Uttar Pradesh is the Fragrance Capital of India: flower farm at the banks of the Ganges ahead of dawn, able to pluck rose petals when they’re at their height bouquet. Circling the dense and haphazardly planted Rosa damascena shrubs, he works briefly, tossing the sunshine purple petals right into a jute sack slung over his shoulder. By the point the primary rays of daylight skim around the river, the 35-year-old Singh is already on his scooter, ferrying the sweet-smelling load inland to Kannauj, a small town referred to as “the fragrance capital of India.”
For hundreds of years, Kannauj in northeast India’s Ganges belt, has been crafting oil-based botanical perfumes referred to as attar the use of the sector’s oldest identified distillation strategies. Wanted by means of each Mughal royals and on a regular basis folks in historical India’s fragrance-obsessed tradition, Kannauj attar scented the whole thing from wrists to meals, fountains to properties.
Despite the fact that attar fell out of favor within the twentieth century, Kannauj perfumers proceed to ply their craft the similar out of date means—lately awakening a brand new technology, at domestic and in another country, to its sensual, compelling perfume.
The aroma of attar
Within the geographical region round Kannauj, Damask roses are harvested early each day by means of knowledgeable palms and brought to grasp attar makers. Photograph by means of: Tuul and Bruno Morandi
Attar is old-world perfumery. Rooted within the Latin according to and fume (via smoke), fragrance were given its get started with people crushing and infusing botanicals immediately into oil or water. Trendy perfumery makes use of alcohol as a service or solvent, for the easy causes that it’s reasonably priced, impartial, and simply subtle. However attars are historically made with sandalwood oil, which makes them unctuous and extremely absorptive. A tiny droplet at the wrist or at the back of the ear, and the smell seeps into the outside and lingers pleasantly, occasionally for days.
Similarly 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 means of season, attars can also be each heat (cloves, cardamom, saffron, oud) and cooling (jasmine, pandan, vetiver, marigold).
Kannauj produces those, in addition to the dramatic attar mitti, which conjures up the smell of earth after a rainfall and is made with shards of unfired Ganges clay. Shamama, some other home-grown Kannauj invention, is a distilled mix of 40 or extra plant life, herbs, and woody resins that takes days to make and months to age. The smell manages to harmonise candy, spice, smoke, and damp and whisks one off to an otherworldly realm. Famend fragrance homes in Europe use Kannauj attar—be it rose, vetiver, or jasmine—as a layer, a compelling chord within the composition of recent perfumery.
The artwork of perfume-making
Kannauj has been concocting attar (often referred to as ittr) for over 400 years—greater than two centuries ahead of Grasse, in France’s Provence area, emerged as a fragrance juggernaut. Identified in the community in Hindi as degh-bhapka, the artisanal manner makes use of copper stills fueled by means of picket and cow dung.
Kannauj is a four-hour pressure from Agra and simply shy of 2 hours from ancient Lucknow, a former princeling state ruled by means of the Nawabs of Oudh. Like many smaller Indian towns, Kannauj is wedged someplace between previous and provide. Time right here doesn’t transfer on, it merely piles up.A sack of roses is dropped at the M.L. Ramnarain Perfumers manufacturing facility, one among about 350 distillers nonetheless working in Kannauj. Photograph by means of: Tuul and Bruno Morandi
Crumbling sandstone ramparts, onion-domed minarets, and scalloped archways recall the city’s early grandeur because the seat of the Harshavardhana Empire within the 6th century. At the primary drag, puttering scooters and the occasional glistening Mercedes careen previous fruit dealers pushing picket carts piled prime with guavas and overripe bananas.
Duck into the slim lanes of Bara Bazaar, the primary marketplace, and Kannauj reverts totally to medieval occasions. On this labyrinth, longtime retail outlets are filled with finely lower glass bottles retaining attar and ruh, or very important oil, every smelling higher than the ultimate. Males sit down cross-legged on cushioned ground mats, sniffing vials and dabbing at the back of their ears with extremely lengthy perfumed cotton swabs. Presiding over this age-old trade is the attar sazh, or perfumer, conjuring and attractive with the air of secrecy of an imperial alchemist.
“The sector’s absolute best perfumers have walked via those slim lanes, making their means via dust and cow dung to get their palms on Kannauj attar. There’s in reality not anything adore it,” remarks Pranjal Kapoor, the fifth-generation spouse at M.L. Ramnarain Perfumers, some of the oldest of kind of 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 because the distillery. Ram Singh, Kapoor’s grasp attar craftsman, scoops the petals right into a bulbous copper nonetheless, and tops it with contemporary water. Earlier than fastening the lid, Ram Singh packs the edges with a clay and cotton mash, which hardens and creates an impressive seal.
When the flamboyant broth starts to simmer, steam flows from the nonetheless, by way of a bamboo reed, right into a copper pot retaining sandalwood oil, which readily imbibes the rose-saturated vapor.Surrounded by means of the copper stills and pots of the business, freshly picked roses are ready to be made into very important oil on the M.L. Ramnarain Perfumers manufacturing facility, some of the oldest distilleries in Kannauj. Photograph by means of: Tuul and Bruno Morandi
It takes about 5 to 6 hours for Tegh Singh’s roses to turn out to be rose attar. All through this procedure, Ram Singh remains on his ft, hopping between the nonetheless and pot, trying out the water temperature together with his palms, and paying attention to the hiss of steam to intuit whether or not to feed extra picket into the hearth. “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 method is repeated the next day to come, with a brand new batch of rose petals, to succeed in the required efficiency. As soon as finished, the rose attar is elderly for a number of months in a camel-skin bottle, which wicks moisture. Regardless of the old-fangled rig, rose attar is similar to liquid gold. One kilo can fetch as much as $3,000/Rs218,000.
“There aren’t any gauges and metres, no electrical energy,” Kapoor issues out, including proudly that his humble wares rival the ones made by means of best fashionable fragrance homes in Grasse. “The adaptation is like cooking daal [lentils] in a country, open-air village kitchen as opposed to an LPG range or a microwave. The style won’t ever be the similar.”
The earliest identified botanical perfumes date again to historical Egypt, when vegetation had been beaten and infused immediately right into a base oil. Despite the fact that the primary hydro-distillation of vegetation is attributed to the Persian doctor Ibn Sina, often referred to as Avicenna, within the tenth century, archaeological excavations within the Indus Valley exposed rudimentary stills, suggesting that elementary fragrance making evolved previous.
Within the fifteenth century, Gyatri Shahi, the Islamic ruler of central India’s Sultanate of Malwa, penned the Ni’matnama, or the E-book of Delights, which delves into the sector of sybaritic pleasures. Numerous passages relay the virtues of smelling excellent.Fragrance craftsmen pour petals into a big copper nonetheless. Earlier than fastening the lid, the rim is full of a clay and cotton mash, which hardens and creates a strong seal. Photograph by means of: Tuul and Bruno Morandi
The Mughals marched into India within the sixteenth century, bringing with them a lusty olfactory urge for food. The primary Mughal ruler, Barbur, celebrated the inextricable hyperlink between perfume and religious and sensual contentment, and this ethos percolated within the halls of Mughal courts for the following two centuries.
Barbur’s son Akbar had a division devoted only to growing scents for corporeal and culinary functions. The Ain-e-Akbar, or Charter of Akbar, main points the emperor’s predilections for dabbing his frame with aromatic attars, burning incense, and rubbing doorways and furnishings with copious quantities of fragrance. It’s 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—folks of Shah Jahan, who went directly to construct the Taj Mahal—are regarded as Kannauj’s first royal consumers. In line with native folklore, Noor Jahan ignited a run on rose attar after turning into beguiled by means of the smell of Kannauj roses in her tub.
However why Kannauj? In case you triangulate Agra, Lucknow, and Kanpur—3 Mughal strongholds with a keenness for smell—Kannauj lies within the center. Constructed atop wealthy alluvial Ganges soil, the city is especially suited for cultivating jasmine, vetiver, and Damask rose, which owes its identify to Damascus however is local to central Asia. Grasp perfumers had been already in position in Kannauj, Kapoor explains. The Mughals merely fired up call for, and Kannauj jumped at the bandwagon.
At the moment, Kannauj is dealing with a reckoning. When energy shifted to British India, call for for attar tapered. The cost of natural Mysore sandalwood used to be all the time prime, but if the Indian executive limited the sale of sandalwood within the overdue Nineteen Nineties, the cost of attar skyrocketed. On the identical time, status-conscious Indians keen to give themselves as fashionable and upwardly cellular, shifted their allegiance to imported Western perfumes and deodorants. Herbal substitutes, comparable to liquid paraffin, are utilized in lieu of sandalwood, and, whilst this iteration of attar is an in depth approximation, it doesn’t measure as much as the unique.After the employees seal the copper vats, the plant life are delivered to a simmer. The steam flowing from the nonetheless is redirected right into a copper pot retaining sandalwood oil, which imbibes the rose-saturated vapor. Photograph by means of: Tuul and Bruno Morandi
As of late, maximum Kannauj attar results in the Heart East and amongst native Muslim communities. In Previous Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, a Seventeenth-century marketplace constructed by means of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, Gulab Singh Johri Mahal is an established marketplace establishment that now carries each Kannauj attar and fashionable fragrances. However Gulab Singh is sort of all the time filled with Muslim males searching for attar to dab at the back of the ears ahead of Friday prayers and to have a good time gala’s comparable to Eid.
Kannauj additionally produces an ordinary quantity of rose water for paan—a well-liked nationwide snack of tobacco and spices wrapped in betel leaf. However those 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.
Regardless of those demanding situations, Kapoor is positive. He spends a lot of his time dating best global fragrance homes, familiarising them with attar and the terroir of Kannauj botanicals. “Western tastes are moving East,” Kapoor says. “In most cases, [the West] prefers mild, citrusy notes, however in this day and age you notice the massive daddies like Dior, Hermès, and, after all, the Heart Japanese fragrance homes going for gilded scents like rose, oud, and shamama.”
A distinct segment marketplace for top of the range attar is simmering locally, as neatly. Anita Lal, the founding father of Excellent Earth and Paro, two recent way of life manufacturers rooted in conventional Indian design and sensibility, does brisk industry with vintage rose and vetiver very important oils, regardless that she is keen to reintroduce attar to more youthful generations.
“The tragedy of attar is two-fold,” Lal says. “Sandalwood is unusual, and with out it, it’s just about inconceivable to seize the appeal of attar. 2nd, attar is perceived as ridiculously out of date. Pit that in opposition to the wiles of Western advertising and marketing and the trap of French fragrance—neatly, you’ll be able to see what we’re up in opposition to.”
Possibly attar’s maximum outstanding world ambassador is local Lucknowi Jahnvi Lâkhòta Nandan, who skilled as a grasp perfumer in Geneva and Paris for seven years ahead of opening The Fragrance Library, in Goa and Paris. For the ruling households of outdated Lucknow, she says, “speaking about fragrance used to be a passion. The entirety used to be fragranced: garments, doorknobs, the air. And it used to be all the time understood that this attar will have to come from Kannauj.”As soon as the general product is produced, the rose attar is elderly for a number of months in a camel-skin bottle, which wicks moisture. Photograph by means of: Tuul and Bruno Morandi
Nandan’s olfactory alchemy is equivalent portions poetry, eccentricity, and science. Every yr, she bridges mythology and modernity with one, possibly two, new scents, and attar is a very powerful a part of her repertoire. In 2020, The Fragrance Library introduced 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 of the hearth and smoke in a small house can appear apocalyptic, but it surely’s additionally original and lovely,” she says. “You can’t recreate this in a lab in Europe.”