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Churray: The Scent of Culture

My Magazine 2023/07
8 min
The history of incense began more than 6000 years ago. Since its origin, incense has been considered one of the first fragrant materials used by humans. It was found in the ingredients of balms that were used for the mummification of Egyptians. It was also burned in the temples to communicate with the deities.

As everyone knows, incense is an aromatic biological material that produces fragrant smoke when burned. Made of plant materials and essential oils, incense is used for ambience, therapy, meditation, and many other uses.

Authentic incense comes from tree resin in parts of Africa, the Middle East and India. Since the dawn of time, people have burned this resin to enjoy its warm and amber fragrance. From the Latin word incendere (burning), incense also generally defines all the woods, gums and plants that release a fragrance while being burned.

In West Africa, incense is deeply rooted in its culture, especially in The Gambia, Senegal, Mali and Guinea. It is known as Churray or Thiouraye - a fragrant oleoresin obtained from an Arabian tree called Boswellia.

Churray is a traditional blend of wood shavings, aromatic seeds, fragrant herbs, aromatic plants, fragrant roots and grainy incense soaked with perfumed ingredients like sandalwood, musk, oud or amber. Its scent is slightly spicy and peppery.

It is common practice in The Gambia to fragrance the home with Churray in the morning to keep it fragrant the whole day.

Churray incense can be burned in electric censers using charcoal, embers or "self-igniting" tablets, but to really enjoy its fragrance, Churray is best burned in the Andi Churray (often spelt as one word Andichurray), a typical terracotta or ceramic censer with white trim which is a common Gambian household object. As the AndiChurray, with its perfumed scent, is a symbol of the home, it also reflects womanhood in The Gambia.

Churray, like all incense,  generally comes in two forms -  indirect and direct burning. The indirect burning version is in the form of "potpourri", which imparts a very subtle scent in homes, offices or even cars.

The other version, which requires direct burning, uses  incandescent charcoal or embers and follows the given process -

  • Light an ember or charcoal,
  • Create a layer of ashes (about 1 cm) and bury the embers in the ashes,
  • Place one or two small balls of Churray on the ashes (you can use more or less incense depending on the intensity of the scent desired).

The burning pieces of incense are placed inside the pot and then transported from room to room to spread the fragrance throughout the house. All houses in the country exude this warm and soothing fragrance.

Each family has its unique recipe with its secret ingredients, passed down from generation to generation, especially from mother to daughter, because the women take care of this aspect of the culture.

In the Gambia and other West African countries, Churray is used for the following purposes -

  • to perfume the house and clothes.
  • to clear the air and get rid of the lingering smells of cooking,
  • slipped into the laundry for a pleasant fragrance,
  • it is used in homes as a purifying agent to ward off negative vibes and establish harmony.
  • also used as a beautiful, seductive perfume. In fact, Churray is widely used by West African women in their beauty routine. When they set out to seduce a man, the Churray is one of their most formidable weapons - a tenacious, delicious and captivating fragrance that men find difficult to resist.
  • to promote relaxation and also to create a warm atmosphere.
  • It is essential to the holiday routine when women deep clean their houses.
  • It is also commonly used during rainy and cold seasons due to humidity.
  • to establish a climate of good understanding and harmony

If you have been in The Gambia and visited the locals at their homes or have participated in homestays, you may have perceived a warm, soothing and lovely fragrance around you. Unlike the usual incense, the churray is used as a perfume in West Africa and is a popular practice even today.

A handmade mixture of dried plants, woods, barks, fragrant herbs, flowers, resins and grainy incense traditionally soaked with perfumed ingredients and essential oils can be bought in different forms and scents in the markets. Its fragrances are fruity, floral and sweet. Ingredients are macerated for at least a year to give the scents time to combine and form a perfume.

Churray can be a lovely souvenir to take back home. Whenever you miss The Gambia, its sacred scent will remind you of your holiday and bring back the memories you experienced in the warm Gambian home.

Want to get that souvenir for yourself? Come with us to the Serekunda market or visit  Touba Churray shop yourself and be amazed by the vast selection of scents in all forms and shapes. Contact Mr Sheikhuna for more details (+220 288 6933).

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