I have a history of dabbling in spirituality. My parents enrolled me in a Catholic primary school as they considered the level of education was better than public school. In my early teens the ritual of catholic mass and the stories of the bible fascinated me. During my first year of art school I became interested in eastern philosophy and mysticism. After some experimentation I decided to put art school on hold and traveled for three years with the Hare Krishnas. This was my first authentic encounter with the beautiful Santalum Album. Sandalwood has been used for millennia in India by a variety of Vedic or Hindu sects as well as Buddhists. During certain festivals devotees of Krishna will grind sandalwood into a paste that can be mixed with floral waters, spices such as turmeric or saffron and clay from the holy Ganges or Yamuna River. This cooling paste is applied to the heads and bodies of the temple deity as an act of worship. It is a ritual that began many centuries ago in India when Lord Jagannatha instructed King Indradyumna to smear the deity’s body with sandalwood paste as an act of devotion. This ritual continues to be observed every year during the Vedic month of Vaisakha, one of India’s hottest. The fragrant paste is sometimes made as an offering to God and then applied to the forehead of a spiritual leader or guru by their disciples as a sign of respect. The swami I traveled with had a small woodcutting of sandalwood from India. He would produce the branch that measured around 20cm in length and 5cm in diameter on religious festival dates and we would grind the wood to make sandalwood paste for the set of Gaura-Nitai brass deities that traveled with us. It has been a while since I visited a temple but this weekend I made a trip to the Nan Tien Buddhist Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in the southern hemisphere
Situated 90 minutes drive from Sydney, the temple and pagoda are surrounded by serene gardens that are sprouting their spring blooms. Cherry blossoms, magnolias and a number of rose bushes form borders along the walking paths throughout the perimeter.
And while Buddhist and Vaishnava philosophy is very different in that Hare Krishnas celebrate the soul’s individuality and want to interact with God, the Buddhists end goal is to merge into the oneness of God, I still enjoy visiting both secular temples. In fact I felt most at peace visiting the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala in comparison to the chaos of India that exists beyond the hilltop of McLeod Ganj where the Tibetans are living in exile. At the entrance of the Nan Tien temple Buddhist followers were offering incense to Buddha. The scent was divine. A mix of Chinese cedar, amber and woods that smelt like freshly cut timber and smoke.
I had been contemplating writing about sandalwood for the past month and Saturday’s experience was the little push I needed to put fingertips to keyboard. I am always attracted to a fragrance that has sandalwood in the title. Sitting in Serge Lutens’ Parisian salon a couple of months ago, I was questioning myself, “do I really need another sandalwood fragrance?” The answer was yes, I do. This majestic wood has been a part of my life for many years and how nice it is to discover a new interpretation of it or smell it in a way I had not considered before. The scent in question was Lutens’ Santal de Mysore, a very original take on the rare Indian sandalwood that mixes its scent with sweet balsamic notes. I have collected a small number of sandalwood scents over time. Some rely on oil from the native Australian sandalwood variety Santalum Spicatum. Others are more synthetic, reliant on molecules such as Ebanol, Sandalore or Sandela. And then there are those rare few that continue to be formulated with East Indian or Mysore sandalwood. Synthetic sandalwood molecules embody the top notes of the wood but are not able to replicate the depth or the natural oil. The Australian variety is very similar to the Indian variety but again lacks some of the depth and creaminess of Santalum Album. Every year both the Australian and Indian oils are increasing in price. The bottle of East Indian sandalwood oil I purchased in December 2009 had almost doubled in price since my last purchase in 2005. Australian sandalwood farmers have begun growing the Indian variety to attempt to meet the world’s demand for the precious oil that can also be used in perfumery as well as pharmaceuticals. These trees will not be mature enough to produce oil for some years, so until then expect prices of sandalwood oil to increase and the fragrances that will feature the precious oil to be limited to an expensive few.
Following my temple visit I reviewed four sandalwood fragrances from my collection. Each fragrance shows the diversity of this spiritual wood, one of my favourite perfume ingredients.