Sandalwood has always been an essential part of Indian culture. Referred to as chandan in the Hindu scriptures, it is burnt as incense and widely used in Ayurveda. Most importantly, the fragrance of the sandalwood that Mysore is famous for found its way into almost every Indian home through a soap that became almost emblematic of our Indian identity. It was called Mysore Sandal Soap.
A 100 years ago the first Mysore Sandal soap rolled out of the factory in Bengaluru
It is exactly a hundred years since this soap first rolled out of a factory in Bengaluru, promising to ‘make your skin as smooth and supple as velvet’. But the story of the iconic Mysore Sandal Soap is rooted in the erstwhile princely state of Mysore, where most of India’s sandalwood trees grow.
In India, sandalwood is found all over the country, with over 90% of the area in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu covering 8300 sq. km. In Karnataka, it grows naturally in the southern as well as western parts over an area of 5000 sq. km. In Tamil Nadu, it is distributed over an area of 3000 sq. km.
In the erstwhile Mysore State, sandal wood was a state monopoly and has always been an important source of revenue even before 1799. There were state owned sandalwood godowns known as Sandal Koti. It appears before 1799, China was one of the main buyers of sandal wood from Mysore. It was used in traditional medicine, burnt as incense sticks and even used to make furniture. Red sandalwood was widely sought and used by the aristocracy of the Ming and Qing dynasties, especially the royal families, and officials of all ranks would collect it in tribute to the emperor. In the Forbidden City, almost all the furniture is made of sandalwood.
But post-1799, gradually Germany became one of the main buyers of the wood. Since the distillation of sandalwood oil was still quite primitive in India, the Germans preferred to buy the wood and distill it themselves.
Presenting Mysore made sandalwood perfume to visiting dignitaries was quite common. Thus, when the noted 19th century traveller and British aristocrat, Lord Valentia, in the course of his travels in India (1802-06), paid a visit to Mysore in 1804, it is recorded that Maharaja Mummadi Krishna Raja Wadiyar presented him two bottles of sandal-oil among others. Similarly when Maharaja Mummadi Krishna Raja Wadiyar sent Queen Victoria many costly gifts in 1861, a sandalwood walking stick and fans were among them.
When the British took over the administration of Mysore in 1831, under the false pretext of the default in payment of the annual subsidy, the sandal kotis had so much sandalwood in them – estimated at over Rs 7 lakh, even at the lowest price – that they created a government department called ‘Sandal Cutcheri’. Demand for sandalwood was so high that it became an important source of public revenue.
In 1881, when the British restored the state of Mysore to the Wadiyar dynasty, the market for sandalwood had grown exponentially. At the time, all sandalwood extracted was auctioned annually by the Forest Department. Whereas it fetched Rs 387 per ton in 1880-81, the price had risen to Rs 534 per ton by 1911-12, and, in the next two years, it fetched as much as Rs 1,051 per ton, a fortune in those times.
Sandalwood was in so much demand across the world that these auctions were attended by representatives of leading international perfumery houses like the Volkarts and Antoine Chiris, who voyaged for 3-4 months and trekked in bullock carts for days together, to remote places like Hunsur Tirthahalli, Sagar and Seringapatnam, where sandal kotis were located.
German chemists had by then mastered the art of sandalwood distillation and manufactured oil according to pharmacopea standards. This created a new market for sandalwood as the oil was the only known remedy against venereal diseases till the advent of sulpha drugs in 1930. Military personnel, it appears, were freely administered gona pills in those days, while the nightlife in Paris and Tokyo considerably boosted the manufacture of gelatin capsules containing sandalwood oil, which was believed to be an insurance against contracting venereal diseases!
But when World War I broke out, exports to Germany ceased. As a result, the practice of auctioning sandalwood too drew to a halt. The war had also made shipping sandalwood to other countries a challenge. But the Maharaja of Mysore figured that if sandal oil could be distilled to international standards, domestically, the extract could be exported instead of the wood. Thus, Mysore’s trade revenues could be spared!
It was smart thinking. The Maharaja appointed Alfred Chatterton as the Director of Industries in the state. Chatterton was an ingenious man and, as Principal of the College of Engineering in Madras, he had pioneered the use of aluminium for utensils of daily use. He had also been posted as the Director of Industries in the Government of Madras.
In Mysore, Chatterton got to work immediately. He collaborated with two chemistry professors from the Institute of Science, Bangalore – J J Sudborough and H E Watson – and together they began distilling sandal oil in the laboratory, a first in India. They carried out intensive trials and experiments before they finally discovered the secret of manufacturing pharmaceutical-grade sandal oil that would be acceptable to European buyers.
Soon, oil conforming to even more stringent specifications was prepared and a factory to turn out 2,000 pounds of oil a month was opened in Mysore. Headed by Chatterton himself, it was called the Mysore Sandalwood Oil Factory, and by August 1916, sandal oil of excellent quality was being produced and sent to London.
That same year, a second factory was opened to distill sandalwood oil, this one in Bangalore. In a short time, additional steam plants and stills were added and it was not long before a third, much larger factory was opened in Mysore.
Chatterton, Director of the Mysore Sandalwood Oil Factory for nearly 6 years, built what grew into the largest sandal oil distillery in the world. The traditions and standards he set for the factory helped build one of the most successful commercial enterprises dealing in essential oils, after Schimmel House of Germany.
Mysore controlled the international sandal oil market for more than a decade before it suddenly found a fierce competitor in Australian sandalwood oil in 1929-30. Although the Australian extract was made from wood of a different species and had different physical and chemical characteristics, it made a bold bid to challenge Mysore’s monopoly over sandal oil in the pharmaceutical trade. It is said that ‘French chemists and pharmacists were wooed with money, intense publicity and propaganda campaign’.
It was only a matter of time before a simple ceremonial gesture was to set the stage for another feather in Mysore’s cap as a world leader in sandalwood. In 1918, a foreign guest presented a rare gift pack of soaps made by using sandalwood oil produced in Mysore, to the Maharaja of Mysore, Krishna Raja Wadiyar IV. It was an inspirational moment for the Maharaja, who decided to use natural sandalwood oil to make soap in Mysore itself.
The Maharaja dispatched SG Shastry, a qualified industrial chemist, to London for advanced training in soap and perfumery technology. It was the dawn of a new era, for with Shastry’s return from London, India’s first-ever sandal soap was born.
Marketed under the unpretentious name, Mysore Sandal Soap, it went on to be used in homes all over India and was once a thriving export.
It is marketed as the only soap in the world that contains natural sandalwood oil, with ‘Sandal Note’ as its base fragrance along with the other natural essential oils.
The Government Soap Factory was launched by the Maharaja of Mysore near Cubbon Park in Bangalore. It was only in 1957, after the new industrial suburb known as Rajaji Nagar was established that the soap factory – now the state-owned Karnataka Soaps And Detergents Ltd, shifted to its present premises.
These factories still make the iconic soap,and even if they are well past their glory days, the fragrance still lingers.
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