Oudh – the sweet smell of tradition|
Posted On » September 19 - 25, 2007 (Volume:6 / Issue 38)
The first thing your sense of smell picks up in an Arab house is the heady aroma of Oudh wafting in the air.
Oudh is considered as a supreme fragrance in the Gulf countries.
In Bahrain, Oudh is burned as a mark of respect and hospitality and is a traditional gesture of welcoming and honouring guests. In fact, Oudh is considered an important feature at most social occasions.
Oudh, which simply means wood in Arabic, has an extraordinary pedigree. Also known as aloes and agarwood, Oudh is found in the forests of South East Asia.
It is an aromatic resin found in certain species of Aquilaria and Gyrinops trees. The resin is produced by the tree as an immune response to a fungus – Phialophora parasitica – that invades the tree and over many years spreads through it.
It is believed that it takes as long as 300 years for the fungus to spread through the bark of the tree. Unlike the otherwise pale wood of the tree, infected sections are dark and extremely heavy. In fact, the Chinese and Japanese terms for Oudh translate as ‘the wood that sinks in water’.
The best grade of Oudh is hard, nearly black and very heavy. In general, Oudh becomes inferior as it becomes lighter in tone, flecked with diminishing amounts of resin.
The only reliable way to test for quality is to burn a small bit and evaluate the complexity and richness of the smoldering wood.
Oudh is cut, sliced, polished and burned over coal in traditional incense burners called mabakhir. Chips of this fragrant wood are a prized, almost priceless commodity, and burning it is one of the region’s most distinctive traditions.
“It is part of our tradition that when you go to the mosque and pray you must go clean and have a nice smell,” says Naim Mustafa, public relations officer at Syed Junaid Alam (SJA), who have dealt in Oudh and oriental perfumes in the GCC since 1910.
“The sales of Oudh rise sharply during the months of Ramadan and before both the Eids. During the wedding season the sale of oudh also goes up as it is burned copiously during wedding parties,” he says.
“Oudh is very strong. It gives a powerful scent that lasts for 24 hours. Even after you wash it stays on your skin and in your hair and clothes,” remarks Noura Habib, a young Bahraini housewife living in Hamad Town.
“The smell of an expensive variety of oudh stays longer.
“In fact, you leave a trail of scent behind when you use the expensive Oudh. I have grown up with the fragrance of Oudh in my house as all my family members actively use it. So for me it is part of my everyday ritual of getting ready,” she says.
In most Gulf countries it is customary to pass the hand held charcoal brazier or mabkharah of smoldering Oudh at social gatherings. Oudh is burned over smoldering bits of coal in the cup that is normally lined with sheet metal. In some homes Oudh is burned in an electric mabkharah instead of over coal for convenience.
The mabkharah is always passed counter clockwise and each individual wafts the smoke into himself to perfume his clothes.
Mustafa Al Markhi, administration manager at a regional financial house in Manama, says: “There was no concept of using bottled perfume in the Arabian Peninsula so Oudh was used to perfume the clothes and hair for both men and women.”
The tradition of burning Oudh has not waned even among young Bahrainis who understand and appreciate the cultural significance of this age-old custom. In various parts of the Arab world, Oudh is burned to celebrate important events of everyday life. Oudh is burnt ceremoniously at weddings although the variety and the quality varies on how much the host is willing to spend.
During Haj, Oudh is copiously burned at the Great Mosque in Mecca and in many other mosques throughout Saudi Arabia. During Ramadan, some Arab families burn Oudh each evening after breaking the fast as a custom.
Indian Oudh is a favoured choice with most Bahrainis but because of its high price Cambodian oudh burns in most Bahraini homes.
On an average, a middle income Bahraini home would spend up to BD50 on Oudh per month whereas the well healed would spend up to BD150 per month on purchasing Oudh for daily use. The ravenous demand for Oudh is outstripping supply thus making this sweet incense more precious than gold.
The agarwood harvesting countries stretch across Asia from Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Burma, Thailand, Java, Vietnam and India.
There are more than 2,000 varieties of Oudh in the world. Traditionally, India was one of the largest producers of Oudh. Assam, in India, once the source of the most valued Oudh has now exhausted its wild stocks and supplies the market only from plantations.
In Vietnam, the agarwood trees are commercially extinct in the wild and in Thailand almost none remain outside the national park.
“Indian oudh is out of the market and is a rare commodity now. Indonesian, Malaysian and Cambodian Oudh are the popular varieties in Bahrain. One kilogramme of Oudh normally costs between BD2,000 to BD8,000 or more depending on the variety.
“Premium quality of oudh is used for special occasions, whereas cheaper ones are used for daily use to get rid of unpleasant odours in the house or after cooking or for perfuming oneself as a daily ritual,” says Naim Mustafa of SJA.
“A rising demand of oudh and oudh based fragrances and oils at SJA is testament that the unique and luxurious fragrances are here to stay,” says sales and marketing director Hamad Fuad Akhtar who outlined SJA’s plan to open three new outlets in Bahrain’s upcoming commercial developments.
Oudh comes in different forms from wood chips to powder mixed with oil and shaped into round balls. While Oudh is burned in mabakhir for fragrance, Oudh oil or dehn-al-oudh is packaged in a bottle as a personal fragrance. Oudh based fragrances are just as treasured a commodity as Oudh.
Traditionally, brides use Oudh fragrances on their wedding as it has an individuality that is missing in international brands.
“Oudh based fragrances are extremely popular amongst Bahrainis. Oudh perfumes are much more expensive than the international brand which is why it is not possible for us to use it on a daily basis but for special occasions only,” says Sahar Muhammad who has a strong liking for Oudh fragrances.
According to Malik Al Oudh, a company that supplies and distributes oudh in Saudi Arabia, half a tola of dehn-al-oudh from India can cost anywhere between BD300 to BD600 depending on the richness and maturity of the oil.
Eyad Saud, sales manager at Saudi Arabia’s Arabian Oud company in Bahrain’s Seef Mall says, “One tola of Cambodian Oudh costs anywhere between BD6 and BD32. This is one of the cheaper and swift selling varieties here in Bahrain.”
Considering the steep price of a small vial of Oudh fragrance, it is no wonder that wearing such fragrances are restricted to special events.
Oudh based fragrances are a well-appreciated gift on marriages, graduation or any other happy occasion.
All Oudh shops, whether they are small kiosks peppered in the major malls in Bahrain or large specialty shops, carry ornately packed Oudh fragrances in exquisite bottles that are a testament that the tradition of using this age-old prestigious fragrance lives on.
By Asma Salman