For someone who can ‘bottle the monsoon’, the man squatting on a giant copper vat looks nothing like you would expect him to be. The vat is one in a row of six, partially embedded in a brick kiln being warmed by a wood fire. Bamboo pipes emerge from these vats, there’s a cooling tank, and everything is covered in soot.
With effortless ease handed down across generations, our alchemist atop the vat is tweaking, almost invisibly, the delicate process that goes into distilling attar, the scents of the natural world. When the stills go cold at the end of this particular cycle, the ethereal end result will be ‘gilli mitti’ or ‘wet earth’, or ‘the scent of rain’.
This almost medieval scene is from a distillery in Kannauj, around 100 km from Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh. Kannauj is home to traditional units that distil attar or perfumes and essential oils from purely natural sources such as plant, animal and mineral products. Its distilleries use a traditional process that goes back hundreds of years, and attar from Kannauj was once shipped far and wide, especially to the Middle East.
The word ‘attar’ conjures images of medieval souks, decadent kings and queens, and iftaar parties laced with delicious fragrances but there’s nothing regal or romantic about Kannauj. It is rustic, it has definitely seen better days, and telltale signs of the industry that nicknamed it the ‘perfume capital of India’ are everywhere. Almost half the town is engaged either directly or indirectly in the attar-making business, but the Armanis, Chanels and Davidoffs of the 21st century, among other factors, have put this traditional industry in peril. According to the BBC, there were more than 700 distilleries in Kannauj till two decades ago, which has now dwindled to less than a hundred.
Fragrance of the Mughals
– The word ‘attar’ comes from the Persian/Arabic ‘ittr’, which means ‘perfume’, and these natural aromas have been cherished since ancient times.
One of the most comprehensive works on the history of perfumes in India is by historian Dr Parshuram K Gode, author of Studies In Indian Cultural History (1961).
While there are references to perfumes in Indian texts like the Kamasutra (3rd CE), Arthashastra (compiled between 2nd BCE to 3rd CE) and Manasollasa (early 12th CE), Dr Gode mentions that the earliest detailed references to the science and art of perfume making in India can be found in two texts – the Gandhasara written by Gangadhara and Gandhavada (anonymous), which he dates to between the 13th and 17th CE. He believes that both these texts were probably based on earlier texts, which were written between the 6th and 11th CE.
Over the centuries, attar was used in many different ways. It is a concentrate and when used as a perfume, it requires only one tiny drop on each wrist, which when rubbed together intensifies the fragrant aroma due to the body heat thus generated.
Attar was also added to the royal baths of kings and nawabs; it was used by the women in the royal harem, in their baths and as a perfume; it was added to palace fountains as a natural ‘air-freshener’; and gifted to special guests in beautiful glass bottles. These natural perfumes also had spiritual significance, and in some societies, saints used them to facilitate their journey towards enlightenment.
Attar is especially popular in the Islamic world, where alcohol is strictly prohibited, and these perfumes, when made the traditional way, do not use alcohol as their base. The market for attar in India thus boomed during the period of the Delhi Sultanate and the other Sultanates like those in Bengal and Gujarat. It became even more widespread during Mughal times.
These natural perfumes were so synonymous with the Mughals that legend would have us believe that it was they who brought perfume-making to India. According to some, attar came to India with the first Mughal emperor Babur, while still, other legends ascribe it to Emperor Jahangir or even his chief consort Noorjahan, who was known as connoisseurs of the finer things in life. The industry might have flourished due to these rulers, but the towns like Kannauj, Jaunpur and Ghazipur in Uttar Pradesh were already centres of the attar trade. Their proximity to the Ganga and Gomti rivers played a major role in this.
Today, Kannauj is the only attar-making hub left in India, and its tenacity is possibly due to its robust past as an important political and economic centre since medieval times. In the 7th century CE, it was an important city during the Gupta Empire (320 – 510 CE) and the capital of King Harsha of the Vardhana Empire in the 7th century CE.
It is famous for being the focus of a tripartite struggle between the Palas, Rashtrakutas and Gurjara-Pratiharas during the 8th to 10th CE, a time when it also prospered greatly. The city’s importance as a political centre ended with the advent of the Delhi Sultanate but it remained an important trading hub during the Mughal and colonial periods. But no matter how much it changed with the twists and turns in history, Kannauj never gave up its position as the country’s premier perfumery.
Traditionally, Kannauj produces two kinds of attar – floral and herb-based. Flowers like rose, jasmine, marigold and raat ki raani, and plant extracts, grasses, roots and resins such as oud and vetiver and are used, while herbs and spices like cinnamon, camphor, ginger, sandal and saffron are also employed. Besides flowers and plant products, animal and mineral products too are used to extract fragrances like musk and opium.
But the most interesting aspect is the traditional method used to, quite literally, bottle the essence of nature. Called the Deg Bhapka method, the first step takes the material from which the scent is extracted and suspends it over water in large copper vats or degs. The material is steamed and distilled by placing the vat on wood or charcoal fires. The steam thus produced is carried through bamboo pipes, which are connected to round copper vessels with a long neck, called bhapkas. The bhapka, which remains immersed in a water tank, also acts as a condenser. The distilled extract collected in this manner is then passed over sandalwood oil, which captures its fragrance and ‘fixes’ it.
The traditional process uses a very delicate play of fire and water and is all about the balancing of materials and management of time. It is also very eco-friendly as all the byproducts from the process are used to make other products like agarbattis or incense sticks, or lower-grade fragrances. It is also one of the few techniques where alcohol isn’t required to produce perfumes.
The master distillers in Kannauj rattle off the names of their products like Blue Lotus Attar, Ruh Khus Attar, Marigold Attar and Shamama Attar but the one they hold closest to their hearts is Mitti Attar or the ‘Scent of Rain’. To mimic the fragrance of ‘petrichor’, that indescribable and intoxicating scent of the first rain as it quenches the parched earth, they distil it from something absurdly simple – broken shards of earthen vessels. Of course, that’s easier said than done!
A daub is all it takes for its aroma to last an entire day or even longer, but attar is literally worth its weight in gold. A tiny, 5 ml bottle can cost upwards of Rs 1,500. Pay any less and you might not be buying the real stuff. The raw materials and labour-intensive process add to production costs. And how can you put a price on magic?
‘Kannauj Perfume’ received a Geographic Indication (GI) tag in 2014, which formally identifies the traditional attar-making process as indigenous to this town. Another modern trapping is the Fragrance and Flavour Development Centre (FFDC) set up by the Government of India in 1991 to promote the industry.
Sadly, these attempts to protect Kannauj’s perfume industry have not helped and many units are closing down. The biggest competitors to attar are modern, alcohol-based perfumes, expensive or otherwise. The other challenge is the difficulty in sourcing raw materials like sandalwood and their now exorbitant costs. One can only hope that these units can reinvent and adapt to modern times so that a centuries-old tradition is not corked for good.
Cover Image: Mughal perfume vessel, Metropolitan Museum of Art