The bare-breasted woman was standing on one leg in a field of flowers. She wore a golden crown and a necklace of rubies and emeralds; in her right hand she held a single, smoking wand.
“That’s Dugpoema, the Buddhist goddess of incense offering,” said Nado, pointing to the screen print of the deity on his office wall in the Bhutanese capital of Thimphu. “It is said that the Lord Buddha first created incense, then disciples such as Dugpoema disseminated it around the world. In many ways I feel like a disciple myself. I am doing the same work.”
Nado – his only name, since the Bhutanese do not traditionally use surnames – then offered to show me around his incense-making workshop, Nado Poizokhang. The oldest and largest of its kind in the country, it produces sticks and powders that are sought-after in homes and monasteries across the Himalayan kingdom. Even the king personally requests incense from Nado Poizokhang to burn within the walls of the royal palace.
“I believe one of the reasons my incense is so well-regarded and its effects are so powerful is because of the incredible purity of the ingredients,” Nado said, before opening the door to a storeroom piled high with dried spices, botanicals and evergreens. “Everything is 100% organic: from the great boughs of juniper – the base ingredient in all Bhutanese incense – to the most delicate of jatamansi flowers that render the richly scented essential oil spikenard. Other incense makers may use chemicals and low-grade materials to cut costs – but that just weakens the healing properties of incense and can leave you with a headache or feeling agitated upon burning. Here the focus is on quality.”
Many of the medicinal plants and leaves that Nado uses are harvested by nomadic yak herders at high altitudes to ensure that they are free of toxins and contaminants. “They live a hard life, but the harvest provides them with extra income,” he said. “That good deed sets ripples of good karma in motion before a single stick is made or burned.”
In Bhutan, burning incense is an almost compulsory ritual
The timing of the harvest is key. Nado explained that the optimal period is the month after Thrue-Bab, the Blessed Rainy Day, which marks the end of the monsoon. “During that time, the sun warms the leaves and petals after they’ve been nourished by months of rain; it helps me produce a wonderful, rich perfume. And that perfume is vital in order for incense sticks and powder to work their age-old magic.”
The offering of scent and smoke has a long history and a deep cultural significance in Bhutan, where it is traditionally burned twice daily. “In other countries, incense may be used solely for ceremonies, but in Bhutan it’s also how we start and end each day,” said Nado. “It’s an almost compulsory ritual.”
To this day, incense is still utilised as it has been for centuries, in one of two ways: powder or stick. The powdered version is the smokier of the two and is burned on hot embers in homes, monasteries and temples. It is used as both an offering to the gods and as a fumigant to cleanse sacred rooms and holy objects, placate malicious spirits, and eradicate negative energy. Incense sticks are similarly used to make offerings, but they are also burned for their therapeutic properties.
“The gentle release of scented smoke nourishes the mind and stimulates the senses,” said Nado. “That brings about pleasure and, in turn, mental tranquillity. My own recipe for incense can do all that, but also free blocked energy and cure many kinds of sickness, too.”
Nado’s all-natural formula for good health and happiness remains a tightly guarded secret known only to him and his daughter, Lamdon. He explained that it is based on a widely known recipe from the Mindrolling Tibetan Bhuddist Monastery in India that is more than 350 years old.
“I’ve adapted it though, because the original quantities of saffron were so great that today it would make the incense extremely expensive and out of reach for ordinary people,” he said. “I’ve also blended it with another recipe from the Drukpa Kagyu school of Buddhism to enhance the perfume and maximise its healing powers. I use some 30 ingredients in my regular incense, and 108 in the version reserved for important religious ceremonies. The number 108 is auspicious for Buddhists and this special version can only be made on a holy day, according to Buddhist astrological charts.”
To make the incense, the various ingredients (including bark, spices, woodchips, flowers and leaves) are powdered in the workshop’s milling room. While the team members who help with this stage know roughly what goes into making incense, they don’t know the exact proportions, Nado explained. “And they certainly don’t know what’s in the cup that I put in at the end.”
What he does reveal is that the powder intended for direct burning is mixed with extra medicinal herbs to guarantee more smoke before being sent for packaging; while the powder for sticks is blended with water, honey and a natural purple dye to form a dough that is left to gently ferment in a large vat for up to a week.
Burning incense is as important as the food that we eat, the water we drink and the air that we breathe
“I think of it like a treasure chest,” Nado said, slowly lifting the lid to allow me to peek inside and inhale the yeasty-floral aroma. “Many people would love to get their hands on the riches inside.”
As the dough ferments, Nado and his team keep close watch over it, since it is easy for a batch to spoil. “It’s why so much we do here is done by hand. It is craftsmanship, not mass production.”
Nado then led me to the extruding room to see the next stage of the stick-making process. There, Gyenzang, one of Nado’s team of 12 female production workers, was feeding handfuls of fermented dough into the hopper of a machine that transformed the clay-like paste into spools of soft incense within seconds.
“Making incense is a process that must come from the heart,” she said, catching the plum-coloured coils on a tray as they spilled from the extruder’s nozzles. “This is a job that all of us love dearly. None of us received a good education; we’d have otherwise struggled to find work if it weren’t for Nado,” she added, before passing the tray to her co-worker, Yeshey, for straightening.
“The job is empowering,” said Yeshey, as she rolled the incense out flat along the edge of a wooden block. “We can earn money and feel independent from our husbands and our families. The work has given us all greater self-esteem. We feel the benefit of Nado’s kindness and are happy to know that all of the good deeds and positivity involved in the incense-making process will be passed on to the finished product and the people that burn it.”
After straightening is complete, the incense sticks are sent to be air-dried in the attic, then trimmed to size and tied into bundles ready for market. “We make around 20,000 wands and 350kg of powder a month,” Nado said. “We now export to as far away as China, the US and the UK. But while this is a business that earns me a living, money in no way precedes the spiritual importance of what I do. Making incense has been part of my Buddhist devotion for more than 50 years. It is my calling. And it gives me great personal satisfaction because I see with my own eyes how the people benefit from incense. Come with me, I’ll show you.”
Within just a single stick there is enormous power
Nado and I set off down the forested hillside towards the centre of Thimphu, and en route, he told me how he had discovered his purpose in life. “I joined the monkhood at 15 and stayed for 10 years,” he said. “I excelled at calligraphy, and when the third King of Bhutan asked for the Buddhist canon to be written in gold script, I was recruited for the task. After I’d finished, I wanted to find something equally fulfilling that mixed the creative with the sacred, and that led me on the path to making incense.”
In downtown Thimphu we entered the vast Centenary Farmer’s Market; its ground floor dedicated to fruit and vegetables, the upper level filled with incense products that promised to relieve abdominal pain, aid relaxation and assist in carrying out exorcisms.
At one stall we chatted with a woman named Choden, who often burned Nado’s incense in the temple shrine near her home and was purchasing a fresh supply of scented wands.
“Just as I brush my teeth, I also burn three incense sticks in the morning and three at night,” she said. “I would feel incomplete if I didn’t do it. It is a ritual that was passed down to me by my ancestors, and I have passed it on to my children. Burning incense is as important as the food that we eat, the water we drink and the air that we breathe. It is a practice that unites us all – rich and poor.”
We continued to a monastery that Nado supplies with his incense. There, in a sunlit prayer room, a monk was gently swinging a censer, the aromatic smoke spilling from its perforated lid to permeate the air and infiltrate the folds of his garments. “When I perform the puja (a cleansing ceremony using burning powder) it removes any negative energy from the room and makes me feel spiritually, bodily and mentally clean,” he said. “Incense helps me focus my mind for prayer and develop as a human being. It helps me to become the best possible version of myself.”
Down the corridor in a study room, a group of monks were sitting cross-legged with their shaved heads buried deep inside their prayer books, each with a smoking wand by their side.
“I believe that within just a single stick there is enormous power,” said one of the monks, named Wangchuk. Nado nodded in agreement.
“Incense can remove bad omens and obstacles from the path of life,” Wangchuk continued. “It creates a way for people to be kinder to each other. Incense is a key that can open the door to happiness.”