Attar – an old Persian word for perfume (ațr, pronounced atir) – is the world’s earliest form of fragrance still in existence today. The word ‘attar’ is used in some form in most of the languages of the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East, for example, ittar or ittr in Hindu and Urdu, ‘etr in Arabic, and ațr in modern-day Farsi. The words ottar, atar, athar, and otto are also forms of the word attar, and used pretty much interchangeably.
Originally, the word referred to any fragrant smell emanating from a person, thing, or plant. For example, if a person had particularly sweet-smelling skin, his or her scent might be described as attar, as in ‘Da-yum, Fatima, you smell attar, girl’. But with the discovery of man-made interventions such as distillation, maceration, and enfleurage, the word attar began to specifically refer to perfumes made using those new methods[i]. When people discovered how to extract essential oils from plants, woods, and resins in the early 1600s, the word ‘attar’ began to be associated almost exclusively with essential oil extracted from roses. Beyond the world famous attar of roses, few outside India were aware of the incredible diversity and range of raw materials beyond rose that could be distilled, extracted, macerated, or enfleuraged to make attars.
Perhaps proving that fragrance is a marker of true civilization, attars were first made by inhabitants of the Indus Valley Civilization (3300 BCE-1300 BCE) which was, along with ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, was one of the three major cradles of civilization. Covering most of modern-day Pakistan and India, the people living there at the time were Indian in the cultural-historical sense. These people were the first to distill and make attars. And despite attar being a word that was later co-opted by Persian and Arab cultures, its origins remain deeply rooted in Indian culture and taxonomy. Interestingly, clay pots (degs) unearthed belonging to the Indus Valley Civilization are almost identical to the ones used today in modern-day India to produce attars.
There is no evidence that attar-making died when the Indus Valley Civilization did. However, attar making truly rose to global prominence under the Mughal Empire in 1526, a Turco-Mongolian dynasty in India that was culturally Persian. The Mughal emperors and princes, passionate about perfume, oversaw the flowering of a golden age of attar-making that outlasted the Mughal Empire itself, which ended over three centuries later in 1857. Ultimately, therefore, although the tradition of making attars is culturally an Indian one, it was the Persiatic culture of the Mughal Empire that caused attar making to flourish past the borders of India herself. So enthusiastically did the Mughal emperors award money and prestige to local Indian attar makers (attar wallahs) that they birthed a golden age for attar making.
We know about the earliest forms of attar production through Islamic texts and historical trading records, but some of the most revealing pieces of information come to us via story telling from the Mughal Empire period. In the 17th century, the Mughal Emperor Jahangir credits his mother-in-law, Saleemah Sultan Begum, for having accidentally discovered how to make rose otto:
‘When she was making rose water, a scum formed on the surface of the dishes into which the hot rose water was poured from the jugs. She collected this scum little by little; when much rose water was obtained a considerable quantity of the scum was collected. It is of such strength in perfume that if one drop be rubbed on the palm of the hand it scents a whole assembly and it seems as if many red rosebuds had bloomed at once. There is no other scent of equal excellence to it. It restores hearts that have gone and brings back withered souls. In reward for that invention, I presented a string of pearls to the inventor.’
From Deg to Lab: The Sad State of Attar Making in India
Photo by Rebecca Matthews on Unsplash
It takes enormous skill and knowledge to make an attar in the traditional way, and having practiced it for over five thousand years, the Indians are the masters of this art. The traditional seat of the attar-making world is Kannauj, the capital city of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Kannauj-based attar-makers supplied the princes of the Mughal Empire with attars for more than three centuries and have a long history of trading with the Middle East. Surrounded by silt-rich fields and valleys that grow an extraordinary range of exotic flowers, aromatics grasses, roses, and herbs, Kannauj is justifiably called the Grasse of the attar world.
Between 90 to 90% of all essential oils, ruhs, and attars produced in Kannauj are consumed by India’s domestic food and tobacco industries, where they are used to flavor cigarettes, chewing gum, dessert syrups, and food bases. The remaining is used domestically as perfume or exported abroad, mainly to the Middle East (the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Kuwait). But the millennia-old attar industry in Kannauj is under threat from the most modern of foes, namely, the cost and availability of key raw materials, and a rising economic class with very different tastes to their forefathers.
Materials such as rose and jasmine have always been expensive to produce, because they are labor-intensive, and a great quantity of fragrant materials is required to produce even a small amount of a ruh or attar. A ten milliliter bottle of genuine rosa damascena oil (ruh gulab) costs approximately $250 in Kannauj, but the same amount of synthetic rose oil costs only $8. Adulteration and fakery of the costliest oils has always been an issue.
What is (relatively) new is the dearth of sandalwood oil, the essential oil that has always been a key component of traditional Indian attars. As will be detailed in the section on sandalwood, the great sandalwood forests of Mysore and other wood-producing regions are almost depleted due to years of over-harvesting, corruption, and careless management. In the late nineties, in response to the sandalwood crisis, the state governments of Karnataka, Mysore, and Uttar Pradesh all placed severe restrictions on the harvesting and trading of sandalwood oil. At a national level, the Indian Government banned the export of sandalwood outside of India’s borders.
Although the supply channel to the great perfumery houses of Chanel and Guerlain in Paris has been kept partly open (through private French ownership of plantations), the restrictions meant that the supply of Mysore oil outside of India is extremely limited, as well as technically illegal. In turn, the flow of oil to the domestic attar industry dried to a trickle. With only tiny amounts of santalum album still reaching the domestic market, prices within India have risen to levels that price most attar makers out of the picture.
The reduced flow of oil to attar-producing houses in Kannauj has resulted in many attar houses packing up and leaving to settle in areas of India such as Mumbai, where sandalwood oil is still perhaps a little easier to obtain, thanks to less stringent government oversight than in Uttar Pradesh. But a big question mark hovers over the purity of the sandalwood oil that does remain on the market in India, whether in Mumbai or elsewhere. Because of scarcity, costs have escalated, leading to what seems now to be a common adulteration of the oil with paraffin, DPG, or inferior wood oils.
When you put together the high costs of production and the low availability of key ingredients, it is no wonder that many of the small, independent attar-making houses in Kannauj have gone out of business. At its height, approximately sixty percent of the population of the 1.7 million-strong city was employed in the attar industry. Until the restrictions on sandalwood oil production came about in the nineties, there were over seven hundred distilleries operating in Kannauj. Now there are only a hundred and fifty. The traditional attar making industry has shrunk by almost eighty percent over the past three decades.
But perhaps the greatest pressure on the traditional Indian attar-making industry in Kannauj has been the rise in demand for Western designer perfumes among young, upwardly mobile males in the large Indian cities, a new socio-economic class that emerged during India’s great economic turnaround in urban areas in the nineties. Flush with new wealth and an emerging middle class, attention has turned away from the traditional Indian attars and towards more modern, Western-orientated grooming products. The Indian trade association, ASSOCHAM, reports that the demand for Western brands such as Azzaro, Burberry, Chanel, and Armani amounts to a hefty 30% of total fragrance consumption in India and is worth almost $300 million.
In order to pivot towards the market, two things happened in Kannauj. First, the traditional Indian attar makers still in business have scrambled to adapt to a new business model. While some (such as M. L. Ramnarain Perfumers) have stuck to old distillation methods, and switched to using solvents other than sandalwood, many other outfits, especially the Mumbai-based ones, have lowered their cost base (and therefore prices) by using paraffin oils to pad out their formulas to retain the interest of the modern Indian fragrance market. A quick scan of IndiaMart shows many attar houses now offering so-called ‘traditional’ motia (Sambac jasmine) and gulab (rosa damascena) attars for as little as $45 per liter, a price that in and of itself betrays its synthetic composition. If made in the traditional way in Kannauj, using a deg and bhapka, and real jasmine petals, a liter of genuine motia attar would cost more in the region of $5,400[ii].
Second, some attar factories in Mumbai began focusing on churning out cheap perfume oils and dupes of the most popular Western fragrances instead of traditional Indian attars or ruhs. These have become something of a modern success story, in the business sense. These factories create their oils in the laboratory rather than in the traditional deg and bhapka, and they don’t even pretend that there is anything traditionally Indian about them. In fact, it is their Western character that is emphasized, designed to appeal to young Indian tastes. Their oils are also commonly called ‘attars’, which must feel like salt in the wound of any attar house in Kannauj still distilling their attars in the time-honored manner.
Somewhere in the nineties, therefore, the meaning of the word attar began its slow, inexorable drift away from its traditional meaning (raw plant material distilled into a sandalwood base) to a more modern interpretation, meaning any perfume that comes in oil format. The word attar now can mean anything from a shamama attar distilled for two months to a knock-off of Tom Ford’s Tuscan Leather that costs less than a hundred rupees.
All is not lost, however. Despite the problems in the industry at present, some small-scale traditional attar production continues, and given its millennia-long history, it is not likely that traditional Indian attars will ever disappear completely. The pendulum of interest will swing back again in that direction, especially if there is a return to valuing heritage and tradition, as has been the case in many countries once the dust of an economic boom has settled. Artisanship will always be valued as a segment of the total fragrance industry, alongside an appreciation for excellent raw materials.
How Traditionally Distilled Attars and Ruhs are Made
Photo by Rowan Lamb on Unsplash
Traditional distilled attars are made in much the same way as they were way during the Indus Valley Civilization. The main components of traditional attar making are copper or earthen drums called a deg, a copper receiving vessel (containing sandalwood oil) called a bhapka, and the slowest and most gentle of all extraction techniques, namely hydro-distillation. Steam distillation, which is conducted at much higher temperatures, is also used, but only for harder resin or woody materials less likely to burn than, for example, more delicate materials such as jasmine petals.
Photo courtesy of Pranjal Kapoor
The process is slow and laborious. First, up to forty-five kilos of fragrant materials – for example, rose petals, henna flowers, or jasmine blossoms – are loaded into the deg. The deg is then filled to the top with water so that the fragrant materials float freely in the liquid, and the lid sealed with a mixture of wet clay, straw, and cotton fibers. The deg rests on top of a clay or brick oven that is maintained at a very low heat throughout the day. Once the fire is lit, it will be kept going for at least eight hours[iii].
Photo courtesy of Pranjal Kapoor
Once the deg is heated, the aromatic vapors begin to build up inside the pot and these then pass through an angled bamboo pipe into the long-necked copper bhapka waiting underneath the deg in a shallow basin of water, which serves to instantly cool the vapors flowing into the bhapka and change it into liquid. The awaiting bhapka will already contain up to five kilograms of pure sandalwood oil, prized for both its beautiful aroma and fixative properties. Indian attar makers are extremely skilled at keeping temperatures steady and low throughout the process, often sponging the deg down with cool water if they feel that it is overheating.
Photo courtesy of Pranjal Kapoor
At the end of the day, the fire is extinguished and the liquid in the bhapka is left to cool and settle overnight. In the morning, the water (called a hydrosol) has separated from the oil and is carefully siphoned off to be poured back into the deg for the new days’ worth of distilling. Fresh fragrant materials are placed in the deg, along with the hydrosol, and the process is repeated. Most distillations take between ten and twenty days to complete, all the time adding fresh fragrant materials and re-using the hydrosol, which by the end will have passed through the flowers so many times that it itself is fragrant and can be sold for use in skincare and food preparation.
But the real prize is what’s in the bhapka – a thick sandalwood oil fragrant with the heady scent of the flowers, herbs, or other aromatic materials. The attar is then poured into flasks made from soft calfskin or lambskin leather, materials just porous enough to allow any excess water in the mixture to evaporate but sturdy enough to keep the fragrant attar inside. The flasks are stored in a dark, dry place until the attar has matured and settled into its final aroma, a process that takes at least a year but can take up to ten.
Sometimes, attars make use of materials that cannot be extracted using steam or water, such as resins and gums. In such cases, the material – for example, frankincense gum or myrrh resin – is heated up until it produces liquid tears that are scraped off the inside of the heated deg and then mixed into sandalwood oil. The attars are then macerated, filtered, stored, and matured in the same way as the regular floral attars.
Then there are the ruhs. Ruh in a Sanskrit word for ‘essence’ or ‘spirit’. Ruhs are essential oils distilled from a limited number of Indian flowers, herbs, and plants in much the same way as attars, i.e., gentle hydro-distillation using the traditional deg and bhapka. Unlike attars, however, ruhs are not distilled into sandalwood but left in their undiluted state. At the end of a distilling day, the distillate is allowed to rest and cool, and the next morning, the water is siphoned off the essential oil. The ruh is then packaged into small flasks and allowed to rest, as for attars. Due to the lack of carrier oil, ruhs are far more perishable than attars, and must be stored well away from the light. Ruhs are costly to produce and the number of materials that can be distilled into ruhs is limited. According to White Lotus Aromatics, these include jasmine (all types), rosa damascena, kewra (screwpine flowers), and khus (wild vetiver roots).
End Note: The four building blocks of oil-based perfumery as I see them, are (1) traditional distilled attars, (2) Middle-Eastern mukhallats, (3) foundational essential oils such as oud oil and sandalwood oil, and (4) concentrated perfume oils. Here is a brief summary of the four categories:
Traditional distilled attars: The subject of this chapter. In contrast to its catch-all categorization today, the word attar originally referred to a specific method of production, and a tradition that was almost exclusively Indian. True attars are made through the slow, laborious process of hydro- or steam-distilling flower petals, herbs, exotic woods, and resins directly into a base of sandalwood oil.
Middle-Eastern mukhallats: While traditional Indian attars are distilled from a fragrant material, mukhallats – meaning ‘mix’ – are compounds of many different oils that have already been distilled, tinctured, or otherwise produced elsewhere.
Foundational essential oils: Sandalwood and oud are truly essential oils, in that they are the building blocks of their respective styles of perfumery. In traditional Indian attar perfumery, fragrant materials are distilled directly into sandalwood oil, while in Middle-Eastern mukhallat perfumery, the Arabian passion for oud means that a blend that doesn’t feature it is considered a poor excuse for a perfume. Furthermore, both sandalwood and oud feature such complex aroma profiles that they wear more like a complete perfume than an essential oil.
Concentrated perfume oils: Although all attars are by nature concentrated perfume oils, not all concentrated perfume oils are attars. For example, a perfume oil from Bruno Acampora, Le Labo, or BPAL is not an attar. Neither is the Al Rehab dupe for Dakar Noir that you can buy on Amazon for four dollars. They are perfumes in oil format but made in a completely different manner (and intent) than attars.
About Me: A two-time Jasmine Award winner for excellence in perfume journalism, I write a blog (this one!) and have authored many guides, articles, and interviews for Basenotes. (My day-to-day work is in the scientific research for development world). Thanks to the generosity of friends and acquaintances in the perfume business, I have been privileged enough to smell the raw materials that go into perfumes and learn about the role they play in both Western and Eastern perfumery. Artisans have sent vials of the most precious materials on earth such as ambergris, deer musk, and oud. But I have also spent thousands of my own money, buying oud oils directly from artisans and tons of dodgy (and possibly illegal) stuff on eBay. In the reviews sections, I will always tell you where my sample came from and whether I paid for it or not.
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[i]F. Aubaile-Sallenave, Encyclopædia Iranica, Vol. III, Fasc. 1, pp. 14-16; available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/atr-perfume (accessed online, 14 December 2017).
[ii] Based on 120ml of hydro-distilled motia attar costing $650 on White Lotus Aromatics
[iii] L’Inde des Parfums by Nicolas de Barry & Laurent Granier, published by Éditions du Garde-Temps, ISBN: 2-913545-33-5, 2004.