The Gaharu, or “Wood of the Gods” has been traded and highly coveted for thousands of years. The resinous wood is used as incense, for medicinal purposes, and pure resin in distilled form is used as an essential oil as well as a perfume component. Outside its native countries, it is most widely known in the Middle East, China, Taiwan, and Japan. A strong connection exists between use, religion, and curative properties, and elaborate traditional and religious ceremonies are known around the world. Faith healers in the Middle East use it at curative ceremonies, Japanese pilgrims donate flowers and agarwood oil to Shinto-Buddhist temples, and Vietnamese religious groups are obliged to bring agarwood to ceremonies at their temples in Mekong Delta communities.
Gaharu has three primary uses: medicine, perfume and incense. Smaller quantities are used for other purposes, such as carvings.
Gaharu has been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. Gaharu is used for the treatment of pleurisy, used also to promote the flow of qi, relieve pain, prevent vomiting by warming the stomach, and to relieve asthma. High-grade agarwood powder is prescribed in Chinese medicine and is also used in the production of pharmaceutical tinctures. Gaharu mixed with coconut oil as a liniment, and also in a boiled concoction to treat rheumatism and other body pain. It is also used as a complex ointment for smallpox and for various abdominal complaints. Gaharu is also prescribed for dropsy, as a carminative, a stimulant, for heart palpitations, and as a tonic taken particularly during pregnancy, after childbirth and for diseases of female genital organs.
The use of gaharu for perfumery. In India, various grades of gaharu are distilled separately before blending to produce a final ‘attar’. Minyak attar is a water-based perfume containing gaharu oil, which is traditionally used to lace prayer clothes. Gaharu perfumes are seldom to be pure agarwood oil, but instead, the use of an alcoholic or non-alcoholic
carrier, such as sandalwood oil. The cheapest gaharu perfumes are either synthetic or a blend of oils, each with different qualities and fragrances. Gaharu essences have recently been used as a fragrance in soaps and shampoos in Indonesia.
Gaharu incense is burned to produce a pleasant aroma, its use ranging from a general perfume to an element of important religious activities. Irregular chunks of gaharu, usually a few centimetres long and weighing 10-200 g, may be cut or broken into smaller pieces and then burned, usually in a specially made incense burner. Gaharu powder and dust cannot be burned directly in incense holders, but can be used to make incense sticks or coils for indoor fragrance, and are used for religious purposes by Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus. Taiwanese consumers purchase gaharu for the manufacture of incense sticks, which are used in prayers during many traditional festivals and ceremonies to bring safety and good luck. Both Indians and Chinese have used gaharu as an essential ingredient of incense sticks in the past, but in the present day incense sticks generally do not contain gaharu, although Indian traders report that high-quality Indian incense sticks destined for export may have a drop of gaharu oil added to them. Agarbattis are incense cones, which also originally contained gaharu powder but seldom do so now because of the high price of gaharu. Instead, the light cream/brown powdery waste material obtained from oil distillation (with little or no resin content) is used to provide a basic carrier for other, cheaper, fragrant ingredients. This waste gaharu powder sells for around USD5/kg. Japanese incense products are very different, with most of the highest-grade products made using natural raw materials which include ground gaharu extracts combined with other ingredients such as sandalwood and benzoin and then carefully moulded and baked. Pure gaharu is also burned as incense in Japan. The user breaks pieces off and burns small pieces as required, hence large sections of wood will last several years. In Japan, a revival in the ancient art of Koh doh, the incense ceremony, has revitalised interest in gaharu. In Malaysia, Muslims burn gaharu splinters or chips to produce incense during special religious events, particularly at gatherings, and gaharu incense has been recorded in use there during Ramadan prayers. Some Malay tribes fumigate paddy fields with agarwood smoke to appease local spirits. Gaharu incense is used for various purposes in the Middle East, especially during prayers. Gaharu chips and splinters are also burned in bathrooms and incense is used as a customary perfume. Party hosts place gaharu chips over hot charcoals, the aroma signifying the end of a party.
Cosmetic purposes, particularly during sickness and after childbirth. Although it may be possible to use healthy Aquilariawood to make simple ornamental boxes, this wood is typically too light and fibrous (rather like balsa wood) to be suitable for furniture, construction or even carving. Some foresters in India have suggested using Aquilaria wood for constructing tea-boxes. There is a considerable number of craft shops offering religious ‘agarwood’ sculptures, usually Bhuddhist figures. Gaharu is used to produce statues and religious objects. As with carvings, most agarwood rosary and ‘worry beads’ offered for sale are fake, owing to the cost of shaping and drilling perfectly round beads of authentic agarwood. Instead, other dark woods may be submerged in gaharu oil for several weeks until the fragrance of agarwood has been absorbed and these are then used in place of agarwood. Authentic gaharu bead necklaces cost approximately USD1500/kg