Sandalwood is heavy, yellow, and fine-grained, and, unlike many other aromatic woods retains its fragrance for decades. Both the wood and the oil produce a distinctive fragrance that has been highly valued for centuries and it is often cited as one of the most expensive woods in the world.
Sandalwood is indigenous to the tropical belt of peninsular India, the Malay Archipelago and northern Australia. In Indonesian the main distribution was on the islands of Solor, Sumba and Timor. Sandalwood is mentioned in one the oldest pieces of Indian literature, the epic Ramayana story, dating from the fourth century BC. However, Indian foresters question whether sandalwood is native to India and suggest that because of its distribution it was probably introduced from Indonesia many centuries ago.
Many Indian Hindu families will keep a block of sandalwood in their home which when rubbed produces a white paste and is then applied as a dot to the forehead to promote concentration during prayer and meditation. The Chinese ritually burn ‘Joss Sticks’ made of sandalwood to venerate their ancestors, which they value as being the finest incense.
Because the oil is in the heartwood including the roots, then the complete tree is harvested and in the past was not replanted as it takes more than thirty years for a sandalwood tree to reach maturity under natural conditions. Which has resulted in what appears to be almost the complete deforestation of the island of Sumba. All sandalwood trees in India are government-owned and their harvest is controlled, however many trees are illegally cut down. Most of the world’s sandalwood now comes from North West Australia where it is commercially grown and harvested.
On this early Dutch map of the eastern archipelago, the island of Sumba is named as Poelo Tjsindana or Sandal Bosch Eyland. There are no records that the Portuguese or the Dutch ever harvested sandalwood trees on Sumba and the island has been almost totally deforested, with some sandalwood trees only recently being replanted.
So where did these sandalwood trees from Sandalwood Island go? The burning of incense to honour the Gods and honour the ancestors go back centuries as is depicted in this image from the Borobodur Temple, a Buddhist monument that was built in the 8th century. It can only be assumed that all the sandalwood from Sandalwood Island was collected and sent to Java and then possibly to India and China, centuries before the Portuguese or the Dutch even arrived in the Indonesian archipelago.
Interesting thesis Ian. Do you think it may parallel the widely-held explanation for the apparent ecological disaster on Easter Island? cheers, Heath.
Hello Heath. You will have to tell me what is the widely-held explanation?
Hi Ian, amongst others, Jared Diamond in his, ‘Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive (Penguin 2005)’, argues deforestation on Easter Island led to rapid loss of raw materials and decreased crop yields which in turn resulted in starvation, a population crash and even cannibalism. Not so dramatic on Sumba, of course, but the parallels are eery. Cheers, Heath.
Interesting. If the English name of the island called Poelo Tjsindana or Sandal Bosch Eyland on the old map is a translation of the Dutch name on the map, it should have been called ‘Sandal Forest Island’, I suggest, as Bosch (modern Dutch Bos) means Forest. Wood ( or timber) is ‘hout’ in Dutch. Cheers Peter Reynders
Thanks Peter, ‘Sandal Forest Island’ would certainly imply that the trees were widespread across the island.
Hi Ian. But I don’t think that Sandalwood grows in dense concentrations. I thought, like most tropical tree species, the individuals were widely scattered through the forest. If so, this doesn’t account for the deforestation on Sumba. Perhaps that’s more to do with keeping horses (just a guess!).
Hello George, As I said it is a mystery, but I suspect there never was a tropical forest on Sumba and it was more like the drier environment that you find in Timor
Plants in the Santalaceae family are partly parasitic: eg Local Sydney Basin tree Exocarpus cupressiformis.
As Sandalwood is host dependent, with its roots receiving nutrients from other trees, re-establishment needs that support.
Hello Bernhard, Early attempts to replant Sandalwood all failed before its parasitic nature was understood. Now a sandalwood tree and a host tree are planted together.