Sandalwood and Carrion, a session at the IAO
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.