Burning bakhoor

Anthropology: The Use of Incense as a Spiritual Cleanser

Incense is an aromatic biotic material that gives out fragrant smoke when it is burnt. Made of aromatic plant materials and essential oils, it is used for religious and aesthetic reasons, meditation, aromatherapy and ceremonies. Other than these, it can also be used as an insect repellent or a simple deodorant. Since it was first used, the forms and use of incense has changed through the times over advances in technology. Different cultures use it for varying reasons, which we’ll see here.


The term ‘incense’ is derived from the Latin word, ‘incendere,’ which means ‘to burn.’ The word can be used either to refer to the material or the aroma produced when burnt.

Ancient Egyptian incense burner
Ancient Egyptian incense burner. credit@ Walters Art Museum

The origin of incense dates back thousands of years, from ancient civilizations. It is believed to have its roots in the first great civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Ancient Egyptians used fuel bouquets for both pragmatic and mystical reasons. Incense sticks were used for many purposes, like during meditations and rituals, to kill insects, to get rid of malodourous products of human habitation, to ward off demons and evil spirits and to please the gods with the aroma. It was also present in the ingredients of balms that the ancient Egyptians used for mummification. In many of the prehistoric Egyptian tombs in El Mahasna, resin balls were discovered, thus making it evident that incense and its related compounds were in prominent use in ancient Egypt. One of the oldest burners to be found dates back to the 5th dynasty. In the Temple of Deir-el-Bahari in Egypt, a series of carvings were found depicting an expedition for incense.

Incense was used by the Babylonians when they offered prayers for divining oracles. From there, the use spread from Greece and Rome. Sacred or secular rituals in the Roman and Greek worlds saw the use of incense.

In India, the first use of subterranean plant parts as incense was during the Indus Civilization. Burners were found and the evidence suggests that oils were used for their fragrance. Indians used new herbs like cypress, Sarsaparilla seeds (a woody, trailing vine) and frankincense. Depending on the contents, some types were also used as insect repellents. The Atharva-Veda and the Rigveda are considered the oldest sources regarding incense. It was burnt both for producing fragrances and as a medicinal tool. The first phase in Ayurveda is burning incense, which is used as an approach to healing. 

The use of incense as a healing tool was part of the religious practices of the time. As Hinduism progressed and Buddhism was found in India, it played an important part in Buddhism too. Making the incense was exclusively done by the monks. A group of travelling Buddhist monks were responsible for introducing the art of making incense sticks in China around 2000 BCE.

Ancient China started out by using incense for religious purposes, namely for worship. It became more widespread during the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties. While the Buddhists did introduce the making of sticks to the Chinese, the Chinese used incense made of herbs and plant products (cinnamon, cassia, styrax and sandalwood) prior to that during formal ceremonial rites. The use of incense reached its peak during the Song dynasty, when many buildings were built exclusively for ceremonies.  

The Japanese were introduced to incense in the 6th century by Korean Buddhist monks. The monks used mystical aromas for their purification rites. Around 200 years later, high-quality Japanese incense called Koh, became an integral component in the Imperial Court during the Heian Era. During the 14th century, when the samurai class was on the rise, samurai warriors were known to perfume their armour and helmets, believing it to grant them an aura of invincibility. It was only during the Muromachi period in the 15th and 16th centuries that the use and appreciation of incense became popular among the upper and middle classes of Japanese society.

Cultural variations


The Chinese have been using incense during religious ceremonies, ancestor venerations and in traditional Chinese medicine for more than 2000 years. Sandalwood and agarwood are the two most important ingredients in incense. When Buddhism was introduced in China, it also meant the introduction of incense sticks and clocks. Using incense timekeeping devices spread from the Buddhist monasteries into secular society.

Spiral incense in temple ceilings in China
Spiral incense in temple ceilings in China. credit@ Dissolve

Today, burning incense sticks is a daily practice in traditional Chinese religion. Different purposes or festive occasions call for the use of different types of sticks. Incense sticks may be red, yellow or black. For special ceremonies like funerals, thick sticks are used. Temple ceilings are hung with spiral incense which requires an exceedingly long time to burn. In states like Taiwan and other countries where the Ghost Festival is celebrated, large, pillar-like dragon incense sticks are used. Since these sticks produce a large amount of smoke and heat, they are burnt only outdoors.

In general, Chinese incense sticks which are used for religious purposes are either odourless or with the slightest trace of rose or jasmine. This is because the Chinese believe that it is the smoke, not the scent, which is vital for carrying their prayers to heaven. They are made of the dried and powdered bark of a certain species of cinnamon, which has no scent. However, some Buddhists do use extremely scented Chinese incense sticks. Such sticks, due to the large amount of agarwood, sandalwood or floral scents used, are rather expensive. The sandalwood is obtained from the cultivated groves in the country.


In India, incense sticks are also known as agarbattī or joss sticks. Agarbatti is made by rolling or moulding the paste around a bamboo stick. The method of making incense with bamboo sticks originated in India and it is different from the Tibetan, Nepali or Japanese methods, where bamboo sticks aren’t used.

Incense sticks sold in India.
Incense sticks sold in India. credit@ Wikepedia

The basic ingredients for making agarbatti sticks are the paste (generally made of charcoal dust and joss or gum powder, which is an adhesive made out of the bark of some trees) and perfume ingredients. The perfume ingredients include masala powder into which the stick is rolled. Sometimes the perfume is sprayed onto the coated sticks.


Burning bakhoor
Burning bakhoor. credit@ Three Kings

In most Arab countries, incense is burnt in the form of scented blocks or chips known as bakhoor. It is especially popular during special occasions like weddings, parties or on Fridays. It is also used in general to perfume the house. A traditional incense burner called the mabkhara is used while burning the bakhoor. In Arab countries, it is customary to pass the bakhoor among the guests during special gatherings as a gesture of hospitality.


Kōdō: The art of incense appreciation
Credit: https://japan-trends.com/

In Japanese culture, incense appreciation is part of art, culture, ceremony and history. It is occasionally used during tea ceremonies, ikebana, calligraphy and scroll arrangement. The Japanese art of incense appreciation, known as Kōdō, is a significant art form and is practised in a tea room of traditional Zen design. The two most important ingredients for making Japanese incense are sandalwood and agarwood.


Tibetan incense is commonly found in Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan. It has an earth-like fragrance to it. The ingredients used are cinnamon clove, kusum flower, juniper, ashvagandha and sahi jeera. The recipe for making Tibetan incense comes from ancient Vedic texts and has remained the same for centuries. These incenses have medicinal properties.

Uses of incense


Incense fragrances can obscure other less pleasant odours. Thus, it is used during funerary ceremonies to block out the smell of decay. Another use of burning it is for chronological measurement of incense clocks. Such devices include a simple trail of incense material adjusted to burn within a fixed time period and complicated or ornate instruments with gongs or bells.

Incense made from citronella is used as an insect repellent. This use is believed to have originated when Zen Buddhists used it during their meditation to keep away annoying insects so that they aren’t distracted.


Incense is burnt just to appreciate its aroma, without being assigned any other purpose.


Some cultures use incense as an aphrodisiac as it is believed to heighten sexual attraction and desires. Ancient Greek and Egyptian mythology suggest that it was used by nymphs and goddesses.


In several parts of Eastern Asia, incense clocks are used to time religious, medical and social practices. Buddhists use them for timing their prayer and meditation. Different kinds of incense have different burning rates, so different incense are used according to the situation. There are some types that take months to completely burn out! 

Healing stone cleanser

Incense is believed to have cleansing and restoring properties, for which reason it is used to cleanse and restore the energy of healing stones. The technique used to do so is called smoke cleansing. To do so, a healing stone is held over the smoke of burning incense for 20 to 30 seconds. Some people believe it both restores energy and wards off negative energy.

In religion

Buddhism, Taoism and Shinto

The use of incense for religious purposes developed in China simultaneously with Ancient Egypt. It spread to Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines. Incense plays an important role in East Asian Buddhist ceremonies and rites, as well as in Chinese Taoist and Japanese Shinto rituals performed for Inari Okami, a deity or the Seven Lucky Gods. Buddhists believe that incense purifies the surroundings and attracts god and good spirits.

Worshippers wave incense sticks at a temple.
Worshippers wave incense sticks at a temple. credit@ China Daily

In Chinese Taoist and Buddhist temples, thick, coiled incense are either hung from the ceiling or placed on stands. Worshippers who come to the temple light and burn sticks of incense, which are waved or raised above the head when they bow to the statues. Individual sticks are placed on individual holders situated in front of the statues. In the Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples of Japan, the sticks are placed in a horizontal position on the holders on the piles of ash. This is because, as mentioned earlier, the sticks do not have a supporting core.


Pope Francis uses incense as he celebrates Mass marking the feast of Mary, Mother of God, in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on Jan 1st, 2017
Pope Francis uses incense as he celebrates Mass marking the feast of Mary, Mother of God, in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on Jan 1st, 2017. credit@ Catholic News Service

In many Christian groups, the smoke of burning incense is believed to be a symbol of the prayers of the believers rising to heaven. Incense is also used during purification rituals. It may be used during the celebration of the Eucharist, at Solemn Evensong, Solemn celebrations of the Divine Office, in particular at Solemn Vespers, at funerals, benediction and exposition of the Eucharist. Besides burning incense, blessed incense grains are placed in the Pascal candle. The incense used is made with many ingredients, often with benzoin, myrrh, frankincense, copal, styrax or other aromatic substances.


Hindu incense sticks
Credit: https://www.hemincense.com/

Incense is used during most traditional pujas, prayers and other kinds of worship. In Hindu tradition, it is used as part of everyday ritual worship to offer God. In ancient India, resin and the Benzoin resin obtained from the Commiphora wightii tree were traditionally used. The resin would be spilt over embers to give out perfumed smoke. However, in the modern-day, it is mostly made out of a chemical base rather than natural ingredients.


In Islam, during events like the Tahfidh graduation ceremony and the Ka’bah’s purification event, incense is used. It is believed to radiate the air. According to one of the Prophet’s hadiths, the angels love fragrant scents and despise foul smells. In some Muslim Mediterranean countries, olive tree leaves are burnt for the aroma.

Contemporary Paganism

Incense for Pagan rituals
Incense for Pagan rituals. credit@ Tragic Beautiful

During Pagan rituals, incense is often burnt to represent the element of air. Modern approaches in Paganism claim that it stands for all the elements. This is explained by the fact that the smoke drifts through the air, it is created by using fire, the materials used for making the incense itself come from the earth and the combustible incense is formed using water. Burning incense is also believed to release natural energy.

There is a wide range of fragrances used for different rituals. But this varies according to different beliefs. Generally, Wiccans and Neopagans use it for two main purposes in the modern-day. First, they believe that burning incense creates an appropriate magical atmosphere that will attract Pagan spirits and deities. The second reason is that it will release an enormous amount of energy that is present in natural incense. The energy released can be used for magical purposes. During Pagan rituals, using perfumed or synthetic incense is usually avoided because they are believed not to contain the energies for magical workings.

Significance in cultural anthropology

Apart from all the cultural and religious beliefs explained above, incense can be used just to alleviate your mood and soothe your mind. It activates your senses, relaxes your nerves and makes you less anxious. It is believed to have cleansing powers. Many people choose to burn incense sticks in their studies or workplaces as it can encourage concentration, aid sleep and stimulate creativity. All in all, burning incense is beneficial.

One thought on “Anthropology: The Use of Incense as a Spiritual Cleanser

  1. This article posts history and significance of Dhoop sticks. Lightening incense sticks in front of a deity can easily make spiritual connections. Thanks for providing the religious-related post to all of us.

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