Did you know that the perfumers of Kannauj, a small town in Uttar Pradesh, had mastered the art of capturing the delicate smell of the fresh rain on dry soil into a perfume many years back? Long before two Australian mineralogists, Isabel Joy Bear and Richard Grenfell Thomas, discovered the chemistry behind the heady smell and name it ‘petrichor’. Known as ‘mitti-attar’, it is one of the most sought-after perfumes of Kannauj.
Around three to four hours’ drive (depending on the traffic) from Agra, Kannauj looks like any other dusty north Indian town. Little remains of the once glorious city-state that traces its antiquity to the days of the Mahabharata and which rose to its greatest height as the capital of Emperor Harsha (590 to 647 CE) when it was called Kanyakubja. But even as you walk through the streets of the old town, you cannot miss the fragrant note in the air; even the sludge flowing through the roadside drains sometimes reminds you of a floral note. That is because a large number of families in the town are engaged, for generations, in the making of ‘attar’ or natural fragrant oils and extracts, which are widely used from making perfumes and essential oils for consumer products such as soap, shampoo, etc. to flavouring agents for food and even for medicine. Even the distillate is not wasted but used for making agarbatti or incense sticks.
Although it is not known when Kannauj started manufacturing attar (also known as ‘itar’, ‘itra’ or ‘itr’) but, the 7th-century biography Harsha-Charit, written by the emperor’s court poet Banabhatta, contains references to the use of agar wood oil. It is also believed that the manufacturing of attar attained great heights during the Mughal period.
But what makes Kannauj’s attar-making industry even more interesting is that despite the passage of time, they still follow the traditional method, a highly labour-intensive and time-consuming hydro-distillation process, called ‘deg bhapka’.
Attar makers of Kannauj can draw out the fragrance from a large number of natural ingredients, such as different kinds of flowers (rose, kewra, chameli, bela, marigold, jasmine, lavender, etc.), from natural products such as vetiver, and herbs and spices (cardamom, cloves, saffron, juniper berry, jatamansi, etc.). Usually, the flowers are plucked at dawn so that they retain the best fragrance. Another famous attar from Kannauj is the ‘shamama’, made from a co-distillation of different herbs and spices. There are several families who make the shamama but each has its own secret recipe, which is a strongly guarded secret.
The ‘deg’ is a copper still into which the natural ingredients, such as flower petals, are put in along with water. The pots are covered with lids and sealed with a special clay mix. These pots are placed on clay furnace (‘bhatti’) fired with wood and cow-dung cakes. The deg is connected to the long-necked ‘bhapka’ or the receiver, which is also made of copper, through the ‘chonga’ or a twine-wrapped bamboo pipe, which acts as a condenser too. The bhapka whose mouth has been covered with cloth sits in a cooling chamber filled with water (‘gachhi’). A base oil, usually sandalwood oil, is poured in the bhapka. As the deg is fired, the vapour from the ingredient collects in the bhapka, gets condensed and the oil collects the fragrance. But it is easier said than done.
The fire for the deg has to be just right and controlled by adding or removing the fuel. The water in the cooling tank has to be changed so that the water maintains the required temperature. One has to remove the bhapka after the desired amount of fragrance is collected. Before removing the bhapka, the deg has to be cooled with wet cloth to stop the vapourisation. All these steps require years of experience to know how to run the process to perfection. Just as it is important to know the right way of mixing the ingredients to produce various notes in the perfume. Collecting the fragrant oil at the right time also requires expertise. Some attar, such as the shamama, requires a second round of extraction in the ‘patila’ (a different kind of copper pot). Even today, the most sensitive attar are stored in camel-skin bags (‘kuppi’); these bags also help in removal of moisture and allows storage for a long period without decreasing the quality of the fragrance. The attar, as essential oils and perfumes, are sold in the shops in bottles of various sizes, some of which are works of art by themselves. Some of the attars or essential oils are also exported.
However, many traditional manufacturers feel it is difficult to continue with the eco-friendly traditional process due to competition from alcohol-based and mass manufactured perfumes, as well as rising cost of raw material. Even procurement of sandalwood oil is difficult after most local factories closed down. Several manufacturers are now forced to use liquid paraffin or DOP (dioctyl phthalate). It is important to address the issues to allow the traditional industry to maintain its authenticity. Several allied sectors also depend on this traditional perfume industry—such as brick kilns, supplying of raw material, bottle manufacturing, etc.
Although Kannauj Perfumes got the Geographical Indication tag in 2014, and its fragrances are exported to many countries, it is sad that Kannauj has not been able to turn into a tourist attraction like Grasse, the French town known as the ‘perfume capital of the world’.