Traditional Indian attars (especially the complex attars) and Middle-Eastern mukhallat perfumery draw on a vast array of aromatics, herbs, earthy notes, and spices that give the finished perfumes that special ‘flavor’ that renders the final result exotic to the Western nose. Although not distilled as single-source attars, these aromatics provide a boost of complexity, depth, and piquancy to the attar that complements the primary distilled material or materials.
For traditional Indian attar perfumery, attar wallahs tend to prefer the broad range of aromatics, herbs, and spices available to them in Mother India. Prime among these aromatics is spikenard, otherwise known as Himalayan nard or jatamansi. Native to the mountainous regions of Northern India, as well as other regions, spikenard is a truly ancient herb, said to have been the aromatic herb used by Mary to anoint Jesus before the Last Supper. It was also widely used in Ancient Egypt as a healing unguent, and later, by the Mughal Empress Nur Jehan as an anti-aging treatment for her face. Scent-wise, spikenard is both pungent and sweet, like lavender with a trace of animal fat clinging around the edges. It lends a rooty, medicinal-herbal facet to attars.
Charila lichen: Photo by Pranjal Kapoor, who kindly granted his permission to use it here
Charila is grey-green lichen that grows in Nepal and the mountainous regions of Northern India. Possessed of a bitter, inky aroma profile, it is somewhat analogous to European and Balkan oakmoss. It is used to give attars a dark, green-mossy character. Mitti and ruh khus (described here) are the scents of baked earth and vetiver roots respectively; they take their rightful place beside the other earthy aromatics in this chapter.
Patchouli is a member of the mint family, and native to India (as well as other semi- or fully tropical hot countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Madagascar). Deriving from the Tamil word for green, patchai, patchouli has been distilled and used in ayurvedic medicine and attar perfumery for over five thousand years. Its earthy, camphoraceous greenness is prized for its moth-repelling properties as well as for its anxiety-reducing qualities. For distillation purposes, only the small, green leaves of the plant are selected for loading into the deg. Patchouli has a calming, almost sedative effect on the senses, and is used in attar perfumery to give an earthy, grounded character to the attar.
Saffron distillation: Photo by Pranjal Kapoor, who kindly granted his permission to use it here
Although saffron is not native to India, there is significant production of the spice in Kashmir, the northernmost state of India. Indeed, Kashmir forms part of the saffron belt that stretches between Spain and Iran. Kashmiri saffron is pungent and sweet, with facets of hay, iodine, ink, leather, and honey central to its character. In attar perfumery, it is often used to give the traditional ambery attars a characteristic spicy, vegetal warmth and leathery undertone. However, saffron is equally prized in Middle-Eastern mukhallat perfumery, where it is often used to give the blend a rich leather, suede, or even oudy character.
Henna, or hina, is steam-distilled from the flowers of the henna plant, the so-called Lawsonia inermis. Although more commonly used throughout Asia for body art and pre-marriage rituals, henna is also used in traditional Indian attar perfumery. The essential oil is earthy and sweet, with a dry, tannic edge that recalls black tea leaves. Henna lends a spicy, earthy tinge to complex co-distilled attars and ambery attars, but it is also enjoyed in its pure form, as gul hina (attar of henna flower).
Ambrette seed comes from the musk mallow plant (Abelmoschus moschatus) native to India. When steam-distilled, the odor of the ambrette oil is sweet, anisic, with hints of green apple or pear, cumin or bread, and hard alcohol, like grappa or cognac. But its principal aroma constituent is its muskiness. Ambrette gives the attar a velvety roundness that might otherwise only be achieved with animal musk. For this reason, it is a very valuable material in attar perfumery. Musk attars in India are traditionally made with ambrette seed oil rather than deer musk, as ambrette is easier and less expensive to obtain.
Cypriol essential oil after distillation: Photo by Pranjal Kapoor, who kindly granted his permission to use it here
Cypriol, or nagamortha, is a type of papyrus that grows wild in the Madhya Pradesh region of India. Its rhizomes are used to make a deeply fragrant oil that acts both as a fixative in complex attars and as a key aromatizing ingredient in and of itself. Its scent is woody, smoky, dark, and slightly dirty, with elements common to vetiver, patchouli, and cedarwood. Cypriol’s main contribution to attar (and indeed Western) perfumery is that it can stand in quite creditably for oud, whose smoky woodiness it resembles. Cypriol oil is also used extensively in Middle-Eastern mukhallat perfumery.
Choyas, on the other hand, are uniquely Indian. They are used in traditional Indian attar perfumery, especially in the more complex attar types. A choya, named for the special earthenware pot in which it is cooked, is a type of distillation method separate to hydro or steam distillation, known as destructive distillation[i]. It is used for a couple of very hard materials, like seashells (choya nakh), frankincense (choya loban), or tree bark (choya ral). The hard materials are placed inside the choya, which is then cooked over a direct fire until droplets of pure essence collect on the interior walls of the choya. These droplets are carefully scraped off the walls of the choya and later added into distilled attars.
Choyas are extremely concentrated aromatics and must be dosed carefully so as not to overwhelm more delicate aromas present in the attar. Choya nakh can add a saline, mineral tang to an attar and can sometimes come across as leathery, a feature illustrated extremely well in the all-natural perfume Tango by Mandy Aftel. Choya loban adds a pine-like, fresh or citrusy freshness to an attar, capturing as it does the higher register of notes present in olibanum rather than the waxier, more resinous aspects.
Distilled from the small white flowers of the evergreen Bakula tree native to Western India, bakul or bakula oil is not much known in Western perfumery, but much loved in India for its sweet, persistent floral smell. The Latin name for the tree is Mimusops elengi, which suggests that people might have originally thought it was related to mimosa or acacia. In India, people like to collect the small blossoms when they fall from the tree, because they retain their scent even when dried. The flowers are popular for their fresh aromatic smell and often used in wedding garlands (the tree is also sometimes called the Garland Tree).
Stephen Arctander, author of Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin, as cited by Chris McMahon of White Lotus Aromatics in his article on Bakula, describes bakula essential oil as a ‘pale yellow, mobile liquid of very delicate, sweet and extremely tenacious floral odor, somewhat reminiscent of orange flower and tuberose, or the more well-known stephanotisits florabunda (gardenia undertone). A honey like, heavy-sweet undertone, is quite persistent, and this essential oil could, if it were made regularly available, certainly find uses as a modifier of countless floral fragrances.’[ii] Although not commonly used outside of India, several artisan perfumers do use bakula in their perfumes, most notably Dawn Spencer Hurwitz of DSH Parfums, and Russian Adam of Areej Le Doré.
Up next: Reviews of everything aromatic, spicy, earthy, herbal, and soapy-fresh in attar, mukhallat or concentrated perfume oil form!
Cover Image: Photo by Mohammad Amiri on Unsplash
[ii] https://www.whitelotusaromatics.com/newsletters/bakul (unfortunately not available online anymore)