Man Mo Temple - and the god of Literature
TEN VIRTUES OF INCENSE
It brings communication with the transcendent.
It refreshes mind and body.
It removes impurity.
It brings alertness.
It is a companion in solitude.
In the midst of busy affairs, it brings a moment of peace.
When it is plentiful, one never tires of it.
When there is little, still one is satisfied.
Age does not change its efficacy.
Used everyday, it does no harm.
~Huang Tingjian Song Dynasty
The intoxicating smell of Hong Kong was described perfectly by Martin Booth in 'Gweilo': "Wherever I went, the air was redolent with the smells of wood smoke, joss-sticks, boiling rice and human excrement …'' Walking out into the night streets of Kowloon last week for the first time in fifteen years, the scent was exhilarating - rich incense, fetid durian fruits, meat roasting on roadside braziers, cigarette smoke, exhaust fumes. Much had changed since I travelled round the world with hand luggage, (not least that with two small children in tow it was now more noodles and an early night than Somerset Maugham and cocktails at The Pen). But the smell hadn't changed a bit.
The Chinese have used incense for over two thousand years, in worship and at home. From the pyramids of Egypt to the temple of Jerusalem and the giant swinging thurible of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, incense permeates our daily and spiritual human existence. Here in the Middle East you find small wood or metal 'mabkharas' burning Oud (agar wood) or bakhoor (woodchips moulded with resin, ambergris, musk, sandalwood, essential oils), everywhere from outside the doors of Carrefour to private homes. It's traditional for abayas and thobes to be perfumed by carefully standing over the mabkhara and allowing the incense to impregnate the fabric.
In Hong Kong I loved revisiting the Man Mo temple again, and it hadn't changed (unlike the rest of Hollywood Road, where junk shops and curio stores have given way to Ralph Lauren and chichi bars). That night brushing my children's hair, I could still smell the wonderful incense from the huge coils suspended from the ceiling above the gods of War and Literature. (That's the god of Literature's brass pen/brush top left - devotees light incense then give it a rub for luck or inspiration).
The most touching offerings are the small ones, like the tiny shrine (below), that someone had set up in an alleyway near Central. It reminded me of Bali, where you would wake to find offerings of flowers and incence burning in folded leaves in the door and gateways, or the spirit houses of Thailand where incense jostles with bottles of Yakult. Timeless, intimate acts of devotion whose origins are lost in history.
For those of you who write about the East, have you come across much about the history and use of incense? I wonder when it was first imported to Europe? I brought a bundle of joss sticks back, and burnt them on the first night home. Here, the effect sadly conjured more of my teenage purple tented bedroom than the exotic streets of the East. Perhaps this is one thing that is 'lost in translation', and I'll stick to my favourite 'Sacristy' candle for writing and inspiration: "THE STILLNESS AND BEAUTY WE FOUND IN AN ANCIENT CHAPEL. WOODEN PANELLING WITH YEARS OF BEESWAX POLISH, LEATHER-BOUND PRAYER BOOKS, PILLAR CANDLES AND A HINT OF INCENSE".