Emerging alternatives to the use of Sandalwood

Posted by:

Roj Sarosh Mah Spendarmad

Parsis have had a long association with sandalwood, which goes back many thousands of years. There are several references in the Shah Nameh where specific mention is made of sandalwood which was imported from India and Ceylon for the use of the Royal families. The existence of these ancient trade routes was one of the reasons why Parsis came to India after the end of the Sassanian dynasty and the Arab invasion of Iran.

In India, the ample availability of sandalwood resulted in its usage by all Parsis not only for their offerings to the Atash Padshahs, but also as fragrant wood for the daily Dhoop and Loban routine followed in all households in those days. After dinner, the household fire would be carefully covered with ash to preserve it through the night. The next morning, the ash would be removed and the embers kindled once again. It was a tradition to use the shavings (Tacho) from the cutting of logs to sprinkle over the household fire every morning as a sort of ceremonial offering, before beginning any cooking on the fire. In this manner, the use of sandalwood became so prevalent that its sweet scent could be easily distinguished by any person passing through the various Parsi mohollas (streets) in villages with a sizable Parsi population.

However, after independence, the myopic policies followed by the state and central governments resulted in very little new planting of the sandalwood trees, which take a minimum of 30 years to achieve some girth. The resultant corruption and thievery in various state forest departments meant that sandalwood trees were cut and disposed of in the black market. As the situation worsened, the price of sandalwood began to rise, slowly at first, and then with leaps and bounds. Some greedy state governments preferred to sit on their existing stocks and raise the reserve prices at the official auctions to such levels that buyers would simply walk away without putting in any bids.

All this has resulted in the price of official, good, old Mysore sandalwood logs crossing Rs. 10,000 per kilo. Sandalwood felled from young trees (which has much lesser oil content and therefore less aroma) and sold through illegal channels is also now over Rs. 5,000 per kilo. Some years ago, sandalwood was imported from Tanzania by a few traders and was introduced into the market by some Parsi sandalwood shops. This wood has much less oil content than the Mysore variety and is therefore much cheaper. However, recently the government of Tanzania has also banned the export of sandalwood trees from their country. Hence after the current lot of this wood is used up, no more supplies of African sandalwood will be available. Already, some dealers have  begun to pull stocks in an attempt to raise the prices.

An unfortunate occurrence due to these rising prices is that some dealers are using most inferior quality wood (available for as less as Rs. 20 per kilo), cutting and polishing them into sticks and selling them in sealed plastic bags which are sprayed with a poor quality perfume. The perfume lasts till the bag is opened and soon thereafter there is no smell. Many vendors who visit Parsi colonies sell this inferior quality wood for low prices, which appeal to Parsis who buy them in large quantities. Offering of such wood to the Holy Atash Padshahs is not correct.

What does the Avesta say about the type of wood which should be offered to our Padshah Sahebs? In the Atash Nyaesh, the Holy Fire blesses the devotee who comes to Him with Aesma (firewood) which is dry, exposed to sunlight (for a minimum period) and purified in accordance with the methods of righteousness (yo ahmai aesmem baraiti, hikush, raochas-pairishta, ashahe bereja yaozdata). It is our age old practice that the Holy Fire is fed with, slow-burning hardwood logs such as Bawal Kathi. The Kathi should be cut, the outer bark removed to avoid any dead matter which might have accumulated on the tree, dried for at least 13 months and 13 days and only then used. Many houses of priests in villages like Navsari and Udvada had separate rooms where Kathi was stored and then used in this manner.

The Vandidad describes firewood and its qualities in greater detail. It classifies wood into two main categories: hardwood (khraozdvanam aesmanam, Vd. 18.71), which has resin in it – to be used for the long-term preservation and burning of the embers; and softwood (aesmanam varedhwanam, Vd. 18.71), which has oil content – to be used for its fragrance, fumigations and for purificatory purposes. The soft wood is further classified into five main types called Urvasna, Vohu Gaona, Vohu Kereti, Hadhanaepata and Hubaoidhita (see Vd. 8.2;  8.79; 14.3; 18.71).

Urvasna wood is that which is used for perfume and fumigation, and can be compared to modern day sandalwood and Agar wood. Vohu Gaona corresponds to aloe wood and frankincense. Vohu Kereti is modern day camphor wood and benzoin. Hadhanaepata is the wood from the pomegranate tree which is used in burning as well as for pounding in the Haoma ceremony. Hubaoidhita is a residuary category which comprises any other sweet smelling wood. The Vandidad also cautions that the wood should be dried, well examined and free from any impurities or dead matter (Vd. 14.2).

Our Master, Ustad Saheb Behramshah Nowroji Shroff, introduced the very esoteric concept of Jiram, or spiritual classification, on which the entire creation is based. Put simply, all creation – human, animal, vegetable or mineral belongs to one of 7 groups, called Jiram. Each creation of a particular Jiram has an inherent spiritual potency or frequency. In order to advance spiritually and reach the ultimate objective of Frashogard (universal and personal salvation), every aspect of creation should interact and use only those objects belonging to his own Jiram. Based on this cardinal rule, there are long standing traditions in our religion which define the use or avoidance of certain objects in our religious practices. For example, the presence of the pomegranate is essential in every religious ceremony. Similarly some produce of the cow or bull is always present. Till a few decades ago, all religious ceremonies were conducted in vessels made out of copper. The reason for these practices can be understood only when we realize the importance of the rule of Jiram. Ustad Saheb emphasized that by choosing to use creations of our own Jiram, we could considerably hasten our spiritual progress. The five types of wood mentioned in the Vandidad are of the Burjis (Jupiterian) or Khur (Sun) or Mah (Moon) Jiram, which all correspond to our religion. Hence their use is especially beneficial for our own and the deceased’s spiritual progress.

Having examined our scriptures, we can safely conclude that it is not necessary that only sandalwood be used for our religious purposes. Given the current situation, it is therefore time to look at emerging alternatives. Our country is blessed not only with Sandalwood (which is now on the verge of extinction) but many other fragrant woods, including Camphor wood, Cedar wood and Pine.


These trees grow in great abundance in the lower Himalayan regions and in the north-central regions like Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Two products derived from these trees, namely, cedar wood oil and camphor, are being used extensively throughout the country.  Moreover, ample reforestation practices are being followed in these regions, which ensure that the sustainability of the forests is maintained. In addition, these sweet scented woods are much cheaper, compared to sandalwood.

I have been fortunate to have obtained samples of cedar wood (locally called Deodar, ‘wood of the Gods’; Cedrus deodara) and camphor wood (local name Kapur Chandan; Cinnamomum camphora). After cleaning and making small pieces, much like our Sukhad peria, I have burned them on the embers and they have emitted a beautiful smell. It is to be noted that Camphor wood, being part of the Cinnamon family, emits a slightly spicy aroma, unlike the sweeter smell of sandalwood. Camphor wood was of course used very extensively in our villages to make large chests in which sandalwood was stored. Those who have these old chests at home can immediately make out the distinct and spicy sweet aroma of the camphor wood. Camphor wood is directly mentioned in the Vandidad as Vohu-kereti, and also specifically mentioned on page no. 305 of Dr. Saheb Framroze S. Chiniwalla’s commentary on the Vandidad.

It is also interesting to note that Ustad Saheb had disclosed a specific method of making ‘Bakhoor’ to his disciples. Bakhoor was used in ancient Iran to sprinkle on the fire, much as we use Loban today. Ustad Saheb explained that when Loban is directly placed on the fire, the resin melts and a sticky liquid oozes out. This is not technically correct. In order to avoid this, and also perhaps as a method of including many items of the Burjis Jiram into the ceremony, a combination of the following items was made and pounded into a fine mixture. Unfortunately, we have lost the ratio of the exact proportions in which each of these items should be used while making the mixture.

Sukhad veher Sandalwood powder
Loban Frankincense
Agar Aloewood, Agar
Tagar Root of the Valerian plant
Taj Cinnamon
Lavang Clove
Elchi Cardamom
Jaiphal Nutmeg
Javintri Mace

It can be seen that Cinnamon is also part of this mixture and Camphor being of the same family and species should also therefore be eligible for ritual use.

Indian cedar, or Deodar is of course sacred to the Hindus and was used extensively in temple making. The forests of Deodar were the favourite meditation spots for Hindu rishis. While there is no direct reference to Cedar wood in the Vandidad, we can consider it as belonging to the residual category of Hubaoidhita mentioned above. Pinewood, walnut tree wood, cypress tree wood (all of which are used extensively in Iran) can also be considered within the Hubaoidhita category.

Both these varieties of wood are easily available and are much cheaper, compared to Mysore sandalwood. Their fragrance is very pleasant and attractive and if Parsis were to begin using these woods, our Fire Temples will once again become sweet-scented with an aroma which attracts prayer and helps in meditation. I request the large Parsi dealers of sandalwood to investigate this matter further, and if everything works out well, to introduce the use of camphor wood and cedar wood peria in place of the Tanzanian sandalwood which will not be available for much longer. The light density of cedar wood will enable the making of thicker perias with a lower cost. The higher density of camphor wood will make it ideal for making large Machis and perias.

Religious minded Parsis should have no hesitation in adopting the use of these woods in place of the inferior quality wood being used today. It is always better to offer the Padshah a smaller quantity of much better wood, rather than large logs of dubious quality.

Once again, I would like to reiterate that those who can afford to buy the good quality sandalwood should continue to do so. Our Atash Padshahs need good, high quality sandalwood procured through legal means. But those who cannot afford the high prices should stop using the inferior quality wood available today and shift to Camphor and Cedar wood, as and when it becomes available in good quantity and at a decent price.

May our Padshah Sahebs once again become fortunate to receive dry, well examined, and sweet scented wood from their devotees very soon.

Ervad Marzban J. Hathiram

24

Comments

  1. neville  July 31, 2012

    Thanks so much for this enlightening post.

  2. Rohinton Avasia  July 31, 2012

    Dear Panthaki saheb,

    It wd b a welcome gesture if u wd b kind enough to list a few outlets fm where such perias of camphor/ alternate type of wood are available in BOM & suburbs.

    With kind regards,

    Rohinton.

  3. Ervad Marzban J. Hathiram  July 31, 2012

    @Rohinton

    As of now, no Parsi dealers have introduced this wood. The process is under way and I think we should have stock of the Camphor wood at the shop of M/s. N. D. Moolla and Son at Wadiaji Atash Behram within the next week.

  4. Cyrus P. Kherawala  August 1, 2012

    Dear Ervad Sabeb,
    I am pleased to inform you that from years Deodar wood is being used in Kanpur Agyari apart from bawal kathi, but i was not sure that it can be used by us, but you have shown us the path. Thanks for that……
    In my house in Lucknow, I do use home grown and dried pomegranate and pine wood for dhup and prayer purposes.

    Thank You very much for this enlightening article.

    Regards,
    Cyrus.

  5. P B Bulsara  August 2, 2012

    Excellent researched and written article. Do we Parsi’s have such enterpreneurs to make available to the community such alternative wood? The written sanction of the High Priests especially the learned sahebs Dasturji Meherjirana of Navsari, Dasturji Jamasp Asa and Dasturji Kotwal must be obtained.

  6. rohinton  August 4, 2012

    Dear Marazban,a very well researched and written article. Just a query instead of camphor wood or any other we can surely use wood of bawal. We yet today have been using bawal ni kathi since ages, therefore i feel we should use the wood of the same bawal . I dont know the english name of bawal i think its wood from the babool tree the local name.Would like your suggestion ?

  7. Ervad Marzban J. Hathiram  August 4, 2012

    @Rohinton,
    Bawal can definitely be used as is being used. However, it has no fragrance. The article’s focus is on the use of scented and aromatic woods. The scientific name for Bawal is prosopis juliflora.

  8. rohinton  August 5, 2012

    Thank u again am learning,but another query since u talked abt fragrance,would like to know as u mentioned if sukhar or no matter any other fragrant wood as u said has to be washed,exposed to sunlight for 13 months 13 days i would like to know that wouldnt it loose its fragrance if washed and expose to sunlight for that long duration. i understand the significance of washing and exposing to sunlight but wouldnt that make the wood lose its sweet smell. No matter whatever wood it be even sandalwood.

  9. Ervad Marzban J. Hathiram  August 5, 2012

    @Rohinton
    Please read articles carefully. I have never said anything about washing the wood! Cleaning is not washing! Cleaning means cleaning with a dry brush to remove dead matter.

  10. rohinton  August 5, 2012

    Sir i have 1 more query regarding the use of loban as u have mentioned about bakhoor, yes any loban we used these days specially kore no loban i have observed that the sticky liquid oozes out. But what do we do ? how can we avoid that ? If we have to use loban can we ? or is there any other alternative to that. I specially used to use loban when i pray my familys departed souls ? what should one use in such circumstance need ur advice .We mainly use the loban for its fragrance.

  11. rohinton  August 5, 2012

    Sir also regarding cleaning i thought the wood or kathi is washed with water and than dried exposed to sunlight for 13 months . Washing with water is because we dont know the condition of the wood as it must have passed through so many juddins and what condition the wood be in if a woman carries it because from far away places mostly women carry them.I dont know if iam wrong or not . Thats why we usually wash Fruits before we start the prayers so that any impurity gets washed away . Do correct me if iam wrong. Need your suggestion for the above 2 ques. Thank You sir.

  12. Ervad Marzban J. Hathiram  August 6, 2012

    @Rohinton
    I have already said it is wrong. Wood is not fruit.

  13. Ervad Marzban J. Hathiram  August 6, 2012

    @Rohinton
    Use Loban mixed with Veher

  14. Sarosh Yazdani  August 27, 2012

    Thank you so much for this. Remember some time ago I had asked you about using pine wood? This is beneficial to us as a community, for we no longer have to deal with the guilt of offering low grade perfumed wood at our Atash Kadehs. I am still baffled at people who can not take a piece of wood in their hand and tell just by looking at it if it is real sandalwood or not, and then stupidly go offer it to the Atash. thank you so much for this

  15. Aspy  December 6, 2012

    Just to inform all that of recent —- Camphor wood and Cedar are both available —–
    at the shop of M/s. N. D. Moolla and Son at Wadiaji Atash Behram.

    Camphor sells at Rs. 1600/Kg.

    Cedar sells at Rs. 1200/Kg.

    Last week I purchased 200gms ( for Rs. 320/-) of Camphor (it was all that was available then).
    Economics for those interested.
    Got about 80 sticks ( in 200gms).
    Works out to Rs. 4/stick……. and has a wonderful aroma.

    Aspy.

  16. Adi  February 6, 2013

    Why not use pine wood? It is aromatic too!

  17. Ervad Marzban J. Hathiram  February 6, 2013

    Yes we can. I have mentioned it as an alternative but have not managed to find any suppliers so far.

  18. Saroosh Yazdani  July 9, 2013

    I had the ceder wood and camphor wood ordered from India and although they are not as aromatic as genuine sandalwood they do suffice. The ceder has a slight pleasant aroma but I found that the camphor wood was not nearly as sweet smelling. I am so thankful for this though now we can finally honorably offer wood to our dear Padshahs without going broke!

    On another note I made the Bakhoor mixture, eye balling the ingredients, (minus agar and tagar) and to my amazement it has a unique yet pleasant aroma, especially if you like spicy warm scentsit adds a beautiful lingering smell to the ambiance of your house.

  19. Ervad Marzban J. Hathiram  July 9, 2013

    @Saroosh,
    I would like to know what ratio or weight you use to mix the ingredients to get the Bakhoor. Thanks.

  20. Saroosh Yazdani  August 22, 2013

    @Ervad Hathiram
    I used about 1/2 c. of loban and veher each. approx. 1 tbs. cloves, 1 tbs. cardamom, three 2 in sticks cinnamon, and 1/2 tsp. of mace and nutmeg each. The agar and tagar are not available here thus i could not utilize them…………personally i like the smell of cinnamon and cardamom so i add more. I also realized that if not used daily or kept in a storage container the Bakhoor solidifies (i think its the cinnamon that leeches the air moisture) but a good shake will turn it back to powder. 🙂

  21. Peter Thomas  February 26, 2014

    There is nothing sacred or noble in continuing to buy a wood which is endangered.
    Encouraging those who can afford to buy good Sandalwood to do so, encourages them to participate in harmfully moving a species toward its kind being extinguished from our planet. Please reconsider this, and please use your voice to encourage folks to desist from using Sandalwood at all, so that it has more chance to become reestablished.
    Thank You,
    Peter Thomas

  22. Sam  August 28, 2015

    Dear Marazban,

    Plz enlighten me that you said about Jirum. Is sandalwood from Burjis Jirum. If yes than what about camphor, cedar etc wood are they too from Burjis Jirum as well…

  23. Ervad Marzban J. Hathiram  August 28, 2015

    @Sam
    The Jhirum topic has already been explained in the article and there is nothing further to add.

  24. Dinyar (Dan) J Marfatia JP  July 7, 2016

    Sandalwood is a root hemi-parasites trees.Of the 15 different species of sandalwood that grow throughout the world, there are 2 main varieties that are traded internationally. These are santalum spicatum (Australian sandalwood) and santalum album (Indian sandalwood). Australian sandalwood currently supplies well over half of all sandalwood traded around the globe annually. Australian sandalwood has historically been used in the agabati and incense markets in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong and most other Asian countries. It has been widely accepted in these areas for over 150 years. In recent years Australian sandalwood oil has been incorporated into many high end perfumes and other cosmetic products. Australian sandalwood does produce a lower oil content than Indian sandalwood although it consistently produces the oil forming heartwood from a very young age. Australian plantation sandalwood has been tried and tested in small plantations throughout WA for over 25 years by both.
    At one time it was one of major from australia

Leave a Reply