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Before you and I were introduced to room air refreshers, people relied on burning incense. “What is an incense burner,” you may ask? An incense burner is a vessel that that burns incense. It varies in shape, form, design and size depending on the different spiritual or religious implications. Unlike the modern world, produce used to diminish odours were not just solely made for that particular reason. Of course, different cultures and religions had different uses for this ancient beautiful piece. 

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According to the Editors of Encyclopaedia, way back during the Han Dynasty in China around the dates 206 BCE-220CE “incense burners were created to symbolise a mythical land of immortality known as the Bo Mountain which they referred to as the ‘Bo Shan.'” The burner itself had a round base that contained patterns of the sea and different kinds of sea animals. The pierced cover of the burner was moulded into the shape of said Mountain. “As the incense burned, the smoke that formed was a representation of nature and how they, the people, perceived it.”

The Christian usage of the burner began in the fourth century. Lucas Harris made it clear that “in Ancient Egypt, incense burners were usually made up of terra-cotta or even metal where the incense was burned on lighted coals.” They were usually in the shape of open bowls containing handles, or up to three or four chains attached to a ring to easily carry them.  Many of them contained artistic and “highly ornate” shapes. The main purpose was to add scent to the church. It was later on in the seventh century when incense burners were used as a ritual to honour the “bishop and book of Gospels” (Matthew Herrera). 

In the Islamic World however, incense burners were generally called “perfume burners” instead which did not withhold any religious function. Putting history aside, one thing that has always been a part of my life were incense burners. Being a third culture kid I had always been given the opportunity to live in various parts of the world and experience different cultures. Unfortunately, that resulted in me forgetting parts of my own. Aside these disadvantages, one thing that remained of great importance to me and my family has been the incense burner. It has stayed with us each time we were made to move. I do not recall ever questioning its’ presence, it was just there. 

We would use Bukhoor and burn that on lighted locks of coal to add fragrance to the place. Bukhoor is a scented brick that have been soaked in fragrant oils. The times where I got to travel back to my hometown, I would notice that the burners were in almost all the houses I visited. It would be distributed and passed around from person to person where each guest would hold the burner close to their clothes and under their hair so that the scent would remain with them. Growing up, I could tell that we, Bahrainis, were so fascinated with scents and Bukhoor. It was a part of who we were and I loved it. 

Even though it is still highly popularised in the Middle East, the West seems to have moved on to more advanced innovations. Air Fresheners. That is not to say that the Middle Easterners do not make use of air fresheners but rather they find a balance between the burner and the air fresheners. Air fresheners were first introduced in 1948 though had a very different function prior to them being used as a way to mask and eliminate specific odours. They were initially used to “dispense insecticides which was then adapted into a pressurised spray using a propellant,” explained HOUSECHEM.  

Today, oddly enough, air fresheners are still seen to be around. Having the benefit of eliminating unwanted odours is easier than ever. With the spritz of a spray, within seconds a room can smell rather delightful. Most people nowadays tend to run late and almost never have the time to worry about burning incense just for the sole purpose of getting rid of an odour. Instead, they have the air freshener; a much more inexpensive approach. 

My household never contained air fresheners. We relied on the incense burner to carry out its job. Now that I am away from home and live abroad, I almost never have time to think about burning incense. I familiarised myself with air fresheners and now use it almost every single day. To me, now it is not so much about the method of dispersing fragrance but rather about the fragrance itself. There are times when I decide to light some candles but that is for an entirely different reason. There is something very soothing about watching candles burn. 

According to HOUSECHEM, “It was not long after when the air freshener market shifted away from aerosols, due to concerns over the destruction of the ozone layer in the 1980s.” That is when other air freshener alternatives have become popularised which included scented candles, liquid wick air fresheners and diffusers.

In Europe during the middle ages, “candles were upgraded from their smoky flame into the form of beeswax candle” (Scentedcandleshop). The candle would emit a scent and no longer a repulsive scent. The wealthy and churches were the ones who could get their hands on them because of how expensive they were at the time. Fastforward to the 20th century, in the 1980’s to 90’s, scented candles became widely popularised around the world. Using the aromatherapy of scented candles, people were able to release stress by creating a relaxing environment. Alisha Byars claims that “the vast amount of people whom used these scented candles became aware of the health conditions these scented candles caused. It was later on in 2004 that the “flameless scented candle” was introduced.” Scentsy happened to be the company that created scented candles without any wicks and at the same time kept the environment clean and safe.

Aroma lamps recently became popularised which are also known as diffusers. This was also a way to use the aromatherapy of defusing oils in order to create a peaceful environment. In 2006, the ultrasonic diffuser was created. Mitch Nelson says, “it was first developed with the purpose of converting water into mist. Later on, it was discovered that by adding essential oil to the wate, a fragrance is dispersed into the area.” That was when it was marketed as an essential oil diffuser which then became widely known.

In the end, it can be said that all ways to disperse fragrance into an area can create an aromatherapeutic environment. It comes down to each individual on which they would rather prefer. With all these modern technology brought into the world, the meaning of the incense burner has not diminished entirely. 

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