Tibetan Incense

Images of Tibet: the Potala at sunrise; a chorten; prayer wheels in a monastery
Images of Tibet: the Potala at sunrise; a chorten and mountains beyond; prayer wheels in Lhasa

The history of fine Tibetan incense is well over 2,000 years old and many traditional formulae are older than Buddhism. Today, they originate from either monasteries or medical college/hospitals. A number of special blends have been created — for therapeutic purposes, for use in prayer, as offerings to deities, to purify the atmosphere and focus the mind, and to enhance meditation.

The world-wide popularity of fine Tibetan incense has led to a number of counterfeit products made outside the country, but labelled and branded as ‘Tibetan’. Some is poorly made, with cheap, non-authentic ingredients and even old wood chips. “This has affected and degenerated Tibetan incense formulation… to a certain degree, which forms an important part of the unique Tibetan Culture”. (courtesy ‘Tibetan incense’, Wikipedia).

Animal musk from civets and musk-deer had once been a staple for Oriental incense makers. However, in 1993 the Chinese government outlawed the use of animal musk. The earliest attempts to create an artifical musk (called white musk in the scent industry) took place in 1888, and successful efforts have continued since. Today, to the best of our knowledge, almost every reputable incense-maker uses a form of artificial musk. If we find that this is not the case regarding the incense we carry, we’ll delete it immediately.

Pangolin scales are another major concern of course, since the pangolin is endangered. Our research has shown that to the best of our knowledge, pangolin scales are not used. The problem could be a simple misinterpretation between the Chinese and Tibetan languages. In Tibetan, the ingredient is known as “shell scale scent”. The Chinese translate this as 貝甲香 — which is interpreted as ‘pangolin scales’. In fact, the ingredient probably refers to ‘naga sea shells’ which have been imported (not to be confused with the Thai ‘naga’ or dragon). Without laboratory testing however, actual verification cannot be made. We spoke to a Bhutanese company which had also listed pangolin scales as an ingredient. They, too, said this was incorrect — as the actual ingredient used was the gill cover (operculum) of fish.

Please note that we import only genuine Tibetan incense from reliable sources.
TIBETAN MONASTERY INCENSE which features incense from all four main traditions of Tibetan Buddhism

Tunba (Tun-Da) Village Incense Collection
Tun-Da Village Master Incense

The following video has been edited from the program “Discovery” (CCTV Channel 10, owner of the copyright) and shows the making of incense from start to finish in the small Tibetan village of Tun-da (or Tunba). The village was home to Thönmi Sambhota, inventor of the Tibetan script and bringer of the incense formula to Tibet in the 7th century. His descendants and much of the village continue the tradition. It is a fascinating process, accomplished primarily by hand: