It is impossible to envision Himalayan homes and temples without the swirling smoke or aromatic scent of incense. It is a relatively inexpensive everyday item, yet it has been a valuable part of the Tibetan way of life for centuries. Rooted in the Latin word incendere, meaning “set fire to,” and the Middle English word encens, meaning “sweet-smelling substance,” incense releases a fragrant smoke when it is burned for meditation, ceremonies, relaxation, or purification. A plume of smoke rising from burning incense ignites the senses of sight and smell while evoking something spiritual within.

The history of incense begins over 6,000 years ago with the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Since then, the use of incense was adopted by various cultures that developed their own methods. The tradition of Tibetan incense-making stretches back over a thousand years and is part of the wider tradition of Tibetan medicine, a holistic system based on using natural remedies to heal both body and mind.

Tibetan incense refers to a style of incense found in Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan. It is made by hand using pure organic materials and often possesses earthy notes. Traditional recipes come from ancient Vedic texts and have remained unchanged for centuries. A recipe can require anywhere from a few to a few dozen materials, but the main ingredient of Tibetan incense is usually a fragrant wood, often sandalwood, agarwood, pine, or cedar. Herbs, spices, and botanicals add to the final product’s aroma.

While the use of incense is widespread throughout the Himalayas, it is also practiced around the globe by people from all walks of life. Burning incense is believed to clear negative energy, support relaxation, and deepen concentration during meditation. Incense is used in many religious and spiritual ceremonies to carry prayers upwards. The ritual of burning incense can be incorporated into a healthy routine, such as winding down before bed or grounding oneself in the present to start the day. It also has some practical uses; incense is a natural air freshener and bug repellent. Incense that sheds tiny embers and whirls of smoke as it gradually burns is also a more gentle timer than a clock or phone.

Those who use Tibetan incense appreciate the craftsmanship behind it; after all, it is a practice that takes decades to learn and warrants a lifetime of devotion. Unlike previous generations, one no longer needs to be a Buddhist monk to produce incense. In the heart of Shambhala, at the Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, an incense maker named Parkyid has been studying Tibetan medicine and incense-making for twenty years under his teacher Lobsang Tenzin and has ambitions to start his own incense-making business.

Parkyid makes incense using traditional methods to harvest raw materials from the mountains and produce incense by hand. He makes several arduous trips to collect ingredients that grow wild in the foothills of Yala Snow Mountain, one of the four holy mountains in the Garze region. In addition to navigating challenging terrain and fickle weather, he must be able to identify and distinguish hundreds of plants as each one offers unique scents and medicinal properties. Different parts of the same plant, such as the flower or stem, may be used for Tibetan incense-making. Some recipes even call for the same plant picked in different seasons. The entire process is rooted in Parkyid’s deep understanding and respect of the ingredients and the environment in which they flourish.

Once collected, Parkyid grinds the materials into a paste using water and stones. He avoids the use of machines as they produce higher temperatures; this preserves the fragrance and medicinal qualities of the chosen ingredients. Parkyid uses a hollow ox horn with a narrow opening to pipe the paste into long, even strands. Unlike incense from other parts of the world, Tibetan incense does not have a bamboo stick at the centre. Once the incense has dried, the strands are bundled and the process is complete.

The next time you light incense, take a deep breath. Pause and reflect as the scent transports you to the Himalayas, where materials are still plucked by hand, and connects you to an age-old process. Then take a moment to appreciate the work of dedicated craftspeople, like Parkyid, who ensure that the tradition of Tibetan incense-making endures for centuries to come.