Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Musings on incense sticks

Recently, I received a complimentary copy of a unique book extolling the personality of N. Ranga Rao who spread fragrance to every house in Mysore city and the world over.

This book is not just another publication, but an extraordinary publication befitting a great humanist, a self - made man and above all a successful entrepreneur.

The book itself is comfortably placed in an elegant box (Karanda). As an idiom in Kannada goes — hands have to be washed before handling this elegant book. The book is titled Sugandhavarti Rangarayaru.

The book contains a preface by R. Guru, foreword by R. N. Murthy and a submission by Premalata Sundareshan and over forty articles written mostly by relatives and others who were very close to the family. It is profusely illustrated by black and white photographs.

At the outset, though it looks like an in - house publication, on reading the book, it becomes clear that it has a wider connotation. As our family lived in Narayana Shastry Road as also in Old Agrahara Circle, I had seen Ranga Rao many times but I had not got an opportunity to speak with him. However, he used to be in our house through the agarbathis he produced. When I was reading this book, my sense of history promoted me to dig deeper into the concept of agarbathis (crudely translated as incense sticks).

The concept of incense stick is not very ancient, in the sense that it is not found in the Vedic and post - Vedic period. Even Kautilya, Panini and Katyayana do not refer to it. But the concept of dhupa, made of various materials like sandal, gum benzoin (sambrani or Halumaddi or guggula) were used extensively for worship in houses and temples.

In fact, abhisheka (holy bath), dhupa (burning the incense powder), deepa (lamp) and naivedya (offering of food) were the most important aspects of worship, not only in ancient times but even now. In one of the popular verses chanted while offering dhupa, it is clearly stated that this was manufactured from vegetables, barks of trees and not from synthetic chemicals as is done by some nowadays.

In fact, there are many stone records, which are more than thousands of years old, which mention endowments for arranging dhupa and deepa in temples. Perhaps an individual was appointed and given a remuneration for the supply of dhupa in ancient temples.

In many instances this profession became hereditary. Donors also gave land grants and cash for this purpose. To cite an example, an individual by name Kamayya donated a betel garden in 1121 AD, for the supply of dhupa, deepa and naivedya for the deity in the temple.

Dhupas were of different types depending upon the materials used for preparing it — Panchanga (five materials like sandal, kumkuma, camphor, guggula and agaru), shadanga (six), ashtanga (eight), dashanga (ten), dvadasha (twelve), shodasha (sixteen) etc. In fact, dhupa is also used in other religions like Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Jainism, Buddhism, etc.

Now let us examine the concept of incense sticks, locally known by different names like agarbathi, udubathi, sugandhabathi, etc. The early reference to incense stick is provided by a Kannada writer Chavundaraya I, who flourished in about 1020 AD. His work Lokopakara contains a chapter on cosmetics in which he has discussed the manufacture of different types if incenses by using locally available materials. But what is more interesting is the mention of what we call incense sticks now.

He refers to incense sticks such as sugandhavarti, dhupavarti, dashangavarti, panchangadhupavarti and Srigandhavarti. That means the manufacture and use of agarbathis was quite popular at least 1000 years ago in Karnataka. In this connection, the author mentions a number of raw materials but does not describe the processes involved in manufacturing agarbathis. By reading the description of the Navaratri festival as given by foreign travellers during the Vijayanagar period, one would get the impression that agarbathis were in use during the Vijayanagar period.

Mysore and Tanjavur were great centres of this industry and the former continues to be an important centre. This industry has crossed seas and entered into UK, USA, Japan, China, Thailand, Malaysia, Kenya, Hong Kong, Argentina, etc.

The Japanese are using thread instead of bamboo sticks in order to make agarbathis cheaper. Experiments are being carried out to prepare agarbathis without stick or thread but by glue. Some unscrupulous elements are using chemicals which are harmful.

Coming back to agarbathi king Ranga Rao, he is an excellent example of hard work and sustained interest. As a boy of eleven, he began selling biscuits in his school. Another boy also began doing the same and became a competitor. Immediately Ranga Rao began giving a peppermint free with a biscuit and his rival vanished from the scene.

Ranga Rao never spoke about his agarbathis but allowed his product to speak for him. The so - called concept of “Customer being the king” was put into practice by this person at least half a century ago. That was the quality of the best marketing man.

He also had realised the importance of training in marketing strategies. Ranga Rao never went to an MBA college; but the techniques and strategies he adopted could be the contents of a text book for the students of modern MBA.

A biography of this agarbathi magnet in English, with more emphasis on his professional career, with due importance to ethics, techniques, training and marketing, would be highly rewarding to future entrepreneurs. Thus Ranga Rao lives forever through his Cycle Brand.

Prof. A.V. Narasimha Murthy,
Former Head,
Department of Ancient History & Archaeology,
University of Mysore

Courtesy: star of mysore


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