The Importance of Incense in Nepal: How to Light an Incense Stick

Incense sticks have been around for thousands of years. With deep ties to ancient religious ceremonies in Egypt, Greece, and Babylon. Although the use of stick incense in the Indian subcontinent is not as old as in Egypt, India and Nepal culture is still deeply intertwined with incense burning.

After trade routes began opening up and globalization started, the South Asian region quickly became enthralled with incense sticks, and discovered how to use incense sticks in their everyday life. Now, centuries later, Nepal, as well as the region in general has figured out How are Incense made; how to light an incense; how to burn an incense stick; and answered the question of what do incense do!

In this blog, we are going to discuss all of these aspects of incense, and look into just how important incense sticks are in Nepali culture. If you are curious about how incense works, is made, or even how to light and burn incense, then you have come to the right place. Moreover, we will go over how important incense is in Nepali culture, and the history of it in the Himalayan country.

What is Incense?

Incense is composed of various plant materials that can be burnt to release an array of fragrant smoke. The sticks are used for multiple purposes, and can be used for aesthetic reasons, religious worship and ceremonies, insect repellent, aromatherapy and meditation. 

Incense sticks are composed of plant materials, and combined with various essential oils for aromatic purposes. Generally speaking, there are two types of incense sticks that can be burnt. One type is direct burning, and indirect burning. 

Direct burning incense sticks, or combustible incense sticks are incense that can be lit one time, and then fanned out. The aromatic sticks will continue to burn by themselves. 

Indirect burning incense, or non-combustible incense sticks are the ones that can not burn by themselves and constantly need a heat source to burn.

What do Incense do?

What incense does is it emits smoke that is inhaled, and will freshen up an area with its scent. Additionally,  it is important for spiritual purposes, and provides health benefits. It can help lower stress, increase concentration, stimulate the mind, relax you, calm anxiety and help people sleep.

Incense is a fragrant stick that burns and emits a fresh scent in smoke form which is great for aromatherapy purposes. Moreover, it is widely used in meditation and yoga practices, to help the mind focus and concentrate on the moment. Monks and religious individuals, especially in Hindu and Buddhist cultures, use incense to do their prayers in the morning and evening.

What incense does, primarily depends on the person using, lighting and burning the incense sticks. From a Nepali, and Hindu culture perspective, people use it for prayer and to invite their gods and goddesses into their homes. 

In order to use incense and experience its benefits, you must be able to light and  burn it. In the next section we will discuss How to use an incense stick and how to light incense.

How to light an incense and burn incense sticks?

Incense Burning in front of Ganesh Statue
Incense Burning in front of Ganesh Statue

Lighting and burning incense does not need to be a difficult task. Incense can be lit, and burned easily and safely by anyone. The steps below highlight the process of lighting and burning incense sticks, while keeping yourself safe.

1. Selecting incense sticks:

Incense sticks are typically made of a small, thin bamboo stick that is covered by the plant material and oils compound. The plant material, which is for burning is typically dark in color – black or dark brown. At the bottom of the incense stick, you will find the uncovered bamboo stick. Both the incense material and bamboo stick make of the aroma that you will smell while burning. The fragrance is usually quite potent, so make sure to pick a scent that you enjoy. Moreover, try to find an incense stick that is all natural and pure. All natural sticks are better for your health, as they don’t use any additional chemicals.

2. Choosing an incense stick holder:

To be able to safely light incense and continuously be able to burn the sticks, you will need an incense stick holder. Holders for incense come in many different shapes and sizes, and you can choose one to match your own style. The only thing you need to be aware of while choosing an incense holder is: what type of incense you are burning. There are sticks that are cored incense (have the bamboo stick inside) and solid incense sticks (no bamboo sticks in the middle, and therefore will burn until all incense is gone.) While choosing an incense stick holder, make sure to consider the following:

  • For a cored incense stick, use a ‘boat’ holder. These holders are long, holders that are made from metal, wood or ceramic. Moreover, the holder will have a small hole at one end to hold the stick, and a groove down the middle of the boat to catch ash as the stick burns.
  • For solid incense sticks, wooden holders should be avoided, as they can be flammable. Which is an issue as the solid incense sticks will burn all the way until they are finished. Therefore, use a holder that is made out of ceramic or metal. You can also consider using a home made holder with a bowl full of rice, salt or sand.
  • If you are so inclined, you can also find holders that are in different designs. For example, you can find holders that reference Nepali culture, such as elephants, buddhas, lotus flowers, and any other animal or shape you could think of!

Any holder will do fine for your incense as long as it suits the incense type (cored or solid). Also, you may want to consider getting creative and making your own holder to burn your incense sticks!

3. Burning incense sticks in a suitable place:

As you burn incense sticks smoke will be released. Therefore, it is important to make sure the room is well ventilated. The placement of incense sticks should not be near a window or door that has a significant draft however. As this could result in the incense sticks being put out while it burns, or all the smoke being going outside. 

Finally, make sure that there is nothing flammable around the incense as they burn!

4. How to light an incense stick:

Now it’s time to light your incense stick. The way to properly light an incense stick is by holding it by the bamboo stick, or by placing it in its holder when lighting incense. Once the incense stick has been lit, let it burn for about 10 seconds before blowing it out and extinguishing the flame. 

Check the tip of the stick to see if there is an ember, and it is still burning. If it is white, and ashy, you will need to relight the incense.

5. How to burn an incense stick and enjoy the fragrance:

After about 30 seconds of burning, you should begin to smell the fragrance of the incense. If you can not, that means the ember has been extinguished and you will need to relight it. 

If you are smelling the fragrance, then you are good to go! Most incense sticks will burn for about 20 to 30 minutes. While the incense is burning, make sure to check it from time to time, to make sure it is safe and still burning. Additionally, depending on where you have placed the stick, ashes or embers may get blown around due to a draft in the room. To be proactive, make sure to place the burning incense in a good place so you can enjoy the incense as much as possible!

Tips for how to light an incense and using incense safely:

  • Make sure to light and burn your incense in rooms that are well ventilated, as you will want to avoid smoke build up
  • Don’t allow children or pets get close to your incense while its burning
  • Incense smoke can be problematic to people who have asthma or suffer from a respiratory condition, keep this in mind while you burn incense if you have guests 
  • Monitor how your pets react to the fragrance of the incense sticks while you burn them. Whereas, dogs and animals can be highly sensitive to the fragrance of burning incense sticks
  • Make sure to burn incense in a safe area, it should be an open space away from things that can be blown close to the ember and catch fire

Incense Sticks in Nepal:

Nepali using incense for prayer in Nepal
Nepali using incense for prayer in Nepal Source: Subash Shrestha

Nepalese culture is heavily influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism heritage and traditions. And therefore, incense plays a significant role for religion in Nepal. For religious ceremonies and auspicious times the Nepalese people have a strong connection with incense. 

As you travel in Nepal, you will smell the sweet aroma of incense in shops, homes and Hindu temples throughout the country. Whereas, the lighting of incense in Nepali culture has a few different uses. One, in homes and shops, people use incense to please the gods that surround their walls, and to ward off evil spirits. These evil spirits also include warding off the jealousy and envy of other shop keepers, or people that wish them ill will.

Moreover, shop keepers also enjoy using incense as it gives a spiritual and pleasing setting for his customers. Burning incense sticks give a feeling of authenticity to tourists and travelers as they visit shops.

At temples, while conducting religious ceremonies, and during many different festivals in Nepal, people also use incense sticks. It is said that the smoke from the sticks will please the gods of the temples, purify the air around as well as mask any unpleasant smells so devotees can practice their religion in a good state of mind.

How are Incense made?

Incense sticks are made from raw plant materials that are ground and made into powder. The powder is mixed with a binding agent like essential oils, and formed into a paste. The paste is then combined with water and made into a dough that can be shaped and molded.

The incense dough can then be molded around bamboo sticks if cored incense is being made. Other forms of incense can be made into a solid, coil or cone shaped. All three of the different types of incense: cone incense, solid incense and coil incense are solid, and pure incense. However, the difference between the different types are the shape. Whereas, the normal solid stick incense are shaped into long thin sticks or can be coil incense, and the cone incense are made into larger and thicker cone shaped.

The Incense mixture is typically made out of a natural resin or ‘gum’. The gum is a natural resin found in Africa and officially known as frankincense. Frankincense is one of the many incense ingredients, which can then be made into an incense powder, and combined with an essential oil to bind together the loose incense mixture.

In many incense producing countries around the world, what used to be a hand made process, has turned into a mechanized process. However, countries like Nepal, and other more traditional areas in places like Tibet and India, still make incense sticks by hand.

The Sweet Smell of Incense:

If you have ever traveled to South Asia, or even visited a Buddhist or Hindu temple in the United States or in Europe, you will know about the sweet smell of incense smoke. Incense sticks have been religiously important for millennium, and their use does not seem to be slowing down. From Egypt, to Greece, to Nepal and Asia, burning incense sticks will continue to be one of the best ways to attract the gods and ward off the evil spirits!

An incense stick or an incense cone are important components of traditional practices in Nepal. Are you looking to find out more about tradition in the Himalayan country? Check out our traditional blogs covering cultural dresses in Nepal, or Nepali traditional food.

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