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Sandal Wood - Handicraft in India



Sandal Wood, or Chandan in Hindi, is much more than a piece of timber in India. This scented tree is believed to be a divine gift and is revered as a sacred object. It is the wood from which idols and prayer beads are made. Sacred fires are fed with Chandan. Being a wood with a heavenly smell, it is also extensively used in cosmetic and soap manufacturing. The beauty-conscious Indian women used to rub their bodies with a sandal and turmeric paste for a blemish-free skin much before the western cosmetic industry made inroads into India. In many parts of the country, brides still have their ritual bath with sandalwood paste.

About seventy percent of the total production of Sandalwood is from Karnataka a state in southern India. The rest of it mainly comes from Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh. The tree grows naturally in fertile tropical forestlands with abundant rainfall. It is also cultivated at times. Sandalwood tree is a root parasite. Soon after germination, the seedling finds a host and derives nourishment from it. It grows about 10 meters high, has a girth of one-and-a half- meters and lives for over a 100 years. Only trees older than 30 years are exploited for wood. India has over 70 varieties of this exotic species. About ten of them have been found to be hardy and are cultivated. A 30-year-old tree usually yields 100 to 250 kilograms of scented hardwood and the quantity increases if the tree is older.

There are many legends and stories around this scented tree. A popular saying is that no other tree can grow where the sandalwood does. The reason for this belief could be the fact that the root of the tree is supposed to suck in all the required nutrients needed for its growth from the nearby trees. Another belief says that the smell of the wood is so intoxicating that snakes are said to wrap themselves around the tree.

Karnataka has the Gudigars, families that for generations have been engaged in sandalwood and ivory carving. They are concentrated in Sagar and Sorab regions in Shimoga district and are trained in the craft from childhood. While the Gudigar men make idols, figurines and knick-knacks like penholders, agarbati stands, cuff links, photo frames and paper clips, the women are adept at making garlands and wreaths out of thin layers of scraped sandalwood.

Almost every part of the sandalwood tree is used in some way or the other. The inner wood or heartwood is used for carving and the bark when powdered is an important raw material in the manufacture of incense sticks or agarbatis. For the extraction of oil, used by the cosmetic and soap industry, the tree has to be uprooted, for it is the roots that have the highest percentage of oil. Even spent wood after oil extraction is an important raw material in manufacturing incense sticks. Sandalwood scrapings are powdered and sold in pouches. The powder makes an excellent face and skin pack. A Hindu home usually has a billet of the wood which is rubbed on a stone plate sprinkled with water and the resulting paste is applied to the foreheads of idols during puja. An ancient Indian remedy for prevention of sunstroke is a glass of cold milk scented with a drop of sandalwood oil. This drink is also supposed to prevent boils and other skin ailments caused, according to the Indian school of medicine, by excessive heat in the body.