Sacred Sandalwood The Divine Tree

By Christopher McMahon

How many are the trees on earth that bear
the scented flower and juicy fruits!
Yet, O' Sandal you are unique in possessing
Unparalled fragrance of wood.
- Sanskrit shloka

A Passion for Sandalwood

The word, "sandalwood" in English, or "chandan" in Hindi, evokes a world of ancient mystery, sanctity, and devotion. Ever since going to live in India in 1971, this precious wood and its oil have been of great interest to me. The quest to understand this wonderful gift of nature on every level has taken many interesting twists and turns. My first encounter with the tree came on the small farm where I was living in Karnatika State. A local person one day pointed out the saplings growing in a forest area. It was hard to conceive of this plain looking tree being the source of a fragrant wood that has been treasured for thousands of years. In the nearby city of Bangalore, one could purchase the pure oil distilled in the Mysore Government Sandalwood factories, and I use to bring bottles of this exquisite scent home for my mother and friends. The first whiff of sandalwood oil is enough to produce a life long affection for the scent. It truly conjures up deep, wonderful, unexplainable feelings about India and her sacred heritage. Curiosity about the world surrounding this divine scent led to the exploration of sandalwood groves deep in the heart of Kerala State, intimate contact with traditional perfume makers in Uttar Pradesh using sandalwood as a base in their attars, and finally a visit to an incredible sandalwood oil distillery in Tamil Nadu. As many people have asked for information about this oil, an attempt is made here to share what little I know.

Visit to a Sandalwood Grove

Sandalwood is a small evergreen tree attaining a height of 40-50 feet and a girth of 3-8 feet. Mature specimens are covered with a dark brown to reddish bark. The smooth trunk of young trees turns rough with age and exhibits deep vertical cracks. The leathery leaves are display a range of greenish colors. The purplish brown flowers are small and unscented. There is little externally that calls one to notice the sandalwood tree as a specimen containing the prized aromatic heartwood whose virtues have been sung for several thousand years. The tree can grow under a variety of environmental conditions but produces the finest heartwood amidst the try rocky/hilly terrain of Tamil Nadu, Karnatika States, and Kerala States where the famed "sandalwood belt" is located. It is in this region that most of the remaining natural stands of sandalwood are to be found.

In November, 1995 I made a memorable journey to a remote area of Kerala State where sandalwood groves were being maintained under government protection. In the company of my kind hosts, Synthite Industrial Chemicals Ltd, one of the premier spice oil distillers in India, we traveled from Cochin in the hot, humid coastal zone, up into the cool mountainous regions where the great tea plantations were to be found and then down again to a dry valley where we were able to locate the sandalwood groves. The local people showed us many trees of various ages that were growing in a mixed forest providing the unique environment required for the trees natural regeneration. I was able to hold in my hands the tiny delicate unscented purplish flowers of the trees as well as observe the small fruits containing a single seed. As is well known the sandalwood is a root parasite and extracts nutrients from the host plant by means of special formations called haustoria. It is not a single species of trees that nourishes the sandalwood but several and it is not yet fully understood what the exact conditions are that create that allow the tree to thrive. In the grove where we were wandered we were able to observe special cages surrounding root suckers protruding above the ground. The cages protected the suckers from grazing cattle. The well rooted suckers were found to be one of the best means of propagating the trees. Seeds that had passed through the digestive system of birds who had eaten the trees small fruits were also found to provide seedlings that seemed to thrive in the groves providing they were protected from natural foraging. Many other means of artifical propogation have been tried but the success rate has been minimal. A recent interview with a District Forest Officer, Mr. Sankara of Tamil Nadu State confirmed that even after planting hundreds of thousands of sandalwood saplings produced by tissue culture, seed, etc. very little success had been obtained. Many concerted efforts have been made to understand the exact enviromental componets required to grow the tree but so far man has not been able to unravel nature's mystery.

After visiting the grove, we were taken to the depot where all the harvested sandalwood was kept for sale at two yearly auctions. Several large open air buildings covered with thatched roofs contained tons of sandalwood roots, trunks and branches and chips. It was very hot in the sun, but in the shaded confines of the buildings a noticeable coolness permeated the air surrounding the heartwood. Every small chip and scap was accounted for and carefully stored in their respective areas. It was a remarkable scene. The officers in charge showed us another area where vehicles were stored that had been confiscated when found containing smuggled sandalwood. One large gasoline tanker had been stopped and when it was examined was found to have sandalwood stashed inside. It was standing in the sun waiting for some unknown fate. The officers informed us that at the auction perfumers, craftsman, and incense makers would assemble from throughout India to bid on the wood. Several other depots, located in Karnatika and Tamil Nadu also held similar auctions where the wood could be legally procured. Because of the government ban on exportation of the wood and oil no foreign parties were allowed to bid on the wood. This visit to the grove and depot provided me with my first behind the scenes view of this interesting world. I felt extremely grateful that my kind hosts had gone out of their way to take me deep into the heart of Kerala State where I could see the trees for myself and feel their spirit. It also helped me understand the practical dimensions of the woods harvest and preparation for use in making oil, carved handicrafts, and incense.

Sandalwood-It's Precious Heartwood

The most valuable part of the sandalwood tree is the scented heartwood. If the tree establishes itself in a favorable location it will begin forming the heartwood after 10 years of growth. At that point the girth of the tree will be about 9 inches and its height 10 feet. After 20 years the heartwood begins to form rapidly and reaches its prime in the 50-60 year range at which point the tree will be about 2-3 feet in girth, and upto 60 feet high. The trees having reached this stage and considered ripe for harvest are uprooted not cut, as the roots are highest in oil content. The appropriate time for doing this is just after the rainy season so as to reduce labor.

After the tree is uprooted it is reassembled on the ground to imitate the original structure of the tree. The branches not containing heartwood are lopped off on site while the branches containing heartwood are sawn as close to the trunk of the tree as possible. Numbers are assigned to each and every useable part so that a careful record can be kept of this valuable commodity. The wood is stripped of all the unscented white sapwood save for 3/4" which covers the heartwood. Final separation of sapwood from heartwood takes place at a centrally located storage depots. Thicker and heavier portions of tree are cut into billets 3'6" in length and even the sawdust generated from this process is saved. Much attention is given to the cutting of the billets as knot and dent free wood fetches a higher price. The billets, sawdust, and root system wood are all carefully weighed before transport to the depot. This also helps prevent the loss of wood from theft.

In the sandalwood depot the remaining sapwood is carefully removed by people skilled in this type of work. Extreme care must be taken so that all the precious heartwood remains intact. After all the processes are completed the wood is separated into heartwood, branchwood, chips, and powder for auction. Even the sapwood containing a tiny bit of fragrance due to its proximity to the heartwood will be auctioned off. The wood is auctioned off from these sites twice yearly.

Due to its high value sandalwood is exploited by thieves and smugglers. They have developed many ingenious means for transporting the wood to people willing to illegally traffic in this commodity. Penalties for detection of illicit trading in it are severe and the government is making restrictions on the purchasing of sandalwood ever more stringent. Once a company has purchased it through legal channels, careful records must be kept as to how it is being used so that when officials check the records, the amount purchased and the amount sold match.

Distillation of Sandalwood/Ancient and Modern

In February 1996, the next stage of my initiation into the world of sandalwood presented itself. In the company of my fragrance mentor, Mr. Ramakant Harlalk of Nishant Aromas in Bombay, I traveled to the ancient perfume center of Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh to study how attars were made. Attars are perfumes which are created by hydro- distilling various flowers, roots, herb and spices into pure sandalwood oil. Since sandalwood is central to this type of unique perfume, several distilleries are located in Kannauj that specialize in sandalwood production. The information presented here is based on the visits to these factories.

Once sandalwood is purchased by a perfume house it must be further prepared for distillation. The billets of branch and root are first coarsely chipped and then ground to a fine powder. Before the advent of steam distillation this 40-60 lbs of the powder was placed in the traditional copper still and allowed to soak for 48 hours. It was then distilled over an open fire with the vapors condensing in the copper receiving vessel resting in a water bath after passing through a copper or bamboo tube. The floating oil was then mechanically ladled off and refined further by filtration and other locally developed techniques. The odor of this hydro-distilled oil was thought to be superior to that obtained by steam distillation and it is said that some perfume houses still use this technique. A 4-5% yield of oil could be obtained if due care was observed in processing.

For steam distillation a fine powder is also used but care must be taken that it is not so fine that it turns into a creamy paste in the still. It must instead be of light porous consistency so the steam can pass through it without forming knots or channels. The copper or stainless steel stills used in for this are generally much larger than traditional ones and can hold from 1000-2000 lbs of powder. The basic rule for their design is that their height should be 25% more than the width. The false bottom is perforated allowing for passage of steam from below. In Kannauj at several places I visited, the steam was being generated by huge boilers that were previously used on coal burning railroad engines. The heat of the pressurized steam forces the wood to release its essential oil from tiny intercellular pockets. The droplets of essential oil evaporate and co-mingle with the steam which rises to the top of the still. The fragrance charged steam rises out from the still from a goose-neck shaped funnel and enters the condensation chamber. A cooled water jacket surrounds the coiled tube into which this vapor passes causing it to condense into liquid form once again. Upon entering the receiver the lighter essential oil rises to the surface and the water sinks to the bottom making it easy to separate the two. The quality of the oil is determined by the pressure at which it is distilled. High pressure will give a higher yield in less time but the odor quality will be unfavorably altered. Low pressure distillation is prefered by those companies who cater to the refined perfume and aromatherapy market.

The crude sandalwood oil floating on the distillate surface is skimmed off, separated from the remaining liquid and scum impurities, and then filtered. This oil as such is often used by the attar manufacturers. Further refinement is carried out for oils being sent to the international market. It will be distilled again with a superheated steam then further refined in a steam jacketed vacuum to remove the last traces of water. Each additional step in refinement may involve the removal of some of the oils medicinal virtues.

Yield of oil from the steam distillation process ranges from 4.50 to 6.25%. It is an oil produced from roots, trunk/branch billets, and chips.The yield from the roots alone can exceed 10% with the other parts of the tree yielding considerably less. This in brief describes the two different processes used for distilling sandalwood."

Ethically Harvested and Distilled Sandalwood

In March 1999, I had the opportunity to visit with the person in charge of the only factory in India that has permission to export sandalwood overseas. This visit provided me with a most important part of the sandalwood story which I feel will be of greatest interest to the aromatherapy community. Since I began my explorations of India's aromatic traditions ancient and modern in 1995, many people have asked me if I could source sandalwood for them. I had discussed this issue with Ramakant on a number of occasions and he had very patiently told me that until we found the legal means of exporting the oil we should not even think about offering it in the Western world. There is part of the sandalwood story which is very sad and tragic. The illegal cutting, distilling and smuggling of the oil out of the country is well known. Most of the oils reaching overseas distributors is coming through such sources. Many times the trees have been cut way before they have come into maturity. This type of illicit trade and sandalwood continues to this day. He said that if we also supported this type of illegal trade it would be a blight on our name and we would only be doing what so many others have done. He insisted that we wait until we would discover that person and place where we could procure the oil in an ethical manner from sanctioned sources.

At the time when we first began discussing this issue, no such source was known to us. Sandalwood could be legally purchased in India for making attars and attars could in turn be legally exported, but there was at that time, a government ban on all export of the pure oil. Ramakant had an independent third party facility for doing analysis of essential oils for purity and quality Many of the largest users of sandalwood oil sent their oils to him to ascertain if their product was genuine. In this way he acquired a very good knowledge of the grades of the oil, what types of adulteration were going on(which is very very extensive) etc. This database gave him an insight into what a truly remarkable sandalwood oil would look like. Less than 10% of all oils analyzed fit into the category of the extraordinary. During this time he continued to enquire if there was any source through which we could legally procure oil and export it. Such information is not as easy to come by as one might think.

Finally in the latter part of 1998 he was given the name of the District Forest Officer in charge of sandalwood oil production in Tamil Nadu. Many phone calls and correspondences followed as Ramakant explained to Mr. Sankara what our hopes and wishes were for providing the aromatherapy community with an oil that was produced from ethically harvested trees. An invitation was extended by him to visit the facility in Tamil Nadu so we could see for ourselves what type of work he was engaged in and if we liked what we saw we could procure the oil from him and legally export it to the Western world. Traveling from Madras into the interior of Tamil Nadu, I wondered what it was that we were going to see. I did not want to get my hopes up but Ramakant had given me a very encouraging report on his interactions with Mr. Sankara. Also he had procured a modest quanitiy from the distillery and had thoroughly analyzed the oil and reported that it was of that unique 10% quality that he so rarely saw. In fact all his family members who are equally involved in the family business had said it was the finest oil that they had ever seen.

Arriving at the factory in a remote rural location in the early afternoon, we were immediately taken to meet Mr. Sanakara. What a fine meeting it was. Before us sat a man whose eyes were clear, simple and pure. He has spent his life in the forest service and had a true love of nature, the trees of the forest, and the environment in general. He had worked in various dimensions of the forest department and had in 1997 been given the responsibility of making the sandalwood distillery functional which had been sitting idle since 1991. With great zeal and detemination he went about restoring the equipment, figuring out how to do the distillation properly and generally determining how he could market the finished product in a practical honorable way. Since all the wood used would be procured from government controlled land, all issues regarding illegally harvested would be put to rest and people wishing to use oil from trees which had either died naturally or when in their mortality spiral could be assured. As he shared with us his straightforward assessment of the situation my heart sang with joy.

At the same time he soberly told us that with all their best efforts it was impossible to stop the smuggling. The forest officers were doing there best but as the wood was so precious smugglers employed people to walk deep into the forest to illegally cut the wood and haul it out by foot. He said that many many experiments had been made to regenerate the trees but that, for the most part they had failed. Whereas they could assure their clients that they would get oil harvested at the proper time in the trees life, they could be no means assure that their would be supplies in the years to come. By his estimation the current supply of ethically harvested wood could only last 20 more years. So it was bit of a bitter sweet conversation,

After a enlightening discussion about the wood and its future, he took us into the distillery proper. The entire vicinity was permeated by this exquisite smell. It was truly wonderful and intoxicating. He showed us the rooms were the graded wood was kept. Sixteen grades were carefully adhered too so that when the distillation process took place they could determine proportions of root, trunk, and branch wood to be used. He even told us that if a customer required oil procured from a specific part of the tree it could be done if they were willing to purchase 100 kilos of it at a time. He then took us into the large room holding 6 enormous distilling units. Each still was charged with 1 ton of heartwood. The distillation process once initiated was continued for 13-15 days twice the length of the distilleries I had visited in North India. It was also a low pressure distillation allowing for the gradual extraction of all the rare and precious constitutents major and minor contained in the oil. While we were examining his facility, he said we should dip our hands in the hydrosol. It was the most lovely, soft and smooth aromatic water and when applied to the skin had a soothing, cool effect. He told us that if there was an interest the hydrosol it could also be exported into the West. I felt that this aromatic water was a precious essence in itself and that it could fine use in skin care products. It had a fine subtle sandalwood essence.

Mr. Sankara very frankly told us that his only concern was to produce the best oil that he could. He did not worry if the oil had a high santalol content, one of the key markers of sandalwood oil, or not. Generally a superior quality sandalwood oil has a santalol content of over 90% and he told us that some of the oil produced in the factory had been tested with 94%. Still he never put the emphasis on such things. He only paid attention to having the oil distilled according to very exacting standards and that those who wanted the oil were free to purchase it or not according to their own desire. His very simple straightforward approach appealed to my heart very much. It is rare to meet people with such a direct, candid manner based upon an honest perception of their own life and work. The effect of his personality was also clearly observable in the quiet and efficient manner the few people working there went about their duties. It was a peaceful organized operation that conveyed a respect for each other and the work they were involved in.

There was another equally important dimension of this experience which should be mentioned. I realize that this part of it may not mean much to others but I will mention it just the same. The plants have a type of consciousness which responds to the people around them. They are benign beings who wish that they should be used for some noble purpose. Even if they are not appreciated and cared for in a conscious way they still give some of their beauty to the world, but if they are treated with honor and respect, they yield more of their mysterious qualities. Aromatic plants possess great healing virtues but often because they are treated as mere commercial commodities. The full benefit of their qualities cannot be properly realized. The rishis and sages of old always loved and appreciated the world in which they lived and they always taught the people to love and appreciate all the things around them. They found in the aromatic plants an incredible source of healing power. They always thanked the plants for making the sacrafice of their essence to the products they made. I felt some of this energy in the distillery. It seemed to me that the sandalwood oil made in this area had some unique power about it which I had never sensed in any sandalwood oil before. Perhaps one could attribute this to the fact that nothing illegal was happening here. It was being done in the best possible way. It was at this time also I began to fully appreciate Ramakant's unswerving determination not to be involved with any illegal sale of sandalwood to the aromatherapy community. It is a true contradiction to offer a healing product if that product has been procured by some illicit means. It is something one has to be very clear about in their own mind. In short, I felt greatly honored to be in the company of two such men whose lives were a reflection of their beliefs. I think the sandalwood trees too, were grateful for their good attitude.

Sandalwood in Sacred Tradition

The olfactory characteristics of sandalwood are legendary. The warm, sweet, slightly spicy precious wood notes present a mellodic blend which is at once distinct yet not over powering. The non-dominating fixative characteristics of the oil make it the ideal choice for creating attars and a wide range of other perfumes. It has the capacity to absorb the most ethereal notes of other plant materials, enrich and enliven them and give them back in a yet more beautiful form. Many substitutes have been tried for sandalwood but in the end one can only say that "sandalwood is sandalwood" and there is no real substitute for it.

In India the heartwood of sandalwood has divine status. One species, Hari-chandan was said to grow only in the heaven worlds filling the celestial empire with its divine fragrance. The terrestial sandalwood is said to be its representative on earth. It is regularly used in the anointing of sacred idols. The fragrance of the sandalwood is said to be one of the most pleasing to the gods, hence its use use in unguents, incense and fragrant oils. A paste is made from the wood for applying to the forehead in a variety of symbolic markings indicating to which religious sect a person belongs. Its cooling and soothing properties when applied in this manner are said to direct a persons attention towards contemplation of the mystery of life. In the last rites of devote hindus, the wood is considered a most important ingredient of the funeral pyre. It is thought that the soul is carried back to its eternal abode with the scent of sandalwood. The fragrance of sandalwood and the religious life of India's people, can hardly be separated. References to it appear in countless religious scriptures.

"When smelted again and again gold acquires purer hue, when cut into pieces repeatedly the sugarcane continues to be sweeter, when rubbed repeatedly sandal continues to diffuse its fragrance. The virtous ones acquire no imperfection in their nature even in the face of adversities."-Sanskrit shloka

The connection between fragrant plants and spirituality as practiced in India is profound. Sandalwood holds the pre-emient place amongst them. It was the material of transformation and elevation. The alchemical property of the oil was to capture the pure essence of the flower, allowing its ethereal essence to spread in the environment in which is was kept for many hours. It is no mistake that it is the heart and soul of all attars. Perfumery was once practiced as a divine art and craft and each and every material used had some special meaning and significance connected with the spiritual lives of the people. With the passage of time this subtle language has been forgotten and only the commercial aspect of perfume production remains. Still, it is possible, with patient effort to learn to decipher this language once again. If the inner meaning of the old arts and crafts can be revived it will not only enrich the lives of the people engaged in them, but will also benefit the people using the creations produced with this heightened awareness.

In the ancient way, all parts of life were interconnected. The physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual dimensions of a persons being were viewed as one complete unit. People possessing inner knowledge of the perfume sciences used attars to treat dis-ease in their patients according to the level it was manifesting on. The physical application of the oil could initiate a process of rebalancing that would postively affect the more subtle dimensions of a persons life. It could, in essence, work from the outer to the inner. Similarly the fragrance itself could stimulate beneficial changes in the mind so that the process of inner healing would be stimulated simultaneously. In this case the process of transformation would originate from within and move towards the physical existence of the person. Attars were highly esteemed because they were one of the only therapeutic agents which could act simultaneously on every level of a persons existence. The exact virtues contained within each oil will carefully studied and a wide range of dis-eases could be treated. However, the practice of this profound form of healing has been almost entirely lost. It is possible that it formed an important part of ayurveda and other indigenous systems of medicine. Hopefully the key to its practice can once more be recovered. Before that can happen though, we need to learn to look once again on the world of plants with eyes of respect and reverence, inwardly thanking the denizens of that kingdom for the sacrafice they are making in improving our lives.

Therapeutic Applications of Sandalwood

Traditionally sandalwood has been used for treating digestive complicatons arising from diarrohoea, nausea, colic and gastritis. It is listed as a carminative and digestive muscle relaxant. Its antiseptic properties have been successfully employed for treating gonnorrhea and leucorrhea. It has long been valued for treating these types of genito-urinary infections. Indigenous physicians observed that the oil and heartwood possessed antispasmodic properties and so utilized it for treating bronchitis, cattarh, coughs, sore throat and related diseases. Its use in treatment of skin problems is legendary. It is an excellent mosturizer and nourishes all skin types. Its astringent, anti-flammatory, antiseptic, and pain relieving properties have been put to good used in healing wounds, scars, and acne. Applied to the forehead in the form of a paste it has a cooling effect and is used to bring down fevers. In cosmetic preparations it is excellent for reducing wrinkles. In the realm of mental and emotional therapeutics sandalwood is used for treating stress, depression, stress anxiety and nervous tension as it is both a sedative and tonic. It is thought to naturally control anger and agression and to act upon subtle emotional centers to promote compassion and openess.

The fragrance of the oil and heartwood are considered invaluable in meditation practice.

The Sandal Tree as if to prove,
How sweet to conquer Hate, love,
Perfumes the axe that lays it low.
-Rabindranath Tagore

Internet sites related to sandalwood:

Chemical constituents of the sandalwood tree

Safety data sheet for sandalwood oil

superb botanical drawing of sandalwood

Aromatic characteristics of sandalwood oil

Zoroastrian Matrimonial Page

Traditional Zoroastrianism Home Page

Saga of the Aryans Home Page