Divinity in Fragrance

This article is authored by Mrs Radhika Srinivasan. Mrs Srinivasan has authored four books on Asia's art and thought. Presently, she runs an Institution called Kamalalayam in Manjakkudi, Tiruvarur for under privileged girls.

The Vedic adoration of Mother Earth covers a wide range of aspects: physical, organic, metaphysical, and cosmic. Our ancient sages were simply awed by the beauty and splendour of prithvi, one of the five elements (earth, water, fire, air and space). As Mother Earth, she holds the verdant continents and forests, bears seeds of creation and roots of vegetation; her body is laced with rivers and rimmed by oceans; she is adorned with slopes and plains, hills and caves, mountains, and valleys; her essence is fragrance which pervades all that she produces.

“Instil in me abundantly that fragrance, O Mother Earth, which emanates from you; your fragrance which has entered the lotus, where the immortal gods revel since times primeval. Steep us deeply in that fragrance, O Mother Earth!”, says a verse in the Atharva Veda. 

To bear all life is dhr, dhar in Sanskrit, and hence she is known as Dharti or Dharani. The mythical destiny of Earth is to stand at the beginning and end of every biological form and share in the history of human destiny. The earth element corresponds to the sense of smell, gandha and is intimately connected with the breath of life, Prana. The sense of smell has been elaborately cultivated and curated in the Hindu tradition, thanks largely to the Agama Shastra, the temple ritual tradition. In fact, even before a temple is constructed, the site is selected as sacred, based on the smell, taste and feel of Mother Earth. While the path of the renunciate was sense control and denial of sense pleasures, the path of devotion channelled the senses to lead the aesthete to ultimate liberation, moksha.

The Hindu temple is not just a sacred space created for ritual and prayer but the centre of all human aspirations and activities. The minutely intricate carvings on the walls and gopuras were meant to convey the profusion of life forms and recreate myths of celestials and devas for our eyes to feast on. As we enter the precincts, the overpowering fragrance of the sweet-smelling flowers, Tulasi or the holy basil, incense, camphor and cardamom are meant to condition our mind further to the world of the divine. The music and mantras are an aural treat that silence the clutter of the noise within, so we focus on the Lord whose reflection we are. The tirtha or the holy water and the prasada, the sacred food, finally completes the sensory experience, albeit momentarily, to enable us to move beyond the senses and feel a complete sense of gratitude and devotion.

The Vedic and Tantric traditions replicate this process to consecrate the main deity at the sanctum. The ritual bath known as Abhisheka or Tirumanjanam is performed by the priests in an elaborate manner with sacred waters of the rivers mixed with fragrant unguents poured on the deity, while chants help us to connect with the invocation. Five different substances are applied, all of which emit subtle and sattvic aroma; chief among them is Turmeric water, a tuber that connects the devotee instantly with the frequencies of the Earth and purifies the place, and chandan or Sandalwood paste that enhances the divine ambience. Sandalwood paste and vermilion placed on the mid brow region is believed to activate the Ajna chakra of the individual and the Surya nadi of the deity.

The Kularnava Tantra text refers to ashta gandha or eight different fragrances that are to be offered. Among them are Sandalwood, camphor, Saffron, Cyperus perlenuis, Gorochana (a kind of stone like calcium found in cattle), devdar, samrani or benzoin gum from a tree. Kasturi musk, a sweet-smelling gel secreted by the musk deer, is occasionally applied on the face of the deity to prevent pests and insects from building nests and webs, especially on the Puri Jagannath icon, which is made of wood. The musk pod is often imported from Nepal.

Most icons are made of granite, especially in South India. Milk is poured over the deity and protective scented oil is gently applied to keep the image cool even during peak summers; that way it prevents the granite from developing cracks over the years. Icons are thus like the living, breathing body of God that have retained their brilliance for several centuries. Those that are made of stucco quite naturally don’t get the same treatment.

The punugu perfume extracted from a civet cat’s gland is considered so special that the Tirupati temple keeps civet cats in its farm to make the civet oil for applying on Lord Srinivasa Perumal, especially on Fridays. Javvadi, a mixture of flowers, herbs, spices and Sandalwood, is another aromatic herbal product that is considered to mentally calm the stressed nerves and bring peace to the devotee.

Flowers are categorised according to their gunas or characteristics and offered to respective deities. Queen of them all is the sacred lotus, the abode and favourite of all gods, but special to Mahalakshmi, the goddess of wellbeing. Rising from the slush and muddied waters, the lotus raises its glorious head, totally unaffected by its surroundings and blooms with the rising of the Sun, who is the Nourisher and Protector, Mahavishnu. Mildly fragrant, the lotus petals represent a multiplicity of forms in the universe and hence, what is His very own is offered to Him at His feet.

All fragrant flowers like night jasmine or Parijatha, Jasmine or Malli, roses, tube roses or Rajnigandha, Champaka or Indian Magnolia, along with the fragrant Tulasi are offered to Vishnu, Krishna and Balaji, since they love life affirming adornment and decoration (Alankara Priya).  In fact, among the names of the reclining Lord Mahavishnu are Parimala Ranganatha and Kasturi Ranganatha, both born of fragrance.

Sweet-smelling Tulasi, which has amazing medicinal properties and emits six times more oxygen than other plants, is considered such a life-giving sacred plant that it adorns every home and temple. Tulasi is itself considered a Lakshmi incarnate as Sri Andal. Garlands made of its leaves are a favourite for Mahavishnu. Flowers like Hibiscus and Crown flower or Erukku that also have medicinal value but have no real fragrance are offered to Ganesha. Flowers like Datura, Bilwa and Oleander may be totally sans fragrance, even poisonous. But they are offered to the Yogi Shiva to get rid of the poisons of ego, envy and hatred within us. And besides, He decks himself in holy ash and destroys all desires!

In the Path of Devotion (bhakti marga), God is worshipped in two ways by the devotee; manasa or mentally, and upachara, through offering. In manasa, God is the devotee’s innermost Spirit and hence prayer is internalised. The devotee presents himself at the altar and surrenders his individual identity at the feet of Eternity. In upachara, however, the personified, personalised deity is treated as the most revered guest and offered grand services and the best that Mother Earth has blessed us with, in gratitude and pure devotion. The devotee does panchopachara, a feast for the five senses, awakening the awareness of the five elements that the created universe is made up of; flowers, fruits, Sandalwood paste, deepa or lamp, dhoopa or camphor. The priest does shodasha raja upachara, offering sixteen different things that befit a king, a legacy of the god-king concept of the past.

The food fit for the gods, Naivedya, must most definitely be aromatic and flavourful. So, five different non-citrus fruits are finely cut (Bananas, Mangoes, Apples, Grapes, and Figs), crushed Cardamoms are added and mixed with honey and nuts; this mix is called panchamrutham, five-fold elixir from the Gods. An important ingredient in the preparation of sweets, savouries or foods is ghee, the most sacred nourishment to the god of fire, Agni.

Ghee is offered to the gods at the fire ritual called Yajna externally, and ghee is consumed by the fire in our body (Vaishvanara) that digests our food internally. Ghee is considered not just a taste and flavour enhancer but the essence of energy. It permeates cow’s milk that is sacred and symbolic of life, yet not visible to the naked eye. Like life itself, one has to churn the milk to extract the subtle taste that is butter. Then, it has to go through the heating process to emerge as pure ghee, the liquid gold, as radiant as the Sun. A dash of ghee to rice or roti, legumes or vegetables, snacks or sweets, all made from the bounties of the earth makes the experience a true gift of the gods and for the gods.

So strongly linked is our worship of Mother Nature to the fragrance of the Earth that according to the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, Gopi Chandana Mahatmya, applying the sacred clay from Dwaraka, (a region in Gujarat where Krishna lived), on the body in twelve vital points in the body purifies the person so much that he verily becomes the temple of the Lord. The Gopi Chandana protects the body from evil forces and keeps the devotee constantly “merged with Krishna''.

While the pleasure-seeking modern world may have devised several chemically produced perfumes and deodorants, the Indian tradition celebrates Earth’s gifts of natural fragrances and scents by offering them to the Lord and partaking of them at the sanctum, evolving a path to move beyond the senses to the world of Supreme Consciousness. Our shastras emphasize that like one Champa tree makes the entire forest fragrant, the good deeds of one person in the family makes the fragrance of the entire lineage spread far and wide. And, like the Sandalwood that emits fragrance only by constant rubbing, it is through one's sacrifice for others' wellbeing that one's guna or their characteristic fragrance permeates the society.


Divinity in Fragrance is the first in our Aromas of India series.