India is home to some 18,500 varieties of aromatic plants, the volatile oils of which are contained in flowers, leaves, bark, seeds, wood or roots, and have been used for centuries medicinally, cosmetically or both, since, within traditional systems of medicine, the line between categories is a blurred one.
The primary use of incense was as an offering to higher powers, but in the earthly realm, it was adopted by wealthy households that could afford them to scent rooms in which guests were entertained, and served as a signage of status.
The toilette of ladies, particularly the well-to-do or those from royal homes, was equally, if not more, elaborate.Indian women of the era would scent their hair, using either fragrant oil or drying it over burning incense, a practice that is also referenced in Kalidas’s Meghduta.
Egypt is another country where perfumery has been in constant, revered use since antiquity. Certainly, there is more, and better documentation, of the tradition there and perfume finds mention in early texts and even tomb inscriptions discovered by archaeologists. Like everywhere in the ancient world, the fragrances relied on plants and resins with the addition of oil or, as in the Egyptian case, animal fat (a variety of animals were considered usable apparently: cats, geese, oxen, even crocodiles) as a base. Scholars have managed to decipher formulae from pyramid texts, the most famous among them being one for Kyphi, a compounded incense that in some descriptions—such as one by Plutarch in Isis and Osiris—had sixteen ingredients.
The ancient Greeks—among them a botanist, Theophratus, the first Greek to produce a treatise, De Odoribus, given over exclusively to the art of perfumery— attributed the concept of fragrance to divine origin. Though the Greeks were known to make their own fragrances using indigenous flora, they also imported vast quantities, supplied for the most part by the Phoenicians, traders who guarded their routes so closely that, for a long time, the Greeks were unaware of the origins of the beautiful resins, oils and gums they bought. The East was a vague and distantly exotic notion, an idea fuelled by the traders who spun fantastic tales about the origins of their products, keeping demand high.
The Greek love for luxury, perfume included, reached near sybaritic heights, but were possibly short of hedonistic thanks to their belief in the spiritual side of fragrance. Like followers of Islam later, the Greeks also believed that the afterlife was spent in a heaven where every person could find a limitless quantity of their favourite perfume to anoint themselves with—Elysium, for instance, is said to be a land where rivers of perfume flowed, scenting the air above them.
Trade in fragrant substances was a regular feature of Roman life as well, although they were far less interested in the metaphysical side of nature than the Greeks. Theirs was a pure love of luxury and the use of perfumes was far more secular; almost excessive, with practically everything—food, banquets, bathhouses, temples and homes—being scented, despite the official policy of austerity and moderation the Romans maintained when it came to luxurious imports from the East. As with the Greeks, the writings of their geographers, traders and botanists succeeded in exoticising the East as well, a land supposedly populated by giant beasts and barbaric men, which had the effect of increasing the demand for spices, gums, herbs and other raw materials.
The fabled spice route had a considerable part to play in the medieval Western imagination that had been captivated by spices, the idea of them, their allure and their aroma, all of which embodied the Exotic. Spices soothed and calmed, their fragrance could create an environment that was refined when homes were fumigated with burning aromatic substances, or holy when religious ceremonies made use of them.
Fragrance was directly linked to good health and conferred with healing properties, and perfume thus to symbolised sanctity. Real saints were said to exude a characteristic scent, symbolic of the favour of the heavenly realms, and in death, their corpses emitted a fragrance as well, a sign of virtue. The Bible is rife with examples that correlate perfume with the sacred; for instance, the Song of Solomon is thick with the scents of myrrh, frankincense, saffron and nard (jatamansi).
In the Old Testament, the Lord commands Moses to build an altar and burn an incense made of spices and resins. The altar itself had to be anointed with a perfumed oil. Although early Christianity rejected the use of perfume (due in considerable part to the popularity of the practice in ancient Rome) as excessive and vulgar, in the New Testament, for example, Mary Magdalene anointed the feet of Christ with the oil of nard and her offering was accepted. The conflation, within Christianity, of scent with the sacred simultaneously stemmed from and contributed to the assumption that perfumed substances must naturally have their origin in otherworldly places. India, then as a great source and entrepot of perfumes, came, in the medieval Western imagination, to be considered the location of the Garden of Eden.
The centrality of fragrance in daily life and ritual echoed across the world. It made its way into China and further east, where it arrived with the advent of Buddhism, which, as we know, originated in the Indian subcontinent during the third century CE, where incense was already being used during religious ceremonies.
In India, the consumption of perfumes hit an all-time high during the Mughal period. The emperors and courtiers, aesthetes to the last, elevated the custom to a high art.
Excerpted with permission from The Perfume Project: Journeys Through Indian Fragrance by Divrina Dhingra, published by Westland Books.