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  The magic of indigenous perfumes

The magic of indigenous perfumes

Published : Nov 3, 2016, 2:23 am IST
Updated : Nov 3, 2016, 2:23 am IST

A small Diwali unrecyclable gift this year came from an uncle of mine who knows my penchant for indigenous perfume or ittar — it was a small vial of rose ittar from Rajasthan.


A small Diwali unrecyclable gift this year came from an uncle of mine who knows my penchant for indigenous perfume or ittar — it was a small vial of rose ittar from Rajasthan. It triggered off a chain of memories that I feel like sharing: It was the spring of probably ‘95 when an interview with the amazingly sharp, intelligent and handsome erstwhile Maharana Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar had taken me to Udaipur. I was staying at the stunning and wistfully beautiful Lake Palace and was using the time to take a tour of places in and around Udaipur — the pretty city of lakes.

A day tour took me to the Haldi Ghati and stirred some strange (genetic ) memory in me as I bend down to touch the ground to my forehead. Who knows many of my ancestors may have died in the battles there fighting the Mughals. The Rajput blood in me still seethed as many stories that my mother used to recount in childhood about the battles of Haldi Ghati wafted in my memory. It was strange but I had never felt this kind of anger before

As we drove further, a row of almost abandoned huts stood on a small stone chabutra (platform) and even though there were no people around, misty smoke emanated from the huts. I wondered what could it be and the driver was quick to inform me that it was a small ittar and gulab jal-making unit. Which woman can resist perfume in any form, and I am no different. We quickly stopped and went in. Still not a soul in sight A wood fire simmered on top of which stood a jisst (an alloy) vessel rather like a boiler of yore used to heating water for baths. A metal snout from this was connected into another vessel.

Two beer bottles of gulab jal stood there with cork stoppers. Of course the petulant me wanted the gulab jal and there was none to buy it from. The driver suggested we help ourselves to the bottles and leave some money behind. After a slight debate with myself, I decided that this was the best thing in the circumstance since whoever was making the gulab jal, was making it to sell it anyway. Moral dilemma over, and armed with one bottle and money safely tucked under the other one, we left. It was possibly the best gulab jal I have ever used.

Another time it was Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh that I followed my nose to in search of ittar or attar. Kannauj, is after all the perfume capital of India and the Grasse of the East. It specialises in six perfumes: Rose, henna, shamama henna, mogra, bela and the eponymous mitti ittar among others. Made from cultivating soil from the region, ‘mitti ittar’ and the technology that makes it, are many centuries old.

Some say that the art of distilling perfume that exists in Kannauj is around 5,000 years old. I was told that the deg bhapkas used to make perfume in Kannauj are the same design as used in the Indus Valley Civilisation. During the excavation, the terracotta distillation apparatus was found and is preserved in the Taxila Museum of Lahore, Pakistan. It is mentioned in the Dragoco report by Dr Paolo Ravesti as well. Apparently there has been no change in the making of perfumes since then.

Most believe that the art travelled through Kannauj via the Mughals where emperor Akbar encouraged the Khusboo Khana during his rule. There are other stories that say that emperor Jahangir introduced this art in Kannauj as his wife Noor Jehan bathed in rose petals. Whatever be the mythology, the smell has long lingered in the recesses of peoples’ minds.

The ancient, painstakingly slow distillation practiced in Kannauj is called deg-bhapka. Each still consisted of the copper deg — built atop its own oven and beside its own trough of water — and a bulbous condenser called a bhapka or receiver that captures the bhapka or steam that emanates from it. When a fresh supply of flowers comes in, the craftsmen put pounds of rose or jasmine or other petals into each deg, cover the deg with water, hammer a lid down on top, and seal it with mud. They light a wood or cow-dung-fuelled fire underneath, then fill the receiver with sandalwood oil — which serves as a base for the scents — and sink it into the trough. The deg and bhapka are connected with a hollow bamboo pipe that carries the fragrant vapours from the simmering pot into their sandalwood oil base.

Ittar making in Kannauj has taken a hit due to the ban on tobacco, pan masala and gutkha products by the government more recently however. And these perfumes are an integral part of making these products. The companies involved in ittar making here are branching out into new avenues. They are looking at personal cosmetics, aromatherapy and more places to use their products. The geo-climatic conditions of the region make it favourable for the industry to grow. And its out of the world mitti ka ittar even has geographical indication status. Attempts are being made to modify this process and electrify it to make it more green and environmental friendly while making it easier to operate.

Ittar is many things: a natural smell that outlives chemical perfumes, a healer that claims it can curb mental instability, a conductor of heat in harsh winters and more. All ittars in Kannauj come in a kuppi, which a small leather bottle. I am told that this bottle is a natural de-moisturiser like the human skin. The semi-permeable skin concentrates the ittar inside while the moisture evaporates. However, everywhere else I have seen it in glass decanters and vials. In East Europe I have seen it in glass vials encased in wooden bottles too. Now packaging ittars is whole ball game, and sadly enough we lag behind the rest of the world even though we fabulous quality stuff. Of that another time But the romance of my Nani’s ittardaan of khus, rose, mogra and firdaus in a small carved wooden box will linger forever in my memory as the best packaging ever

Dr Alka Raghuvanshi is an art writer, curator and artist and can be contacted on