Volume: 9, No: 09 ; September-2015
Taj Mahal, the white-marbled wonder built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third and favorite wife, Empress Mumtaz Mahal. Empress died in 1631 giving birth to their 13th child. The Taj is Jahan’s grand paean to lost love. But he also mourned his queen in much more personal ways. For one thing, Jahan never again wore perfume. Fragrant oils—known in India as attars—had been one of the couple’s great shared passions. The story of Mughal Empress Noor-Jehan in relation to attar goes, that one day Empress had a spat with her husband Jhangir and once she cooled down a bit, she decided to throw a party to patch-up with her husband. To this end she ordered several large vats of rosewater to bathe in. While these vats were kept for the Empress, in the heat of the day, she nodded off. The sun broke down the roses’ essential oils and when she woke up, she saw an oil layer formed on the surface. She assumed someone had thrown oil in the vats, until she realized that this layer formed on the surface was far more fragrant and effective than the rosewater. Out of excitement she told her husband, Jahangir about this wonderful substance that was Rose Attar, the natural perfume from rose pettals.
Attar is an Arabic word, which meaning “fragrance, scent, or essence”. Attar has been considered one of the most treasured of material possessions and the Islamic prophet, Muhammad has been compared to Attar for his purity.
Exactly when attar-making began, no one is certain; archaeologists have unearthed clay distillation pots dating back thousands of years to the ancient Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley. Old texts mention that the floral group primarily used for attar manufacture was rose, bela, jasmine, champa, molesari and tuberose, along with roots like vetiver and ginger. Sandal, cinnamon and aloe bark were also used. Heavy scents like musk, myrrh and ambergris, were also used with khus. Rooh gulab is supposed to be the most expensive attar.
Perfume (itr or attar) was an integral part of Mughal culture in India. The Maharajas of Gwalior, Patiala, Darbhanga and Mysore were great patrons of itr. The heights of the art of perfume-making were reached during the reigns of Nawabs of Awadh. The kingdom of Awadh, situated on the banks of the River Gomti, had Lucknow as its capital. Under the rule of the Nawabs, who originally belonged to Persia, and famous for their courtly manners, poetry, music and cuisine, the art of perfume-making flourished and reached its pinnacle in the period of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the last King of Awadh. About 150 km there flourished a city that was all based on the art of perfume making, Kannauj, that found great patron in Wajid Ali Shah and in its heydays, was regarded as the Grasse of the East, titled after the French town famous as the perfume capital of the world. Kannauj made its mark in the art of perfumery, producing some of the finest scents from some exotic flowers and herbs that include jasmine, rose, vetiver (a variety of grass) etc.
Today, Kannauj is a hub of a historic perfumery that draws much of the town to the same pursuit. Most of the villagers are connected to this industry, either as farmers growing these flowers and herbs or as perfumers. Along with their ancient perfumery skills, the villagers of Kannauj have inherited a remarkable skill to the extent that they have also captured the scent of the first rain drop on dry mud or that of dew on winter grass.
In the rows of plants, white jasmine flowers shaped like starfish blossom. Twiggy trees called gul-hina bloom, their tiny flowers clustered into points of white flame. Ordinary on the tree, gul-hina leaves become the extraordinary henna (mehendi) that decorates women palms and feet for special occasions. The flowers also make delicate attar. It takes about 100 pounds of flower petals or herbs, infused into a pound of sandalwood oil – to make about one pound of pure attar. Families head out in the early mornings or cool evenings to pluck the fragile flowers. They pack their harvest in jute sacks, then rush to the distillery with the harvest, before the petals start wilting.
The ancient, painstakingly slow distillation practiced in Kannauj is called deg-bhapka. When a fresh supply of flowers come, the craftsmen put these into a deg (cauldron), fill the deg with water, cover it airtight with a lid, sealing it with mud. This deg is connected to bhapka (smaller pot, forming a kind of apparatus) with a connector (a pipe made of bamboo). They then light a wood or cow-dung fire underneath, keeping a vigilant eye over the whole process. Once fire process is over, utensils are left to cool overnight. Later, the water is siphoned leaving the actual residue of essential oil. The distillery workers have inherited these age-old skills from their ancestors and are keeping it alive, in spite of the fact that many distilleries have graduated to modern methods of distillation. .
After the attars are blended well by master-perfumers, they are delicately poured into ornamental glass bottles to be sold. These decanters often are made of cut-glass, hand-painted with luster on them. These ornate tiny crystal bottles are called itardans that in themselves are collectors delight.
Government of India too has pushed the industry in a big way by way of having a specialised organization in place at Kannauj by setting up Fragrance & Flavour Development Centre (FFDC) in the year 1991 with the assistance of UNDP and the Government of Uttar Pradesh. FFDC aims to serve as an interface between essential oil, fragrance and flavour industry and the research and development institutions both in the field of agro technology and chemical technology. Main objective of the centre is to serve, sustain and upgrade the status of farmers and industry engaged in the aromatic cultivation and its processing, so as to make them both in local and global market.
A sufi shrine, village life, small town clutter all make Kannauj a treat for visitors, with limited basic infrastructure one can easily reach through Kanpur in 1.5 hrs or Lucknow in a matter of 4 hours. On the outskirts of Kannauj, apart from the vast fields planted with fragrant flowers stretching for miles and miles, there are high-rise chimneys of hundreds of small-scale brick kilns for which the region is also known for. Like the attars, bricks too are manufactured in Kannauj today since centuries – red-clay earth is cut from top layer of the soil, sun dried and then stacked and fired in furnace to be baked till red.
Historically, Kannauj is one among the most ancient place of India having rich archeological and cultural heritage, The ancient name of this place is Kanyakubja or Mahodya (as per Balmiki Ramayana, Mahabharat and Puran) later name kanyakubja was changed as Kannauj the present name of the District. The early history of the region now covered by the present district of Kannauj goes back to the Bronze Age. During the Bronze age numerous pre historical weapons and tools were found here. Large number of stone statues were also found here. Kannauj can claim great antiquity in sculpture. The Aryans settled in this region and were close allies of Kurus. The traditional history of the district from the earliest times till the end of The Mahabharata war is gleaned from the Puranas & Mahabharata.
Tornos conducts special tour based on perfume experience called : Kannauj – Grasse of India
Credits : Yusra Husain / Times of India
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