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August 07, 2018 6 min read

When the Aquilaria tree was wounded, its body creates oleoresin, a natural defence mechanism. This oleoresin forms in and around the wood. When heated, it is very aromatic. When pulverised and distilled, it becomes oil. This oil is known as agarwood oil or oud.

This wood is known as Wood of God, Agarwood.

 

Below are information from “History of Agarwood” written by Lopez-Sampson and Page (2018), for the full article, please click here

 

Hindu Texts

The ancient Indian epic, the Mahābhārata, dating from 1493 to 1443 B.C.E., includes numerous references to the use of fragrances for pleasure, luxury, and well-being. Agarwood, in particular, is frequently mentioned as a symbol of wealth and a form of tribute or greeting.

In the first book, when visitors arrived in the ancient city of Khandavaprastha, the entire city was filled with the scent of burning agarwood to welcome them. This book also describes an amphitheatre near King Drupada’s capital, Kamapilya, which was surrounded by high walls and a moat, and perfumed with black aloes, sandalwood paste, and adorned with flower garlands. The mansions around this amphitheatre were similarly scented, with their noble inhabitants competing in their display of wealth by using fragrant black aloe paste.

The second book further elaborates on the luxurious homes of monarchs, which were decorated with flower garlands and scented with agarwood. After the Bharatas defeated the Mlechchha tribes, the conquered people had to pay tributes that included valuable aromatic goods such as sandalwood and agarwood. This extensive use of agarwood and other fragrances throughout the text demonstrates their longstanding significance and value in ancient Indian culture.

  

Christian Scriptures

 Agarwood is mentioned multiple times in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. In the Book of Numbers (24:6), Balaam describes Israel's settlements as "like aloes planted by the LORD." Psalm 45:8 also highlights agarwood's noble and alluring qualities when recounting a king’s preparation for marriage, stating that "All your robes are fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia." The seductive nature of aromatics, including agarwood, is celebrated in Song of Songs 4:14, where it describes the sexual attraction between lovers: "Your plants are an orchard of every kind of incense tree, with myrrh and aloes and all the finest spices." Similarly, in Proverbs 7:17, a seductress invites her lover with, "I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes and cinnamon."


In the New Testament, the spiritual significance of agarwood is noted in the Gospel of John (20:39–40), where Jesus’ body is anointed with a mixture of myrrh and aloes after his crucifixion. However, some scholars argue that the aloe mentioned here might refer to medicinal Aloe rather than aromatic agarwood (Crosswhite and Crosswhite 1984; Greppin 1988; Smith 1993; Smith and Steyn 2004). This argument is supported by the fact that both myrrh and bitter aloes were used in ancient Egyptian embalming practices (Crosswhite and Crosswhite 1984; Gannal 1840; Grindlay and Reynolds 1986). The use of fragrant products in embalming may have served to mask the smell of decomposition (Nunnamaker and Dhonau 2015) and as a connection to afterlife worship (Driscoll 1953), rather than for preserving the body, a role primarily performed by natron (Papageorgopoulou et al. 2015; Sandison 1963).

The reference to aloes in the New Testament describes a simple act of anointment, with Jesus’ body wrapped "with the spices in strips of linen." Although agarwood could be considered a spice, a leaf extract from a species of Aloe might be seen as an herb rather than a spice. Despite inconsistencies in the use of the word aloes, it is most likely that the term refers to the "fragrant spice used as a perfume" (Browning 2010; Zohary 1982). Thus, the aromatic aloes mentioned in the Bible are generally understood to refer to agarwood from the East Indian tree (Balfour 1866; Greppin 1988; Harbaugh 1855; McKenna and Hughes 2014) and should not be confused with bitter aloes (Balfour 1866; Rimmel 1865; Schoff 1922; Tielel 1885).

Buddhist Texts

In several Buddhist texts, the use of aromatics in religious rituals is frequently mentioned. For instance, the Jātaka tales, which narrate the Buddha's birth stories from around the 4th century B.C.E. (Pierce 1969), refer to agarwood in Volume VI, number 542. In this story, a king tries to enter the world of the gods through a ritual sacrifice of his most treasured possessions, including his family. The sacrificial preparations involved adorning royal ladies and other women with aloes, sandalwood, valuable gems, and silk robes as they paid their respects to the king's sons, Canda-Suriya, before they were sacrificed (Cowell 1907).

Both agarwood and sandalwood were used as marks of respect and were already considered valuable fragrant products in ancient times. In the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra (Nirvana Sutra), aromatics are mentioned in the introductory chapter, which describes events and teachings when Buddha was about to enter Nirvana. It details the use of fragrant wood in the cremation of the Buddha's body, stating, "people each held in their hands tens of thousands of bundles of such fragrant wood as sandalwood, aloes, goirsa sandalwood, and heavenly wood." Aloe was also used as fuel in stoves to prepare meals for the Buddha and the Sangha (monks).

The Vimānavatthu text ("Stories of Celestial Mansions"), a collection of 85 poems on the happiness of those reborn in heavenly realms and the good deeds that led to their reward (Bansal 2006), frequently mentions the use of fragrances and ointments. In poem 35 (7), "The Seventh: Sesavati’s Mansion (Sesavatīvimāna)," aloe, sandalwood, and similar woods were part of the pyre, a hundred cubits high, used during the funeral ceremony of the venerable Captain of Dhamma (Sāriputta) (Ireland 2005). Bazin (2013) suggested that five natural incense products, representing the speech of the five Buddhas, included sandalwood, agarwood, pine resin or juniper, camphor, and vetiver root. Fragrant woods were also used as symbolic relics or ritual deposits within valuable sculptures to consecrate them. Leidy and Strahan (2010) reported that agarwood was among several ritual deposits found inside a bronze sculpture of Buddha Maitreya from 486 C.E., along with mother-of-pearl, lapis lazuli, rock crystal, silk, and four fragrant woods including rosewood.

It is evident that the use of fragrant products was an integral part of Buddhist tradition, with agarwood being among the most valued.

Islamic Texts

In the Qur’an, there are references to aromatics, though none specifically mention agarwood. In Surah 55 (Ar-Rahman), the first section lists the numerous blessings Allah has granted humanity, such as life (55:3), speech (55:4), fruits and dates (55:11), and grains, fodder, and fragrant plants (55:12). The inclusion of fragrant plants among these essential gifts underscores their spiritual significance. Surah 83:26 mentions that those who avoid deceit will be rewarded in Paradise with various luxuries, including fragrant musk.

Several Hadiths (reports of the Prophet Muhammad's sayings, actions, or approvals) mention agarwood, referred to as Indian incense or Ūd Al-Hindi (aloes). Allah’s Messenger is quoted by Abu Huraira describing Paradise, where agarwood will be used in censers (Sahih al-Bukhari 3327, Book 60, Hadith 2; USC-MSA English reference Vol. 4, Book 55, Hadith 544).

The Prophet Muhammad recommended agarwood for medical treatment, stating it contains seven remedies, including treatments for a swollen uvula and pleurisy (Sahih al-Bukhari 5692, 5693, Book 76, Hadith 15; USC-MSA English reference Sahih al-Bukhari Vol. 7, Book 71, Hadith 596, 613; Sunan Abi Dawud 3877, Book 29, Hadith 23; English translation Book 28, Hadith 3868).

Agarwood was also suggested for common ailments. The Prophet advised those with head or eye pain to use aloes (Sunan an-Nasa’i 2711, Book 24, Hadith 0; English translation Vol. 3, Book 24, Hadith 2712). It was used for fumigation and purification, with Nafi’ reporting that Ibn Umar would fumigate with aloeswood, either alone or mixed with camphor (Sahih Muslim 2254, Book 40, Hadith 23; English translation Book 27, Hadith 5601).

Prophet Muhammad counselled men and women on the use of fragrance: men should bathe and perfume themselves for the Friday sermon at the mosque; women may use perfume at home but not at the mosque, and both men and women can perfume themselves during sexual intimacy (Thurkill 2009).

It is known that Prophet Muhammad preferred the scent of aloes or a combination of aloes and camphor (Sahih Muslim n.d., Book 27, Hadith 5601). The practice of burning incense in mosques began with Umar, the second caliph, and it is believed that aloes or a combination of aloes and camphor was used (Ergin 2014).

Why you should try it?

Agarwood, also known as oud (oudh), is renowned for its sweet, balsamic, smoky, and woody aroma. The scent can vary significantly depending on several factors such as the species of the tree, the region where it was harvested, and the specific pathological reactions the tree has undergone. To fully appreciate the diverse profiles of agarwood, it is recommended to try different types in both wood chip and oil forms. Each variant offers a unique olfactory experience, showcasing the complex and rich characteristics of this prized wood.

 

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