Travel in Taiwan festivals

Heaven Scent


By Clare Lear
Photos by sung Chih-hsiung
Over the ages, incense has played a pivotal role in religious ceremonies all over the world, and the connection between fragrance and religion has been stronger nowhere else than Asia. Travelers to such exotic places as India, China, and Thailand return with memories of dark, crowded temples bursting with the pungent scent of incense. Throughout Asia, at any time of year, temples and shrines are clouded with fragrant smoke from huge cigar-like sticks of incense burning at altar tables laden with fresh fruits and flowers. Temple courtyards in Taiwan and Hong Kong alike billow with smoke from huge bronze incense burners.


Swirls of incense dry in the sun.
Worship is an integral part of daily life in Chinese society, and the burning of incense is an indispensable element in many religious ceremonies--be they Buddhist, Taoist, or ancestor worship. Every temple, large or small, will have at least one stick of incense burning at any one time.


The burning of incense play an important role in various chinese religious.
In Taiwan, many families keep a single stick of incense burning on the family's ancestral shrine. The tradition of burning incense to keep the family safe is passed on from generation to generation, like a torch linking the past, present, and future members of the clan. Early every morning a member of the family, usually the eldest female, goes to the family altar and lights a stick of incense. She goes outside and bows once to the God of Heaven (天公), once to the God of the Earth (地 神), and then returns to the family altar, where she bows to the ancestors before sticking the incense in the burner on the altar. This daily ritual is passed on from mother-in-law to daughter-in-law, and so on and on.


Clouds of smoke billow from a huge incense burner in this temple courtyard.
Linking Heaven and Earth
The burning of incense is considered a means for communicating with the spirits. It is said that when people hold a stick of incense in prayer before an image of a god their soul becomes transparent and the god knows what they are thinking. This means of linking the earthly and the celestial is said to have begun during the Chou dynasty (1122-249 BC). At that time, people would burn wood or calf meat in the hope that the smoke would act as a bridge between the human world and the spirits. The early Chinese believed that the cleansing action of fire fended off evil and that fragrant scents attracted good spirits. From then on, it was believed that smoke from incense carried the wishes of the supplicant to heaven.

While fire, smoke, and scent were considered essential elements in early religious rites, the actual burning of incense is believed to have begun with the introduction of Buddhism to China from India during the Eastern Han (25-220 AD).


A worshipper holds sticks of burning incense to his forehead in praise.
Indian Buddhists first burned sandalwood during the summer to stave off fatigue. The custom is said to have begun when people listening to Sakyamuni--the founder of Buddhism--found they could concentrate better and stay awake in the heat if they cut sandalwood into strips and burned it. From then on, Buddhist followers would burn fragrant wood in special burners during discussions between teachers and disciples.

Later, incense gradually evolved into the stick form widely seen now. At first, incense was brought to China from India. Merchants from China traveled across deserts and mountains, along part of what is known as the Silk Route, in their quest to buy incense. The route was notoriously dangerous, with robbers being a constant threat, but it is said that the mystical properties of incense were held in high esteem, even by bandits, who feared to attack shipments of incense. The import of incense continued for several decades until demand finally exceeded supply and the Chinese decided to learn for themselves how to make incense.


After coating, the incense sticks are left ot dry.(left) The ends of the incense sticks are then dyed deep red.(right)
Hand-Made Incense
The process of making incense by hand is relatively simple, but requires a great deal of skill to produce batches of evenly-coated incense sticks that burn well. First a large bundle of fine bamboo or sweet osmanthus sticks is dipped up to two-thirds of its length in water. The incense-maker then spreads the sticks like a fan to dip them in a wide basket of naturally adhesive powder (粘粉). It takes considerable dexterity to turn the fan of bamboo sticks in such a way that each one becomes coated with the powder.

After this first coating, the fragrance oils that give the incense its aroma are added to the powder. The exact ingredients in the scent depend on the manufacturer, but usually consist of a mixture of powdered sandalwood (檀木), garoo wood (沉 木), a fragrant evergreen known as 'nanmu' (楠木), or Chinese juniper wood, combined with musk oil, various spices including ginseng, cloves, and cinnamon, or various chemically-produced scents. The fan of bamboo sticks is shaken and turned in the scented powder twice more. In this way each stick of bamboo is coated with three layers of incense powder.

The coated incense sticks are then taken outside to dry before the bare bamboo ends used for holding the incense during prayer are dyed, usually red or pink. The whole manufacturing process must be continuous from top to bottom; otherwise the incense will not burn smoothly, and parts of the covering may flake off. Even coverage is essential and depends on the incense-maker's skill at manipulating the fan of bamboo sticks in the sticky powder.

Incense is usually sold in large packs for anything from NT$50 to NT$6,000 per catty (about 600 grams) depending on the fragrances used. A reasonably good quality incense can be bought for about NT$200 per catty.


The incense is finally tied into bundles.
There are several other forms of incense, including coils (盤香), miniature cones, and powder. Coils of incense, which can burn for up to one month, are often seen burning in temples. Visitors to Taiwan can watch incense being made by hand during daily displays at the Taiwan Folk Village, in Changhua in central Taiwan. For more information, please contact the Taiwan Folk Village, 30 Sanfu Rd., Wanya Village, Huatan Hsiang, Changhua County, tel: (04) 787-0088, fax: (04) 786-0815.

Travel in Taiwan Festivals
Copyright 1995 Vision International Publishing Co.