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Karkar, Dilka and Dukhan

Sudanese Aromatics Continued

Above, Alewiyah from Al-Musari, on Sur Island, (Dar al-Manasir, Northern Sudan), enveloping herself in one of several coarse goat / camel hair blankets or “shamla”, used to capture the heady scented fumes of her dukhan or smoke bath

(photo, David Haberlah, CC Wikipedia).

Title photo, Sudanese dukhan mats, known as nata’ (photo, Imogen Thurbon).

Above, verses from Wedding Parade by Muhammed El-Mahdi El-Magzoub, Modern Sudanese Poetry, An Anthology, translated and edited by Adil Babekir. Photo, dilka scrub exfoliant on perfumed, smoke-bathed, hennaed skin

This week’s post is dedicated to karkar, a fragrant Sudanese body and hair oil, dilka, a perfume-drenched, putty-like exfoliant and moisturizing scrub, and the rituals of the dukhan smoke bath/ body incensing. The dense scent halo of the dukhan envelops the wearer for many hours after bathing and suffuses the air with perfumes that are uniquely Sudanese. A unique scent print, if you like.

Scroll down for videos of karkar and dilka making and scenes of dukhan.

Karkar, Dilka and Dukhan

Setting the Scene; Dag al-Rihah

Karkar, Dilka and Dukhan

Above, homemade and commercial perfumes and incense, scented woods and red wooden hugg; containers for perfumed powders and pastes. The cosmetics and scents traditionally so central to northern Sudanese women’s beauty regimes; dilka, khumra, bukhuur, karkar, especially when they are used as part of the dukhan, are collectively known as kabarayt.

Setting the Scene; Dag al-Rihah

For a princely sum, the Diva Nihal Sudanese Bride Gift Box, left, offers exquisitely packaged modern takes on an aromatic wedding culture flowing back to the great Nubian queens of ancient Kush. For Ahdiambo Magak, Dukhan: The Timeless African Beauty Treatment, the discovery by archeologists of a hofrat el-dukhan or smoke pit in the Great Enclosure of the third century BC temple complex of Musawwarat es-Sufra is even more reason to reclaim a timeless, regal institution. “As we sit smothered in scented body oils, covered with a thin blanket, the smoke from the aromatic woods saturating our bodies, souls and spirit, we honour our womanhood. We relive our heritage, paying homage to the Nubian queens before us. We remember that we are, because they were.”

Scroll the internet and you will find countless contemporary iterations of Sudan’s ancient aromatic heritage. The Sudanese gift box above with its miniature incense burner, dainty gold tongs, sandalwood incense and traditional musk and sandalwood oil khumra perfume blends is a seductively stylish if atomized version of the deeply communal dag al-rihah tradition, where female family, friends and neighbors of the bride-to-be gather over several days to pound, beat (dagg) smoke and blend the scented woods, aromatic spices and oils essential for the perfumes and cosmetics; the “kabarayt” of married life. Abdulla El-Tayib, in his Changing Customs of the Sudan, lists these as karkar (see below), khumra, khumraat (blended perfumes made with a base of Sudanese smoked pastes, ground perfumed woods, musk and oils), al-zeit (oil), dilka (see below) and dukhan. Younger women would prepare the dry ingredients, he explains, under the watchful eye of experienced matrons.

The dag al-rihah and its sister rituals of hair-braiding, body incensing, exfoliation and massage create leisurely, intimate and supportive spaces where women can cement their family, community and intergenerational bonds, as mothers and grandmothers pass on their knowledge and news, advice and anecdotes are exchanged and savoured. They are vital to Sudanese women’s informal economic hubs as expertise, ingredients and services are traded, and provide an income source, as well as consoling connection to home, for thousands of Sudanese women living abroad, who enrich, adapt and evolve traditional cosmetic recipes with ingredients from their adopted homes.

Sudan’s scent and cosmetic rituals inform her peoples’ rites of passage – initiation into adulthood and married life for example, and are intimately associated with fertility and childbearing. Although often reserved for married and soon-to-be married women, age and status taboos are sometimes gently subverted: Griselda EL-Tayib noted that in the 1950s, “divorcees and young widows who had completed their period of mourning were permitted some of these practices only very discreetly. As a woman got older, usually on the birth of her first grandchild, she gradually gave up these cosmetic practices at the same time she ceased to wear coloured tobs and if she continued the dilka or dukhan she alleged it was for medical reasons.” (Regional Folk Costumes of the Sudan, Griselda ElTayib)


Perhaps at the heart of perfume’s enduring centrality in events marking life’s milestones in Sudan is that as scents deemed pleasing by a community shift and alter in the shared air, all are enveloped by the same aromatic strands; discordant scents, such as sweat, are cleansed and a sense of communion and unity is forged (Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell and The Gender/ sexuality Reader) Tempting gender analogies have also been drawn; “commercially prepared colognes and perfumes communicate coldness and masculinity in northern Sudan, while incense and those home-blended perfumes such as humra with smoked / incense base notes represent heat and femininity. Blending ‘cold’ perfumes with ‘hot’ incense and tobacco smoke in wedding scents “creates a unity of male and female – symbolizing marriage and fertility”, while also serving to protect the vulnerable protagonists from malevolent spirits. (Aroma:The Cultural History of Smell by Constance Classen, David Howes, Anthony Synnott)

Khumra; Traditional Sudanese Perfume

Smoked woods, such as myrrh, have played a central role in therapeutic and cosmetic treatments in East Africa for millenia. Below, examples of ways the Sudanese have used acacia wood, known as talh.

Text taken from Genotoxic effects of dukhan

See too Acacia of Sudan: Cosmetic & Therapeutic Value

This is one of a series of articles on Sudan’s unique aromatic and esthetic heritage.

Read more in The Clove’s Fragrance, Incense (بخور bakhūr) in Sudan, Anointing in Robes of Red and Gold, Hair Braiding in Northern Sudan, ” A Sip from Tattooed lips” and “Who will trace the kohl for our eyes?”

Karkar, Dilka and Dukhan


“Najjam became a loving mother, taking care not to allow Razina’s tears to stray too far from her eyes and making sure not to let the potent karkar oil she used on her braids dry out…”

From the Yelling Dowry by Amir Taj Elsir.

Writing in the 1950s, Abdulla ElTayib describes karkar, whose name is derived from the root for the repetitive movements and sounds of stirring, as an “unguent made from rendered sheep’s fat,” known as wadak, infused with “cloves, sandalwood powder, mahalab paste, odoriferous oils from India” and occasionally ostrich oil. Sometimes liquid perfumes were also blended into this dense, complex oil. See Sudanese traditional perfumes bitalsudan for more details. Today, sesame oil, beeswax (pictured left) and animal fat are blended to make karkar and it enjoys international demand as a rich hair and scalp supplement.

“Growing up, my mom would always make jars of Karkar for us. I HATED it so much. Little did I know the many benefits that it holds. Karkar is another example of where Sudanese women were able to take everyday items that they had in the kitchen and make magic. Karkar moisturises, nourishes, and heals. It is truly magic in a jar. For Sudaniya Organics, I changed the things that I hated about Karkar, and added my own twist to keep the benefits, but also modernise it a bit.” Nada Osman, interviewed in 500 Words Magazine Sudaniya Organics

Below, a charming short video, subtitled in English, on how to make karkar at home.

Karkar, Dilka and Dukhan


This rich, perfumed massage paste used to exfoliate, smooth and lightly scent the skin may take up to five days to prepare and in the past “was only made by women specialized in the art” (Sisters Under the Skin). Although largely reserved as a cosmetic treatment for married women, Dr. Al-Safi notes several therapeutic uses of dilka, such as for sore joints, when un-perfumed versions may be used by men. He also notes anti-microbial effects when given by mouth to children with diarrhoea and quotes the 18th century traveler John Petherick waking “quite revived” from his ailments after taking it.

Above, a description of dilka, meaning massage in Sudanese Arabic, by Dr Ahmed Al-Safi in Sudanese Traditional Medicine * against a sketch of dilka paste patties, and below, an extract from Women of Omdurman, describing the application of dilka after a smoke bath in 1970s Omdurman.

* Scroll to the end of this post for an explanation of Jilad, zabad and other ingredients referenced above.

Below, Abdullah ELTayib’s account of making dilka in the 1950s (Changing Customs of the Sudan).

Etsy Dilka scrub

Watch dilka being made at home below.

A line-by-line English transcript is available, next to the video on Youtube.

This is one of a series of articles on Sudan’s unique aromatic and esthetic heritage.

Read more in The Clove’s Fragrance, Incense (بخور bakhūr) in Sudan, Anointing in Robes of Red and Gold, Hair Braiding in Northern Sudan, ” A Sip from Tattooed lips” and “Who will trace the kohl for our eyes?”

Karkar, Dilka and Dukhan

Dukhan Health, Beauty and Community

Above, the nata’ mat, placed around the hofrat-al-dukhan or smoke pit, traditionally to be found in the courtyards and kitchens of all northern Sudanese homes. Recently the smoke pit has given way to a more portable deep pot.

See stunning portraits of the dukhan by Gabriela Vivacqua in

Between Smoke and Fire – Gabriela Vivacqua

Gabriela Vivacqua Instagram

Above, Sudanese women enjoying a dukhan in

Sudanese Dukhan Vimeo short film

For many Sudanese emigres, the deep woody, perfume-laden scent of the dukhan evokes exquisite nostalgia for home. But while beauty centres such as the elegant Canada’s Body Smoking Spa strive to capture the sophisticated allure of body incensing for non-Sudanese clients, recreating dukhan in an American appartment with fire alarms and sprinklers can be both complicated and comic, as Hana Baba recalls:

“burning the wood in paint cans while sitting on the toilet, or squatting over a pot in the kitchen with a fan on high, while covering up smoke detectors with aluminum foil. The result is endless anecdotes about the fire department being called by neighbors who saw smoke and smelled something burning..”

A Sudanese smoke bath detoxifies the skin and brings back memories

If Sudanese women abroad have to contend with their freshly dukhan-scented skin causing fire alerts in supermarkets, they also face western misrepresentations – often prurient or patronizing, always tedious, of the tradition, as Willa Wau reminds us in The Dukhan Dilemma. Attitudes towards the acceptability of the dukhan have shifted over recent decades, oscillating from the colonial – inspired disapproving chant, “we do not desire kabarayt / Give up grease and zeit / Most important is the daily bath…” through a sense that is it is impractical and time-consuming, unprofessional for working women to smell of smoke, to its recent reclaiming and celebration on both health and cultural grounds.

While many claims are made for its health benefits (see below), recent medical research has raised concerns relating to smoke particulate damage (Genotoxic effects of dukhan) caused by frequent exposure to dukhan and tragic, though mercifully rare incidents of women suffering severe burns as their blanket covers catch on fire are more than mere cautionary tales, as young Rania, so anxious to undergo this rite of passage, recognized:

From Doors to Freedom by Jana Kelley

Health Benefits

Many Sudanese enthusiastically embrace the therapeutic claims for dukhan – and they are big claims, echoed in this extract from a recent press report:

“…it helps the body to get rid of extra poisonous and fat wastes through profuse sweating. But one miraculous aspect of the dukhan is that it helps the fast healing of wounds, cures acnes, sunburns and rheumatism. It also cures influenza and other respiratory and intestinal bacterial infections. Regular exposure to the dukhan helps skin tuning and diminishes facial and hand skin aging lines. Exposure to the dukhan nourishes the derma and hair roots and makes the person more vital and energetic, as the disposal of extra fat and poisonous waste through profuse sweating during the dukhan session makes the body healthier and stronger. It is also proven that the dukhan is very effective in ridding the household of mosquito and flies, in addition to its lasting fragrance smell within the household.

Acacia of Sudan: Cosmetic & Therapeutic Value

Below, Dr Ahmad Al-Safi’s assessment of dukhan and other smoke-based therapies:

Beauty and Community

The much sought-after smooth, fragrant, light golden yellow and smoke-infused skin of the dukhan is the fruit of patient preparation in intimate companionship with women family and friends who help anoint the sitter with sesame and perfumed oils and refresh the coals and talh over many hours. From a month or two before marriage to the end of her married life, most northern Sudanese women still have a dukhan on a weekly or monthly basis; a practice interrupted only by the absence or death of her husband or that of another relative. Often, before marriage, members of the bridegroom’s family will provide the bride-to-be with all the accoutrements needed; fragrant woods, perfumes etc, in a collection of gifts known as shaylat al-dukhan.

Although today there are numerous “takeaway”, cream substitutes, claimed to mimic perfectly the alluring scent halo of the dukhan, for many Sudanese women, the self-affirming, self-caring, sisterly charm of the real thing will never be replaced. For so many, the dukhan still has the healing and cleansing powers of the luxury sauna or steam spa for non-Sudanese. And Sudanese husbands, by and large, seem forever enchanted by its allure.

I close with a description of dukhan from Women of Omdurman by Anne Cloudsley, reproduced below:

Below, Joanna Lumley experiences her first dukhan:


Mahlab; prunus mahaleb, grunuful; cloves, dofr/ dufr; operculum, talh; acacia seyal, shaff; terminalia brownie, zabad; cuttlefish bone, luban; frankincense, simbal; spikenard, surratiyyah; crude oil of cloves, sandaliyyah; crude sandal oil, mamjou; clove and sandal oil, baida; mahleb oil and zeit al-ni’am; ostrich fat.

Below, Abdullah ElTayib explaining “jalad is now seldom used, because of preparations that go with it. It is the skin of a civet cat, a wild feline …..

This is a cultural post for

Women’s Education Partnership

Learn more about our life changing educational work in

Scenes from Our Orphans’ Schooling Programme

Opening Doors

Our University Scholarships

See too Community Literacy, Latest News and At a Glance

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