Plants form an integral part of the culture around the world. People of all religions use many plants for religious ceremonies and rituals. Frankincense is one such plant that was used by people worldwide. In the days of ancient Arabia, frankincense was one of the most valuable commodities and was worth more than its weight in gold.

Frankincense, also known as Olibanum”, or “Oil of Lebanon”, is got from the Boswellia species. There are different places of origin of frankincense such as Oman, India, Somalia, Aden and Ethiopia. The most commonly used species is Boswellia serrata. The tree has a papery bark; leaves are compound with opposite leaflets; flowers occur in axillary racemes or panicles. When the tree is injured, an oleo-gum seeps out. This is the frankincense. A milky white, sticky liquid flows out from the duct inside the bark. This liquid solidifies into a resin when exposed to the sun, serving to heal the wound. The resin is harvested using a special tool called a “mengaff”. It can also be harvested by simply scraping portions of the bark. A single tree may be tapped in one or more places according to the tree’s size.


There are two kinds of resin that are generally recognized: “male” frankincense called zakana, which is deep yellow  or reddish and “female” frankincense called kundura unsa, which is reddish-white, and pale in color. Female frankincense is of higher quality and the more preferred resin. Frankincense has been used in religious ceremonies worldwide since ancient times. The Early Egyptian and Indian civilizations used frankincense for sacrificial rituals. The Vedas mention the values of frankincense as early as 5000 BC. It is also mentioned on an inscribed tablet, dating from the year 1530 before the Common Era (BCE), placed on the Sphinx at Giza, Egypt.

Frankincense is one of the most treasured and mystical aromatic resins of the world. There is a lot of history connected with frankincense. One of the three wise men who visited the infant Jesus brought frankincense as a gift. The locations of the frankincense trees were one of the best-kept secrets of ancient times. The frankincense trade flourished well and peaked during the Roman Empire in the first century BC. The frankincense route stretched from the Persian Gulf, through Oman and Aden, south to Africa and north to Mecca and beyond, linking Asia. This trade lasted for a long time and declined due to the fall of the Roman Empire and high taxation.


Frankincense is useful to humankind in many ways. Right from the olden days it is used to enhance spirituality, meditation, prayer and mental perception. It has been used in many parts of world for burning as incense in religious ceremonies. This smoke acts as a fumigant, improves acoustical properties in a space and it was believed that the smoke travelled upwards to the heavens as a gift to the Gods. Frankincense is said to cleanse a space of negative energies.

Frankincense is  a  natural  insecticide  and  was used in  ancient  Egypt  to  fumigate  wheat  silos  to keep wheat moths away. It was also added to wine as a flavouring though it is said that drinking too much of this would cause madness and even death. The resin was also used as an adhesive, where the soft gum was applied to cracks or chips in utensils and other items, which then hardened to make a waterproof mend.

In ancient Egypt, the resin was used as a key ingredient for embalming the dead. When the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun was opened in 1922, one of the sealed flasks released a perceptible whiff of the incense even after 3,300 years. Egyptian women used to rejuvenating facemasks with frankincense.

In India frankincense is used during all religious rituals. The frankincense smoke is applied to the hair after washing it. This dries the hair and adds fragrance as well to it. Frankincense is used in the Siddha and Ayurvedic medical systems. The bark of the frankincense tree is used to treat asthma, dysentery, ulcers and skin diseases. The gum resin is useful in fevers, diaphoresis, convulsions, dysentery, bronchitis, asthma, cough, stomatitis, syphilis, jaundice and arthritis.

N. Sandhya
C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre


Source: Eco News, Vol.9, No.1 (April – June), 2003.

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