History & Culture

The All India Agarbathi Association turns 70 and traces its fragrant journey with a Special Postal Cover

The All India Agarbathi Association turns 70 and traces its fragrant journey with a Special Postal Cover

When Arjun Ranga was walking around a market in Sao Paulo in Brazil, he noticed a shopkeeper lighting incense sticks, saying “a pleasant aroma will draw in more business.” “Today people buy incense sticks for different reasons, it is not only for puja,” says Arjun, CEO of N Ranga Rao and Sons, one of the oldest agarbati companies. The flagship brand of the Mysuru-based company is Cycle Pure Agarbathis.

Indian agarbatis are popular across the globe with The Gulf, Europe and Africa being the top three leading markets. “India has seen a 10 % year-on-year growth in the last decade,” says Sarath Babu, PS, President of the All India Agarbathi Manufacturers’ Association (AIAMA). “Export has seen an all-time high of ₹10,800 crore with Karnataka accounting for a 50 % share.”

The All India Agarbathi Association turns 70 and traces its fragrant journey with a Special Postal Cover

To mark AIAMA turning 70, a special postal cover will be released on February 23. “We are happy with the honour,” says Babu. “Incense sticks have always been integral to Indians.”

It is a wonder that despite the cheaper products available from China, Taiwan and other South East Asian countries, India manages a huge export market.

The hub of the trade, Avenue Road, Doddapete, had many agarbati manufacturers and dealers including Khasim of Mohammad Khasim & Sons and Shroff Chennaasappa. In the late 1880s, Chennaasappa and five others formed the Mysore Oodbathi Manufacturers’ Association (MOMA).

Babu says, “After Independence, the government formed new rules. To protect and represent the industry at the government level, an association was formed for the oodhbathi manufacturers who were mainly from the State. In 1981, the annual general body meeting felt MOMA was geographically limiting as a growing number of manufacturers from other States wanted to be part of the association. It was renamed the All India Agarbathi Manufacturers’ Association.” The association that began with seven founders now has more than 1000 life members, Babu says, adding that if we include the unorganised sector, we would have nearly 3,000 in the small, large and micro-level manufacturers in India.

Journey of the aroma

India has been burning incense sticks for thousands of years. The earliest mention of it is in the Vedas according to old timers in the agarbati industry. The basic ingredients of incense sticks include bamboo sticks and a paste made of charcoal powder, sawdust and jiggit/gum, an organic adhesive made from the bark of the Indian laurel family litsea glutinosa and other trees. The fragrance is created with a masala of ground spices with a solvent of perfumes and essential oils.

The All India Agarbathi Association turns 70 and traces its fragrant journey with a Special Postal Cover

After the base paste is applied to the bamboo stick, it used to be traditionally rolled into the masala when moist. Over the years the paste is left to dry and then dipped into the scented solvent. Various resins, such as amber, myrrh, frankincense, and Halmaddi (the resin of a tree) are used in the traditional masala incense, usually as a fragrant binder to add distinctive fragrances to the finished incense. In the beginning only herbs, dry flowers, essential oils, barks, roots and charcoal were finely ground into a smooth paste and then rolled on to a bamboo stick and dried under in the sun.

“Special wood such as sandalwood, Ailanthus malabaricum which yields the locally known Halmaddi, and other natural ingredients were available only in Karnataka. Some Mysore agarbatis that used only locally available material were given Geographical Indication status in 2005, after the AIAMA proposed registering Mysore Agarbathi for the GI tag.

Explaining emerging aroma trends Babu goes on to explain that fragrances inclined towards oriental, florals and cosmetic notes. Fragrances such as aqua, lavender, oudh, mogra, rose, champa, lavender, lemon, citronella essential oils are also popular. Now agarbatis are also used for meditation, yoga, spa treatments and as room fresheners.

The All India Agarbathi Association turns 70 and traces its fragrant journey with a Special Postal Cover

The religious festivals in India such as the Kumbh Mela is one of the biggest attractions that gave a big boost to the local agarbathi industry in UP in the last few years, says Sarath Babu. “Religious fairs have always given the much required push to our industry. While we have been focusing towards growing the industry in India and international markets, our next agenda is to bring standardisation process in the industry to define quality of products. We are working with the Bureau of Indian Standard,” he says.

Essentially speaking

Kashinath Patwardhan’s Agarbathi Manufacture Made Simple, a rare 38-page booklet, is available online. Patwardhan, who started the Sayco Agarbathi Company in 1972 has aroma therapy agarbati sticks too. “These agarbatis are a mixture of distilled aroma oils in the premium range. I have 10 sticks for ₹100 and two sticks for ₹1000 range!” says Patwardhan adding that “these are not just for meditation purposes, they are used in pranic healing too.”

Au naturel

Attar Syed Hussain who took on the family legacy of agarbati manufacturing from Attar Umar, started the Mysore Agarbathi Company in 1890. He supplied agarbathis to Mughal and Mysore royals. “Jamuna agarbathi had 21 natural herbs. This was advertised on Radio Ceylon in the 1960s. We were the first exporters of agarbathis,” says Attar Salman, the fifth generation owner who is taking forward the 125-year-old legacy.

Nothing to sniff at

Karnataka had 95% of the manufacturers till 1970, which spread to other states gradually.

The Maharajas of Mysore patronised the production and promotion of the incense sticks. This helped Karnataka manufacturer Attar Syed Hussain who was one amongst the earliest in the industry win a certificate of merit from London.

With unskilled labour involved, the agarbati industry employs nearly 20 lakh in India, with 80 % being women.

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Printable version | Apr 5, 2020 3:55:18 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/the-all-india-agarbathi-association-turns-70-and-traces-its-fragrant-journey-with-a-special-postal-cover/article30879605.ece

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