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How did Kannauj become the perfume capital of India?

For centuries, perfumers in Kannauj have worked their alchemy to create ‘liquid gold.’

Long before sunrise Tegh Singh arrives at his flower farm on the banks of the Ganges. He circles the haphazardly planted Rosa damascena shrubs, plucks blossoms at peak bouquet, and tosses the light pink petals into a jute sack slung over his shoulder. By the time the first rays of sunlight skim across the river, 35-year-old Singh is on his motorcycle, ferrying his harvest to the small city of Kannauj, known as the perfume capital of India.

The aroma of attar

Attar is old-world perfumery. Rooted in the Latin per and fume (through smoke), perfume got its start with humans crushing and infusing botanicals directly into oil or water. Unlike modern perfumes, which have alcohol as a carrier or solvent—because it’s inexpensive, neutral, and easily diffused—attars traditionally use sandalwood oil, making them unctuous and highly absorptive. The scent of a droplet lingers pleasantly on the skin, sometimes for days.

Kannauj produces these, as well as the enigmatic mitti attar, which evokes the scent of earth after a rainfall thanks to baked alluvial clay in the distillation. Shamama, another coveted invention, is a distilled blend of 40 or more flowers, herbs, and resins that takes days to make and months to age. The scent manages to harmonize sweet, spice, smoke, and damp and whisks one off to an otherworldly realm. Renowned perfume houses in Europe use Kannauj attar—be it rose, vetiver, jasmine, and others—as a layer, a compelling chord in the composition of modern perfumery.

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