of the Protestant churches, not to mention its role in blessing, prayer, funerals, etc. The holy oil is made of olive oil, agarwood, myrrh and musk.
4) Islam: Agarwood is used in celebratory ceremonies and prayers.
Agarwood and Chinese Culture
For thousands of years, this exceptional incense of agarwood has inspired the Chinese about peace and harmony. Chinese started to use incense as early as in 770 BC, but it was not until 206 BC that the emperors and royalties of the Han Dynasty had substantially enthroned the prestigious status of incense and made it a sensational item for everyone. During 220 AD to 589 AD, people used incense to “steam” their clothes to make them smell good. It was also a popular hobby for scholars to use incense. In the Tang Dynasty, scholars became even more attached to incense – clothing, beddings, workplace, play houses… Incense was everywhere! Among all the incenses used – agarwood, sandalwood, ambergris and musk, agarwood was the most esteemed. After the Tang and Song Dynasties, incense appreciation had become an important trend. Along with tea, painting, and flower arrangement, these were coined as the “Four Arts of Chinese Scholar”, with details recorded in the three most important publications on incense – Xiang Sheng (A History of Incense), Xiang Pu (Material of Chinese Incense), and Chen Shi Xiang Pu (Material of Chinese Incense by Chen). Then, the culture of incense was brought to Japan by a monk named Kanjin, and it was later developed into the famous Kodo.
“A legacy of fragrant scholars” and “the continuation of the fragrance of the family”
Incense was widely used by royalties and commoners, in special occasions such as receiving an Imperial Decree. Scholars would carry agarwood as lucky charms. The court beads on the robes of government officials were made of high quality agarwood. Agarwood was also used as insect deterrent for paintings and calligraphic art collection. People would describe an intellectual family as “a legacy of fragrant scholars” and the birth of children as “the continuation of the fragrance of the family”.
Incense was being glorified in brilliant poems by famous Chinese poets such as Li Houzhu, Li Shangyin, Wang Wei and Bai Juyi of the Tang Dynasty, Su Shi, Li Qingzhao and Zhu Xi of the Song Dynasty, as well as Cao Xueqin from the Qing Dynasty. “Burning Incense with Huang Luzhi” by Su Shi and “Burning Incense” by Chen Qu-fei were particularly well-written.
Agarwood and Hong Kong
Before the English invasion in 1830 the island of Hong Kong counted only 7500 inhabitants. It is situated in front of the delta of the river of Pearls, thus at the exit of Canton, only city quibbles where the incense business is authorized to foreigners.
For centuries, aquilaria sinensis is planted on the island in order to make business with various Chinese provinces but also with Asia and even the Arabic peninsula. Its harbor is very important to the incense trade. Moreover Hong means “incense, perfumed “, Kong means “harbor”, thus Hong Kong means” the incense harbor ” or ” the perfumed harbor ” .
During the 4th century, Arabic and Persian resellers build buildings and stores in the outskirts of Canton, and the Chinese traveler Fa-Hien notes the wealth of the resellers of oud coming from Hadramaout and Oman established in Ceylon. In the 6th century, the Greek geographer Cosmas Indicopleustes also evokes trades between China, Ceylon and the Middle East including big cargoes of oud.
As Zayd ibn Hassan de Siraf indicates in his “Silsilat at Tawarikh” (Chain of Chronicles), the Arabic resellers of the 9th century organize maritime journeys from Bassorah to Canton to get themselves oud.The duration of these journeys, two years to go and return, and the multiple dangers to be faced, as wrecks and pirates, show how oud is so precious and exceptional to Arabs.