The highly aromatic wood of the sandalwood tree is widely used in South Asia for religious and medicinal purposes and it is a prime source of incense and perfumes. The small tree is native to East Asia but has been known in the sub-continent for millennia.
In antiquity the Indian sub-continent was known to be the source and exporter of mainly luxury goods such as gold, gems, spices, fine textiles, perfumes, sandalwood and ivory. The coastal route to the Persian Gulf was ancient and rice, sandalwood and peacocks were traded by 700 BC.
Sandalwood's name is derived from the Sanskrit chandana. It has always been valued for its fragrance and its resistance to insects and grew to be a vital accessory in Hindu rituals. Besides providing an oil celebrated in commerce, the wood is used for carving fine items such as figures and caskets, as well as images of deities and temple doors. It is also made into a paste which has universal application in Hindu practice. Orthodox Hindus frequently smear the paste in symbolic marks on their faces and bodies. The paste is also believed to have a cooling effect on the body. The paste, oil and wood have medicinal applications and the powdered wood is even used in antidotes to snakebites.
The scent lies in the heartwood of old trees from which sandalwood oil is extracted by distillation. The sandalwood tree used to flourish in southern India, particularly in the forests of Karnataka. Mysore sandalwood oil was renowned and considered superior to all other varieties. Illegal felling and poaching has placed the tree under extreme threat, and it is a variety found in Australia which is replacing the traditional Indian sandalwood in supplying the world's needs.