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The perfumed past

The quest for olfactory pleasure in India can be traced to the art of perfumery perfected by a 15th century ruler who believed in the good life. Centuries later, the art of 'ittar'-making is striving for relevance in the luxury market

Natural-essence ‘ittar’ at a store in Dariba Kalan.
Natural-essence ‘ittar’ at a store in Dariba Kalan.

In 1469, a ruler named Ghiyath Shahi succeeded to the throne of the Sultanate of Malwa, which then controlled much of central India. In his accession speech, the new sultan announced a major change in state policy. He proposed to give himself up to the pleasures of this world.

Shahi set about his new policy with gusto. He filled Mandu with no less than 16,000 beautiful female slaves and constructed lavish palaces with lotus-shaped pleasure pools. The walled hilltop citadel was henceforth defended by an army of 500 armour-clad Abyssinian girls.

The sultan also set to work recording in fine Persian prose the different things which gave him pleasure. The Ni’matnama, or the Book Of Delights, survives today in the The British Library, having passed through the Mughals and Tipu Sultan before being packed off in 1799 to puritanical London by the East India Company.

Book of Delights is one of the greatest records of the life of pleasures ever written. It contains advice about the good things of life, ranging from 10 different recipes for the perfect samosa (don’t forget to add saffron, fried aubergines and ginger), advice for hunting expeditions (don’t leave home without a picture of your beloved, sandal and camphor to have rubbed into your feet, a change of stockings, and a cheetah or two), to various recipes for the medieval Indian equivalent of Viagra, including sparrow brains fried in milk and ghee.

But perhaps the biggest surprise in Book of Delights is its focus on olfactory pleasure, and its obsession with perfumery, which its author clearly regards as important to the life of the true hedonist, and as much a matter of refined connoisseurship, as his modern equivalent might regard his collection of single malts. About half the book is taken up with advice on distilling rosewater and aromatic oils, and recipes for incense, deodorants and fragrant salves.

There are several chapters devoted to perfumes for the House of Pleasure (part of the royal harem), which contains detailed advice, giving the recipe for a perfumed paste, known as abir, whose aroma has been enhanced by the addition of a stupendous list of ingredients: “[Add] mango, ambergris, beans, marhatti aloes, perfumed fat, bruised grain, chauva, [a paste of sandal, agallochumii, saffron, and musk] essence of mouse-ear plant, Chinese camphor, boiled juice of spikenard; put in flowers scented with aloes, white sandal essence, scent from shoots, sesame oil scent, sweet basil essence, champa essence, artemesia essence, tumeric leaves essence, sacred basil essence, cardamom juice, sandal juice."

Shah’s directions for scenting a woman’s body show the same obsessive concern with creating a kaleidoscope of fragrances: “Rub perfume separately into each joint," he suggests. “[Use] pellets of perfumed paste. Take the sap from the bark of the mango tree and from the bark of the wild fig tree and from the peepal tree and wash the body [with it]. Rub aromatic paste, perfume and musk into the armpits... rub sandal on the throat..."

Bottles of synthetic ‘ittar’ at a Gulab Singh Johrimal outlet in Chandni Chowk.

The Book Of Delights brings into confluence for the first time two of the ancient world’s most sophisticated traditions of perfumery: that emanating from Persia and Arabia, on the one hand, and a quite separate ancient Indian tradition that goes back to the time of the Vedas on the other. It is also one of the texts which reveals most clearly how mastery of the science of perfumery was once regarded as an essential part of the art of living in India.

It is an art for which India was once envied and famed—but today, the duty-free sections in Indian airports are filled with the same alcohol-based fragrances that are available in any other modern capital around the world. Whatever the brand name, most of these originate in France, and specifically from the four major Parisian perfume houses. All these in turn derive their techniques from a tradition that has its roots in the experiments made by the perfumiers of Grasse from the 16th century onwards.

It is customary for ‘ittar-sazs’ to prescribe ‘ittars’ to customers based on their ‘mizaj’ or temperament.

Yet in the heart of the old city of Delhi, in the Dariba area of Chandni Chowk, as also in the old cities of Agra, Lucknow and Hyderabad, there still exist perfumiers who have been based there since Mughal times and who continue the ancient Indian tradition of ittar-making: oil-based scent manufacturing which is in many ways more sophisticated than the alcohol-based, French-dominated Western tradition. This tradition is little known outside of the old men of the walled cities. But after recently being given a tiny crystal bottle of an ittar called shamama, whose densely musky, spicy odour is as complex and delicious as anything I’ve ever smelt, I decided to find out more.

* * ***

The indigenous Indian tradition of scent is evident as early as 3000 BC in the cities of the Indus Valley, where archaeologists have recently excavated distillation stills. In the centuries that followed, an extraordinary profusion of Sanskrit texts on the art of perfumery were written and, as the historian James McHugh, author of a book on the history of perfume and smell in South Asia titled Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell In Indian Religion And Culture (2016), puts it, “The elaborate use of aromatics was a major feature of religious, royal and erotic practices." A good perfume, according to these texts, “should be like a well-run kingdom, with the correct balance of allies (mild materials), neutrals, and enemies (pungent materials). A good perfume should also be harmonious with incense and garlands, the season, the humoral character of the person wearing it. The skilled use of perfumes delighted the gods, appeased kings, and excited lovers."

Customers at an ‘ittar’ shop in Chandni Chowk.

The Hindu love god, Kama, is armed with a bow. Unlike Cupid, his bow is made of sugar cane and his arrows are tipped with the blossom of a scented flower which “pierces the heart through the five senses", his favourite dart being pointed with the mango flower. For already scent played a far wider and more prominent role in ancient India than it did at the same time in the Roman West. As McHugh tellingly points out, “For us, perfumery is linked to the fashion industry (Chanel No.5) and sometimes the entertainment industry (Beyonce True Star)," but in ancient India perfumes were redolent of far weightier matters: “the conventions of literature (‘Southern Wind’), religion (‘Pride of Kama’), history (‘made by [King] Bhoja’), and sometimes even political theory."

Abdul Gafoor’s ‘ittar’ factory in Kannauj, with ‘bhapkas’ fitted into ‘deghs’.

In the medieval Arab and Persian world, distilled oil-based aromatics were taken almost as seriously as scented pastes were in ancient India. According to the physician Ibn Sina in 11th century Persia, some scents, especially exhilarants, would act physiologically upon the heart, causing it to expand, with consequences for both the emotional state and mood of a person, and for their physical health. Good smells had, therefore, a transformative effect on humans: “When the sensory powers are strengthened—the sense of taste satisfied with sweet substances and the sense of smell with aroma—the sensation of pleasure is experienced."

From the 12th century onwards, with the establishment of a series of Turkish sultanates across north and central India, this Sanskritic Indian tradition of scented pastes—and new Persian ingredients such as the rose—were intermixed and mingled with a distinct and equally sophisticated oil-based fragrance tradition that had developed in Persia and the Arab world, which is what the Book Of Delights documents.

A good ‘ittar-saz’ is trained not only to have an infallible nose, but also be part-physician...he would prescribe different ‘ittars’ for different individuals, depending on their temperament, or ‘mizaj’, and their state of health-

How much of this tradition has survived today? The centre of ittar manufacture remains the town of Kannauj on the banks of the Ganga in central Uttar Pradesh, just north of Lucknow. Inspired by my reading, I travelled to Lucknow last year. There I began to make some enquiries about the half-forgotten world of the Indian perfumier, or ittar-saz.

* * ***

To get to the street of the ittar-saz, you have to leave the wide colonial avenues of Hazaratganj behind and pass through a tight funnel of streets and lanes until you come to the winding narrows of the inner chowk. It was here that I got into conversation with Imran Ahmad Abbasi and his friends.

Anita Lal. Courtesy Good Earth

He sat in the tiny cubbyhole, wearing a khaki kurta. Behind him, in a series of glass-fronted cabinets, lay crystal bottles, each shaped like miniature decanters, each containing a different coloured oil, and marked with a handwritten label in English and Hindi giving the name of the rare distillate within: ghulam, oud, malak, nemat, kaccha-bela, makhdum, chahat.

Abbasi said he was the fifth generation of ittar-saz in the chowk, and that his ancestors had once made ittar for the last nawab of Lucknow, the cultured and hedonistic Wajd Ali Shah. Abbasi and his friends maintained that the ittar trade was not in the least threatened by imported Western perfumes, and bristled at the suggestion that they represented any competition: “Whatever comes from outside will come," he said, “but gold remains gold."

I asked why he thought ittar was superior to Western scents. His reply was emphatic. “Good ittar is entirely natural—no chemicals are used. Once applied, the fragrance can last for days.... Everyone knows the culture of Lucknow is very refined, very delicate, very fine. Our ittar is part of that world, and the ittars invented here, such as shamama and majmua—are the most complex and refined of all."

Photo: iStockphoto

Abbasi explained how a good ittar-saz is trained not only to have an infallible nose, but also be part-physician. He explained how he would prescribe different ittars for different individuals, depending on their temperament, or mizaj, and their state of health: “If you are angry or choleric, they will offer you a cooling ittar, something like khas (vetiver) to calm you down. If you are of a gentle or a happy temperament, they might prescribe one of 15 different types of jasmine. Then there is the matter of health: Rose ittar, for example, is good for a chest infection and for the eyes. Shamama can relieve headaches while ittar made of kewra flowers can cool an upset stomach. Khas calms bee stings. Motia can relieve earaches. Sandalwood ittar can be rubbed on scuffed skin."

Traditional ‘ittar’ bottles. Courtesy William Dalrymple

“A fine ittar does not just heal the body," he added, “it also calms the mind. That is why our Sufi masters used it during their meditation and dances."

“The ittar-saz must also take into account the weather and the season," he continued. “This is most important. Shamama, zafran (saffron) and especially oud with its thick, rich woody scent are heavy, wintry ittars good for the cold weather. Khas, jasmine and gulab are light and summery. And mitti—the smell of wet earth, which mimics the beloved smell of the first rain on parched soil—is for the monsoon."

I asked him where he thought the best ittars were made, and without hesitation he named Kannauj. And the most accomplished ittar distiller? “Abdul Gafoor."

The following day, I drove over the winding banks of the Ganga, towards Kannauj. In the seventh century, Kannauj was the capital of the great King Harsha, renowned as the most magnificent city in India. Since then it had been sacked many times. Apart from an archaeological museum displaying fragments of seventh century sculpture, all that remained of the city’s former sophistication is the 100-odd ittar distillers who base themselves here, not least because the alluvial soils, fertilized by hundreds of years of monsoon Ganga floods, are particularly well-suited to growing rose and jasmine.

There are fashions in scent, as in everything, and today we’ve lost the appreciation of these strong and very potent traditional fragrances. Nowadays most ‘ittar’ gets used to scent ‘paan’ or tobacco.- Divrina Dhingra

I could smell Abdul Gafoor’s distillery before I could see it. Down a narrow lane came the mingled scent of wood smoke mixed with a strong whiff of flowers, sandalwood and spice. I entered a space that was part farmyard—dotted with goats and chickens—and part factory. In the centre of a large courtyard were two lines of large copper pots or deghs, each the size of a boiler. The pots were set into a mud brick platform, broken by an arcade of fireplaces, and faced a series of cooling tanks. Each tank was connected by a long-necked copper receptacle filled with sandalwood oil known as a bhapka, which lay partially suspended in cold water. Linking degh and bhapka were two pipes of hollow bamboo through which the vapour, or rooh, would travel.

It looked like a remarkably rustic distillery for the manufacture of such a refined product, but as Gafoor explained, the simple machinery powered a manufacturing process that crystallized thousands of years of experience. For making shamama, for example, each family of distillers had their own secret combination of ingredients, which included lichen, juniper berries, nutmeg, mace, turmeric, spikenard, oakmoss, cardamom, clove buds, laurel berry, valerian and red sandalwood. After the different botanicals had been ground, the copper cauldron would be filled with around 40kg of water and the fires lit. At a certain temperature, the lichen would be added and distilled for 4 hours into the bhapka. At the second distillation, 3kg of ingredients such as spikenard and valerian would be added. The third distillation would add unroasted ground spices; the fourth an aromatic crushed shell called choya. At each stage of distillation, a new layer of complexity would be added to the oil in the bhapka.

Different ittars, he explained, had to be made at different times of the day. As the jasmine’s perfume was strongest at night, it had to be harvested before dawn, brought to the distillery no later than 4am, and the distillation begun before first light, when the perfume begins to disappear. The ittar of roses, in contrast, had to be distilled soon after dawn. For the mitti to mimic properly the scent of the monsoon, the fine-grained alluvial mud which formed the core of its structure had to be gathered just before the end of the summer heat.

After several weeks of distilling, the oil would be set aside to age. In due course, the ittar would be sold for a minimum of £,1000 (around Rs83,000 now) a kilo. The problem, explained Gafoor, was that because many of the ingredients were elusive or unobtainable—the trade in musk pods was banned in the 1970s, and that of sandalwood is now highly regulated—and because the users of ittar tended these days to be old and far from rich, certainly not from India’s elite, who preferred imported Western scents, fewer and fewer ittar manufacturers were able to resist the temptation to substitute expensive botanicals for cheap chemicals. “I would guess as many as 80-90% now secretly adulterate their ittar with synthetics," he said. “The new generation know little about ittar. Few connoisseurs are left who can still appreciate the difference."

There are several impediments to growth. There is also a problem of fashion and perception: For many Indians, ittar has come to be associated with grandmothers dabbing ittar behind their ears and bearded gentlemen in frock coats. Divrina Dhingra, a 35-year-old perfume researcher and writer is, for example, fascinated by the world of ittar, but sceptical if their oil-based scents can be marketed globally, or even to the Western-looking Indian middle class: “The scent of ittar is simply too rich and pungent," she says. “There are fashions in scent, as in everything, and today we’ve lost the appreciation of these strong and very potent traditional fragrances. Nowadays most ittar gets used to scent paan or tobacco. Very little is still bought by connoisseurs for use on the body. It’s no longer really seen as a luxury product."

A display by The Perfume Library at the Good Earth outlet in Colaba, Mumbai. Courtesy Good Earth

There are others who would beg to differ. Monika Ghurde, one of India’s leading young perfumiers, who trained in Thailand and Paris, and consulted for some of the top French brands, was convinced that there was much to be learnt from traditional Indian perfumery. When she died tragically last year, she was researching the potential in adapting ittar for Western consumption in an alcohol-based form.

She had pointed out that there have been a few successful attempts at repackaging ittars and making them available at the Mehrangarh Museum Shop, the store of the erstwhile maharaja of Jodhpur. This, she said, is what has happened in some Arab countries. Dubai, for example, has managed to take the Arabian ittars into the modern mall and sell them as luxury items to the top tiers of UAE society. These connoisseurs like to layer their scents, to mix the rich, deep notes of traditional Middle-Eastern ittar with top notes from lighter Western perfumes.

Other entrepreneurs involved in the world of Indian aromatics are also waking up to the untapped potential of the ittar tradition. Anita Lal, who runs Good Earth, which has done a great deal to bring Indian aromatics to the market, is also determined to find a way to make ittars hip and accessible. She recently visited Kannauj to investigate the possibilities. “We haven’t yet worked out the packaging, or how to apply the oil, but I feel strongly that we need to crack this. Good Earth recently passed 20 years and making ittar work in our market is my big 20th-year resolution. " She pauses: “The tradition is still there, it’s intact. It’s time to rescue it."


Courtesy: William Dalrymple.

How to entice an aesthete

The levels of olfactory sophistication detailed in ancient treatises on perfumery make modern

Written in the 15th century, Ghyiath Shahi’s Ni’matnama or Book Of Delights shows the unprecedented place that the art of perfumery had come to assume in the life of the aesthete. In the centuries that followed, that sophistication only increased as Indian courts produced many texts on scented gardens, erotic scents and on the art of incense and fragrance-making.

Another book, the Itr-I Nawras Shahi, for example, is a treatise on perfumery written for the south Indian ruler Ibrahim Adil Shah II, a contemporary of Elizabeth I: “It is incumbent that all created beings...use perfumes and share them with one another," explained its author. The author goes on to describe many more alluring preparations which could be used today: suggestions on how to prepare volatile oils and vapours to scent bedrooms and other contained spaces, as well as hair and clothes. It details the preparation of massage oils, gargles, dentifrices and breath fresheners, and how to “charge" a palace bedroom with scents appropriate to prolonging and heightening sexual pleasure. It recommends placing bouquets of tuberoses and other strongly scented flowers at varying heights in the room—the floor level, the level of the bed, and kneeling-on-the-bed height. The writer suggests burning varieties of citron- and jasmine-derived incense, and lifting the bedspread so that the sheets can absorb the fragrance which will be “enticing, invigorating, and pleasure giving"—levels of olfactory sophistication that make modern practice seem rudimentary.

Another detailed perfumery manual is the Lakhlakha, a Hyderabadi text of the early 19th century which goes into incredible detail on the preparation of ambergris, camphor, musk and scented candles.

Parts of this story were reported for a piece on Indian perfumery and sensuality for The Economist’s 1843 magazine.

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