One of the most popular incenses, nag champa is a blend from India that relies on the champa flower for its signature rich scent. It mixes a sweet floral scent with heavier musk, using the aromatic tree resin halmaddi. Most nag champa incense is made with a base of sandalwood.
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Nag champa was originally used as a perfume and fragrant oil. The champa flowers were used as perfume for hair and body and were the main ingredient in a perfumed oil made in monasteries throughout India and Nepal. Champa comes from a flowering tree, also called champa, a member of the magnolia family, native to India. The flowers are yellow, and the tree grows as tall as 100 feet in a distinctive pyramid shape.
The nag champa fragrance varies by manufacturer, and when first made by Indian monks, was created in several different and distinct recipes depending on the monastery. Some are sweeter than others; some are heavier. Nag champa incense is made in sticks and cones, and the fragrance also can be found as perfume oil.
Flower oils are added to the sandalwood base and vary. Some have orange blossom, ylang-ylang and tea rose oils, but all have in common the champa flower oil. Traditionally, nag champa was made with the tree resin called halmaddi, which comes from the Ailanthus malabarica tree, also known as tree-of-heaven and white bean. Halmaddi has become more expensive in the past few decades and now nag champa incense is usually based on other tree resins. A common ingredient is evergreen resins, such as pine and cedar. Other makers add ingredients like cardamom, vanilla and black pepper. French lavender oil, saffron, cassia, cinnamon, and strawberry all appear in nag champa incenses from different makers or in different blends.
Some people make their own nag champa-style incense at home, but usually these do not follow the traditional recipe with the champa flower oil and halmaddi, due to their rarity and cost. Loose or pellet incense is made by grinding and mixing the ingredients you wish to use, and burning with charcoal. To make incense sticks, sandalwood sticks are dipped in the incense mixture, which consists of oils and resins mixed with finely ground powders, including charcoal, to help it burn, all at an even consistency. Like candle dipping, several layers are dipped and dried. To make nag champa incense cones, form the cones with your hands and let dry; this will take longer because of the thickness (see the link in References).
Nag champa is one of the more expensive incenses exported from India, due to the relative rarity of its ingredients. There are plenty of nag champa knock-offs or cheaper incenses that mimic nag champa but not made with its traditional ingredients. Also, as with all incenses, scents and burning time change with the age of the incense.