Agarwood is the resin-infused fragrant wood also known as aloeswood, eaglewood, gaharu, oud, chén xiāng, and jinkoh. Owing to its widespread use for medicinal, aromatic, and religious purposes, agarwood was also known as the Wood of the Gods. Its importance and significance in historical times is well documented in ancient texts.
The Egyptians are believed to have used agarwood in death rituals more than 3000 years ago. Trade in agarwood and its products dates back to ancient times, and some texts suggest that the famous Silk Route was used by traders to carry agarwood from China to
the Middle East, often via India. Agarwood was often identified in the Hindu Texts, Mahābhārata, as a display of wealth, a tribute, and a greeting. In the first book of Mahābhārata, the people of the ancient city of Khandavaprastha received distant visitors (Madhava and other tribes) by filling every part of the town “with the sweet scent of burning aloes.” (Book 1, Section CCXXIII). It also details that after the Bharatas people conquered the Mlechchha tribes, the vanquished were made to pay tributes of a great many valuable items including fragrant goods of sandalwood and aloes (Book 2, Section XXIX).
From India, the demand for agarwood and the customs associated with it travelled East and West along the Silk Road, an ancient trade and commerce network that stretched from southern Europe to East Asia.
As it travelled West, agarwood was incorporated into
Christian and Islamic cultures as both medicine and as incense.
Agarwood is also referenced several times in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible; for example, in Psalm 45:8, where, recounting a king’s preparation for marriage, it states that “All your robes are fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia.” In the New Testament,
the spiritual significance of agarwood is clearly outlined in the gospel of John (20:39–40), where Jesus’ body was anointed with a mixture of myrrh and aloes following his crucifixion.
In Islamic texts, agarwood was a conspicuous fragrance used in the ritual burning of incense, for spiritual purification, and as one of the rewards in Paradise. Agarwood mixed with camphor was said to be the preferred scent of the Prophet Muḥammad.
Agarwood also features in the Buddhist text, Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra (Nirvana Sutra). In one description, the use of fragrant wood in the cremation of Tathāgata’s (Buddha) body is mentioned: “people each held in their hands tens of thousands of
bundles of such fragrant wood as sandalwood, aloes, goirsa sandalwood, and heavenly wood.” It is clear that the use of fragrant products was an integral part of Buddhist tradition, with agarwood among those most highly-valued.
The History of Agarwood in Malaysia
Agarwood has a long and significant history in Malaysia. Historically, the genus Aquilaria was reported to be quite common in Malaysia. In the 17th Century, Manuel Eredia, a Malay-Portugese writer, noted “dense groves” of Aquilaria trees in the hinterland of
Malacca (Mills, 1930).
The species has also been reported in the Bukit Nanas Forest Reserve, in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, which has a path running through it named after the tree ‘Jalan Aquilaria’.
It has even been recorded growing in a freshwater swamp forest in Sedili, Johor (Corner, 1978).
Perhaps due to its availability, it was used in numerous applications from medicines to decorations and perfumery. Gimlette and Thomson (1939) noted “Minyak kayu gaharu is used by Kelantan Malays for relief of sakit meradak-radak, shooting pains in the
The Orang Asli have been observed to use gaharu for spiritual purposes (Dentan, 2001), and in Sarawak, the Penan are reported to use gaharu for stomach aches, fevers and as an insect repellent (Hansen, 1998).
Agarwood also features in a Malay proverb, meaning someone asking a question, pretending not to know the answer.
“Sudah gaharu cendana pula (After agarwood, sandalwood too)
Sudah tahu bertanya pula” (Despite knowing, still asking)
Malaysia also played a pivotal role in the identification and trade of agarwood. The name Aquilaria, from eagle in Latin, was borrowed from the popular name given to agarwood in
Malaya at that time, Eaglewood.
In 1534, Garcia de Orta (1501–1568), a Portuguese Renaissance physician and naturalist, visited the historical trading port and state on the West Coast of the Malay Peninsula called Malacca. He named the fragrant wood “Garo de Malacca”.
In 1783, the French naturalist Jean-Baptist Lamarck was presented with a specimen of the fragrant wood “Garo de Malacca” by his associate Pierre Sonnerat, and described the agarwood species as Aquilaria Malaccensis meaning “Eagle of Malacca”.
Throughout Malaysia, the Orang Asli (indigenous people) are reported to be the most important gaharu collectors/primary traders. Almost all the sub-ethnic groups and tribes have been involved in collection since the early 19th Century (Couillard, 1984).
An excerpt from “Aloeswood Forest and the Maritime World” by Isamu Yamada describes in detail the collection of agarwood by the Penan tribe:
“On a one-day trip with Penan people to search for aloeswood on the upper Kapuas River, we encountered ten trees ranging from small seedlings to medium-sized trees of 30 cm
DBH. The most abundant site was on a steep slope between a ridge and the river basin.
When we saw a tree, the villagers cut a small portion to see whether it contained aloeswood. If there were signs of darker resinous texture, they cut whole the tree; but if not, they left it. When they saw the sign in the trunk, they cut down the tree and sliced off
the bark and sapwood. In the case of a big tree, they cut the trunk into lengths of ca. 50cm and searched for darker portions of the trunk.
They continued to cut into small pieces up to the branch zone and dug out the roots. After trimming all the sapwood, they brought
the major pieces of aloeswood back to the camp near the small river and chipped off the unwanted material more finely so that only the fragrant part remained.
This process is done after dinner until midnight.
A group of aloeswood collectors normally consists of two to four people. They carry 15-20 kg of rice plus kitchenware and tent, knife, axe and the minimum of necessary utensils.
Meat and fish are also very important. Since the collection is very heavy work, they need good protein and one day’s rest every week. In two to three weeks, they accumulate several tens of kilograms of aloeswood. After consuming all their rice, they return to the
In the village, Chinese merchants who buy aloeswood from collectors are always waiting.
The aloeswood materials are classified into five to seven classes according to quality.
The finest one is called “super” and cost 1,000,000 Rp/kg in 1994 in east Kalimantan, which is equivalent to US$ 500/kg. This highest quality is scarcely obtained in this area, where most of the wood is second to third-grade.
The “super” grade is very black and purely resinous. The color becomes lighter with decreasing quality. The price of the lower
class is around 100,000 Rp/kg. In the village, the Chinese merchants check the quality and divide the wood into categories, weigh it and negotiate a price with the collectors.
The merchant always offers a lower price and the collectors demand a higher one. After several offers and counteroffers, the price is finalized and the cash is paid to the collectors. The collectors divide this income equally among themselves: The youngest beginner gets the same amount as the older boss.”
Chinese demand for gaharu increased in the 8th Century AD when its medicinal properties were officially recognised by entry into the Pen Tshao Shi I, the Imperial pharmacopoeia (Needham et al., 1959)
By the 10th Century AD gaharu was reported to be one of the
most sought-after fragrant substances in China – second only to camphor (Donkin, 1999).
The upper east coast of the Malay Peninsula was said to provide some of the best gaharu at this time (Tarling, 1992). Wheatley (1959) listed agarwood as one of China’s imports “definitely derived from the Malay Peninsula” between 960-1126 AD, as well as exported
from Pahang in the early 17th century (Wheatley 1961).
Various forms of gaharu are recorded as tributes from Southeast Asia to China in the 12th Century (Wade, 2005); Burkhill (1935) suggested that some of this gaharu came from Kedah, Langat, Ligor and Kuantan in Peninsular Malaysia.
In the 1420s, Chinese Admiral Zheng He reportedly sent men into the mountains of Pulau Sembilan (Perak) to collect gaharu (Anon., 2006b).
Since these early exports, Malaysia
(including Sabah and Sarawak) has remained an important source of gaharu for Chinese use as incense and medicine.
In spite of the decline in supply, agarwood continues to be an important part of spiritual and secular life for the many Asian cultures where it has been used traditionally. Though
used sparingly, it is no less revered.
Malaysia once played a central role in the development of the agarwood story and trade.
With a focus on sustainability and the use of cutting-edge technology, Wellwoud is proud to bring Malaysian agarwood back to the forefront of this venerated industry.
- Mills, J.V. (1930). Eredia’s Description of Malacca, Meridional India and Cathay. Journal of the
Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 8(2):124.
- Corner, E.J.H.(1978), The freshwater swamp-forest of South Johore and Singapore. Botanic
- Gimlette, J.D. and Thomson, H.W. (1939). A Dictionary of Malay Medicine. Oxford University
Press: Kuala Lumpur.
- Dentan, R.K. (2001). Semai-Malay Ethnobotany: Hindu Influences on the Trade in Sacred Plants,
Ho Hiang. In: Razha Rashid and Wazir Jahan Karim (eds.), Minority cultures of Peninsular Malaysia:
survivals of indigenous heritage. Academy of Social Sciences (AKASS), Penang.
- Hansen, E. (1998). The nomads of Gunung Mulu. Natural History, 107(3).
- Couillard, M.A. (1984). The Malays and the “Sakai”: Some Comments on their Social Relations in
the Malay Peninsula. Kajian Malaysia, 2(1):106-7.
- Wood for the trees : A review of the agarwood (gaharu) trade in Malaysia
- López-Sampson, A., Page, T. History of Use and Trade of Agarwood. Econ Bot 72, 107–129