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Agarwood - The Hidden History of Scented Wood

Written by Eric Hansen


Several years ago, in the perfume and incense market in the old city of Sana'a in Yemen, I caught sight of a large apothecary jar full of wood chips. The jar sat on a dusty shelf, tucked away in a dark corner of the stall owned by Mohammed Hamoud al-Kalagi. When I asked him to show me its contents, he placed the jar on the front counter and pulled out a chip of wood. Mohammed called the wood 'ud (pronounced ood), a name I did not recognize, but it looked very familiar. I could hardly contain my growing sense of excitement as I examined it closely.

Mohammed placed a tiny sliver of the wood on the end of a lit cigarette. Within moments we were inhaling a rich, sweet, woody fragrance that I had first smelled in the Borneo rain forest 15 years earlier. At that time, I was traveling with a group of nomadic hunter-gatherers known as Penan. We were looking for herbs used in traditional medicine, but one day the Penan cut down a tree and collected pockets of fragrant wood from within the trunk and branches. They called these dark patches of wood gaharu. I rubbed a small piece of gaharu between my palms to warm it, and it smelled like cedar and sandalwood, but with subtle fragrance notes of roses and balsam. For years I had wondered what the wood was used for and where it was sent after leaving Borneo. The Penan thought gaharu might be used in Chinese medicine, because it was the upriver Chinese traders that bought it, but apart from that, they were mystified as to why anyone would want to buy those gnarly bits of wood.

Mohammed al-Kalagi, who thought that 'ud came only from India, was the first person to help me begin to unravel the long and convoluted history of this scented wood. He told me it was burned as incense throughout the Islamic world, and an oil was extracted from it that retailed for nearly $20 a gram ($500 an ounce) as a perfume.

When I told Mohammed that the gaharu collectors in Borneo considered the wood to have only a modest barter value, he laughed and recited lines that he attributed to the eighth-century Egyptian jurist and poet Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi'i:

Gold is just dust when still in the ground.

And 'ud, in its country of origin,

Is just another kind of firewood.

A few days after my visit, I walked through the narrow streets of old Sana'a to the home of Yemeni friends. The family lived in a tastefully restored stone tower house in the Turkish Quarter, and during the meal that night I discovered that 'ud has domestic uses beyond simple incense: A small chip placed amid the tobacco in the bowl of the mada'ah, or water pipe, sweetens the smoke and keeps the pipe fresh. And although 'ud is generally considered more of a man's scent, it is also used by women who place bits of the wood in a mabkharah, a small, hand-held charcoal brazier used to scent clothes; it is also used to perfume hair and skin. My host explained that at women's get-togethers it would be considered strange not to pass around a mabkharah of smoldering 'ud or other incense so the female guests could perfume themselves.

"When you walk by a woman on the street and you smell 'ud, you know that she is from a good family," the husband told me. "It is a sign of wealth, good breeding, refinement and status."

Similarly, when Yemeni men congregate, it is customary for them to pass around a mabkharah of 'ud. Each man opens his jacket and censes his shirt and underarms, then his face and his mashedah, or head scarf, if he is wearing one. The mabkharah is always passed counter-clockwise, and each man wafts the smoke onto himself and says, "God's blessings and peace on the Prophet Muhammad." 'Ud is burned ceremonially at weddings, too, and the oil is sometimes used to perfume the body of the dead before burial.

In Yemen, the price and quality of 'ud varies considerably: At an average wedding party in Sana'a it is considered appropriate to spend about $30 to $50 by burning 50 or 100 grams (two or three ounces) of one of the less expensive grades of 'ud, but for the well-heeled, 30 grams (a single ounce) of a superior grade can set one back $250 to $300.

Before I left the dinner party that night, my host placed a tiny drop of 'ud oil on the front of my shirt and explained that the fragrance would survive several washings—which it did. 'Ud oil is often placed on older men's beards or younger men's jacket lapels so that during the traditional cheek-to-cheek greetings its sweet, woody scent dominates.

Although the southern Arabian Peninsula has been long identified with aromatics, few Westerners are familiar with 'ud, a word that means simply "wood" in Arabic. This obscurity is partly due to 'ud rarity and cost, but it is also a matter of varying taste and differing cultural traditions. During the Hajj, for example, Muslim pilgrims from around the world come to Makkah and Madinah, where many are introduced to the scent of 'ud, which is burned in the Great Mosque as well as in many other mosques throughout Saudi Arabia. 'Ud produces a fragrance that is not soon forgotten, and for this reason small packets of 'ud chips are a common souvenir to take home from the Hajj.

In various other places in the Islamic world, 'ud is burned to help celebrate the important events of everyday life. In Tunisia, for example, 'ud is burned on the third, seventh and 40th days following the birth of a child, a time when the mother traditionally remains at home while female relatives and friends come to visit.

Throughout Malaysia and Indonesia, 'ud is called by the name I first heard in Borneo, gaharu, a Malay word derived from the much older Sanskrit term agaru, meaning "heavy." The scented wood was given that name because, indeed, a high-quality piece of gaharu will sink in water. The Susruta Samhita, one of the "great three" texts of Ayurvedic medicine, describes how people of the Ganges plain used smoldering agaru for worship, as perfume and to fumigate surgical wounds. In those times, agaru came largely from the tree Aquilaria agallocha, which was found in the foothills of Assam.

In the 16th century, the Portuguese, who were actively trading in Goa, Malacca and Macao, adapted the word agaru to pao d'aguila, or "eagle wood"—which at least had a meaning in Portuguese, though there is no connection between eagles and 'ud. In the English-speaking world today, the most common terms for 'ud are aloeswood or agarswood; this last word preserves a clear link to the original Sanskrit.

The best grade of 'ud is hard, nearly black and very heavy. In general, 'ud becomes inferior as it appears lighter in tone, flecked with diminishing amounts of resin. The only truly reliable way to test for quality, however, is to burn a small bit and evaluate the complexity and richness of the smoldering wood. 'Ud oil can be taste-tested: Touch a bit to your tongue, and a bitter taste points to high quality.

Historians are uncertain when 'ud first reached the Middle East. There are several references to "aloes" in the Old Testament, and estimates by historians of China Friedrich Hirth and W.W. Rockhill put the date as far back as the 10th century BC. This was when King Solomon began trade with the south Arabian Sabaean kingdom, which was already trading with merchants on the Malabar (western) coast of India. (See Aramco World, March/April 1998.) Written accounts of Arab and Chinese travelers and merchants that mention it date to more recent times, approximately the first century of our era, a time of accelerating trade among the Arabian Peninsula, the Malabar coast and China that was made possible by the exploitation of the seasonal monsoon winds across the Indian Ocean. At this time, frankincense and myrrh from Oman and the Hadhramaut region of southern Arabia were being traded in the Far East, so it seems reasonable to assume that a reciprocal trade in 'ud would have traveled on the same maritime routes.

The Chinese role in the 'ud trade has been significant since the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), when Imperial perfume blenders used it along with cloves, musk, costus-root oil and camphor. Like the Indians, the Chinese named the wood for its density, calling it cb'en hsiang, "the incense that sinks in water." In those days, 'ud was sorted into as many as 20 different grades. Responding to the increasing domestic and international demand for 'ud, Chinese traders ventured into Annam, now part of Vietnam, where they found top-quality trees in abundance. This new source of supply allowed them to become wholesale dealers and middlemen, and to this day they retain this position worldwide.

Arab and Persian traders had established settlements on the outskirts of Canton as early as 300, and a Chinese traveler named Fa-Hien noted the riches of the Arab 'ud traders from the Hadhramaut and Oman who lived comfortably in Ceylon. The Greek geographer Cosmas Indicopleustes, writing in the sixth century, also noted that the China-Ceylon-Middle East trade included large shipments of 'ud.

In his book Silsilat al-Tawarikh (Chain of Chronicles), Zayd ibn Hassan of Siraf (now in Iran) tells of the experiences of two ninth-century traders, one Ibn Wahab of Basra and another named Suleyman. Although they traveled at slightly different times, both reported that the price and availability of 'ud in both Basra and Baghdad was much affected by frequent shipwrecks and by pirate attacks on trading ships. Their roughly similar routes went from the Arabian Gulf to the Maldives, Ceylon, the Nicobar Islands and then on to Canton by way of the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea. At the time, the round-trip took at least two years, for the traders had to wait for seasonal winds, and customs formalities and the complexities of doing business in China consumed a good deal of time. Hassan relates that in Canton, Suleyman saw Arab and Persian traders playing a board game that appears to have been similar to backgammon: Occasionally the playing pieces were made of rhinoceros horn or ivory, but most commonly they were carved from fragrant 'ud.

Reading up on the history of the 12th- and 13th-century Arab-Chinese sea trade, I also came upon the Chu-fan-chi, a trade manual written by Chau Ju-kua, who was a customs official in the southern Chinese province of Kwangtung in the mid-13th century. In the text he mentions that the search for 'ud had intensified to the point that it was being collected from Hainan Island, parts of present-day Vietnam, lands about the Malay Peninsula, Cambodia and the islands of Sumatra and Java. By this time, he observed, it had become an established custom for well-to-do Muslims to wake up, bathe and perfume themselves with 'ud smoke before going to the mosque for the morning prayer.

In the early 14th century, Ibn Battuta described a visit to Ceylon where during a visit to Sultan Ayri Shakarwati he was shown "a bowl as large as a man's hand, made of rubies, containing oil of aloes." Ibn Battuta also mentioned that in Muslim lands every 'ud tree was private property, and that the best trees grew in Qamara, or Cambodia. (See Saudi Aramco World, July/August 2000.) In Saudi Arabia today, 'ud kambudi—Cambodian aloeswood—is still usually the most treasured and costly variety.

Isaac H. Burkill, in his 1935 Dictionary of the Economic Products of the Malay Peninsula, described 'ud in scientific terms. It is an aromatic resin deposit found in certain species of Aquilaria trees, especially Aquilaria malaccensis, whose species name recalls the days when the 'ud trade was centered in Malacca and dominated by the Portuguese. Burkill explains that 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 these diseased sections of the tree that are collected by people in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

To better understand the modern trade cycle from Southeast Asia to Middle Eastern homes and mosques, I returned to Borneo and traveled upriver to talk again with the Penan tribesmen who make their living collecting 'ud, which they call gaharu.

The Penan, I learned, recognize seven types of gaharu. To collect it they paddle up small tributaries by dugout canoe, and then climb the slopes of remote mountains to locate the best trees. A gathering journey can take a week or more. Once a likely looking pohon kayu gaharu (a "gaharu-wood tree") has been found, they make a series of shallow, exploratory cuts into its trunk, branches and roots; they cut it down only when they are persuaded the tree has the fungus and will yield a reasonable amount of good gaharu. If the tree contains only low grades of gaharu, they will often let it grow for another few years before retesting it. If they do decide to cut it down, they will spend days extracting the gaharu and cleaning it with smaller knives. Traditionally, the Penan used gaharu themselves to treat stomach aches and fevers, and as an insect repellent, but now they sell or trade all they find.

In the backwaters of Borneo, the Penan sell the very best gaharu for about $400 a kilogram, or approximately $12 an ounce. They usually sell to local Chinese traders who stockpile it until they have enough to send to wholesalers and bigger middlemen in Singapore. The Penan claim that gaharu is getting more difficult to find because large-scale logging operations have destroyed many of the hill forests where the gaharu trees are found. If a Penan group has good luck, it might collect a kilo (35 oz) of average-quality gaharu in three or four days—but it is increasingly common for them to return with nothing, or with only the lowest grades.

Thirty years ago Hong Kong played an important role in the 'ud trade, but today the international hub is Singapore. There, the wholesale business is dominated by Chinese traders who receive 'ud from agents scattered across Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand, Borneo, Hainan Island and, most recently, Irian Jaya, Indonesia. C. P. Ng, owner of Buan Mong Heng, a emporium on North Bridge Road, is Singapore's undisputed 'ud king. He tells me that his best 'ud sells for $5000 to $10,000 per kilogram ($2275-$4545/lb). At present, the rarest and most expensive type, known as Keenam, comes from Vietnam; it must be stored in a cool place to keep its scent from deteriorating. In Irian Jaya alone, he says, more than 50,000 part-time collectors supply some 30 collection centers. Throughout the Chinese community in Singapore, he says, people use 'ud as incense in the home, for worship and during marriage ceremonies. He also explains that it can be taken with herbs to cure a stomach ache, and that the sweet smell is a cure for insomnia. "A tea made from 'ud will warm the body and restore youthful vigor to older men," he says.

In Singapore, 'ud is graded in descending quality from Super AA, which is weighed out on a jeweler's scale, to Super A, Super, and lesser grades numbered 1 through 8. The lowest quality, called kandulam in Malay, is used to make incense sticks; it sells for roughly three cents a gram ($1 per oz). The value of 'ud shipped out of Singapore each year has been estimated to exceed $1.2 billion.

In the Middle East and in Borneo I never saw more than small amounts of 'ud, amounting to a few pounds at most, but Singapore was different. There I visited the Nk Kittai warehouse, where cardboard boxes packed with 'ud reached tall ceilings and wheelbarrows and shovels were the tools of choice to move quantities that perfumed the entire surrounding neighborhood. The owner, C. F. Chong, waited on buyers from India, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and even Japan. In Japan, 'ud is used in a complex fragrance guessing game called koh-do, part of the ceremonial appreciation of incense adopted from the Chinese, who still use the expression wenxiang, "listening to the incense."

The fragrance in the hot warehouse was overpowering, and as I wandered the narrow aisles surrounded by a fortune in scented wood, I saw 'ud logs as thick as my thigh and nearly three meters (10') long. Workers sat on the floor cleaning up pieces of 'ud with modified rubber-tapping knives. When I remarked that it must be a risk to store so much 'ud in one place, Chong replied that he, like other dealers, kept his very best 'ud locked up in vaults.

Out on the warehouse floor, buyers specified the type of 'ud they wanted by region and quality, and then a worker would dump a pile at the buyer's feet so that he could hand-select the individual pieces. "This is an on-the-spot business," said Chong. "Each piece has to be evaluated."

Each buyer's selection was weighed, and as all of the buyers that morning were old customers, only a minimal amount of haggling led to an agreement on a price. Nobody, it seemed, bought more than he could easily carry by hand, and each parcel was tied up for stowage as in-flight baggage. The visits concluded with tea and soft drinks in Chong's air-conditioned office.

Before leaving Singapore, I went to visit Haji V. Syed Mohammed. His shop, V. S. S. Varusai Mohamed & Sons, is just across the street from the Sultan Mosque. The store sells 'ud, perfume, money belts, cassette tapes, shawls, skull caps and highly decorative incense burners made in Bangladesh. While we were talking, he told me of one of the most renowned 'ud dealers in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates: Ajmal's Perfume Manufacturing & Oudh Processing Industry. It was a fortuitous meeting, for Dubai was my next stop.

In Dubai, there are entire streets lined with shops selling 'ud. Among them, the family-run Ajmal company is one of the largest dealers in pure and blended 'ud perfumes in all of the Middle East. From their 22 shops throughout the Arabian Peninsula, they sell 'ud oils from Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and their most extravagant creation is a blend of aged 'ud oils called Dahnal Oudh al-Moattaq. The price: $850 for a 30-gram (1-oz) bottle. This is out of the reach of all but the most affluent, but nearly everyone can afford to buy modest amounts of 'ud chips for daily use, rituals and ceremonies—which might include driving, for Dubai automotive shops sell clip-on electric braziers that plug into a car's cigarette lighter.

Because of the popularity of 'ud, its high price and the difficulty of collecting it from the wild, several companies in peninsular Malaysia and India have begun to look into the possibility of artificially introducing the 'ud fungus into Aquilaria trees in hopes of creating commercial 'ud plantations. Thousands of trees have been inoculated with the fungus and people are waiting to see if the 'ud will start to grow, and if perhaps they can even harvest it without cutting down the tree.

Nearly a year after my visits to Singapore and Dubai, another trip took me back to Borneo. I ran into a group of Penan friends at the riverside shop of Towkay Yong Khi Liang, a Hakka Chinese trader on the upper Limbang River in Sarawak. The Penan had just traded a kilo of low-quality 'ud for a few sacks of sago flour, a replacement part for a chainsaw, some cartons of tinned food, some rolling tobacco, several pairs of cheap tennis shoes and soft drinks for everyone present.

As we stood on the dock, the Penan asked me if I had ever found out what the people in the Middle East did with the gaharu. I told them what I had discovered about the history of its trade, and then I explained the long and complicated journey it makes before arriving on the other side of the world. I described the networks of middlemen, the refined grading techniques and the marketing efforts that multiplied the price 25 times or more before it reached the final customer. They listened patiently to these facts, but what they really wanted to find out was what people did with the wood after spending so much money on it.

I suspected that they wouldn't believe me, but I had to reveal the astonishing truth: I told them people buy 'ud so that they can take it home and burn it.

Eric Hansen is a writer and photojournalist living in San Francisco. His latest book tells the story of another of the world's enigmatic, scented wonders: Orchid Fever was published in February 2000 by Pantheon Books, and will appear as a Vintage paperback next spring. Hansen's e-mail address is