Nag Champa has a sweet, slightly woodsy smell that many people describe as calming, warming, and moist. For some, the smell is reminiscent of jasmine or magnolia flowers, the forest, or even tea.
Long popular as an incense in India, the scent made its way to the U.S. and Europe in the 1970s, when large numbers of Western travelers began to explore that country. Bob Dylan is said to burn Nag Champa at his concerts, as is the Grateful Dead. The smell will be familiar to anyone who's ever set foot into a head shop--or who has hippie parents.
The most famous component of Nag Champa is the champa flower, from the Magnolia champaca tree. Prized in India for its bright yellow color and delicate fragrance, the tree is often planted near ashrams. Indian women have been known to tuck a champa blossom behind their ear, letting the scent escape as their body heat warms the petals. According to some botanists, the tree is so fragrant that its aroma can be detected from several blocks away.
The ingredients of Nag Champa vary by manufacturer. The best-known is produced by followers of the guru Satya Sai Baba in Bangalore, India. The precise ingredients of Satya Sai Baba’s Nag Champa aren’t available, but the formula is said to include a base of sandalwood and resin from the Ailanthus malabarica tree, known as halmaddi, which gives the incense its distinctive grayish color.
Nag Champa formulas have changed over time as certain ingredients, including Ailanthus malabari resin, have gotten more expensive. Some perfume experts today doubt that Nag Champa actually contains much champa flower, which has become prohibitively expensive.
Nag Champa blends may now include vanilla, cardamom, orange flower, or other scents. The smell has also proved so popular that is available as a perfume oil and in bubble bath, lotion, and candles, all from a variety of manufacturers.
Uses of Nag Champa
In the West, Nag Champa incense is frequently burned during meditation, or other forms of spiritual practice, perhaps because of its link with ashrams.
The scent is neither masculine or feminine, and so can be a great addition to a personal fragrance. It mixes well with other warm, spicy, herbal or woodsy aromas. Try it as a perfume oil, or in a solid beeswax base blended with other scents.
Nag Champa isn't the only scent to contain champa flowers -- some sophisticated Western fragrances, such as Jean Patou's Joy, contain champa flowers as a major ingredient.
Bess Lovejoy is a writer and researcher in Seattle, Washington. She was an editor on the Schott's Almanac series of reference books from 2005 until 2010. She has also written journalism for the "Stranger," "Arcade," the "Tyee," "KGBBarLit" and other publications. She graduated from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2003, and has been writing ever since.