History of AgarWood

agarwood tree

1. The “Wood of the Gods” has at least a 3,000 year history in the Middle East, Japan and China. Only Kings and the very wealthy were able to benefit from its powers.

There are references to agarwood in the literature of India. The Indian poet Kalidasa once wrote: “Beautiful ladies, preparing themselves for the feast of pleasures, cleanse themselves with the yellow powder of sandal, clear and pure, freshen their breast with pleasant aromas, and suspended their dark hair in the smoke of burning Aloeswood.”

King Louis XIV of France had his shirts washed in rose water in which Aloeswood had been previously boiled.

There are a total of five places in the Bible where Aloeswood appears. Nicodemus brought it (pounded Aloeswood) to embalm the body of Christ (John 19:39).

It was used by the Egyptians at the time of the pyramids for embalming privileged dead bodies. In Buddhism, the most precious string of beads is made with 108 beads made from agarwood. In ancient China the wealthy chooses Aloeswood to make their coffins.

The tragedy of the agarwood industry is that the whole of the tree has to be felled to obtain the valuable inner layers. Not all trees contain the agarwood in the wild and there are occasions where 10 trees will be cut down to find agarwood in only one. Unsustainable Aquilaria harvesting in natural forests has resulted in near extinction in many areas of South East Asia.

2. Agarwood has long been appreciated for its multipurpose uses, range from incense for religious and traditional ceremonies, perfume, medicine and ornamental functions in many countries. The occurrence of this-so-called the wood of the gods has been strongly surrounded by myths and history. Agarwood use is mentioned in the Old Testament as ‘aloe’ or ‘ahaloth’ in Isalm 45:8. Agarwood is the only tree in the Eastern myth that has been descended to Man from Eden garden (Duke, 2008). In Egypt and Japan, Agarwood was used to embalm dead bodies. In India and Cambodia, it is used for traditional and religious ceremony.

3. In ancient China, the wealthy chooses ALOESWOOD to make their coffins. According to San Guo Yan Yi (a historic novel describing Three kingdoms period after Han Dynasty), after Gwan Yu, the best general at that time, was decapitated by his rival and was sent to Tsao Chao, Tsao Chao, for his admiration of Guan Yu, ordered to make the remaining body of Guan Yu by agarwoods.

In another chapter, in order to convey the greatest honor and apology to Zheng Fei’s death, Sun Quan put Zheng Fei’s head (also being decapitated ) in a agarwood box made and sent it to Liu Bei.

In Buddhism, the most precious Buddhist string of beads is made by agarwoods and the standard bead string contains 108 beads. One story tells a monk’s sacrificing spirit. He carried his bead string and traveled around the country. Whenever he saw the ill, he would take out a bead and give it to the ill. After grinding and taking the agarwood bead, most seriously ill recovered. The monk’s wish was to give away all his beads before he died.

There are several reasons why ALOESWOOD has never been really well-known in Korea. First, the supply was very limited due to the fact that it was imported through Japan and China, who purchased ALOESWOOD from southeast Asia. And secondly, it was exclusively owned and utilized by kings. Even the highest level officers and members of the elite did not have access to ALOESWOOD unless there was special permission granted by the kings.

Historical anecdotes:

Samguk Sagi (History of Three Kingdoms)

Silla King Hyun-Duk (919 AD)The king, Silla King Hyun-Duk (919 AD) declared ALOESWOOD to be a very precious imported product, thereby banning all people, including high level autocrats, from using ALOESWOOD

Koryo Sa (History of Koryo Dynasty)

  • Medicine and Diplomatic Present: Koryo King Mun-Jong used ALOESWOOD for medicinal purposes. He was suffering from rheumatism, due to his old age, and he had tried all other possible treatments from the best doctors in Koryo. However, his illness steadily worsened due to ineffective medication. As a last resort, he asked the emperor of Song in China for One-hundred different kinds of medicinal materials. Song emperor responded by sending his personal doctor, the different kinds of medicinal matierals, along with eighty-eight diplomatic delegates. On the list of medicines, ALOESWOOD was listed as the first item on the list for its potency.
  • Diplomatic Gift: ALOESWOOD was used as a diplomatic gift when Song and Jin had been in a war for over a hundred years. Song has constantly sent gifts to Koryo in order to persuade Koryo join in the war effort as an ally. Once, when Song emperor ordered Hsu, Delong to send diplomatic gifts to Koryo, he secretly ordered Hsu to send ALOESWOOD packed in both a silver and a gold box.
  • ALOESWOOD Sculpture: King I-Wu ordered artists to use ALOESWOOD to carve a statue of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva (the Goddess of Mercy).

Choson Silrok (History of Choson Dynasty)

  • Extremely Precious Medicine: (1431 AD) King Sejong discussed with his officers about the importance of securing the supply of medicinal materials. He said, ¡§Dryobalanops aromatica Gaertn and Cinnabar are very precious medicinal materials but those two items are still available in China, but ALOESWOOD is so precious that it¡¦s hard to find even in China. In the past, Japanese merchants often came to our courtries to sell ALOESWOOD They stopped selling ALOESWOOD to us because we paid them so little. ALOESWOOD does not originate in Japan so Japanese merchants have to pruchase it from a very distant place. Therefore, we should buy ALOESWOOD regardless of the price. (Sejong 14, Book 3, pp.421)¡¨
  • King’s favorite item: (1493 AD) Many officers thought that Japanese merchants gained too much excess profits from trading with Korea. Therefore, officers asked the king to ban all the trade with Japanese merchants. King Seung-Jong replied: Except ALOESWOOD and Dryobalanops aromatica Gaerin, ban all trade with Japanese merchants. For these two items, you have to buy them regardless of the price. (Seung-Jong 25, Book 12, pp. 546)
  • King’s worship item: (1804 AD) In Insan palace, one was to offer sacrifices to the spirits five different items. Only when the King himself offered the worship, ALOESWOOD was used. Otherwise, other fragrant materials were sued in stead. (Soon-Jo 5, Book 47, pp. 505)
  • Crown prince’s (Heir to the throne) Bead: (1541 AD) Joong-jong¡¦ crown prince lost a set of bead made by ALOESWOOD The lost of the bead did not worry him for he knew that the stolen bead will eventually be sold back to palace and return to his hand due to its priceless value. Later, the lost ALOESWOOD beads indeed returned to the crown prince. (Joong-Jong 36, Book 18, pp.442)
  • The scarcity of A.A.R: (1524 AD) Prime minister Kim, Jen was serious ill and had lost consciousness several times in a week. A prescription called “ALOESWOOD downing Qi” was required to cure Prime Minister’s illness. However, he was not able to find the precious ALOESWOOD in the market. After hearing this news, king Joong-Jong ordered to sent ALOESWOOD, along with his doctors, to the prime minister. (Joong-Jong 18, Book 16, pp.193)
  • King’s admiration of ALOESWOOD Buddha. Statue: (1458 AD)Se-Jo sent Buddhist Sutra to Japanese emperor. In the letter he wrote to the Japanese emperor, Se-jo requested a beautifully crafted ALOESWOOD Buddha statue. (Sejo 3, Book 7, pp. 200)
  • Dance and Building: (1615 AD)Dance that describes the beauty of A.A.R had been developed. Also, king¡¦s palace is named after ALOESWOOD (Kwang-hea 7, Book 32, pp. 402/466)
  • ALOESWOOD color: In both Korea and China, ALOESWOOD color (dark green) had been widely used on the attire of Kings and Queens. It had also been used for painting the palace. (Many place in Silok)
  • Decoration: Generally used as the best gifts kings gives to his officials. Items include belts, musical instruments, clothes, and boxes.

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