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Historic Perfumes of Kannuaj and Lucknow



Volume: 12, No: 10 ; October-2018

The five senses of man truly enable him to sense his surroundings, in detail. Since ages, by means of continuous inventions, he has been trying to please each one of them in unique ways.  At the same time, using the same means he endeavours to achieve a higher purpose associated with the sphere of spirituality. Nonetheless, there is a category of such desires-driven innovations that particularly poses greater challenges before man in its accomplishment. It is linked to his ability to smell. With regard to this special ability, perfumes are considered to be the finest objects of invention till date compared with other similar works of creativity.

In nature, certain rare pleasant smelling substances are found. In fact, perfumes are carefully prepared mixtures composed of unique combinations and varying measures of such natural substances. The preparation process also takes care of the convenience of using the end product. The English word ‘perfume’ is derived from Latin roots ‘per’, meaning ‘through’ and ‘fumare’, meaning ‘to smoke’. Thus, the roots provide us hint about its oldest existent form. Since ages, in India, a kind of smoke bearing a special fragrance has been prepared from a high-priced and a fungus infected tree of Aloes wood, also known as Agarwood. However, the earliest scented form of the fumes belongs to the ancient Egypt where the smoke solely bore a religious significance. In the historically renowned Egyptian civilisation, on almost daily basis, certain natural substances that produce pleasant fragrances upon burning were used during the religious rites held in the temples. Today, however, the product is widely used as one of the significant objects of cosmetics.

In ancient India, perfumes were prepared in a scientific manner. In the age-old Indian texts, perfume is mentioned as a tool largely used for beautification. Interestingly, at some point between the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, the way of life in the old region of Awadh, also known as Oudh, was mainly-in addition to good quality clothing-influenced by ittars, i.e., perfumes. In fact, today, perfumery associated with the Indian regions of Kannauj and Lucknow is considered par excellence. Often Kannauj is considered at par with the world famous capital of perfume, Grasse in France.   

The more expensive perfumes extracted from certain natural sources are considered better than the widely used synthetic versions. The former variety is prepared from the oils extracted from rarely found natural substances while the latter possesses an alcohol base. As a matter of fact, the fragrance associated with a natural perfume is not only of the highest quality, but also lasts much longer upon application of the perfume. However, proper care should be taken in applying the same on clothes in contrast to the more popular chemically synthesised form. This is important as the act would prevent the clothes from getting stained. Authentic preparation methods associated with different natural perfumes carrying distinct fragrances are detailed in rare old Indian texts of Lakhlakha and Risala-i Sakht-i Itr written in Urdu. Strangely, ittars or the natural perfumes of Awadh are distinguished from each other not only on the grounds of their unique contents, but also with regard to their demarcated periodic usage. Thus, for example, itr-i khass is meant to be particularly used during the summer season as its application has a substantial soothing effect. The perfume is made using the roots of an exclusive grass, Vetiver, incidentally local to India. Next, as the appealing perfume of shamaamat al-amber has a pleasantly warm effect, so it is suitable for the winters. In effect, the list is almost endless.  

Let us focus on the historic site of perfumery located in the Indian sub-continent region of Kannauj. The ancient town of Kannauj occupies an important place in the history of ancient India in distinct respects. This legendary little place can be reached in around two hours starting from the capital of the state of Uttar Pradesh, Lucknow. Enormously large fields of striking sweet-scented flowers, also used in the preparation of a variety of fragrant products, are located on the outer edge of the town. Of the various distinguished manufactures, the prime focus of many perfumeries in Kannauj is on the production of valuable natural ittars delicately made using secret combinations of raw herbal materials, rose, clay of topsoil and jasmine. Then, the town is also home to the globally celebrated Fragrance and Flavour Development Centre (FFDC), a centre essentially dedicated for the cause of taking into account every fine aspect of the science of perfumery. In addition, Kannauj is also well known for the numerous small-size brick kilns located on its border. The one of its kind perfumery practiced at Kannauj also, along with the improvised latest techniques of the chemical process of distillation, makes use of the age-old unique method of distillation known as ‘deg bhapka’. Herein, the apparatus used for the process is made up of a deg, i.e., a copper pot that sits on the top of a bhapka, i.e., a receiver, again, made of copper. The two are connected with a chonga, i.e., a hollow bamboo pipe wrapped with a distinctively processed form of local grass that acts as an excellent insulator. The whole apparatus is enclosed in a heated compartment made of brick and clay.  In practice, the aromatic products of Kannauj are manufactured under the close supervision of seasoned hereditary perfumers and are bottled using ittardans, i.e., small, but excessively decorated glass bottles resembling crystal.

The city of Lucknow is another hub known for the production of excellent quality of perfumes. In fact, the most renowned company known for its perfumes throughout the length and breadth of India was set up in the city in the early nineteenth century. It was named as ‘Mohamed Ali’. The company witnessed, however, an unfortunate closure in 1981. In the recent past, ‘Hina Building’ stood as an evidence of the forgotten glorious days of the business in the remarkable area of Chowk in Lucknow. The building was named after an illustrious ittar of the firm.

The developed art and science of perfumery owes heavily to human evolution. This practice could never be realised unless primitive man recognised how necessary is his gift of olfaction, i.e., the physical faculty of smelling, for his survival on the planet. This enlightenment motivated him to create something that can add fragrance and flavour to his limited life. The idea of perfumery is a brilliant evidence of this interesting and never ending journey of labour.

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