Smoke Signals: Incense and Sacred Rituals in Bengal
Smoke is penetrating, its traces sink and make home of porosity. Smoke’s transformative properties can be subtle, dependent as it is on other elements, fire, air, merely a whiff or a hint, carried on by the métier of substances heftier than its own. But smoke can lodge itself far deeper – inhaled, absorbed into hair or skin, stamped onto or transmuted by memory. Smoke can cloud or clarify. Smoke signals.
Often as the backdrop or backbone of rituals, festivals, offerings, funerals, or even solitary purification and calming exercises among others, smoke from incense, on the other hand, orients our emotions in more decorous ways. Its functions – more sumptuous. Less evidence-based – a la ‘where there’s smoke, there’s fire, city smog, and the like which annotates events of malaise and misfortune in a more evidentiary manner – and more faith and in that, it also signals. Spirits, magic, solemnity, grief, fanciful imaginations, romance, desire, the stuff that only the sensuous mind can summon and a body that responds to such lush resonances – incense obliges in creating, conjuring, such an air and ambience, a world of feeling. One lights camphor or sandalwood sticks, bakhoor chips or sage leaves because of a belief in their properties of activating one’s senses towards transcendence, trusting to establish a connection to the inner self or the higher world. Banish spirits of malintent. Bring in the good. It does not matter whether they actually do any of these things because the conviction in and of itself can be a succor for the body and soul – they can enchant and nourish.
Belief of course is a pliable category, which is not that it is inscrutable or amorphous but that it is vital to making life what it is. “Believing is a variety of living in the Aristotelian sense: it is the whole living creature’s first actuality of taking the world to be some way.” In that sense and “translated into the current lingo, this Aristotelian understanding of believing as ‘positioning’ or a ‘first actuality’ means that believing consists in having the appropriate dispositions. The appropriate dispositions are tendencies to act, react, think, and feel as if one’s belief is true. ‘Acting’, ‘reacting’, ‘thinking’, and ‘feeling’ all refer to physical and mental occurrences but are otherwise to be construed broadly.” Without constructing too much of a top-heavy philosophical scaffolding than necessary, inasmuch as curios like incense and fragrance suffuse us with those feelings and reactions, life devoid of them would be sense-less.
As a transcultural practice dating as far back as the 24-25th centuries BC, the ubiquity over time, place, and cultures has made incense burning take on an assortment of meanings. In consecratory and ritual offerings especially, incense appears so frequently it is possible to read it as unexceptional, but that is exactly why the practice is integral and, in that vein, social, cultural, religious practices in Bengal and Islamic traditions are replete with references to incense burning. The Bengali-Muslim milieu is pedigreed both Bengali and Muslim (themselves absorptive of other traditions): simultaneously unique and hybrid in form, many Bengali-Muslim practices, censing among them, inherit from preceding traditions as they create and influence newer ones. And in sketching those religio-cultural censing rituals, tracing their lineages will be necessary.
In a volume on devotional Bengali lyric poems from the eighteenth to the twentieth century to commemorate the Shakti tradition, Singing to the Goddess: Poems to Uma and Kali from Bengal, the author Rachel Fell McDermott appends an elaboration of Chandi puja in discussion of medieval Bengali narrative poems, a full sixteen-step ritual which includes burning incense. In Garlands of Vision: Color, Tantra, and a Material History of Indian Painting, art historian Jinah Kim discusses the employment and importance of books and book stands in ritual practices and their representations in early, medieval, early modern Indian art, but regularly included in conjunction are scenes of ritual with incense burners: “A single legged pillar-type book stand appears frequently in Buddhist images from eastern India. […] Here, as in the Dhaka Tara stele, a ritual master sits to the right of the bottom register, and under the book there are two food offerings. Three tall objects in front of the ritual master seem to represent ritual implements/offerings, like a butter lamp and incense burner. A butter lamp, an incense burner, and a vase (kalasa) accompany a book in a ritual scene on a number of stone slabs found around the Mahabodhi temple complex at Bodhgaya, the quintessential pilgrimage site” (italics mine). Farther back, surviving texts from the Maurya Empire (322-184 BCE) which spanned much of the subcontinent including Bengal include aromatics such as agarwood and sandalwood as precious articles. It was also one of the main commodities India traded going as far back as 485-425 BCE.
Later, as Islam spreads in Bengal, it does so via processes of cross-pollination. Historian Richard Eaton’s seminal work, The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760, argues that “it was precisely the fluidity of folk Bengali cosmology that allowed Bengalis to interact creatively with exogenous ideas and agencies” including Islam. “Thus the success of Islam in Bengal lay ultimately in the extent to which superhuman beings that had originated in Arab culture and subsequently appropriated (and been appropriated by) Hebrew, Greek, and Iranian civilizations, succeeded during the sixteenth through eighteen centuries in appropriating (and being appropriated by) Bengali civilization.” Meaning that the “systems of religious beliefs and practices (…) at the folk level were strikingly porous and fluid, bounded by no clear conceptual frontiers” which allowed for that absorption. But as Eaton shows, Islamic practices and cosmologies also had to be sufficiently localized to gain that foothold: “when figures like Adam, Eve, and Abraham became identified with central leitmotifs of Bengali history and civilization, Islam had become established as profoundly and authentically Bengali.” Similar commingling rescripts customs of incense burning in Bengali-Islamic rituals where incense appears in some of the most sacred of spaces and occasions – mazaars, shrines, ceremonies and funerals.
In one of the major Hadith compilations, Sahih al Bukhari, there are multiple references to the Prophet and his companions’ use of and advice on incense. We hear of the Prophet’s praise of the ‘Indian’ incense or Oudh al-Hindi for its medicinal properties, for instance for throat problems and swelling, and his advice on fumigating houses with it. Many of these Hadiths mention agarwood, frankincense, myrrh, and other aromatics to befittingly appoint homes and sacred places. Uses of and references to agarwood particularly appear repeatedly since “the incenses and perfumes that are produced from agarwood have been valued for centuries and used by many cultures for spiritual, opulent, and aphrodisiac purposes. Agarwood is highly revered in the seminal texts of Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam.” The Sahih Muslim, another key volume of Hadiths mentions that “agarwood was used in the important practice of fumigation/purification where Nafi’ reports on Ibn Umar fumigating with aloeswood either by itself or mixed with camphor.” It was Umar’s practice of burning incense in a mosque which contributed to it becoming “commonplace.” Although we lack sources on what he burned, the Prophet “was known to prefer aloes alone, or aloes and camphor together” so it is reasonable to deduce the caliph may have preferred the same. Art historian Nina Ergin suggests Church customs influenced the practice of censing at mosques which became a “requirement” during the Umayyad era.
I don’t remember where or when I first heard the aphorism ‘cleanliness is next to Godliness’ but it clung. Likely based on multiple Hadith mentions – that cleanliness was the foundation of Islam or iman (faith) – but often dropped as a quip, it was not so much the statement itself, but all the cleansing practices and rituals it evoked – bathing, ritual washing or odhu – that I instinctively connected to spiritual readiness. So much so that I would imagine crisp, ironed whites for Friday prayers almost incomplete without a dash of attar. The beauty and sensorial awareness of a social-spacial arrangement would often be heightened by its aroma. Quranic references to fragrance and incense are scant but owing to stories from childhood and onwards, the paradise I visualize would not be one without the delights of olfactory pleasures. Here or in the afterlife – they elevate the senses and existence. According to Ergin, “already during the Prophet’s lifetime, scent featured prominently in Islam: as a distinguishing mark of good and evil, in the way in which paradise was imagined, as an integral part of Muslim dress and body hygiene, and for communal worship.” The Prophet is also quoted as saying that “he who perfumes for Allah, most High, will be raised on the Day of Resurrection, smelling more fragrant than sweet musk.” Sacred physical surroundings and spaces then also had to have been properly appointed – Ergin alludes to multisensorial experiences linked to rituals and worship – and incense assisted in that task. Many Ottoman mosques and mausolea foundation charters in fact specified the role of perfumers: “this person will produce beautifully smelling smoke and perfume this mosque on Fridays and other holy times, as it is tradition in other mosques” so much so that architectural and aesthetic visions of these sacred social spaces incorporated particular smellscapes, placement of censers in relation to the spatial layout.
Spiritual devotion and being attuned to faith entail a frame of mind and rituals including feelings of calmness, upliftment, a pleasant environment, in all, a cleansed mind, body, and space. No doubt fragrance and incense are some of the accessories of choice in that pursuit. Several considerations would warrant censing sacred spaces. First of all, since “olfactory receptors are directly connected to the brain’s limbic system, the seat of emotion, any scented ritual space becomes an emotive environment – one that can trigger a meditative mood conducive to an enhanced spiritual experience. Moreover, smells are known to prompt memory as strongly as visual stimuli do. Hence the concentration of beautiful scents not only enhanced aesthetic effect and made emotionally more salient the grand architecture, precious materials, and Quranic recitations, it also served as a memory cue to retrieve experiences of previous visits.” Next, “censing also sacralized a moment in time” emphasizing special moments such as Friday prayers or Ramadan nights. Moreover, use of particular fragrance or incenses as those favored by the Prophet or mentioned in Hadiths as “constituting the beautiful odors of paradise” established a recognizable link diachronically and synchronically among the Muslim ummah, serving as another familiar register of belonging for them. There is also a practical side to incense burning which would be to demarcate the sacred space from its surroundings, especially in crowded, urban zones. As Ergin explains, the fragrant smoke counteracted body odors “from the presence of a large crowd of worshippers” or as with the Suleymaniye complex in Istanbul, the smell of baked bread or roast lambs or slaughtered animals wafting from the adjacent soup kitchens. Burning incense then contributed to the demarcation of sacred space.
Derived from agarwood, in Bengali like Sanskrit (which the former is based on) the “word for incense (sticks) is known as agarbatti.” Religious customs and cultural practices (themselves overlapping) in both pre-Islamic and Muslim Bengal incorporates agarwood – as well as camphor and sandalwood – as one of the principal ingredients for censing. And while there is no mention of it in the Quran, several Hadiths mention that “Allah’s Messenger was quoted (by Abu Huraira) describing Paradise where, among many wondrous things, agarwood would be used in censers.” Precursors such as these along with local cultivation of agarwood have developed into cultural-religious traditions part of the Bengali vernacular.
Apart from sacralization and cleansing rituals, in Bengali religious and cultural vernacular, there is an easy association between somberness, incense and smoke – where there’s smoke, there’s mourning. Plumes of ashen clouds from (Hindu) funeral pyres or closer to home and what I am more accustomed to – incense at (Islamic) religious shrines and funerals. If scent creates memory trails and familiarity, then it is with our funerals I have grown to attach incense burning to. Funerals are spiritual and social exercises. In part organized to pray for salvation of the deceased in the afterlife, they serve as a solace for the living too. These are our ways to grieve and mourn and come to terms with life. And funerary arrangements, those bits and accouterments, flourishes and trappings, incense among them, appear as another entry for our senses. Much like other Islamic rituals, sameness and difference guide Muslim funeral practices. In Bengal, accretion of time, alchemy of pre-Islamic traditions and Sunni Hanafi interpretations produced a cultural vernacular of mourning and tribute. Suffused with these multiple traditions the terroir of Bengali Muslim funeral practices is connective – they develop as discursive traditions as Talal Asad has noted. The particular ritual of burning incense and sprinkling rosewater is a hybrid form of multiple traditions – Vaishnavi, Mughal, Persian, Ottoman – informing Islamic funeral practices in Bengal.
Underpinning this is “the idea of death as gradual” giving rise to a set of “above ground” practices and “community activity of the barzakh period in Islamic thought, the interregnum between an individual’s death and their physical resurrection on the day of the judgment.” And from handling of the deceased’s body to burial to funeral and commemorative services, we wonder what eases a soul’s journey upon its separation from the body? Although its origins are contested, there is widespread belief among followers of Hanafi tradition in Bengal that the soul of the departed revisits its former dwellings on occasion before finally severing its ties. And commemorative events like the Qul Khani, a milad or prayer service, in part are meant to make that departure easier. Modest, spare, with color palettes of white and pastels, the spiritual-social setting of Qul Khanis have an unmistakable understated decorum garnished with sensory staples of incense and rosewater. Although no specific instructions exist for censing at Qul Khanis, it would appear it is only befitting and aligned with the religious-cultural practices for such a solemn occasion to do so. A space perfumed for God in keeping with iman or faith. There, among the mourners and congregants, would be incense holders spread out every few feet radiating a woodsy, sweet smell. For an otherwise sparse and unadorned setting of Qul Khanis, a backdrop of smoke and scent provides a corporal cue when smelling is also breathing. Maybe hearts heavy with grief parallel the dense fragrance from incense to create a congruent ambience. When I think of those gatherings, it is also a strange sense of lightness and uncertainty around souls, there but not there, mirroring the nebulous fragrant air from censing. Soul extracted from the body synchronized with the formlessness of aromatized air.
In Mirza Ghalib’s rendition, despairing in penury, that formless flight can be freeing:
“How reckless of me, I took to the heights.
Life gets harder: in death I traveled light.”[28,29]
A soul’s true element will always evade us as mortals, but when we imagine it to be light, buoyant, unconfined, perhaps we are moved to fashion a corresponding ambiance of scented air for its onward journey. There is of course a practical reason why multiple religions incorporate incense in burying rituals – to fend off malodors and purify surroundings from decaying remains – and this is also why Islam instructs in quick burial as does its burying customs embrace censing in the vicinity of a dead body. A scene of which is depicted in a watercolor panel of a funeral procession from the popular tale Khusrau and Shirin. This tragic romance was adapted, retold, and refashioned into multiple formats across the Persian empire and in parts of the world with Persian influences including Bengal (and the wider Indian subcontinent) where it is widely known as Shiri Farhad (Farhad, after Shirin’s other suitor in the love triangle). In this march through a field of flowers and grass, the deceased is covered with a floral patterned gold brocade on which sits a jeweled turban perhaps indicating his high station in life. There is a sense of ceremony and decorum here. Accompanying him in this journey to the resting place is a retinue of men forging a blessed atmosphere: a man giving alms, two men hoisting peacock-feather brooms, men watering the field, and just right of center in the painting, a man holding an incense-stand as a murmur of perfumed air from the agarbatti wafts inscribing the tableau with an appropriateness. The historical figures of Shirin, Khusrau, and Farhard were not Muslim, but the tale’s transmssion is routed through Islam and emblematic of cross-pollinating religions, cultures, and traditions. Like elsewhere in the subcontinent these tales emerged in Bengal via a form of (often oral) storytelling in prose, poetry, and music called kissa (from the Arabic qissa meaning fable, tale, or legend). At the hands of the region’s Muslim storytellers and scribes, Turco-Persian-Arabic and/or Islamic epics and lores, fused with existing fables, myths, and stories, became popular in Bengal from the fifteenth century onward.
We can also turn to another eighteenth century Mughal era watercolor, The rulers of the Mughal dynasty from Babur to Awrangzeb. Possibly by Bhawani Das who hailed from Patna (which has been a part of Bengal under different empires), it is timeless in every sense: a cross-generational haloed gatherhing, a congregation of the living and the dead, and an ancestral communing of sorts. Although not a funeral scene, the painting summons the dead and death via form and suggestion. Seated on a lushly carpeted terrace against the backdrop of cypress trees and spring-flowering prunus, this regal gathering where Timur presides, surrounded by his sons, a ruler of Samarkand, and successive Mughal emperors, centers around two iris laden Chinese porcelain vases atop a low-lying minakari (enameled) table and “two unusual incense burners shaped like small domed tombs.” Enveloping this dreamy conclave is clearly visible, softly rising smoke from the burners and the prominence of incense burners is another reminder of the befitting embellishments necessary for an auspicious event such as this. Believed to mark the beginning of Awrangzeb’s reign given his positioning in the painting, it is political art of its time, presented to establish continuity and ancestral connection, and by doing so, confers legitimacy to his rule. Pervading this solemn portrayal is an intimation of the complementarity of dunya (earthly life and temporal world) and akhirah (hereafter), where the spheres of the living and the dead exist in a continuum, at employ of the other as necessary.
In an interview from 2015, the writer Vivian Gornick insisted that the idea of her own death did not hold as much attention for her, that it was boring and not generative. It is an unknown that one can scarcely prepare for, much less map. But what about others’ passing? I imagine that can be just as difficult to prepare for, but elements of grief necessitate coping, acceptance, or denial, which generate customs and rituals. In Islamic understanding, while grief and mourning are accepted, one is also encouraged to acknowledge Divine wisdom in conjunction with loss, a kind of acceptance that I think mirrors Gornick’s assured assessment of one’s own death. And lodged within that philosophy of passing is an express responsibility for the living – to ease the soul’s journey into afterlife, to intercede on behalf of the deceased, but also not to relinquish the role of being alive in all its meanings. However minor an act it might seem, fragrance and incense would appear to be appropriate accessories to don and surround ourselves with in that life.
Curry, Devin S. (2018) How Beliefs Are Like Colors. PhD Dissertation. University of Pennsylvania.
Shaktism refers to the Bengali Hindu tradition of goddess worship, aligned with the essence and doctrine of energy or power.
McDermott, Rachel F. (2001) Singing to the Goddess: Poems to Uma and Kali. Oxford University Press.
The sixteen steps are: “1. invoking the deity (Chandi); 2. offering her a seat; 3. giving her water for her feet; 4. for her head and body, and 5. for her mouth; 6. bathing her; 7. dressing her; 8. adorning her with a sacred thread; 9. sprinkling her with perfume; 10. decorating her with flowers; 11. burning incense; 12. waving an oil lamp in front of her; 13. feeding her delicacies; 14. prostrating oneself in front of her; 15. Circumambulating her; and 16. dismissing her.”
Kim, Jinah. (2021) Garlands of Vision: Color, Tantra, and a Material History of Indian Painting. University of California Press.
A frequently used term is syncretism in this context. I am ambivalent about ‘syncretic’ not because it is necessarily incorrect, but it signifies an understanding which I find wanting. When describing the brand of Islam in Bengal or South Asia as syncretic, the underlying assumption is that a process of cultural-religious-social cross-pollination is unique to the region and nowhere else. The obverse of which is that there is a ‘real’ Islam which some purists instrumentalize to denigrate vernacular forms of Islamic religious practices and a set of liberals use to hint that somehow that ‘real’ (often understood as Arab) Islam is more regressive.
Eaton, Richard. (1993) The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760. University of California Press.
López-Sampson, Arlene and Tony Page. (2018) ‘History of Use and Trade of Agarwood’, Economic Botany, 72 (1), 107-129. Available online.
Ergin, Nina. (2014) ‘The Fragrance of the Divine: Ottoman Incense Burners and Their Context’, The Art Bulletin 96 (1), 70-97.
Kashani, Mulla Muhsin Fayd. (1383/1963) Al-Mahajjat al-bayda. Jami’a Mudarrisin.
López-Sampson, Arlene and Tony Page. (2018) ‘History of Use and Trade of Agarwood’, Economic Botany, 72 (1), 107-129. Available online.
Most of the agarbattis available now in the local market, however, rely on synthetic compounds and fragrances.
Yarrington, Matt D. (2010) Lived Islam in Bangladesh: Contemporary religious discourse between Ahl-i-Hadith, ‘Hanafis’ and authoritative texts, with special reference to al-barzakh. PhD Dissertation. University of Edinburgh.
Ghalib, Mirza. (2013) ‘Ghazals.’ Translated by M. Shahid Alam. Michigan Quarterly Review, 52 (2). Available online.
An alternate translation of the verse by Javed Hussen: “The new learner of (self) annihilation was the one who liked the difficulty/It is very difficult that this work also turned out to be easy.” From personal correspondence with the author.
The presence of the turban suggests he would have been a male.
Similar ancestral themes and features, especially the use of Timur, recur in many Mughal era paintings.
Gross, Jessica. (2015) ‘A Woman on the Margins’, Longreads. Available online.
Published: 30 July 2022