The Power Of Scent

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In Malaysia, if a Malay maiden wish to snare a good, desirable husband, she would seek the services of a bomoh [medicine man or shaman] to conduct a ritual floral bath called ‘mandi bunga’.


For the ceremony, she gathers seven types of fragrant flowers, limau purut (kaffir lime), aromatic root of the sintok tree (Cinnamomum sintok Bl.), betel leaves and betel nuts, chalk and bedak sejuk (face powder made from rice grains) for the bath water. Other materials for the bomoh to conduct his magic are coconut leaves, wax, and unprocessed thread.

On the appointed day, the bomoh and maiden accompanied by witnesses [usually relatives and close friends] gathered for the ceremony.

The bomoh began the ceremony with the weaving of four strands of coconut leaves into a shape. Then he melted the wax using the thread as a wick. Next, he prepared the fragrant ingredients for the bath water, kneading them together rhythmically. Aromatic fragrance filled the air. Satisfied, the bomoh placed the fragrant ingredients into a vessel filled with bath water. Reciting an incantation over the prepared ingredients, he sprinkled grains of uncooked glutinous rice around the maiden. After finishing the incantation, the bomoh bathed the girl with the magical water. An intoxicating aroma of floral fragrance enveloped the maiden.
(In case you are having some naughty thoughts in your head, the maiden is wrapped in a sarong when the bomoh poured the fragrant water over her)

So is this fragrant floral bath ritual effective? The skeptics will dismiss it as just superstitious rubbish. Now let us turn to modern science and see what it has to say about smell and sexual attraction…

If you are heterosexual, did you notice you are sometimes attracted to someone of the opposite sex and repulsed by another? This has nothing to do with someone smelling good or bad. According to Dr. Rachel Hertz, “Body chemistry plays a large role in terms of whom we are sexually attracted to”. Our bodies produce pheromones (scented sex hormones) that our noses pick up and transmit to the brain subconsciously. Scientists found that women were attracted to men whose body smell was most different from their own and vice versa. The scientists reasoned, Children whose parents have different genes have stronger immunity with two sets of immune genes to fight disease. Moreover, the different genes reduce the chances of abnormality caused by inbreeding.
So now, you have the scientific explanation for the relationship between smell and sexual attraction. The ancient people may have noticed the relationship between smell and sexual attraction but they did not know the scientific basis. They reasoned someone who smell good would be more attractive, hence the popularity of fragrance in many cultures.

Now let us return to ‘mandi bunga’ or ritual floral bath. It is not only used to snare husbands. In the olden days, royalty also performed mandi bunga for spiritual cleansing and to ward off bad luck (bad vibes) - “buang sial".

The exact ingredients were secret with each family having its own formulae. Typically, they performed mandi bunga using three, five or seven types of flowers. The most commonly used flowers were jasmine, orange and white chempaka, rose, ylang-ylang and dew magnolia. Kaffir lime was also thrown in for purification.

A traditional Malay bath starts with pouring water to the feet and moves up slowly to the knees, thighs, abdomen, chest and lastly the head.

Another cultural practice of mandi bunga is sprinkling fragrant water at weddings during the ‘bridal shower’ (berlimau) ceremony. The aim is to ‘wash away’ all that is bad so the newlyweds can begin life anew and good fortune can fill the void.


Mandi bunga is enmeshed with the ancient Malay belief system. The Malays believe fragrant or pleasant smells attract good or helpful supernatural beings or spirits [makhlus halus]. Blood or foul smells attract bad or disruptive spirits that bring illness and misfortune. Hence, mandi bunga would bring good helpful spirits. After the Malays embraced Islam, some of them reconciled their traditional practice by stating that mandi bunga would attract angels, spirit of Islam and the spirit of the friends of God. ‘Popular Islam’ pointed out that the holy Koran also endorsed cleanliness and ritual washing is practiced in Islam.

Scientific discovery

In the middle of the twentieth century, scientists discovered that smell and emotion are located in the same part of the neural network called the limbic system. According to Dr. Herz, “Brain imaging studies have shown that when we perceive a scent the amygdala (region where emotions is processed) becomes activated and the more emotional our reaction to the scent, the more intense the activation is.” In other words, the ability to experience and express emotion grew directly out of our brain’s ability to process smell.

Researching into the uses of scents, scientists found that the scents of jasmine and lavender could calm us and reduce tension headache; scents of orange and lemon could invigorate us and refresh our mind; scent of hallucinogens like poppy could alter and distort our perception.

In the olden days, people noticed smell could influence emotion. However, they lacked the tools and methodology to analyze the link between emotion and smell. Therefore, they turned to their spiritual beliefs for an answer. They used scented rituals to modify perception; after all, bad luck and spiritual cleansing are feelings affected by our perception.

Modern scientific and traditional explanations may differ on how scent work, but both agree that the power of scent can influence our emotion and color our perception.

A final word from Herz: “No other sensory system has this kind of privileged and direct access to the part of brain that controls our emotions”. -

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