Oud : the ancient Indian connection

16th November, 2017

While we hand it out to the Arabs for their fiery passion for oud, little is known about its ancient Indian connection.

Oud, many say, is like an unruly bachelor whose virtues begin flowering only after he is married-off! Indeed, pure agarwood oil or, as the Arabs call it ‘Dahn al Oud’, literally, ‘the fat of the wood’, though has a unique charm of its own, smells obnoxious to many with its deep, dark, animalic, often manure-like aroma. But its marriage with many a complimenting note like amber, cedar, musk, labdanum and spices to name a few makes history!

Synonymous with the Arab World, agarwood has become a leitmotif trademark of Middle Eastern perfumery tradition through its Arabic name ‘oud’. With their repertoire of incredible oud blends, the Arabs have honed their passion for the wood through the ages. Oud-based musks, florals, woody, spicy and animalic fragrances to name a few in the form of pure oil concentrates ( ‘attar’) and even perfume sprays have fragranced the Arab World since ages, especially the Gulf States as compared to the Maghreb ( western Arab World) or other regions of the Arabic-speaking world.

The Arab’s love for agarwood it is said, dates back centuries and apart from the use of pure agarwood oil and agarwood blends, the tradition of burning pure agarwood chips on ornate incense burners called ‘mabkharah’ continues till date.

But what much of the world might be unaware of is an area relatively less-explored, and that is, agarwood’s ancient Indian association which dispels the Arab streotype. The north-eastern forests of Assam in India are said to be a part of the larger forest stretch extending eastwards to Burma and Cambodia, and the aquilaria tree reserves in these forests provide the world’s most expensive perfume ingredient costing over 20 million Indian Rupees a kilo, and around 20,000 a ‘tola’ ( 10 ml ), often rated as more expensive than gold!

The infected bark of the live aquilaria tree produces a dark hardwood which is chopped and used as incense ( bakhoor) while the wood is also said to be softened and distilled to extract the oil. Experts believe that the artificial infection induced in this endangered species of trees has caused the quality of oud to decline as compared to aged oud derived from natural infection.

Agarwood finds mention in many ancient Indian texts including the legendary mythological epics , the ‘Ramayana’ and the ‘Mahabharata’. It has been a part of Indian spiritual rituals right from the time of the Vedas, considered to be among the world’s oldest revealed scriptures that date back almost 8000 years. The ancient medical science of ‘Ayurveda’ talks about the innumerable health benefits of ‘agar’ or ‘agaru’. Classical Indian texts talk about ‘agar’ as a part of the ‘Ashtagandh’ or eight sought-after natural fragrant substances. Renowned Indian traditional perfumer and scholar Krishan Mohan explains the same with a poetic ‘doha’ verse:

“Agar tagar chandan yugal, kesar aur kapoor

Gaurochan aur mrigmida, ashtagandh bharpoor”

Breaking down each word, he expounds on the translation:

Agar-oud or agarwood , tagar-turmeric-like fragrant root, chandan yugal-sandalwood pair, namely red and white sandalwood, the latter being more fragrant, kesar-saffron, kapoor-camphor. Gaurochan-cow spleen, mrigmida-musk ( from the deer’s musk gland), ashtagandh bharpoor-the ashtagandh through these eight, becomes complete and whole.

In India, authenticity has been an issue when it comes to oud. While many perfume vendors market a dark, synthetic compound labeled ‘oud’ and sell it for exorbitant prices to naïve customers, Krishan Mohan is acknowledged as one of the few perfumers around to sell pure and genuine agarwood oil. “Apart from individuals from the Middle East, I also have the Chinese coming over for my Dahn al Oud for its aphrodisiacal qualities” he explains.

Agar, Krishan Mohan believes, would have once been a part of the ancient Vedic spiritual ritual of ‘Agnihotra Havan’ wherein prayers are recited during the ceremony before a sacred fire to which several natural materials including sandalwood are offered. Oud is known not only to have an exhilarating but even a spiritually-elevating fragrance.

“The word ‘agarbatti’ used loosely for incense sticks all over India, is originally derived from ‘agar’, ‘agarbatti’ meaning ‘light of agar’. In the olden days, one can say that incenses in India were made of pure agarwood, possibly in powdered form while today, we have synthetic incenses in a vast range of fragrances” he says. Thanks to the Arabs and their love for oud which they would spend large amounts to purchase, the prices today are too lofty for many to afford.

While Middle Eastern oud blends are known for their audacious, woody, warm, spicy profiles, Krishan Mohan’s are symbols of Indian fragrance heritage. While his woody ‘Amiri Oud’, a masterpiece with sharp oud notes rising at the opening is at crossroads between the two traditions India and the Arab World, his exotic florals like ‘Oud Gold’, ‘Fitrat’, ‘Sultan’, ‘Sharara’, ‘Shabab’ and ‘Zubeida’ are hallmark blends with oud as the subtle, hidden magic unveiling its age-old charm.

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About the author: Krishnaraj Iyengar

Krishnaraj Iyengar is a musician, composer, international lifestyle and culture writer and multi-linguist from Mumbai-India. His keen interest in cultures, mystic poetry and traveling has led him to discover fascinating colors of the world. Krishnaraj has a fierce passion for fragrances which he calls ‘angels of spiritual connection’ and apart from learning about diverse fragrance traditions, he even blends his own unique scents that are symbols of his personality and soul.


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      • epapsiou | 16th November 2017 17:10

        Is Krishna Mohan perfumer for GulabSingh Johrimal?

        IIRC all the ones you mentioned in the article are Gulabsingh's attar as are the pics.

      • hednic | 16th November 2017 18:16

        Interesting article.

      • exoticscents | 18th November 2017 03:43

        This had to make it to a sensible forum like that of Basenotes. I love Oud too and love how the Indian heritage of Oud has been forgotten. However a tola is approx 11.3ml. There are many othet artists like Agarwood Assam, Assam Aromas with a wide range of Oud profiles. Thank you for the article.

      • Descartes | 18th November 2017 14:04

        Thanks for such a great article,very interesting.

      • KRISHNARAJ | 19th November 2017 07:54

        Thanks Nikhil! I just enjoy all your videos and must say you are a fantastic reviewer and an extremely knowledgeable perfume afficionado. Do you live in Mumbai or in Delhi? We must catch up some day! Cheers!

      • KRISHNARAJ | 19th November 2017 07:55

        Thanks for the wonderful comment! Always a pleasure! Stay tuned for more really soon!

      • KRISHNARAJ | 19th November 2017 07:58

        Thanks so much! Please stay tuned for more!

      • KRISHNARAJ | 19th November 2017 08:00

        Thanks for the wonderful comment! Always a pleasure! Stay tuned for more really soon!

      • RonAustin | 23rd November 2017 03:25

        Good to hear about the Indian history of Agarwood.

        btw, The Japanese and Chinese appetite for Agarwood has also driven the price up.

        some doggerel from my book........

        “The Christian calls it Eagle Wood

        to the Muslim it is Oud.

        Whatever name for Agarwood

        It always lifts my... mood.”

        from the soon to be published Novel:

        "Heaven Scent Hunter/The Agarwood Adventure"

        by Ron Austin

      • KRISHNARAJ | 23rd November 2017 04:45

        Fantastic poem Ron Austin! Like it is said, "greatness often lies in simplicity", you have conveyed the essence of agarwood through such a simple tribute to its magical aromas! Thanks for sharing this! Truly appreciate!