Botanists call it Aquillaria Agallocha Roxb. maufacturers call it Agaru,
traders call it profit, the poor call it
survival, the common man simply calls it agar.
It has long been an olfactory prize for discerning noses. Agar oil , is
highly valued and universally prized as
‘Otto of Roses”. Agar though little known in Assam and the North –East is
a highly sought after comodity ,
and the premiums it commands today in the international markets has dramatically
transformed the lives of families and economies of areas where its trade exists or where it is procured. One
such area that has reaped and flourished from this wonderful resource is the Hojai
Sub-division of Nagaon district.
The use of agaru is
prehistoric.The aromatic Aloe wood mentioned in the Bible was no other but the
heartwood of Aquilaria ovata ,or agar.There is mention of the use of Aloe wood(udul-Hind)
in Paradise as incense in the famous Ahadith-Sahi
Al-Bukhari.Agar also finds a place in
the travelouges on ancient Kamrup by Chinese pilgrim Hiuen-Tsang, besides earning a mention in Abhijnanmam
Shakuntalam of Kalidasa and Arthashastra
Agar is inextricably linked
to Assam’ s rich cultural heritage. In antiquity, Assam’ s monarchs employed
the used bark of the Sasi Agar tree for chronicling their royal circulars and
The first historical bigraphies in Sanskrit –the Harsha Charita written by Bana in 652 AD also chronicles the fact
that among the many gifts sent by Assamese king Bhaskara Varman to
Harsha,volumes of fine writing in leaves made from aloe bark and balck aloe oil
occupied a very prominent place.The Nowgong
grant of Balavarman gives a graphic desciption of Pragjyotishanagara where areca nuts are wrapped in leaves of creeper
of betel-plants and Krishnaguru(telegu
for Agarwood) or black aloe wood trees were surrounded with cardamom creepers.It
is also recorded that after conquering the last king Gaur Gobind in 1348AD ,in
Sylhet ,Saint Fakir Ali Shah Jalal and his followers found agar wood and agar
attar along with many other valuables in the royal store.This clearly indicates
that distillation of agar oil was done as far back as 13th century or
even much earlier.Abul Fazal Allami in his Ain-I-Akbari (memiors of Emperor Akbar written in 1590 AD gives a
vivid description of agarwood and agar oil along with their manufacturing
process and uses.It is also said that the Mughals invaded Assam mainly for
agaru..such was it lure.!!.
From Kamrup Agaru was exported to the Middle East ,most probabbly by
Chinese traders through the Silk Route which extended from China to Middle-east
through Kamrup and then India.In those days agaru was the main cosmetic item.
Revered Vaishnava saint – reformer and literary giant Sri Sankardeva,
Vaisnavite saint Shri Madhab Deb also used sheets of the Agar
for giving a written expression to their sermons, widely using agar for
their sacred scriptures . Sri
Sankardeva is also believed to have said that agar and chandana are the two divine trees capable of fulfiilling human
desires. Religious puthis and
history was also written and copied on specially treated bark of agar trees,
known since time immemorial as Sanchipat
and puthis, numerous
puthis some dating back to as far back
as 500 years ago are still preserved in quintessentially Assamese sacred
repositories such as Than,Satras and Namgarh.
It was during the 1940’s that some enterprising families hailing from
the erstwhile Sylhet district of Assam,now in Bangladesh, had the expertise to
identify agarwood and agar-attar
from these trees for commercial ends.But with partition,and a truncated
India,the Agar entrepreneurs relocated at Hojai ,who
then ventured to build agar business as a cottage indusry.The North east
in particular at that time was host to many an agar mahal ,a system of leased
forest plantation exclusively for Agar.
Today ,numerous families particularly in Hojai are engaged in the
extraction of Agar oil from the Agar wood. These families are in the business of
wholesaling of agar as well as the wood and the oil. The
positive spin-offs on the economy, are there for everyone to see. The
magnificent and well-equipped Ajmal Majid Memorial Charitable Hospital,
stands out ,in its presence, and the range of facilities it provides.
Philanthropy apart, the multiplier effects are tangible.Higher rates for Agar,
translate into more employment for a range of skilled and semi-skilled workers.
Higher wages affect buying power and that in turn affects the whole economy and
makes it more buoyant.
Both natural and man-made factors are responsible for the
extra-ordinarily high premium attributed to Agar. Man-made factors that have
contributed to the high premiums are
essentially the buying power of Agars
chief patronizers and consumers-the
Arabs of middle-East. The oil boom of the 70’s has greatly enhanced the value
that Agar commands. From a rate of Rs50/-per 11.62 grams for Agar oil,,
today,the double super quality of agar from Imphal’ s oil fetches and commands
a rate of R s 100-Rs 6000/-per 11.62 grams. Governments revocation of 145%
import duty into the country in
1985 has also encouraged the growth of Agar Trade.
It is nothing but a rare fungus that attaches itself to the agar tree
that has made agar such a valuable and sought after product. This fungus once it
establishes itself on the tree turns the woody trunks
into a deep brownish black colour. The darker the woody bark
turns due to fungal infection, the more valuable the wood It is the
fungus that gives the agar wood its
unique aroma, when it is burnt. The oleoresin is usually found where the
branches fork out from the stem.Agaru or
agarwood is the heavily olereosin impregnated solid chips of wood obtained and
processed from the fungus affected part of the trees. Devoid of the fungus, the
agar tree in itself has no value. So it is natures value addition to the
tree that commands a premium in he market.
The uses of Agar are many.Its aromatic bark popularly known as Agar
Batti is used as incense in many a home. Its by-product Agar oil used as a
base for Attars and perfumes. The heavy base notes of the Agar oil lends itself
to blend well with other essential oils such as rose,ylang
ylang ,and jasmine that collectively power the perfume industry,the
world over.Some European perfume houses especially seek out Agar oil to create
heavier muskier perfume that have enhanced Agars demand and thereby carved a
special niche market for these agar dependant perfumes.
Agar Oil also has thereupatic uses as it is used in a large number of
Unani and Ayurvedic medicines. Interestingly agar is also used to flavour common
and widely used betel nut
prepartions such as Pan
Parag and and Baba Zarda
Unlike other products that tiltillate the olfactory senses where
byproducts are more valuable than the raw products, in the case of agar, it is
the raw article or the wood of the infected tree that fetches the highest rate.
The Double super variety from areas such as Imphal is highly prized for its
intoxicating aroma when burnt. This bark commands the highest premium among Agar
wood, and its other derivatives.
This dark coloured wood is skillfully cut into smaller pieces, which are sold to
be burnt as a kind of room incense especially popular in the Middle East.
Its by-product agar oil, which is extracted through a method of crude
distillation, in Hojai,is sold at a rate of 100-6000 rupees per tola or 11.62
grams. In economic terms ,its value is pegged at one and half times the price of
Process of Oil Extraction….how it is done?
Once the Agar wood is procured, t is classified on the basis of quality.
The less darker pieces are put into larger water drums to soften.
Once these wood pieces soften, they are ground into a powder and are put
into vessels called Degs with water.
Degs are then heated so as to encourage the ground agar to release the
oilwithin it.Once the water inside the Deg
reaches a certain boiling temperature
then the oil from the wood along with the water vapour reaches a container
called the vabka. Before reaching the vabka
the water vapour that passes through a steel pipe between the Deg
and the vabka is cooled what therefore reaches the Vabka is a combination of
water and agar oil,with the oil floating over the water.This oil is carefully
extracted with a fine syringe and then stored into a fine glass bottle to be sun
–dried for the final product –the Agar Oil.
The need for research into this dwindling
valuable resource is compelling .Except in Nagland, there is no Agar left in
India. Traditional sources are drying up. Reserves in Kalibanthan and Salabasi
in Indonesia are also diminishing day by day .Fortunately for traders,new
sources have been discovered in Maraoca near Indonesia and Pupua New Guinea,
Laos and parts of Java.
How does the fungus latch on to the tree ?How does one replicate natures
value addition under laboratory condition?Can we inject the agar tree with the
fungus .Scientists working for a perfume House in Dubai are quite hopeful that
their efforts will be rewarded with fragrance that agar alone emits. This
is the story of Agar,the of smell success and Assams very own liquid gold..