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08:49 Oct 01 2011

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Incensed-and loving it
10:15, November 29, 2010  

Anyone who has visited a Chinese temple will be all too familiar with the sight and smells of incense. During festivals, entire courtyards become filled with a dense, fragrant fog through which devotees make their way, as if suddenly whisked to a land of clouds where deities and ancestors roam with the living. And while you probably don't want to start burning those giant tubes of incense used by the most ostentatiously devout, burning incense in your home can be a nice way to express your spirituality. The Global Times shopped around Shanghai for incense-selling shops that sparked our interest.

These censers are fuming

Across the street from the 30-something nightlife haunt, Abbey Road, a sleek homeware shop specializes in incense - Zen Fragrance Inside.

One of the first things you'll encounter is a stock of several specialty incenses purportedly suited for different purposes: kaiyun (bringing luck), shuya (relieving stress), yangsheng (maintaining life) and meili (beauty). Each of these sets comes with three different types of incense and sells for 240 yuan ($36.10). Those animated by the astrological will be interested in the specialty incenses designed for individual star signs for 80 yuan. Tucked away on the other side of the counter, you'll also find traditional votive incense used in Buddhist rituals. It's sold by the number of herbs mixed in: six (50 yuan), nine (60 yuan) or 18 (100 yuan). There's a clear difference in the pungency of each. The six-herbed version has a distinct muskiness, but it's not overpowering.

In addition to incense, you'll find a wide selection of incense holders and censers - partially enclosed vessels for burning incense. A simple metal incense holder available in brass (156 yuan) and silver (136 yuan) is shaped like the Chinese character 一 (meaning "one" in English), supposedly representing the end of one's troubles. A long, stainless steel censer inspired by the shape of the dizi, a traditional Chinese flute, emits smoke from a string of holes as incense is burned inside (680 yuan).

Purists looking for an authentic traditional Chinese censer will be delighted to find a collection of hand made bronze censers from a workshop in Suzhou, boasting three generations of craftsmen. The most impressive one that we found was a three-tiered censor made for holding ashes and the tools for crushing and dispersing incense. Best of all, a bronze stencil at the top allows the user to create a uniquely shaped maze of crushed incense. However, such craftsmanship and detail does come at a price: this piece retails for 1,200 yuan. Those looking for the bronze look without the price tag would do well to look at some of the ceramic censers available. Our favorite was a two-part lion censer which smokes out of its mouth and ears (328 yuan).

Now everyman can get incensed

Located inside of the Jingshenghua Flower Market, the Asian Decor store is the exclusive distributor of Raj incense, an Indian brand with an extensive, at times almost absurd, selection of fragrances. You'll find Biblically minded fragrances like frankincense and myrrh, fruit flavors such as tangerine and strawberry and even cannabis (it smells like soap). The incense here is available at rock-bottom prices, with small and large boxes being sold for 5 yuan and 12 yuan respectively.

You'll also find a number of very reasonably priced censers for burning a few sticks. The emphasis on many of the products here is Buddhist or Hindu (all of the products are imported from India or Southeast Asia), so you'll find seated Buddhas or Ganesh elephants gracing many of the products. A series of porcelain censers in turquoise and white, featuring elephants starts at 30 yuan. For those looking for something more neutral, wooden censers are available from 70 yuan.

A Tibetan take

Those looking to grace their homes with traditional scents appropriate for rituals both public and private should go to Jiu Ben Zun, tucked inside the labyrinthine reaches of Tianzifang. Inside you'll find a sparkling array of Tibetan Buddhist memorabilia - golden Buddhas, color depictions of Buddhist saints and deities and small talismans for warding off evil. Sanskrit writings tattoo the walls. The shop also sells Gzi beads, prized as possessions given from deities to ensure wealth, longevity and power. In the sea of all of this, you'll find a small collection of incense tucked off in the corner.

The first class of incense that we found came in three types, each for 150 yuan a box: tanxiang (sandalwood), yaoshixiang (medicinal incense), and zangxiang (Tibetan incense). Tibetan styled incense has a thick aromatic smell with a hint of saffron, native to the region. In addition to these styles of incense, we also found two larger boxes of incense bainianlaotan and bainianyanxiang for 500 yuan and 750 yuan respectively. Despite the shop's insistence that this type of incense is made from a larger number of rare herbs and old-growth sandalwood trees, we remain skeptical as similarly named products can be found online for a fraction of the price. Either way, it's no reason for anyone to throw a fit or get incensed.

Source: Global Times


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