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|
|Tagar||Root of the Valerian plant|
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. HathiramShare