- Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in Indian Religion and Culture by James McHugh
Historian of South Asian religion James McHugh has written a detailed exploration of smells, aromatics, and perfumes in ancient and medieval India that deserves our attention. The author refers to his book as a “primer and a reference book” (p. 7); however, the reader who spends some time with it is sure to discover that he has produced something much more. Creative and well written, the work explores a huge selection of literature (including the Vedas, epics, philosophical works, Buddhist and Jain writings, perfumery treatises, lexicons, medical texts, and more). Each chapter opens up multiple facets of the physiology, aesthetics, [End Page 282] social function, and economics of smell, while the introduction outlines how this research connects with recent trends in the history of the body, the senses, and material culture. Because of the richness of his sources and the breadth of his scope, historians of religion, literature, transnational exchange, technology, and medicine will equally benefit from reading McHugh.
The historian of medicine who wishes to take the author at his word and treat the book as a reference work will readily find many useful nuggets here. One can, for instance, read an introduction to the Indian understanding of the mechanics of olfaction on pages 25 to 29. Pages 72 to 81 discuss and partially translate sections from the Carakasaṃhitā (third century BCE to fifth century CE) and Suśrutasaṃhitā (ca. 500 CE) on the role of smell in the prognosis of death and in the diagnosis of demonic pediatric disease. Also relevant is the chapter on sandalwood, where McHugh explores the literary references to, the properties of, and the uses of a range of substances known as candana (pp. 182–89). And one can consult the index for more information about individual aromatic medicines that appear ubiquitously throughout the book.
The author’s characterization of his own work notwithstanding, however, it is not as a reference volume that Sandalwood and Carrion will be most useful to scholars in our field, and it is not by flipping to specific pages that we will most enjoy it as readers. Pardon the expression, but this book simply begs us to stop and smell the roses as we make our way through it. Whatever your entry point might be, you cannot read more than a page or two before you find yourself immersed in a fascinating, textured description of an alternative universe in which medicine is intimately intertwined with religion, trade, aesthetics, and sensual experience. For example, you may have come to chapter 7 because you were interested in looking up a synonym for a commonly traded aromatic medicine (pp. 173–74). But on the surrounding pages you will read about the pervasive ethnic and geographic stereotypes that shrouded aromatics in an exotic mystique (pp. 171–77), narratives of lavish tribute missions from the Mahābhārata and other sources (pp. 166–71), and literary depictions of the merchants and perfumers of an idealized medieval city (pp. 162–66). Read on, and in the next chapter you will learn how aromatics were evaluated by merchants (pp. 189–95) as well as how they were faked (pp. 195–98). As you continue still further, do not be surprised if you learn how that same aromatic substance was used in temple construction or in adorning the gods in Hindu ritual, how it was spoken of in the Kāmasūtra or in a pun or a riddle, or what role it played in the formula for the famous perfumes “Moon Juice” and “Uproar.” Though you may initially have been interested in simply finding a synonym, soon you realize you have happily lost yourself in McHugh’s guided tour of the vivid Indian “smellscape.”
Will some historians of medicine complain that the book overly prioritizes religious perspectives? That it spends too little time on the medical matters that concern us most? Perhaps. For this reviewer, however, the appeal of the...