The wood scented by the gods

Believed to be scented by the Gods, Sandalwood or Chandan as it is called in Hindi, is considered sacred by most of the Indians. It is the wood from which idols and prayer beads are made. The Parsis feed their sacred fires with it.

Being a wood with a heavenly smell, it is extensively used in cosmetic and soap manufacturing. The beauty-conscious Indian women used to rub their bodies with a sandal and turmeric paste for a blemish-free skin much before the western cosmetic industry made inroads into India. In many parts of the country, brides still have their ritual bath with sandalwood paste.

Growing the Sandalwood

Sandalwood grows mainly in India in the state of Karnataka. The state accounts for about 70 per cent of the production, the rest mainly coming from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. The tree grows naturally in fertile tropical forestlands with abundant rainfall. It is also cultivated.

The tree is a root parasite. Soon after germination, the seedling finds a host and derives nourishment from it. It grows about 10 meters high, has a girth of one-and-a half- meters and lives for over a 100 years.


Only trees older than 30 years are exploited for wood. India has over 70 varieties of this exotic species. About ten of them have been found to be hardy and are cultivated. A 30-year-old tree usually yields 100 to 250 kilograms of scented hardwood and the quantity increases if the tree is older.

History of Sandalwood Tree in India

Till 1916, Karnataka, then the princely state of Mysore, was exporting sandalwood to France and other European countries for the extraction of oil. But during World War I when huge stocks of wood piled up in the state, an oil-extraction unit in Mysore and another one at Shimoga was set up. Since then, Mysore became synonymous with sandalwood oil.

Sandalwood Legends

A popular saying is that no other tree can grow where the sandalwood does. The reason for this belief could be the fact that the root of the tree is supposed to suck in all the required nutrients needed for its growth from the nearby trees. Another belief says that the smell of the wood is so intoxicating that snakes are said to wrap themselves around the tree.

Sandalwood Uses

The inner wood or heartwood is used for carving and the bark when powdered is an important raw material in the manufacture of agarbatis. For the extraction of oil, used by the cosmetic and soap industry, the tree has to be uprooted, for it is the roots that have the highest percentage of oil.

Even spent wood after oil extraction is an important raw material in agarbati manufacture. Sandalwood scrapings are powdered and sold in pouches. The powder makes an excellent face and skin pack.

A Hindu home usually has a billet of the wood which is rubbed on a stone plate sprinkled with water and the resulting paste is applied to the foreheads of idols during puja.

An ancient Indian remedy for prevention of sunstroke is a glass of cold milk scented with a drop of sandalwood oil. This drink is also supposed to prevent boils and other skin ailments caused, according to the Indian school of medicine, by excessive heat in the body.

Karnataka has the Gudigars, families that for generations have been engaged in sandalwood and ivory carving. They are concentrated in Sagar and Sorab regions in Shimoga district and are trained in the craft from childhood. While the Gudigar men make idols, figurines and knick-knacks like penholders, agarbati stands, cuff links, photo frames and paper clips, the women are adept at making garlands and wreaths out of thin layers of scraped sandalwood.

The Gudigars make some of the most exquisite pieces using simple tools like knives, screwdrivers, hand drills and saws. They work in the verandahs of their houses. The Karnataka government ensures that they are given a regular supply of the wood. The items they make are sold in government emporia and through licensed private dealers. As the elephant and sandalwood country is one, the Gudigars love carving elephants of all sizes.

Sandalwood: The protected tree

In Karnataka, the sandalwood tree is one of the few things one cannot own even if it grows in one's own garden. It is the property of the state and government permission is required to fell it or even to cut off some of its branches. It is illegal to carry sandalwood logs and billets without a permit. The rules have been framed to check indiscriminate felling of these precious trees.

Sandalwood has a sweet fragrance. To experience it, one just has to walk into the Karnataka government emporium, Cauvery, in Delhi or Bangalore and take a sniff at an intricately carved pen or handful of prayer beads. The fragrance is special. It has to be. It is made by the Gods.

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