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There are two smells I always associate with Durban. One is the delicious aroma of a bean “bunny” dripping gravy through your fingers as you swab at it with a chunk of fresh white bread while trying to balance an ice-cold coke on your knee.
The other is the gentle, calming fragrance of incense wafting out into the street from a random doorway when you’re on a hot and bothered mission in town.
Earlier in the week, I had been walking past the door of a quaint organic shop in Rishikesh, one of India’s most holy towns in the foothills of the Himalayas, when I caught a whiff of the most divine fragrance.
Let’s face it, most “whiffs” you get on a street in India can seldom be described as divine, but this one made me so homesick, I decided to pop inside.
I asked the young shopkeeper what kind of incense was burning and he ushered me to a wooden shelf which held rows of hand-made, organic Ayurvedic incense.
Ayurveda is considered India’s ancient system of traditional medicine. Personally, I have never seen organic incense before, and certainly not Ayurvedic organic incense.
A short while into the conversation, I asked where it was made and if there was any chance of me visiting the factory – which is how, the very next afternoon, I found myself on the back of a motorbike, with no helmet, heading to an undisclosed address with an absolute stranger.
Driving along just about any road in India requires nerves of steel, but a ride of this nature is an act of madness.
As it turned out, I was safe, the ride was delightful and later, sitting on a little stool outside the “factory” surrounded by bunches of organic, Himalayan rose incense, I thought I had landed in heaven, or a rose garden, which in my head are actually both much the same.
Thin, shy and immensely humble, 35-year-old Prem Narayan parked his bike outside an old house set in an enormous garden lined by lovely big trees.
He led the way up the stairs into a medium-sized room where eight women sat cross-legged on the floor, each behind an upturned cardboard box, each with a small knife, a lump of incense “paste”, a bunch of thin bamboo sticks and a pile of a powdery substance between them. They were hand-rolling the sticks of incense.
Apparently the first recorded use of incense dates back to Neolithic times in China from where it was exported by the Hindu community to India.
In India, the oldest known references to incense are found in the ancient Vedic texts dating back some 3 500 to 6 000 years.
In many other spiritual traditions, including Christianity and Buddhism, incense has also been used for centuries to purify the atmosphere and make offerings of gratitude through the use of aroma. In more modern times, it also has an aesthetic value where people burn it purely to enjoy the smell.
After greeting the women at the factory Prem pulled a wooden stool outside and placed it next to a cloth on which were stacked hundreds of bunches of Himalayan rose incense and indicated that I should sit. For 45 minutes, over a cup of hot chai, he explained in halting English that he had always loved incense and after trying to buy some but being denied wholesale prices by the manufacturer, decided to learn to make his own.
He headed down to southern India, the home of Ayurveda, for a course on making incense. He also did a “small” Ayurvedic course, at which point it occurred to him that he had never seen Ayurvedic incense – and promptly decided he would also make that himself.
He scoured ancient Vedic texts looking for recipes, and after a year of experimenting developed four fragrances under his own label – Vata, Pitta, Kapha and a tri-dosha fragrance which helps balance the three different body types designated in Ayurveda.
He later went on to develop his own recipes for Himalayan rose, vetiver, lemongrass and a number of other wonderful natural fragrances using only pure, organic materials. He also plans to experiment with organic rose and other floral perfumes.
He explained how most contemporary incense manufacturers use synthetic chemicals to produce the smells, but he is fanatical about using natural products so his incense is free from toxic substances, including artificial perfumes which generally give most incense its immediate fragrance.
It has almost no aroma until it is burned, contains only naturally occurring ingredients and carries a “burning time” on the packaging.
Over and above spiritual or aesthetic uses, modern research has shown that many of the ingredients used in incense have health benefits. Frankincense activates poorly understood channels in the brain which alleviate anxiety and depression.
The shopkeeper who had accompanied us laughed in delight as he explained that Prem had just returned from Lucknow where his family farm is situated.
Lucknow is a 700km round trip, a journey Prem undertakes on the motorbike I had taken a lift on.
There he grows his own roses, the petals of which he dries in the sun, refusing to oven bake them, and once dried they are hand ground to make the rose “powder” the women use to make incense.
He sources many ingredients from other organic farmers, whom he visits to maintain quality.
Prem trained his own staff, all of whom were poor women from the district, and many of whom have been with him since he started his business in 2003.
They smile shyly as they demonstrate how the paste is cut, rolled on to the sticks, dipped in whichever “flavour” organic powder they are using, more paste added and rolled again. He employs up to 12 full-time staff.
As well as towns in India, Prem exports his incense to Australia, Canada, US, Japan, Germany and, one hopes, soon to South Africa. - Sunday Tribune