From The Buddha's Life Story, The Birth of Buddha:
As respects his existence as Mahosadha, it is related that just as he was issuing from his mother's womb, Sakka, the king of the gods, came and placed in his hand some choice sandal-wood, and departed. And he closed his fist upon it, and issued forth.
"My child," said his mother, "what is it you bring with you in your hand?"
"Medicine, mother," said he.
...And thus he received the name of Mahosadha Great Medicine-Man.
The wood of the sandalwood tree has been valued both for its healing properties and its fine perfume for many thousands of years. There is archaeological evidence that sandalwood oil was used in embalming rituals as well as in ceremonies to venerate the gods of ancient Egypt, and the heartwood was carved into elaborate artifacts for use in ancient temples in India and China.
The sandalwood tree, Santalum album, primarily grows in the ever-shrinking tropical rainforests of southern India, and in parts of South Asia. There are other, related species that grow, and are even cultivated in Australia and New Zealand, but the most prized wood comes from the Karnataka region of India, especially Mysore.
The tree begins life as a semi-parasitic seedling living on the roots of other plants that provide nourishment for its growth into a sapling. It is evergreen and bears leathery oval leaves and small pink-purple flowers. The mature tree grows to a maximum height of 10-15m, and forms a slender trunk that can take up to 100 years to obtain its full girth of 1.5m.
The valuable oils are only present in the dark heartwood in the centre of the trunk (not the branches) and in the roots, so whole trees have to be dug up, and therefore destroyed, every time there is a harvest. The oils are not produced in significant quantities until the trees are at least 30 years old, and the best yields are when the trees are 50-60 years old. One 30 year old tree produces 100-150kg of heartwood, and 1 ton of heartwood yields a mere 60kg of oil. This, combined with the fact that the rainforest has shrunk from 40% coverage to 8% coverage of the area in the last 100 years, has resulted in a great problem for the species as well as for the socio-economics of regions that export the wood and oil - Santalum album is
now officially an endangered species.
The Indian government, in an attempt to protect the species as far as possible, has decreed that every sandalwood tree belongs to the state. Even trees growing on private property are state-owned, and it is an offence to fell, or even prune a sandalwood tree in one's own garden without an official permit to do so; also the tree must be at least 30 years old before permission will be given. Fortunately the government does reimburse the people who 'look after' the sandalwood trees on their property - 75% of the value of the yield is given back to the person who owns the land, however the high prices offered by smugglers and black marketeers
often undermine the attempts of the state to protect the species.
- Wood products
Sandal wood is a rich, golden brown wood that gives off a wonderfully warm, sweet fragrance. Many artifacts such as jewelry boxes, trinkets and fans are produced for tourists on a large scale. Although sandalwood is a hardwood, it is easy to split into sheets that can be carved to produce intricate designs and patterns. Sandalwood statues and prayer beads have long been a part of religious rituals in India and China, and the large carvings and screens that decorate ancient monasteries and temples still retain their perfume after hundreds of years.
The spent wood pulp remaining after oil extraction still retains some aroma. It is made into a paste and wrapped around thin bamboo canes, to be burnt as incense.
Sandalwood is a vital ingredient of many soaps and perfumes; in addition to the fragrance, the oil has antiseptic qualities which make it an ideal addition to cosmetics. Sandalwood was first used as a perfume base by the French perfumier, Guerlain, in 1828, and today is still a favourite ingredient in exotic perfumes such as Opium, Poison and Obsession. The base note is extremely longlasting, and it helps fix some of the more volatile aromatics in the blend.
Sandalwood oil has been used as an aid to meditation by Hindus and Buddhists in religious ceremonies long before the modern interest in aromatherapy. It is thought to help purify, calm and soothe the body and mind.
The medical benefits of the essential oil are listed in the next section. It is safe to use on its own or in blends; it is non-toxic and is said to be safe to use during pregnancy. Sandalwood oil can be used topically or taken on a sugar lump or in drinks.
Sandalwood is a major ingredient in the Ayurvedic system of medicine, and is an important addition to the aromatherapist's tool kit. Anecdotal evidence of its efficacy is now so strong that it is being researched by the pharmaceutical industry.
The oil is a powerful antiseptic, and is used for treatment of urinary tract infections, sore throats, dry coughs, and has also been shown to be effective against fungal infections including athletes foot (tinea) and thrush (Candida albicans). As a skin treatment, it is helpful against eczema, acne, cold sores and Staphylococcus A infections. More recently, tests have shown that it inhibits the sun-induced changes in DNA that give rise to skin cancer.
The future of the Indian sandalwood is uncertain - increased demand for sandalwood oil in the West, combined with the destruction of its natural habitat, has pushed prices up so high that smuggling is rife and protection policies are all but useless. In Australia, plantations of related species are maturing, but the oil is deemed to be inferior to that of the Indian tree. It is ironic that the demand for a product which is supposed to bestow powers of protection on the wearer is likely to result in the extinction of a whole species.
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