Eight-five percent of the sandalwood grown for perfume comes from the province of Mysore. Sandalwood trees are parasitic and scraggy. They absorb the roots of neighbouring trees and plants, such as guava and bamboo, and suck the life out of them. But once sandalwood trees are mature they are felled, and it is the oldest trees, those between thirty and fifty years old, that yield the best-quality oil. Sandalwood is a heart note in perfume: it has both a cool and yet an aphrodisiac odour and it is also an excellent fixative.

The trunks and roots of sandalwood trees are pulverized and the dust is distilled. The best oil comes from the heartwood, and from the roots. In the first distillation process the oil is siphoned off in a funnel, then it is redistilled. The steam distillation method is used,without chemicals, and the whole process takes four days. After distillation the oil is boiled in great cylindrical drums, then separated from the water by siphoning and decanted into flasks. When sandalwood is being distilled there is a lovely, balmy, oily aroma from the steaming copper cauldrons, which has a wonderfully calming effect.

About 1,000 kg of sandalwood dust yield 55 litres of oil. In its purest form, sandalwood oil looks like liquid red gold. Sandalwood is usually associated with incense and soap, but a sublime,voluptuous perfume is also made from the warm, expansive essential oil.

Sandalwood has been highly prized for centuries. Its oil is mentioned in Indian texts from as early as 500 BC: the sandalwood trade was established between India and the Mediterranean in ancient times. Indian courtesans rubbed their breasts with sandalwood paste – it contains a steroid similar to testosterone – and sandalwood paste was also used for fumigation, religious purification and for embalming royal corpses. It was so lavishly used that Confucius recorded that the great sandalwood forests of the East were in danger of depletion. There is a shortage today, too. Supplies of sandalwood have dried up because the trees have been culled but not replanted. Sandalwood trees are now listed as a protected species to prevent excessive culling; each piece of Mysorian sandalwood is registered and stamped to ensure its authenticity and there is now a five-year waiting list for sandalwood oil.

Sandalwood retains its sweet, penetrating scent for years and Indian cabinetmakers and craftsmen still carve ornaments and chests from it because of its scent. In Kashmir a statue of Buddha was carved entirely from sandalwood, and after the Queen of Sheba visited Solomon and presented him with many scented gifts, he commissioned pillars for his temple, and harps and lyres to be carved from sandalwood.


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