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Traditional Indian attars

Attars & CPOs The Attar Guide

Indian Single-Material Attars and Ruhs

3rd November 2021

 

Traditional Indian attars (and ruhs) can be divided roughly into two groups.  First, there are attars made by distilling a single material, like, for example, rose or vetiver. (These are the subject of this chapter).  Then, there are the more complex attars made by co-distilling several materials in the same deg or mixing several distilled attars and ruhs together.  The range and diversity of the fragrant materials used in traditional attars is astonishing – Westerners will likely have not heard of half of these plants or combinations.

 

Indians regard their native plants and herbs as possessing ayurvedic properties and use them accordingly.  Attars such as musk, hina (shamama) and majmua, for example, are warming attars for when the weather is cold, whereas mitti, kewra, and ruh khus attars are seen as cooling, refreshing oils to be used in hot, muggy weather.  Below is description of the main types of single-material ruhs and attars distilled from one single aromatic material using the hydro-distillation method.

 

 

 

Ruh Khus

 

 

Translating roughly to ‘the spirit of vetiver’, ruh khus is an essential oil traditionally distilled from wild vetiver roots using traditional methods in Northern India.  Its characteristic color – a glowing mélange of lurid greens and blues – actually comes from the copper vessels used in the distillation process rather than the rhizome itself.  The copper pots add a slightly metallic tinge to the aroma profile of the oil, but this is considered a desirable property.  Ruh Khus used to be exclusively distilled from wild vetiver roots, but due to unpredictable yields and the labor intensive nature of the distillation process, plantation-grown roots are increasingly used.

 

The scent of Ruh Khus is cleansing and spiritual, encompassing as it does all the possible facets of pure vetiver oil, from soft, buff-colored nutty notes to deep green foresty aspects.  The main flavor wall of a Ruh Khus will always be the grassy-nutty-rooty aroma of vetiver root, but behind the main bouquet, you can pick up on the more complex facets of the root’s aroma profile such as sweet spices, smoke, earth, roses, olives, grass, clay, saffron, and hazelnuts.  Its fresh, grassy aroma is most appreciated during hot summer weather, when it provides a cooling effect.  Indians also make a very refreshing drink (khus water) from vetiver roots macerated in water.

 

 

 

Ruh Gulab

 

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Gul means rose in Hindi, although the word is sometimes also loosely interpreted as ‘flower’.  Ruh gulab is an extremely costly essential oil of roses, distilled from rosa damascena rose petals (the Bulgarian and Turkish varietal of rose).  It is also known as rose otto.  The scent of ruh gulab is strong, spicy-sweet, and richly rosy.  Ruh gulab is distilled primarily over a forty-day period (mid-March to late April), which is when the roses are at their best, and exclusively in Hasayan, a village in North India that lies 200km away from Kannauj[1].  Ruh gulab is so costly to produce that what is usually marketed as ruh gulab is actually an attar of roses, i.e., rose distilled over a solvent such as sandalwood oil or IPM.

 

 

Attar of Roses/ Attar Gulab

 

When rose petals are distilled into pure sandalwood oil or another solvent, it is no longer a ruh, but an attar, known worldwide as the famous attar of roses (or sometimes, Attar Gulab).  Attar of roses production takes place in Kannauj itself over nine months of the year, using Bourbon roses (Rosa bourboniana) rather than rosa damascena.  

 

 

 

Ruh Kewra

 

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Translating to ‘soul of the screwpine flower’, this beautiful ruh smells like raw honey and fresh, creamy white flowers undercut by a delicate fruit note.  Ruh Kewra is extracted from the kewra flower (Pandanus odoratissimus), a plant native to Odisha state, through the steam distillation process.  The top notes are rather piercing and shrill, like sucking on a copper penny, but it subsequently develops into a sweet, smooth fruity-floral aroma that is very pleasant.

 

A Kewra Attar is similar to a Ruh Kewra, but as the name suggests, the attar version is not a pure essential oil of the material (screwpine) but instead distilled over a solvent such as sandalwood oil (if natural) or IPM, TEC, Migyol, etc. (if synthetic).  Kewra is very valuable to the tobacco and food industry because it is potent enough to flavor syrups, cosmetics, and tobacco leaves without losing any of its characteristic honey and fruit tones.  Correspondingly, when used in attar perfumery, attar wallahs must be careful not to allow kewra to overtake all the other elements.

 

Kewra is also popularly known as pandan. Pandan leaves are used as liberally in Eastern cookery as vanilla is in Western cookery.  The leaves can be chewed or used to wrap up sticky rice and chicken, but it is most commonly used to flavor desserts, sweet syrups, and drinks.  Pandan syrup leaves a hauntingly sweet, floral taste in the mouth that, once tasted or smelled, will never be forgotten. 

 

 

 

Mitti Attar

 

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Mitti is one of those extraordinary attars that make one wonder at the resourcefulness of man and his determination to make perfume out of everything.  Mitti is an attar distilled from the dry, cracked earth of India at the end of the dry season, and it smells of exactly that moment when the first drops of rain of the monsoon season come down and drench the cracked earth. For many Indian people, mitti is the scent of longing.

 

The process of making mitti attar is a complex and arduous one. First, villagers will identify a dried-up well, river, or lake where they can excavate earth that will still have a little moisture in it. Clods of earth are dug up from the ground and transported in trucks to open-air potteries, where potters take the clods and use water to massage them into a sort of dough or clay, which they then shape into cup-like vessels. The potters partially bake the cups in kilns, whereupon they are removed and brought to the distilleries[i].

 

As described very beautifully by Christopher McMahon on the White Lotus Aromatics blogpost on mitti (unfortunately no longer available), the partially-baked earthen cups are then stacked one on top of another in the deg, the copper cooking cauldron, sealed, and unusually for an attar, first heated without water in order to allow the mysterious earth molecules to vaporize and imbue the sandalwood oil with their scent more strongly. Only later is the water added, and when it is, it is fed through a small hole in the deg rather than unsealing the whole pot and exposing the delicate baked earth to the air.

 

The point of this process is to aromatize the receiver oil most strongly with the scent of dry, baked earth, before adding water. The addition of water alters the scent of the vapor slightly, shifting from dusty earth to slightly moist soil. Since the mitti attar captures both the dry dust of sunbaked earth and the scent of raindrops hitting that dry earth, using this combination of distilling methods ensures both dry and damp facets are captured. 

 

Unlike most other attars, the deg is cooked over a fire only for two hours a day before being allowed to cool and rest. After the water is siphoned off the essential oil and sandalwood in the bhapka, the deg is loaded with new earthen cups, dry baked, and the hydrosol from the day before added in later. The process is repeated over twenty days and stopped when the oil in the bhapka is strongly aromatized with the scent of earth, both dry and damp.

 

The mysterious scent owes its strange, haunting power to the compound called geosmin, which recalls the smell of things once rain has fallen on them: think of the hot asphalt smell of the streets in the city after a downpour, or the smell of earth and grass out in the countryside. Mitti attar captures the petrichor effect of rain drenching the red, cracked earth in India, because it is made from that same earth. It smells simultaneously musty and earthy, with a certain ‘red’ dustiness one associates with terracotta pots.

 

 

Kadam Attar

 

 

It is challenging to talk about kadam because it is expensive, and almost impossible to source outside of India. However, it is one of the most prized floral attars in India and forms a key component of the famous majmua attar, so it is worth discussing on that basis alone.

 

Distilled from the small, yellow bushy flowers of the Anthocephalus cadamba, kadam (sometimes written as kandam) produces a complex floral oil said to possess a green, almost minty topnote akin to Borneo oud wood, and a yellow floral tonality in the base that runs close to the creaminess of champaca.

 

 

 

Attar Mehndi / Gul Heena

 

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Attar Mehndi, or Gul Heena, a name which translates to ‘flower of henna’, is an attar derived from distilling henna leaves (Lawsonia Inermis) directly into sandalwood oil. Mehndi attar comes from the same plant as the popular red dye that is used to paint elaborate patterns onto the hands and face of brides in most Indian weddings, be it a Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh ceremony. There is also a Ruh Mehndi, but it is very expensive at $43,000 per kilogram (while the attar ranges between $500 and $5,000 per kilogram)[2].

 

The scent of mehndi attar is that of earth, hay, flower petals, ink, baked clay, and iodine. (The ruh smells greener, with a  tobacco-ish facet).  It possesses a haunting astringency that can suck all the moisture from your nostrils.  I find Mehndi attar to be roughly in the same aroma family as saffron and turmeric, although these are spices and therefore dustier, sharper, and more austere.

 

Confusingly, the name ‘hina’ (heena) is often applied to the complex mixed attar known as shamama, which leans on Gul Heena as a key component of its aroma profile. According to Pranjal Kapoor, whose family business distills mehndi attar, it blends very well with oud oil and ruh khus. Its scent profile is not very well known outside of Europe and is therefore sadly under-utilized in Western niche or artisanal perfumery.  Strangelove NYC’s fallintostars is a happy exception – it uses a heena attar distilled by M.L. Ramnarain. (Review here).  

 

 

Jasmine ruhs and attars (Motia, Chameli, and Juhi)

 

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In the Kama Sutra, jasmine is described as the most carnal smell in nature. But jasmine balances its fleshy, creamy, and sensual side with a dewy freshness. Innocence and carnality in one flower – an irresistible combination!  The word jasmine comes from the Arabic word for the flower, yâsamîn, which itself comes from the Persian word for it, again demonstrating the cultural and etymological fluidity between the Indian, Persian, and Arab worlds when it comes to perfume.

 

Jasmine petals can be distilled into either a ruh (pure essence) or an attar (distilled into sandalwood oil).  There are three different types of jasmine species used in attars, and thus three different names for the attars.  Motia (or mogra, as it is sometimes written) is the most popular, and is made from Jasminum sambac, the famous ‘Arabian’ jasmine. Ruh motia is distilled exclusively in Kannauj (whereas solvent-extracted absolutes and concretes can be found elsewhere).  Chameli attar is made from Jasminum grandiflorum, the type of jasmine grown in India and in Grasse and used in classic French perfumery.  Juhi attar is made from Jasminum auriculatum.  The auriculatum variety (Juhi attar) is simply a three-petalled subset of the sambac jasmine, and so the differences between them are negligible.  The differences between sambac and grandiflorum, on the other hand, are more significant.

 

Sambac jasmine (motia or mogra) is lean and sharp, with a spicy edge that some find addicting.  Also known as Arabian jasmine, Sambac is full-throated, fruity, leathery, and often a bit coarse.  Sambac jasmine is usually more indolic than grandiflorum, but I find that it really depends on the individual batch.  There is a surprising greenness to sambac jasmine, with a crisp, minty facet that does a nice job of balancing out its spicy, indolic side.  Some Sambac jasmine oils have a tea-like character as well.

 

The grandiflorum variety (Chameli) is the epitome of refined sensuality – a lady to the sambac’s tramp.  It is sweet, luscious, and full-bodied, with a hint of overripe fruit that approaches decay in the most charming way possible.  Under some circumstances, it can smell like petrol, bananas, or bubblegum, largely due to the strong presence of benzyl acetate, an isolate in the chemical make-up of both jasmine and ylang that contributes to its tropical, steamy character.  Most attars and mukhallats reviewed in this Guide use the sambac variety of the flower (the so-called Arabian jasmine), although in India, practically every variant of the flower is revered and appreciated.

 

As an aside, I have not been overly impressed with the way jasmine oil is used in mukhallat or attar perfumery beyond the basic motia attar, which is nice in and of itself.  When used in complex compositions and blends, I find that the special characteristics of the sambac tend to get swallowed up and flattened out into an overly sweet ‘bubblegum’ accord that seems to be analogous with other sweet florals like orange blossom or champaca.  In my experience, Sultan Pasha makes the best complex jasmine-focused attars available today, and Abdul Samad Al Qurashi the dullest.  

 

 

 

Other Flowers: Genda, Nargis, Lotus, and Champa

 

 

Genda attar is made from marigold (tagetes minuta), which, for a flower, smells uniquely herbaceous, bitter, and spicy.  Its astringent tonality has something in common with saffron, and indeed, the two are often blended together.  Calligraphy Saffron by Aramis is a good example of a commercial niche fragrance where saffron and tagetes are used to complement each other, leaving a synesthetic imprint of something sharply yellow-gold in the wearer’s mind.  Genda attar is uncommon outside of India, but marigold itself is used quite cleverly in some other mukhallats and perfume oils, one example being Aroosah by Al Rehab.

 

Nargis is the Indo-Persian word for narcissus (daffodils, jonquils), and so nargis attar is made using narcissus oil.  Wherever this is sold online, it is described as possessing a pleasantly fruity and floral aroma.  Do not believe a word of it.  Narcissus oil smells green but also ludicrously filthy, with the barnyardy twang of a stable packed to the rafters with dirty hay.  It eventually softens into a fresh yellow-green floral aroma that is indeed very similar to the smell of fresh daffodils. Narcissus is used extensively in fine French perfumery to give florals a starchy-oily greenness perched between freshness and dirtiness.

 

There are three different types of lotus (kamal) attars, but only two of those types (pink lotus and white lotus) technically belong to the true lotus family of nelumbo nucifera.  Then there is the blue lotus of Egypt, which, strictly speaking, belongs to the lily family.  Lotus flowers are revered in Buddhist and Hindi culture, long considered to be a direct route to spirituality.

 

Both the pink and white lotus varieties are extremely expensive to produce, requiring 250,000 flowers to make just one kilogram of lotus concrete, which in turn yields only about 250 grams of absolute after washing[ii].  This to emphasize just how costly true lotus absolute is, and how rarely seen on today’s market, especially outside of India itself.  I have smelled a white lotus absolute but cannot attest as to its authenticity.  The absolute of pink and white lotus flowers smells golden, honeyed, soft, powdery, and somewhat resinous.  Voyage 2019 by Hiram Green (review here) is the rare Western niche perfume to feature natural pink lotus oil as an ingredient.  

 

Champa attar is perhaps the most famous floral attar from India. It is made from the champaca flower, revered across the Indian subcontinent and much of tropical Asia as a symbol of sacred femininity. Champaca absolute smells rich and creamy, similar in general aroma profile to magnolia, but with a denser, muskier body weight.  It features hints of bubblegum, green apple peel, mint, and apricot. The musky nuances of champaca are interesting, because it sometimes comes across as indolic, but then at other times, as clean and as starchy as a laundry musk.

 

It must be the clean, fruity facets of the flower that dominate for most, however, because this is a flower traditionally associated with cleanliness.  In fact, the word ‘champa’ gave rise to the word ‘shampoo’ by way of the Sanskrit word for champaca, ‘champo’, which means ‘to massage’[iii].  Champaca oil is widely used in Asia to fragrance many of its functional products such as soap, detergent, and shampoo.

 

Champaca is possessed of a steamy, almost tropical character that can remind one of hot basmati rice and green tea. It has an indolic facet like jasmine (although less distinctive) and a heady fruity side that makes it similar to some aspects of ylang (but more delicate).  It is a traditionally feminine flower, prized by women for its sensual but clean character.  Champaca oil is also used in the recipes for traditional Indian pressed cone or stick incense, the world-famous nag champa.

 

 

Aromatics and spices:  Indians distill attars and essential oils from a very broad range of aromatics and spices not listed here, such as charila (an oakmoss-like lichen), patchouli, saffron, and spikenard (jatamansi).  These will be discussed in full detail in the section of the Attar Guide that deals with earthy, spicy, and aromatic notes in oil-based 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.

 

Note on monetization: My blog is not monetized.  But if you’d like to support my work or show appreciation for any of the content I put out, you can always buy me a coffee using the little buymeacoffee button.  Thank you! 

 

Cover Image: Custom-designed by Jim Morgan.

Photos: All photos used in this chapter were provided to me by Pranjal Kapoor, with full permission to use.

 

[1][1] Information by way of Pranjal Kapoor.

[2] Ibid.

[i] I am indebted to Chris McMahon of White Lotus Aromatics for his detailed description of the process of making mitti attar in his 2000 newsletter (sadly no longer available)

[ii] As above, Chris McMahon’s description of white and pink lotus absolutes informed this section, but is unfortunately no longer available online. 

[iii] The Encyclopedia of Essential Oils, by Julia Lawless, 2014 edition, published by HarperThorsons, pg. 72

Attars & CPOs The Attar Guide The Business of Perfume

The Attar Guide: Traditionally Distilled Attars and Ruhs

1st November 2021

 

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

 

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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

 

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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.

 

Note on monetization: My blog is not monetized.  But if you’d like to support my work or show appreciation for any of the content I put out, you can always buy me a coffee using the little buymeacoffee button.  Thank you! 

 

Cover Image: Custom-designed by Jim Morgan.

[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.

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