By Trygve Harris
The following are some personal notes regarding the Indian trade of Ouhd and Boyah and the author’s experience in shopping for the oils. You can read the full article in the Winter 2013 issue (Vol. 2, Issue 3) of the International Journal of Professional Holistic Aromatherapy (IJPHA). For more information or to subscribe visit www.ijpha.com.
Agarwood trees © The Green Investment Co.
The chaos of India In India, when I was in the Northeast Agarwood area of Assam in 2010, the legal status of Agarwood meant that in order to be certified as “legal” and exportable, the wood and oil had to go through certain channels. This required the distilleries be in certified industrial areas of certain towns like Kanpur or Guwahati, for example. The problem with such an approach, which probably seemed like a fine idea on paper, is that Agarwood trees are grown everywhere in Assam and no one is going to send their wood away. It seems Assam (and the surrounding states) are some of Agarwood’s best terroir. So, many households grow a few trees in their yards, with the expectation that eventually the trees can be cut and sold. While these homegrown Agarwood trees are not so valuable that they need high security (like Sandalwood does) they are still valuable enough to keep close. These are small households; they don’t usually have an extra man or two who can take the time and expense to travel with the wood down to Guwahati with no guarantee that the whole scheme wouldn’t end in disaster. No one is going to send their wood away to be distilled by someone else. It would almost certainly be stolen. It’s better to have the entire family around. So if there is no neighborhood still, portable stills come around, set up in the yard, and people can accurately log their production, while distilling their wood within full view, as they go about their daily life and chores.
Unfortunately, this wood is “illegal” because, even though it is grown on private land, with the precedent of hundreds of years, and even though it will benefit the people who grow it, it hasn’t been distilled in Guwahati or any of the other Indian industrial areas whose presence is somehow deemed necessary to convey the “legal” blessing on Agarwood oil.
This scenario has been in place since 2000 and is still the law, as far as I know. The idea was originally to control the timber trade from the forests, which was probably a good idea, but the absolutely massive, unbelievably complicated and extraordinarily irritating behemoth of Indian bureaucracy sat down on top of it, asphyxiating all legal free movement of this traditional industry and even stripping the States of power regarding their own forests and industries. The central government told the thousands of small local farmers that they (the government) would have a solution “within six months” and to please “stop your industries” in the meantime. That was in 2000. So now local people were faced with the illegality of cutting down their own backyard Agarwood trees to cover their household expenses of university fees, weddings, etc. The backyard Agarwood trees were an income source that most people counted on for their entire lives and their parents before them, and so on.
As they were no longer legally allowed to cut and distill their own trees, people did what was necessary to protect themselves and went around the system. The sudden illegality of a valuable forest commodity created some unique opportunities for a few. First of all, with the government out of the picture, it was no longer possible to legally distill, sell, or export Agarwood, it was a perfect situation for someone powerful to step in and take charge of the situation, with great financial benefit as well.
A large company located in Assam that seems to have a monopoly on the Agarwood trade as they have of millions of Agarwood trees under their control and have the capability to transport the wood to the Gulf for distillation. With hundreds of outlets across the Muslim world, most of them in the Gulf Countries, they now control the Agarwood trade from India, although there are a few other companies. The company prefers to give the perception that they are an Arabic company and most Arabs I know do think they are a local (Emirati) company based in Dubai. They certainly do give that impression, even on their new website. It doesn’t seem that they lie, exactly, as they don’t actually say where they are based. India is barely mentioned on their website, including their list of offices. I am not saying this is wrong of them, but it is interesting how well it’s done and seems like an excellent example of marketing genius.
They are based in Hojai, Assam. I have been there, seen their facilities, had lunch with them, and spoken to two of the Ajmal brothers (whose first language is Sylleti.) They have very strong and direct links to the Gulf, particularly the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. They have a research and development center as well as an office and a large religious school for boys in Hojai and have many local charitable undertakings, such as hospitals and clinics. The large facility is also well protected, with excellent security, necessary with so much Agarwood around.
Indian Boyah can be soaked for six months at a time, then distilled for three, then soaked another six, then distilled again for three. The final product for that scenario is the lowest quality possible and the end distillate comes out as foam. The margins are very small here, and the only expense is the fuel used to keep the still going.
A shopping experience Nearly all of the Agarwood comes to the Gulf: all qualities, different grades of wood, different grades of oil, hundreds of retail perfumes, and all manner of specialty products. There are many big perfume companies in the Gulf: Ajmal (the largest), Al Hariman, Al Rasasi, Arabian Oud, Qureshi, and many, many more.
There are a few teeny tiny suppliers from India who don’t work under the Ajmal umbrella. These are producers who have their own connections relating to export customs and the companies are very small, selling tola sizes of about 11 grams. These companies sell at a very high price, probably because of their small volumes and also because they can, as they sell directly to Western companies through online forums and the like.
Like any worthy product, when a large company like Ajmal controls a market, they set the pricing, for what they buy it for, what they sell it for, and to whom. They control every aspect of it. And the small distillers, who take their stills around and/or receive local wood to distill at their own facilities, must distill to that company’s specifications and are paid according to that company’s agenda.
For example, I tried many Indian oils when I was in Assam. I was buying samples to present at the Omani Royal Court. I wanted only the best quality. I made it known who I was buying for, as well as my own small company, as I wanted to be taken seriously and not treated as a fool because of my gender and nationality. That is common and even the status quo in many places. American + woman = fool. It can work to one’s advantage but not in this case.
I settled on a distiller I liked very much, and visited with them over two days. I tried three of his oils, repeatedly. I don’t speak Hindi or Assamese and I was with someone whom I had known for years as the “Agarwood Farmers Advocate.” The second day in the village I selected my Oudh. I was sure that between the distiller, the advocate, and my own nose, I would find excellent samples to bring back to Muscat. As the people related to Oman’s Diwan (Muslim Council of State) Agarwood procurement have sophisticated palates, excellent taste and plenty of money, any oils they liked would be ordered repeatedly in the future, and they would pay a lot for the best. We would all benefit. The Diwan, the distiller, the community, the farmers, the advocate, and me too. I didn’t worry because it was in everyone’s best interest to do the best we could. I was slathered with many oils and then stoned from the Agarwood at night; when I made my selection the next day, I simply picked the one that smelled the most sublime.
After making my purchase I drove back to the state capital of Guwahati and the next day I flew out to Kolkata and then Coimbatore to meet a friend. He is also a distiller and even though he doesn’t have much experience in Agarwood, he knows a lot about everything else and produces wonderful Vetiver (Vetiveria zizanoides) and Nagamotha (Cyperus scariosus ) oils and I know his honesty. By the time we met, I was feeling disturbed, as I didn’t like the smells coming from my arms. It was a crude disassociated brutal smell recognizable from the Agarwood family but quite obviously not what I bought. It had a paint thinner note and a dull, nasty side note. I opened the one I bought from the distiller and smelled it and it smelled great. I couldn’t figure it out. Finally my friend suggested we call the Agarwood distiller. The farmer said he couldn’t talk to us and to please contact the advocate/Ajmal representative. So we did.
It was explained to my friend that they (meaning all the distillers who distill under the Ajmal umbrella) have to remove the oil every three days during the distillation. While white wood always produces Boyah, any wood will produce Boyah eventually. Once that oil comes out in the consistency that hardens at room temperature, the oil is no longer very valuable. So great care is taken to make sure the oil is pulled off before that happens. It is distilled in fractions. Theoretically they are combined to make an oil. But when you are distilling for a large company you need a standard oil. So it’s kept in fractions and goes off to the Ajmal lab to be “processed.”
They had sold me the top fraction. Only. That’s why it smelled terrible. It was great for about an hour, but as time passed it turned sour and horrible. The body and tail were missing. The oil was decapitated! The advocate/Ajmal rep was laughing, telling my friend that they just sold me the head; who cares, and what did I know, anyway? An American lady? It’s quite obvious I was stupid and easily dupable. My friend reminded the advocate about the oil going to the Omani Royal Court, thinking that would make a difference as Arabs know their Oudh. The advocate promised to send the other two fractions to a friend in Mumbai who deals in Agarwood and could be trusted to receive two fractions for me in sealed bottles. But he never sent them. It was more important and exciting to bilk me out of the $200 I paid for a sample than to establish a new customer from the Palace in Muscat. It’s unfathomable behavior to me. The farmer had no say in it. A potentially great future for him and his family were vaporized. If Agarwood had been legal in India his story would have been different, but he was at the mercy of the advocate and the large company, proving why these controls are a bad idea.
The information shared is the opinion of the author based on her personal experiences and is not necessarily the opinion of the IJPHA and its associates.