My mother-in-law rubbed a piece of pink-coloured wood on a rough stone until it turned to paste. My husband and I were about to travel back to Europe and in the Hindu custom my mother-in-law performed a puja, an act of worship, to ensure our safe journey. She lit joss sticks around the deities and dabbed some of the paste on the figurines of gods arranged on her small altar and then on our foreheads – the fragrance of sandalwood rose in the warm air. Many hours later as I sat in the plane, the creamy, floral perfume lingered around me, carrying with it the memory of a caring touch.
In Indian paintings you can sometimes spot curious images of snakes curving sensually around sandalwood trees. According to legend, the tree releases such a beautiful scent that serpents are charmed by it. More than a pleasing aromatic, sandalwood is a means to feel closer to the divine, for all creatures alike. This is one of the reasons Vedic religious rites, from birth to death, are accompanied by this precious wood.
The downside of such passionate love is the major over-harvesting. Despite some Indian government protection, sandalwood trees continue to be illegally logged, and violent crime accompanies the contraband. Sandalwood is a parasitic tree from the same botanical family as European mistletoe, and while it can grow relatively quickly, it requires at least 15 years to accumulate the prized aromatic oils in its wood. There have been efforts to establish new plantations, but whether the lush Mysore groves will regenerate once again remains to be seen.
In the meantime, Australia has taken the initiative to plant Indian sandalwood (Santalum album) alongside its native Santalum spicatum. The latter is the typical sandalwood found in contemporary perfumes, if they indeed use natural and not synthetic oils. Santalum spicatum smells sharper than the Indian variety, but as part of a well-blended accord, it’s voluptuous and creamy. This is the sandalwood in Tom Ford’s Santal Blush (£148 for 100ml EDP) and Le Labo Santal 33 (£165 for 100ml EDP).
A sandalwood gold standard in French perfumery is Guerlain Samsara (£50 for 30ml EDP). Samsara, which is Sanskrit for “wheel of life”, is wonderfully radiant. The natural essence is buttery and rich, and to give it shimmer and a lighter texture, Jean-Paul Guerlain used Polysantol, a sandalwood synthetic that was still a novelty in 1989, the year Samsara was launched. For all its baroque complexity, Samsara seems gilded and airy.
For a sandalwood rendition closer to the Indian traditions I prefer Trayee (£175 for 60ml EDP) by Neela Vermeire Créations. Its ingredients were drawn from Vedic texts — oud (agarwood), tulsi (holy basil), myrrh, jasmine. It smells like an old apothecary in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk abutting a temple and an attar lane. Trayee is a rare fragrance that allows for the kind of aesthetic experience described in India as rasasvadana, “the tasting of flavour”. Every stage of its development offers something new — a smouldering incense cinder, skin dusted by jasmine pollen, a 10 Corso Como (€70 for 50ml EDP). The paradox is that the fragrance was created for the fashionable Milan boutique, while its spirit is closer to Mumbai — spice markets, marigold garlands and a touch of Colaba’s trendiness. The marriage between sandalwood and oud conjures up a trademark medicinal tang of Indian temple incense, while musk softens the edges.
Those are the fragrances for times when I want intricate tales and exciting adventures. On a grey rainy day, however, when the clouds hang so low they touch the rooftops, I wear Serge Lutens’s Santal Majuscule (€110 for 50ml EDP). It melts into a warm, velvety wrap, evoking both the scent and the texture of sandalwood paste diluted in rosewater.