For centuries, perfumers in Kannauj have labored their alchemy to create “liquid gold.” | By Rachna Sachasinh
Culture Uttar Pradesh
| POSTED ON: February 16, 2021
Although Damask roses are cultivated in different elements of India, the varietal favors Ganges alluvial soils surrounding the city of Kannauj. For greater than 400 years, the extremely aromatic roses from Kannauj have gone into the creation of rose attar utilizing the world’s oldest identified perfume-making course of. Photo by: Tuul and Bruno Morandi
Tegh Singh arrives at his flower farm on the banks of the Ganges earlier than dawn, able to pluck rose petals when they’re at their peak bouquet. Circling the dense and haphazardly planted Rosa damascena shrubs, he works shortly, tossing the gentle pink petals right into a jute sack slung over his shoulder. By the time the first rays of daylight skim throughout the river, the 35-year-old Singh is already on his scooter, ferrying the sweet-smelling load inland to Kannauj, a small metropolis often called “the fragrance capital of India.”
For centuries, Kannauj in northeast India’s Ganges belt, has been crafting oil-based botanical perfumes known as attar utilizing the world’s oldest identified distillation strategies. Sought after by each Mughal royals and on a regular basis people in historical India’s fragrance-obsessed tradition, Kannauj attar scented every thing from wrists to meals, fountains to properties.
Although attars fell out of vogue in the twentieth century, Kannauj perfumers proceed to ply their craft the similar old school manner—lately awakening a brand new era, at residence and overseas, to its sensual, compelling perfume.
The aroma of attar
Attar is old-world perfumery. Rooted in the Latin per and fume (by way of smoke), fragrance bought its begin with people crushing and infusing botanicals straight into oil or water. Modern perfumery makes use of alcohol as a service or solvent, for the easy causes that it is cheap, impartial, and simply subtle. But attars are historically made with sandalwood oil, which makes them unctuous and extremely absorptive. A tiny droplet on the wrist or behind the ear, and the scent seeps into the pores and skin and lingers pleasantly, generally for days.
Equally alluring to women and men, attars have an androgynous high quality. They strike intense floral, woodsy, musky, smoky, inexperienced, or grassy notes. Trotted out by season, attars could be each heat (cloves, cardamom, saffron, oud) and cooling (jasmine, pandan, vetiver, marigold).
Kannauj produces these, in addition to the dramatic attar mitti, which evokes the scent of earth after a rainfall and is made with shards of unfired Ganges clay. Shamama, one other home-grown Kannauj invention, is a distilled mix of 40 or extra flowers, herbs, and woody resins that takes days to make and months to age. The scent manages to harmonise candy, spice, smoke, and damp and whisks one off to an otherworldly realm. Renowned fragrance homes in Europe use Kannauj attar—be it rose, vetiver, or jasmine—as a layer, a compelling chord in the composition of fashionable perfumery.
The artwork of perfume-making
Kannauj has been concocting attar (often known as ittr) for over 400 years—greater than two centuries earlier than Grasse, in France’s Provence area, emerged as a fragrance juggernaut. Known regionally in Hindi as degh-bhapka, the artisanal technique makes use of copper stills fueled by wooden and cow dung.
Kannauj is a four-hour drive from Agra and simply shy of two hours from historic Lucknow, a former princeling state ruled by the Nawabs of Oudh. Like many smaller Indian cities, Kannauj is wedged someplace between previous and current. Time right here doesn’t transfer on, it merely piles up.
Crumbling sandstone ramparts, onion-domed minarets, and scalloped archways recall the city’s early grandeur as the seat of the Harshavardhana Empire in the sixth century. On the principal drag, puttering scooters and the occasional glistening Mercedes careen previous fruit sellers pushing wood carts piled excessive with guavas and overripe bananas.
Duck into the slim lanes of Bara Bazaar, the principal market, and Kannauj reverts totally to medieval occasions. In this labyrinth, longtime outlets are filled with finely reduce glass bottles holding attar and ruh, or important oil, every smelling higher than the final. Men sit cross-legged on cushioned flooring mats, sniffing vials and dabbing behind their ears with terribly lengthy perfumed cotton swabs. Presiding over this age-old commerce is the attar sazh, or perfumer, conjuring and engaging with the aura of an imperial alchemist.
“The world’s greatest perfumers have walked by way of these slim lanes, making their manner by way of mud and cow dung to get their fingers on Kannauj attar. There is actually nothing prefer it,” remarks Pranjal Kapoor, the fifth-generation companion at M.L. Ramnarain Perfumers, one of the oldest of roughly 350 distillers nonetheless working right here.
Tegh Singh arrives and unloads his bundles of blossoms in Kapoor’s godown, an open-air stone courtyard that serves as the distillery. Ram Singh, Kapoor’s grasp attar craftsman, scoops the petals right into a bulbous copper nonetheless, and tops it with contemporary water. Before fastening the lid, Ram Singh packs the rims with a clay and cotton mash, which hardens and creates a formidable seal.
When the flowery broth begins to simmer, steam flows from the nonetheless, through a bamboo reed, right into a copper pot holding sandalwood oil, which readily imbibes the rose-saturated vapor.
It takes about 5 to 6 hours for Tegh Singh’s roses to develop into rose attar. Throughout this course of, Ram Singh stays on his toes, hopping between the nonetheless and pot, testing the water temperature together with his fingers, and listening to the hiss of steam to intuit whether or not to feed extra wooden into the fireplace. “I’ve been doing this since I used to be a boy,” says the 50-year-old Ram Singh, who apprenticed with an attar guru for a decade.
The course of is repeated the subsequent day, with a brand new batch of rose petals, to realize the desired efficiency. Once accomplished, the rose attar is aged for a number of months in a camel-skin bottle, which wicks moisture. In spite of the old-fangled rig, rose attar is akin to liquid gold. One kilo can fetch as much as $3,000/Rs218,000.
“There are not any gauges and metres, no electrical energy,” Kapoor factors out, including proudly that his humble wares rival these made by prime fashionable fragrance homes in Grasse. “The distinction is like cooking daal [lentils] in a country, open-air village kitchen versus an LPG range or a microwave. The style won’t ever be the similar.”
Distilled historical past
The earliest identified botanical perfumes date again to historical Egypt, when crops have been crushed and infused straight right into a base oil. Although the first hydro-distillation of crops is attributed to the Persian doctor Ibn Sina, often known as Avicenna, in the tenth century, archaeological excavations in the Indus Valley uncovered rudimentary stills, suggesting that primary fragrance making developed earlier.
In the fifteenth century, Gyatri Shahi, the Islamic ruler of central India’s Sultanate of Malwa, penned the Ni’matnama, or the Book of Delights, which delves into the world of sybaritic pleasures. Countless passages relay the virtues of smelling good.
The Mughals marched into India in the sixteenth century, bringing with them a lusty olfactory urge for food. The first Mughal ruler, Barbur, celebrated the inextricable hyperlink between perfume and non secular and sensual contentment, and this ethos percolated in the halls of Mughal courts for the subsequent two centuries.
Barbur’s son Akbar had a division devoted solely to creating scents for corporeal and culinary functions. The Ain-e-Akbar, or Constitution of Akbar, particulars the emperor’s predilections for dabbing his physique with aromatic attars, burning incense, and rubbing doorways and furnishings with copious quantities of fragrance. It is believed queens and courtesans wore their private attar stash in miniature glass vials round their necks.
The Mughal emperor Jahanghir and his queen, Noor Jahan—dad and mom of Shah Jahan, who went on to construct the Taj Mahal—are thought-about Kannauj’s first royal patrons. According to native folklore, Noor Jahan ignited a run on rose attar after turning into beguiled by the scent of Kannauj roses in her bathtub.
But why Kannauj? If you triangulate Agra, Lucknow, and Kanpur—three Mughal strongholds with a passion for scent—Kannauj lies in the center. Built atop wealthy alluvial Ganges soil, the city is notably suited to cultivating jasmine, vetiver, and Damask rose, which owes its identify to Damascus however is native to central Asia. Master perfumers have been already in place in Kannauj, Kapoor explains. The Mughals merely fired up demand, and Kannauj jumped on the bandwagon.
These days, Kannauj is going through a reckoning. When energy shifted to British India, demand for attar tapered. The value of pure Mysore sandalwood was all the time excessive, however when the Indian authorities restricted the sale of sandalwood in the late Nineteen Nineties, the value of attar skyrocketed. At the similar time, status-conscious Indians wanting to current themselves as fashionable and upwardly cell, shifted their allegiance to imported Western perfumes and deodorants. Natural substitutes, akin to liquid paraffin, are used in lieu of sandalwood, and, whereas this iteration of attar is an in depth approximation, it doesn’t measure as much as the unique.
Today, most Kannauj attar finally ends up in the Middle East and amongst native Muslim communities. In Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, a Seventeenth-century market constructed by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, Gulab Singh Johri Mahal is a longtime market establishment that now carries each Kannauj attar and fashionable fragrances. Nonetheless Gulab Singh is virtually all the time full of Muslim males in search of attar to dab behind the ears earlier than Friday prayers and to rejoice festivals akin to Eid.
Kannauj additionally produces a unprecedented quantity of rose water for paan—a well-liked nationwide snack of tobacco and spices wrapped in betel leaf. But these markets aren’t sufficient to maintain the city’s distilleries, and plenty of have needed to shut or shift to creating facsimiles of Western perfumes.
In spite of these challenges, Kapoor is optimistic. He spends a lot of his time courting prime worldwide fragrance homes, familiarising them with attar and the terroir of Kannauj botanicals. “Western tastes are shifting East,” Kapoor says. “Typically, [the West] prefers gentle, citrusy notes, however lately you see the massive daddies like Dior, Hermès, and, of course, the Middle Eastern fragrance homes going for gilded scents like rose, oud, and shamama.”
A distinct segment marketplace for high-quality attar is simmering domestically, as properly. Anita Lal, the founder of Good Earth and Paro, two modern life-style manufacturers rooted in conventional Indian design and sensibility, does brisk enterprise with traditional rose and vetiver important oils, although she is wanting to reintroduce attar to youthful generations.
“The tragedy of attar is two-fold,” Lal says. “Sandalwood is uncommon, and with out it, it’s almost inconceivable to seize the attraction of attar. Second, attar is perceived as ridiculously old school. Pit that in opposition to the wiles of Western advertising and marketing and the lure of French fragrance—properly, you’ll be able to see what we’re up in opposition to.”
Perhaps attar’s most outstanding world ambassador is native Lucknowi Jahnvi Lâkhòta Nandan, who skilled as a grasp perfumer in Geneva and Paris for seven years earlier than opening The Perfume Library, in Goa and Paris. For the ruling households of outdated Lucknow, she says, “speaking about fragrance was a pastime. Everything was fragranced: garments, doorknobs, the air. And it was all the time understood that this attar should come from Kannauj.”
Nandan’s olfactory alchemy is equal elements poetry, eccentricity, and science. Each yr, she bridges mythology and modernity with one, maybe two, new scents, and attar is an necessary half of her repertoire. In 2020, The Perfume Library launched Earthshine, a mix of the sedgy nagarmotha, or nut grass, mimosa, and the androgynous maulshree. “Maulshree is deeply entwined with Kannauj,” Nandan says, including that, as a decorative favoured in Mughal-era gardens, maulshree is an ideal ode to Kannauj and its attar-makers.
“Attar speaks to the soul. All the fireplace and smoke in a small area can appear apocalyptic, but it surely’s additionally genuine and delightful,” she says. “You can’t recreate this in a lab in Europe.”
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