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Aroma Science

Cultural and Historical Impact of Sandalwood

Sandalwood has a rich cultural history in each of its native regions around the world.  Long before China and Western European countries recognized the value of sandalwood, the cultures in sandalwood’s native regions attached their own importance and meaning to this resource. Many countries where sandalwood is native have widely varying sets of folklore for sandalwood, as well as unique uses for all parts of the tree. Below is a list of the traditional uses of the sandalwood tree and its products in several different countries:


Sandalwood, a resource tightly interwoven with many aspects of daily life in India, has long been intrinsic to Indian culture. It has nearly fifteen names in the Indian languages, including the Sanskrit chandan(a). The sandalwood tree’s heartwood and oil are also among the first items India traded, along with spices and silk, at the “dawn of trading” in India. (Ral, source, 1990). The sandalwood’s heartwood is considered sacred, and it is said that its rich fragrance constitutes the scent of all of paradise (Maharishi Ayurveda, source, 2014).

The sandalwood tree is highly regarded in the Vedic texts. Sandalwood is also mentioned in one of the oldest pieces of Indian literature, the ancient epic Ramayana (around 2000 B.C.).  Rabindranath Tagore, the late 19th and early 20th century Bengali artist, wrote, “‘As if to prove that love would conquer hate, the sandalwood perfumes the very axe that lays it low.” Similarly, B. M. Srikantaiah (former professor of English and Kannada in Mysore University) composed lines of verse celebrating the city of Mysore, once India’s sandalwood hub: “A land of gold that’s Mysore, A sandalwood shrine that’s Mysore” (Kumar, Joshi, Mohan Ram, source, 2012). Mysore, one of the oldest cities in India, was once the capital of India’s perfume industry, housing multiple manufacturers of the traditional Indian attar, a natural perfume made from a sandalwood base with floral herbs and other kinds of wood added.

In traditional Indian culture, many believed that termites never attacked sandalwood. Thus, sandalwood was considered a symbol of vitality and endurance, perfect for use in woodworking (Fragantica, source, 2013). The sandalwood tree’s heartwood was used in a wide variety of carvings and other objects, ranging from the carved images of religious deities to furniture, picture frames, and letter openers. The Vidhana Soudha, which houses legislative chambers of Karnataka in Bengaluru, has an intricately carved sandalwood door leading to the Cabinet Room.

Sandalwood paste and oil are also used as coolants; the wood paste is used as an ointment to dissipate heat as well as act as a beauty aid. (Descriptions of this use can be found in Kalidasa’s Sanskrit epics from around 300 B.C.). In addition to woodworking, India traditionally used the sandalwood tree’s wood and oil in multiple industries—in the beauty and perfume industries, in Ayurvedic medicine, and in spiritual ceremonies and other practices, especially in many Hindu and Buddhist rituals. All of these uses are discussed in further detail under their respective sections below.


Many believe that Indonesia’s Timor Island introduced S. album sandalwood to India, but because sandalwood is so tightly intertwined with Indian culture, it’s extremely difficult to support this theory.

Still, like India, sandalwood, known as cendana in Indonesian, is deeply embedded in Indonesian culture. In Indonesia, as well as in many other cultures, sandalwood is considered a plant with properties of purification and can therefore make its users closer to God. (Ral, article, 1990). Indonesia’s Sumba Island was once known as “Sandalwood Island,” because of its abundance of sandalwood trees. In Sumbanese culture, sandalwood was one of the only treatments for many illnesses until the introduction of penicillin later on. Sumba Island was also once known for its small and versatile horses, called “Sandalwood Ponies,” after the island’s most abundant resource (Indonesia Tourism, source, 2013).

Throughout Indonesia, the wood of the sandalwood tree was often used for women’s fans, because the wood’s long-lasting fragrance would spread out as a perfume when a woman fanned herself with the product. In Javanese culture, the wood was also used for the sheath of a kris, a traditional Javanese dagger (Indonesia Corners, source, 2011).


The fragrant heartwood of the sandalwood tree (known as ‘iliahi) was used in medicines, and the fine powder form of this heartwood was mixed with other plants into a drink used to treat diseases of the sex organs. The sandalwood leaves were used in a shampoo infusion to cure head lice and dandruff.  The tree’s wood was also used in the crafting of a variety of objects, including the paddles for traditional canoes and musical instruments, such as the musical bow (‘ūkēkē) (Pacific Island Agroforestry [PIA], source, 2006).


Australia’s sandalwood industry exploded in the 19th century when European colonizers began trading sandalwood with China. However, long before the demand of sandalwood exports took control of this resource, sandalwood was important to many aboriginal cultures in Australia. Sandalwood fruit is edible: the golden-brown berries have a thin fleshy layer which can be dried and stored, and sandalwood nuts are said to be delicious when seasoned and roasted. The indigenous people of Western Australia, where sandalwood once grew abundantly, collected the nuts of the Australian sandalwood trees for over 40,000 years. Much evidence suggests that they used the nuts as traditional medicine for both internal and external ailments, including relief of inflammation, dry skin, and sores (Whisper Forestry Services, source). The nuts produce high quality oil, which some tribes also used as liniment on aching joints (Shark Bay, source, 2009).

Australian Aboriginal culture also used sandalwood to treat stress, insomnia, eczema, and acne. Sandalwood’s fragrance helped tribe members relax and focus before walkabout, the ancient Aboriginal rite of passage (TFS, source, 2013).


As in many Pacific Island cultures, Fijian culture used sandalwood in intricate wood carvings, in beauty aids, and for various medicinal purposes.  Sandalwood was also burned as an insect repellent, and the grated wood was sometimes used to scent coconut oil for the hair and body. Unfortunately, sandalwood is no longer widely used in Fijian culture, as is the case with many other Pacific Islands where sandalwood is native, due to its present day scarcity and high prices (PIA, source, 2006).


Sandalwood is a crucial aspect of Samoan culture, particularly Samoan spiritual culture. In Samoa, the sandalwood tree’s wood, oil, and leaves were once essential parts of many different ceremonies, including purification rituals, marriages, and funerals. The oil was burned inside the homes of participating families, and the word for funeral in Samoan—falelauasi—means “the house that is lined with sandalwood leaves.” Samoans also made skirts for ceremonial purposes from sandalwood leaves (Biran et al., file:///C:/Users/Ansley/Downloads/Volume_42_supplement-libre.pdf, 2007).

The traditional medicinal uses of sandalwood in many Pacific Island cultures are not as well documented as some of this resource’s present day medicinal purposes.  However, it is known that Samoa traditionally used a blend of sandalwood and Homolanthus (Bleeding Heart Spurge) leaves to treat elephantiasis or lymphatic filariasis (PIA, source, 2006).


In Vanuatu, there are several myths surrounding the sandalwood tree. Two folklore varieties of sandalwood exist: a “man” variety of the sandalwood tree, characterized as a taller tree with longer, pointed leaves, producing few or no fruits, and a “woman” variety characterized as a short tree with rounder leaves, fuller branches, and producing many fruits. According to this idea, “the woman variety produces good heartwood early, whereas the man tree needs to be pruned to induce good heartwood.”


In Tonga, sandalwood oil is used to scent tapa cloth and anoint corpses in royal funerals. Sandalwood is also a part of many traditional Tongan legends and songs. Similar to Vanuatu’s folklore, in Tonga, sandalwood also comes in many varieties: the female fefine with small leaves, tangata with large, long leaves, kolo which means sweet-smelling, lau lahi, uhiuhi, and vao. These folk varieties are often interpreted differently by separate villages (PIA, source, 2006).


Although sandalwood does not grow naturally in China, this resource has still been highly valuable to Chinese culture for a long time, and historically, China was one of the largest importers of sandalwood. Its powdered wood has been used as incense for Buddhist ceremonies for centuries.  Sandalwood essential oil is also known to clear and focus the mind for meditation, so Buddhists and other spiritual practitioners often dab a drop of oil on their forehead beforehand.

Sandalwood is important in traditional Chinese medicine for treating various skin diseases, hemorrhoids, comedo, diarrhea, gonorrhea, and other illnesses (Sandalwood Forest (Qingyuan) Co., source, 2013). Sandalwood is more often ground and used as a powder in Chinese medicine, rather than as an oil.