Sandalwood and Carrion: Perfume in pre-modern India – a class at the Institute for Art and Olfaction

by | Apr 23, 2013 | Anya's Garden Perfumes, Giveaway, natural perfume, Natural Perfumery Institute, raw materials of perfumery, study perfumery | 19 comments

We’re featuring a Guest Blogger today.  Daniel Krasofski is a student of mine, and he is generously sharing a report on a class in pre-modern Indian perfumes he attended recently.  The class was conducted by Professor James McHugh at the Institute for Art and Olfaction (IAO) in Los Angeles.

April 11, 2013, ‘Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in Indian Religion and Culture’

Cover image from Sandalwood and Carrion book

Cover image from Sandalwood and Carrion book

On Sandalwood

“You were born on the heights of Malabar,
yet woodsmen found you and brought you to a distant land
where men have ground you into scented ointment.
Grieve not, sandalwood, my friend;
it is your virtues have undone you.”

From “Sanskrit Poetry from Vidyakara’s Treasury”
Translated by Daniel Ingalls

Greetings Natural Aromatics Community,

Plant derived materials have been used as perfume and adornment for thousands of years, in every culture on almost every continent. These ancient cultures are heavily influencing some modern perfumers, on their quest for using natural materials. “Natural Perfumery” has seen a resurgence in the last decade as a viable alternative to the synthetic aromatic molecules in modern, commercially available perfumes. We seem to be at a beautiful junction point of modern science and ancient wisdom.

Through a number of fortuitous encounters in late 2012, I became aware of and involved with a non-profit organization based out of downtown Los Angeles called “The Institute for Art and Olfaction” also known as IAO.

On April 11th, I had the pleasure to attend a class taught by James McHugh, the Assistant Professor of Religion at USC at the IAO. The topic for the evening was ‘Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in Indian Religion and Culture’ based on his recently published book of the same title. The evening was a fast paced, informative, interactive journey through ancient India’s natural, aromatic raw materials.

Professor James McHugh

Professor James McHugh

He began by presenting some of the key ideas, concepts and terms utilized in Indian religion and culture. The first being “Karma”, which literally can be translated as “actions” and refers to the results of what we do in life bears fruit, either good or bad / desirable or undesirable. In the context of the pre-modern Indians, smells had either a good or bad scent, and these scents could influence actions.

We then moved to “Samsara”, the cycle of life and the place where humans get to play out their role on Earth; the place where humans cultivate experiences through the five senses (as in smell), or the “pleasures of samsara”. The three goals of life were next:

1. dharma- righteousness / religion / being a good person;
2. artha- power, money, success; and
3. kama- pleasure, sensuousness.

He also briefly talked about the Vedas (Vedic texts), the numerous ancient Indian texts that date back about 3000 years. Many of these texts reference aromatic plant material and products used in spiritual and medicinal practices. His book references, in great depth, many of these ancient books and manuscripts as well as a couple written in the last 1000 years.

The Vedic texts consist of many volumes on a multitude of subject matter. In the classic Ayurvedic medical texts, Susruta Samhita and Charaka Samhita, the sense of smell can be used as an analytical tool to determine the doshic / elemental imbalance. A practitioner can smell different body parts, or excretions, to determine the origin of an imbalance as well as prescribe specific aromatic substances to restore balance to the affected element.

Image from the Vedas

Image from the Vedas

One of the things that struck me during the evening was the notion that pre-modern Indians consciously layered scents to communicate, non verbally, with the people of their community. The notion that scent is directly associated with memory, as in modern times, wasn’t their primary focus, but scent as a calling card, for the here and now. James referenced a story from the Mahabharata (1.94.41-45), that told the story of a king who followed an excellent fragrance that he could not specify. The king searched all around, and finally found the source emanating from a fisherman’s daughter “…Who was endowed with beauty, sweetness, and the fragrance, a beautiful divine image…” If I remember correctly, this was referred to as the “9 Mile Perfume”.

In the context of Indian religion, we read a few passages out of the Mahabharata (13.101)-
Perfumes please people and gods: …For the odor produced from flowers is taught to be twofold: desirable and undesirable. One should understand the flowers with pleasant odor to be for the gods. The majority of thornless trees are white in color, The flowers of those ones are constantly desired by the gods, oh lord.

By means of the perfume the gods are satisfied…

We reviewed a number of raw plant material that were, and still are, prized for their scents, colorand energetic/ doshic effect: Sandalwood, aloeswood, musk, saffron, camphor, nutmeg, cloves, cubeb(a fragrant pepper), frankincense and guggulu. I had the corresponding essential oils for a number of these raw materials, which were passed around on blotters for comparison. An excellent exercise for anyone who enjoys scents.

Students in the Prof. James McHugh class on pre-modern Indian Perfumes at the Institute for Art and Olfaction, Los Angeles

Students in Prof. James McHugh’s class on pre-modern Indian Perfumes at the Institute for Art and Olfaction, Los Angeles

While tracing the origins of raw materials to the different ages and regions of Southern Asia, we created a traditional “perfume paste”. This co-creative process of creating an ancient perfumed paste was the highlight of the evening, for me. James presented a rough, rounded grinding stone and a piece of agarwood. He saturated the stone with a few drops of water and instructed each of us to take turns at rubbing the agarwood on the rough surface, similar to what the monks would do in the temples to create sandalwood paste for rituals.

Fron the Internet, not the class: Perhaps this may have been an example of applying perfumed pastes to the skin

From the Internet, not the class: Perhaps this may have been an example of applying perfumed pastes to the skin

The stone was passed around the room so everyone could get a chance to erode the agarwood, making a thick paste. When a good amount of agarwood paste was collected, we added a couple drops of water and some musk grains. Again, we were instructed to grind/ mix the musk grains thoroughly. Next, he added a few drops of Saffron oil and a small amount of camphor crystals. After a few minutes, the ancient perfumed paste was complete. Everyone was given the chance to apply a small amount to their skin and it was amazing to sample and compare the different scents based on one’s chemistry. After everyone got to smell this paste, I offered a small amount of diluted Rose Otto and Jasmine essential oils to create the illusion of fresh flowers.

These aromatic pastes are utilized in Ayurveda for various healing techniques, as well as developing a personal scent. I likened it to the way we produce modern perfume. Using essential oils, we start by building our base notes, then moving to the heart of the perfume, then finishing with the top notes. The pre-modern Indians did this as well but in a slightly different manner. In pre-modern times, this type of paste would be applied to the entire body, then layered with fresh flower garlands or other plant material. Thus, instead of making a harmonized perfume blend in a bottle, they would compose a perfume by applying the base notes to the physical form and use fresh ingredients to make middle and top notes. A full body perfume.

A 2007 recreation of 'an ancient art form' in Kerala from chime.in

A 2007 recreation of ‘an ancient art form’ in Kerala from chime.in

In a matter of two hours, we reviewed concepts about aromatics from ancient texts, took a scented trip around Southern Asia via raw materials and made a solid perfumed paste. If you are interested in the history of perfumery or an academic look at the ancient texts of India from the perspective of scent, James McHugh’s book ‘Sandalwood and Carrion’ is a must for your library. Experiencing these ancient aromatic texts in this modern era helps illuminate the ancient wisdom so we can integrate their depth and symbolism into our modern, scientific world.

About The Guest Blogger Daniel Krasofski

I was introduced to essential oils and natural perfumes in the late 1980’s and have been hooked ever since. While attending massage school at the Aveda Institute Minneapolis in 1993, I was exposed to the Indian medical science of Ayurveda. For the last twenty years I have been fortunate enough to use plant derived products in my personal life, as well as at work, literally touching tens of thousands of people with oils, herbs and scents. As an educator of Aromatherapy, Ayurveda and other spa services, I’ve also been witness to students touching and sharing this knowledge with hundreds of thousands of people, from every corner of the globe. As a 2003 graduate of California College of Ayurveda, my passion for creating a state of “balance” has been fundamentally accomplished through the use of the five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste and smell.

Over the last two years I have focused my energy on learning the technical art of perfumery by attending seminars, classes and groups with renowned Natural Perfumers and organizations. As a Friend of the Natural Perfumers Guild and a recent enrollee to the Natural Perfumery Institute, I am honored to have Anya McCoy as my mentor in the Guild’s Apprenticeship program. Her advice and encouragement will be priceless in my future endeavors. When it comes to education, I have very high standards, both as a student and as a teacher. The Natural Perfumery Institute’s “Natural Perfumery Institute: Basic  Course” is simply the best text book and program I have seen on the subject of natural perfumery. It is presented as a higher educational text book, clearly written and organized in a coherent manner. For those who have looked into the conventional path to becoming a modern perfumer, which has many hurdles, this program is a great option. Clear, concise and extremely informative.

More on the IAO:

The IAO is an innovative, educational and supportive laboratory space for those interested in scent. The IAO is an innovative, educational and supportive laboratory space for those interested in scent. The IAO was founded by Saskia Wilson-Brown, and  Koan Jeff Baysa is the Director of Arts Programming. I look forward to presenting classes on the Sense of Smell and Ayurveda, historical perspectives of scent as well as fundamental laboratory skills.

From Anya:  Readers:  Have you ever studied or practiced these pre-modern Indian perfumery practices? Are you inspired to try making colored perfumed pastes?  Leave a comment and you’ll be in the drawing for random selection of 2mls of organic, vintage Sri Lankan Santalum album sandalwood oil to get your experiments started. Leave a message by 11:50 PM Wednesday April 24th, and the winner will be announced here on Thursday April 25th.  Be sure to check the box to receive followup messages in this thread so that you will see the winner. Actually, we’re all winners for receiving this knowledge from Prof. McHugh via Daniel and the IAO!

Links mentioned in this article:

‘Sandalwood and Carrion’ by Prof. James McHugh, Oxford University Press, 2012 Amazon link

Institute for Art and Olfaction: click here

Natural Perfumery Institute click here

19 Comments

  1. mary

    Both red and white sandalwood are used in making a mandala for worship. Chunks of wood are ground into a paste that is then used to make the elaborate drawing, possibly on the ground or a sheet of stone.

    Frankincense resin is used in making an incense. Camphor crystals are pulverized and blended with black sesame seeds, which are offered to the sacrificial fire in ritual.

    I’d love to receive the Sri Lankan sandalwood oil. Thank you for the very informative posts.

    Reply
  2. d krasofski

    Thank you Anya for allowing me to share such a great evening.
    As an international educator and practitioner in the spa environment, I performed thousands of Ayurvedic, aromatic, cleansing body treatments. One of my favorites consisted of an herbal paste, also known as a “lepana”, applied to the skin consisting of a blend of raw pant materials powders: Sandalwood, Coriander, Cardamom, Valerian and powdered milk as an exfoliant / moisturizer. Allowing the paste to dry, we would then use a loofa to stimulate circulation. This was then followed by a traditional massage technique called “abhyanga”, where we would use dosha specific vegetable oils and essential oils to further cleanse and scent the skin to positively affect body/mind/spirit.
    Upon completion of this ritual, the clients aura and delicate sillage was noticed by everyone.

    Reply
  3. mary

    A memory of fragrance:

    My dear friend DJ cherished her camphor chest recently purchased from Gumps, because the intense, wafting fragrance reminded her of her childhood in Shanghai in the early decades of the 20th century. Such a treasure – the intoxicating fragrance smells so different from the crystals purchased in an Indian store. Just raising the lid transposes those present to another world.

    Reply
  4. Caetlyn Rose

    Excellent, EXCELLENT article. Some wonderful information. Love the story of the King who followed the fragrance and now the fairy tale lover in me is left to wonder if he married her.

    With the mention of making Sandalwood paste in the same manner of the agarwood, I start to wonder what other types of fragrant woods one could do this with and applications… And I had a picture of paper paste pop into my head… Now I’m going elsewhere… simple plant matter paste… it’s almost lilac season, I wonder…

    Thanks Anya for pointing this out, one has gotta love an article that makes the mind explore weird and wonderful possibilities. Body paste? hmmmm…. imagine a hair paste …. for a wedding or…

    Reply
  5. Lena

    Ah, the scents of India! I first encountered kewra (screwpine), vetiver, mitti (soil distilled with sandalwood), cananga flowers (ylang-ylang), and “ruh al odd” (agarwood) there.
    I happened to be in a town in Rajasthan during rose harvest time, and the inner courtyard of my guest house happened to be an area where they piled up the fragrant rise petals waiting to extract their intoxicating fragrance. There were huge piles of damask roses everywhere. Nirvana!
    I am looking forward to reading this book.

    Reply
  6. Linda S.

    What an utterly fascinating topic! Thank you for sharing this peek into another culture with us, and for the book recommendation!

    Reply
  7. Eileen

    Thanks so much for the research on vedic culture perfume. I’ve been studying Vedic astrology too. It is nice to get more info on sacred scents.

    Reply
  8. Michael S

    Wow, what a great article! Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and experiences. Sandalwood and Carrion is now in my wish list. The idea of perfume pastes is intriguing. I’m really curious as to their lasting power and storage. Must look in to this further! Thank you much!
    Michael

    Reply
  9. Priya

    You’ve got me curious as to why ‘carrion’ is in the title!

    My understanding is that at south Indian weddings, guests are greeted with sandalwood paste and rosewater, which they apply to their skin – my sense is that these aromatic substances raise the spiritual tenor of the event. (We planned for this at my own wedding, but rain and chaos got in the way of these best-laid plans!)

    Reply
  10. Fun Chiat

    India is such a beautiful place and spiritual in nature. In my country Malaysia, they have ‘indian streets’ like indian bazaars selling indian traditional goods. Sort of like little India. I get Jasmine buds and these little buds are perfume factory around midnight. Scent from flowers may be befitting gift for gods but I think is their gift to us.

    Reply
  11. Katya Kean

    That was so interesting! Thank you for sharing about these sensory delights! I wish I were more familiar with sandalwood. My only reference is Lisa Loeb’s song lyric, “Your skin smells lovely like sandalwood”.

    Reply
  12. Hemla

    Yes Yes Yes! I want to make a traditional perfume paste!
    there’s a documentary film about different cultures and their approach to babies, called ‘babies’ (which doesn’t talk about perfumes) in the very begining we see a woman in labor, from Africa (don’t remember the country) rubbing this red powder all over her belly. I later found out that this powder is a scented material the women traditionaly collect in the mountains and rub on themselves, and combine with other scents to also create perfume pastes. would love to try these.
    Hemla

    Reply
  13. Mary

    This is fascinating, & I will have to order the book. I love the concept of layering scents right on the body. Amazing!

    Reply
  14. JoAnne Bassett

    Thank you Daniel for a fascinating blog post. When I have been in India I fondly remember receiving the sandalwood paste on my third eye at the temples. I remember the different colored dots on my forehead and learning what the different pastes were made of. Yes they smell wonderful. I love the ritual of the perfumed pastes.

    Reply
  15. Rick

    I love Sandalwood!
    Thank you for sharing such an interesting
    article.
    Rick

    Reply
  16. Annia

    Beautiful post! I love sandalwood and have used it in Indian beauty treatments. I am inspired now to make fragrant body pastes. Thank you.

    Reply
  17. Suzy

    I am fascinated by all this information but especially the part where Daniel writes that ” the sense of smell can be used as an analytical tool to determine the doshic or elemental imbalance. A practitioner can smell different body parts, or excretions, to determine the origin of an imbalance as well as prescribe specific aromatic substances to restore balance to the affected element”. Wow, that’s just amazing! Can anyone still do this? I’ve taken a hypnotherapy class and it’s true that while in hypnosis and re-living a crisis the body’s chemistry changes and the person smells different. So it all fits. Fabulous article Daniel.
    Sincerely,
    Suzy

    Reply
  18. Anya

    Hi Everyone:

    I apologize for being a day late in announcing the winner of the sandalwood oil. I was out of the office yesterday and had a busy time catching up, but I’m here now, and I’m happy to announce that Mary is our winner! Mary, please send me an email with your mailing address and I’ll ship it out.

    Thanks,
    Anya

    Reply
  19. einsof

    namaste <3

    thank you daniel-san & anya for this peek into natural perfumery education & ayruvedic perfuming!!

    as maude would say, 'i like to watch things grow' … like our educational resources… & our friends. 😉

    much gratitude, einsof

    Reply

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