AGAR:  The Liquid Gold & Natures  gift  to  Nagaon

 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 of Chanakya.

 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 diktats.

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.

Agar :A High Premium

 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.

Natures Value addition

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.

 Where is Agar used?

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

 Inverted Pricing…….

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 gold.

 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. 

Research a Must-Save Agar

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.

 Emerging Concerns : Million dollar Questions

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..