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Burning incense sticks before a shrine

The practice of incense sticks being used in religious worship across Asia is common. In religious institutions and households, the fragrance of incense is not allowed to fade away, as it could signify the end of a divine communion. Incense is also used in purification rituals and applied in medicine to cleanse the body.

The earliest usage of incense dates back to the Egyptians, who used to extract resins from fragrant trees and perfumed the embalmed dead. Many of the tombs and pyramids in Egypt still emanate a faint aroma of cinnamon and sandalwood. This practice was also carried out in churches in Rome, where during the Eucharistic celebrations, a "bearer" would carry a 'thurible' of incense laid on glowing embers, which caused a smoky appearance around the holy altar.

Oriental countries like China and Japan also follow the offering of incense in places of worship, as an ancestral practice. In Buddhism, Taoism, and Shintoism, the offering of aromatic incense is considered a way of communicating with the deities. In India, incense is offered at pujas through sticks that are lit and left to spread an aroma. It is believed that the rising smoke carries the prayers to heaven.

Incense being burned at a Buddhist temple Image source: UnsplashUnsplash

In China, each house has their own ancestral shrine where they offer incense regularly, to seek guidance and protection from the spirits of their forefathers. In Buddhist shrines, the offering of aromatic incense is considered sacred to the Triple gem- Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. It is believed to purify the air, and evoke a sense of concentration while meditating. In the Taoist canon, offering incense every day is mandatory to keep the balance of the energy cycle. They believe that the burning incense represents a change in form of energy and that lost physical energy must be replaced by gained spiritual energy. Their model for incense burning comes from the water cycle, one of the four elements that are sacred to them. Burning incense is accompanied by drinking tea or liquor to maintain the energy balance in the body.

The advent of Buddhism in Japan created a new culture of incense there. Instead of using incense for only religious purposes, the Japanese began to infuse it into other aspects of their traditions. During the Heian dynasty, fragrances became something that was layered on their fans, their robes, and became an important part of court culture. Koboku wood burned in religious ceremonies was often mixed with herbal plants to evoke a characteristic aroma. In the Muromachi Period, koboku became an aesthetic practice. Samurai warriors began to use it to purify their minds before they trained, as it improved their concentration. They wore this perfume under their headgear as a pseudo-gesture to their opponents in case they were beheaded. In domestic households, watching the koboku smoulder was considered relaxing, and it became a part of the tea ceremony that Japan is famous for today. Over time, this became an integral aspect of Japanese spirituality.

Japanese Tea Ceremony Image source: UnsplashUnsplash

Incense can be burned in the form of sticks, coils, or coreless lumps. Sticks are preferred in households and when there is a fragrance involved. In temples and shrines, long coils are suspended from the ceiling, and do not produce too much smoke. Coreless lumps are used in Buddhist rituals because it completely burns away, leaving no remnants. Japanese incense sticks are preferred for religious purposes over other sticks as they are made by applying the Virtues of the Ko, or the philosophy of the Kodo. In other Asian countries, indigenous scents are used for native festivals and celebrations.

Keywords: Incense, Incense Sticks, Religion, Asia, Fragrance, Buddhist.


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