Complex Indian attars are the result of a multi-distillation process, whereby several fragrant materials are co-distilled in the same deg or created by mixing several distillates and attars together after distillation.
In a multi-distillation process, the various fragrant materials are placed in the deg to be distilled together, with the distillers adjusting and adding to the formula over the course of the ten, or even twenty-day distillation process, beginning each day with a new blend of botanicals, resins, herbs, and spices.
Alternatively, some complex attars are built by mixing already-distilled attars, ruhs, choyas, or sandalwood oils together. Ambery attars, for example, although not a huge feature of Indian attar perfumery, are not derived through a single distillation of an amber material, but instead composed of several complete essential oils from materials such as labdanum and benzoin. Below is a description of some of the most characteristic and significant of complex traditional Indian attars.
Majmua attar is a complex blend of four other already-distilled attars and ruhs, namely, ruh khus, ruh kewra, mitti attar, and kadam attar (described individually here). Majmua displays deep, green forest-like tones first, then the pungency of hay or saffron, followed by soft fruits, brown earth, the scent of rain on terracotta pots, herbs, flowers, hay, and moss. Majmua is also suggestive of the furriness of warm animals, without containing even a drop of musk. Evolving over the course of a day, its transition from one set of aromas to the next is nothing short of mesmerizing. If one aroma could be said to predominate, it would be the bitter, mossy greenness of herbs.
Together, the combined aromas in the attar mimic the lush, earthy feel of India during monsoon season. Majmua is powerful to the point of being overbearing, especially to a Western nose. Therefore, it is not a bad idea to dilute it in carrier oil before using as a personal perfume. A Turkish perfumer friend of mine (Omer Pekji) layers it under Serge Lutens’ beastly Muscs Khoublai Khan, and I can confirm that this combination of bitter, green, and foresty with musky, sugary, and rosy works to perfection.
Shamama, sometimes also called hina (not to be confused with gul hina, which is a henna-only attar), is a highly complex attar distilled from a compound of more than sixty different aromatic materials such as woods, moss, cloves, ambrette seed, saffron, and sandalwood. Shamama attar also seems to be semi-analogous with so-called shamamatul amber, which possibly involves an evolution of the original formula to include heavier woods, labdanum, and musks. Shamamatul amber can be as pungent and as animalic as some Hindi ouds.
The exact recipe to shamama is a closely-held secret. Each traditional attar-making family has its own recipe, which is handed down from father to son unaltered. The big attar companies also produce their own version of shamama. The diversity among shamama attars means that no one shamama smells like the other.
There are any grades of shamama attar, ranging from $50 per kilo to $2,000 per kilo, depending on the amount, quality, and type of raw materials used (some shamama attars are distilled into pure sandalwood, others over a synthetic solvent like IPM). Interestingly, M.L. Ramnarain, a Kannauj-based attar distillery, which sells most of its shamama attar to Europe and the Middle East, must keep the different shamama distillations destined for different market separate[i]. This is because most shamama attars contain charila, an oakmoss-like lichen, and therefore cannot be sold in the EU, due to the ban on the atranol contained within the material, i.e., much the same issues pertaining to European oakmoss absolute. (Read more about that here).
According to Chris McMahon of White Lotus Aromatics, the traditional shamama attar will normally contain some combination of ‘turmeric, spikenard, yew, oakmoss, cardamom, juniper berry, nutmeg, mace, clove bud, ambrette seed, laurel berry, valerian, and red sandalwood’[i]. It is a recipe that can be varied or added to in a seemingly infinite number of ways. With the advent of cheaper synthetics and the contraction in the traditional art of attar-making, the number of families still producing shamama in the traditional manner is tiny. Most shamama attars on the market these days are a mixture of synthetics and naturals, with many of them smelling surprisingly good.
Even so, it is interesting to look at the old-school method of distilling shamama attar[ii]. It is a process that is far more complex and laborious than a single-material attar, and it takes at least two months to make one from start to finish. The distillation is divided into stages. The first stage is a distillation of charila, a lacy lichen covering rocks in the forests of the Himalayas that possesses an inky, bitter, mossy aroma similar to that of European oakmoss. (Shamama distillations meant for the European market will accordingly skip this particular step). The charila is hydro-distilled directly into sandalwood oil in the classic manner over a period of ten days. The second stage is a distillation of ground-up and lightly roasted aromatic plants, roots, and botanicals, many of which are unfamiliar to the Western nose, like spikenard, valerian root, cyperus root, and sugandh kokila, a dried berry from an evergreen laurel-like tree that grows in Nepal. The aromatics are distilled into the lichen-fragrant sandalwood oil from the first stage.
Photo: Charila, a type of Indian lichen that is similar to oakmoss. Photo by Pranjal Kapoor.
The third stage is a spice and herb distillation. Each day, fresh quantities of pulverized cinnamon, cardamom, mace, nutmeg, clove, patchouli leaves, and ambrette seeds are loaded into the deg, with the vapors pouring directly into the aromatized sandalwood oil in the bhapka, itself already heady with moss and aromatics.
Photo: Aromatics, spice, and dried plant material being loaded into the deg. Photo by Pranjal Kapoor.
An optional fourth stage for the attar wallah, separate to the distillation process, is to prepare a choya. There are three main types. Choya nakh consists of seashells that are first charred, roasted, and smoked over a dry fire in a sand pit, and then macerated and cooked gently in sandalwood oil. Choya nakh is also not permitted as an ingredient for shamama attars destined for the European market, due to the phenols present in the material after the charring process. When strained, the oil is aromatized with a mysteriously smoky, salty aroma. Tango by Aftelier is one of the few artisanal, non-attar perfumes that featured choya nakh (review here), however it is no longer available. Choya loban is a dry distillation of frankincense resin, whereby the liquid tears of resin are either scraped off the inside of the heated degs or the vapors directed into a receiving vessel (without sandalwood oil). Choya Ral is a balsamic dry distillation of the resin of the Sal Tree (Shorea robusta) that yields a dark, sweetly resinous smoky-leathery aroma that is useful in a fougère composition. The attar maker may choose to prepare and add a choya to the main shamama distillate as and when they see fit. The choyas add a smoky, resinous depth to the shamama.
The final stage is mixing the shamama attar with already-distilled attars, such as attar of roses, jasmine, kewra, champaca, and so on. Before finishing, other fragrant materials such as rose hydrosols, musk grains and even ambergris tinctures are added, left to macerate in a sealed pot over a very low fire for twenty-four hours, skimmed for purity, and poured into leather caskets to age and settle. Given the complexity and difficulty involved in producing shamama attar, it is no wonder, then, that a traditionally-distilled hina or shamama attar with the full whack of natural raw materials starts at a minimum of $2,000 per kilo[iii].
Despite their differences, shamama attars do share some basic common characteristics, such as a bitter, medicinal topnote, notes of earth and vetiver, a pungent saffron or henna note with hay and iodine tonalities, a rich ambery-aromatic heart, animalic facets that mimic the scent or texture of ambergris, civet, heavy musk, and Hindi oud, and tenacious basenotes that smell like moss, wood, baked earth, tea leaves, and medicinal ointment.
Kasturi-Type Attars (Black Musk Attars)
Black musk or Kasturi-type attars count as a complex attar rather than a single-material attar because, despite the name, they rarely contain natural deer musk. The hunting and killing of musk deer in India and Pakistan is illegal, and although this does not mean that attars containing real deer musk do not exist, most Kasturi-type attars use other ingredients to approximate the scent of musk. This is more due to issues of cost and availability than legality.
Kasturi-type attars derive their musky aroma through a complex array of aromatics and botanicals such as patchouli, costus root, and vetiver, mixed with either a botanical or synthetic musk. In the past, ambrette seed oil would have been the main material used to mimic the muskiness of genuine deer musk, but today, due to reasons of cost, attar makers likely use other less expensive musk botanicals or a combination of synthetic musk molecules. Musk plays a far more significant part in Arabian perfumery than in traditional Indian attar perfumery.
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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Cover Image: Custom-designed by Jim Morgan.
Photos: Kindly given to me by Pranjal Kapoor with full permission to use in these posts.
[i] The White Lotus Aromatics newsletter on hina (no longer available online)
[ii] I am indebted to Chris McMahon of White Lotus Aromatics for the bulk of the information on the complex process of distilling shamama attars.