What is the alluring Bakhoor?

Bakhoor or Bukhoor (بخور‎ [bɑˈxuːɾ, bʊ-] is a wood-chip-based Middle Eastern incense which has been submerged in perfumed oil and mixed with other natural ingredients such as resin, sandalwood essential oils among others. These scented chips are mostly from the heavily oil-laden Oudh wood of the Aquilaria family of tropical trees and are burned in charcoal or in incense burners to perfume the rich fragrance produced in form of thick smoke. The chips have also been used in many cultures as media for wood carvings.

1st grade agarwood sometimes used in Bakhoor.
1st grade agarwood sometimes used in Bakhoor.

The powerful scent of Bakhoor is complex and pleasing, with few or no similar natural analogues. In the perfume state of the Oudh oil, the scent is mainly distinguished by a combination of “oriental-woody” and “very soft fruity-floral” notes. The incense smoke is characterised by a “sweet-balsamic” note and “shades of vanilla and musk” and amber (not to be confused with the Sperm Whale’s secretion ambergris). We will be writing a whole blog post on Ambergris in the next few months.

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John Singer Sargent’s Masterpiece Fumée d’Ambre Gris, like Bakhoor Ambergris, was sometimes burnt by very wealthy individuals in very special nearly mystical or religious occasions using a Mabkhara.

Bakhoors and Oudh oils have gained great cultural and religious significance in ancient civilisations around the world, being described as a fragrant product as early as 1400 BCE in one of the world’s oldest written texts — the Sanskrit Vedas from India.

The word Oud in English comes from Oudh in Arabic that actually means “wood”. Other names for this most wondrous raw material are agar-wood, aloeswood, eaglewood, or gharuwood, gaharu, jinko, oud, or oodh aguru. The fragrant dark resinous wood is also used in high-end perfumes. It is a pathological secretion formed in the heartwood of Aqulilaria trees when they become infected with a type of mould (Phialophora parasitica). As with other resin-producing plants such as the Benzoin resin from the Styrax benzoin bush or the Frankincense of the Boswellia sacra, the oil is the tree’s mechanism of fighting the infection. Prior to infection, the heartwood is odourless, relatively light and pale coloured; however, as the infection progresses, the tree produces the dark aromatic resin, sometimes called aloes (not to be confused with the succulent aloes such as Aloe Vera) or agar (also not to be confused with the edible, algae-derived agar).

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Aquilari tree infected by Phialophora parasitica. By Blaise Droz, CC BY-SA 3..0

In response to the fungal attack, which results in a very dense, dark, resin-embedded heartwood. Some very expensive chips of Oudh are sometimes referred to as “sink” as they are so heavily loaded with resin that they will sink in water. The resin-embedded wood is valued in Indian-North Eastern culture for its distinctive fragrance and thus is used for incense and perfumes. Its name is believed to have first and foremost Sanskrit origin, formed from ‘Aguru’. The aromatic qualities of agarwood are influenced by the species, geographic location, its branch, trunk and root origin, length of time since infection, and methods of harvesting and processing.

One of the main reasons for the relative rarity and high cost of agarwood is the depletion of the wild resource. Since 1995, Aquilaria malaccensis, the primary source, has been listed in Appendix II (potentially threatened species) by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. In 2004, all Aquilaria species were listed in Appendix II; however, a number of countries have outstanding reservations regarding that listing.

First-grade agarwood is one of the most expensive natural raw materials in the world with prices for superior pure material as high as US$100,000/kg, although in practice adulteration of the wood and oil is common. The current global market for agarwood is estimated to be in the range of US$8 – 10 billion and is growing rapidly.

Fortunately “cultivated” sustainable Oudh is now the norm, after being artificially inoculated with the fungus the Aquilaria trees will start producing the resin between 4 a 7 years of age. All our Oudh products are exclusively sourced from sustainable producers in South East Asia and we have full tracing information about its origin.

Where does Bakhoor actually come from?

Although most Bakhoor comes from the Arabian Peninsula from countries such as Oman, historically the perfect passage for the south-east Asian Oudh timber used to produce the sough-after chips, Oudh wood has been used for centuries in many cultures and religions around the world.

Already in the Hebrew Bible, “trees of lign aloes” are mentioned in The Book of Numbers 24:6[8] and a perfume compounded of aloeswood, myrrh, and cassia is described in Psalms 45.

Dioscorides in his book Materia Medica (65 CE) described several medical qualities of agarwood (Áγαλλοχου) and mentioned its use as an incense. As early as the third century CE in ancient Viet Nam, the chronicle Nan zhou yi wu zhi (Strange things from the South) written by Wa Zhen of the Eastern Wu Dynasty mentioned agarwood .

During the sixth century CE in Japan, in the recordings of the Nihon Shoki (The Chronicles of Japan) the second oldest book of classical Japanese history, mention is made of a large piece of fragrant wood identified as agarwood. The source for this piece of wood is claimed to be from Pursat, Cambodia (based on the smell of the wood). The famous piece of wood still remains in Japan today and is showcased less than 10 times per century at the Nara National Museum.

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Antique agarwood rosary with inlaid gold, late Qing dynasty, China. Adilnor Collection, Sweden. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 License.

Nowadays in most cases, the fragrance-laden Bakhoor incense is used during special occasions in the West though but are of nearly daily use in the Arabian Peninsula countries where many families will still cook the chips using ancient heirloom family recipes. Generally in the Arabian culture, it is a traditional gesture to pass Bukhoor among the invited guests as it was viewed to be a hospitality gesture. Additionally, the guests would feel the warm welcome in that homestead through the fragrance produced. In the Arabian culture, the Bakhoor is burned in traditional incense burner known as Mabkhara. This name varies depending on the place of origin. However, in our modern-day, the product is mostly burned in electric incense burners as they are termed to be faster and safer to use. Other people prefer using charcoal since it’s traditional has a natural scent and it burns Bakhoor better. In countries such as Yemen, Bakhoor is mostly used as natural ingredients and for every individual who burns, Bakhoor has a secret ingredient which distinguishes them from others.

How do you burn Bakhoor?

There are two ways in which Bakhoor can be burned, through traditional charcoal burning (Mabkhara) or through modern electric burners with a thermostat. Let’s talk about how to burn Bakhoor using vegetable charcoal discs:

  1. Place a charcoal disc in the incense burner or Mabkhara.
  2. Apply a flame using a lighter of your choice on the charcoal disc until sparks can be viewed transversing the coal.
  3. The charcoal disc will form a grey like soot which will tend to look like ash over at the top of the coal which indicates that the coal is hot and ready.
  4. Place the Bakhoor chips on top of the charcoal disc using small metal tongs or a teaspoon.

After years burning Bakhoor here at SpaceWhale® & Company we prefer a more environmentally friendly way with little or no smoke using the modern thermostat burners which will actually never burn the chips but evaporate the oils within over hours and hours. This type of burners is ideal if you would like to have the Bakhoor scenting your space all day long in a smokeless way where the traditional Mabkhara burners are more suited for certain special occasions where the spaces are well ventilated and the smoke becomes an intrinsic part of the exercise after all the word perfume comes from the Greek “Pro-Fumo” meaning from the smoke.

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A modern middle eastern Mabkhara. By കാക്കര – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

As passionate Perfumistas we are constantly sourcing oils, resins and chips from the highest possible quality. Prices of some of these materials are astronomical but if you would like to start being enchanted by the mystical world of Bakhoors we have put a section of products at very reasonable prices. Once you are an advance user talk to us to provide you with more exclusive materials. Happy burning!

Find our current Bakhoor Stock here!