The east has been long revered as the timeless haven of exotic treasures. Apart from her rich cultural heritage, music, art, poetry and cuisine, her fragrances of old have been a subject of much intrigue since time immemorial. India, known to the world as the cradle of civilization has been richly endowed with soul-nourishing fragrant traditions dating back to the times of the seers, mystics and yogis.
It is believed that the art of making perfume out of woods, flowers, herbs and spices first began in India. Right from the age of the ‘Vedas’, the sacred Indian scriptures that date back many thousand years, and in even later ancient classical texts like the Bruhat Samhita of the venerated mathematician, astrologer and astronomer sage Varahamihira, pure, non-alcoholic perfumes find prominence as an integral part of Indian culture.
Many even believe that archeological findings of the Indus Valley Civilization that thrived in the Indian subcontinent more than 5000 years ago, consisted of perfume jars and terracotta stills used for perfume making.
Known for their exoticism, healing and aphrodisiacal properties and spiritually uplifting qualities, these natural, pure and concentrated perfumes have known to inspire the Saadhu ascetics, the mystic Sufi Faqirs and the royals, namely the dynasties of the Hindu Maharajas and the Muslim Nawaabs of the Mughal Empire alike. It is believed that the science later spread to ancient Egypt, Persia and the Arab World.
Broadly and popularly known as Attar or Ittar, these natural perfume oils are generally stored in large glass or aluminum container and sold in sturdy, often ornate glass bottles of various sizes. Prices are generally calculated on the basis of Tola or a quantity of 10ml . They are known for their prolonged shelf life and longevity. Even a few drops on the skin or on the clothes can last for days together because of the lack of alcohol.
India’s national capital Delhi is home to the country’s legendary perfume tradition of Gulab Singh Johrimal. In Chandni Chowk, one of the world’s oldest market places plunk in the heart of Delhi’s old quarter stands this 200 year-old perfumery, owned and run by passionate torchbearers of an endearing fragrant legacy that dates back to the era of the Mughal Empire and British India.
A riot of ethereal fragrances fills the air as I stroll down Dariba Kalan, a bilane of the market, announcing the presence of the grand old perfumery. The words of Persian Sufi mystic Sa’adi came to mind “baad, khaki ze moghaam e tu biaavard o bebord, aab e har teeb ke dar kolbeh ye attaari hast” (breeze and dust bring from your dwelling oh divine beloved, every fragrance from the perfumer’s treasure)!
I was welcomed with scented warmth by Gulab Singh Johrimal’s seventh generation torchbearer and one of India’s foremost traditional perfumers Mukul Gundhi. My rendezvous with a mind-boggling array of attars was mesmerizing! Stored in old-style shelves with wooden panels, each fragrance presenting as a unique symbol of ancient Indian heritage, my scent degustation Indian-style unveiled a fascinating world of indigenous ingredients and their role in Gundhi’s bottled magic!
Attar Gulab, a rose masterpiece with a sandalwood base, a soothing Rajni Gandha ( tuberose), a dark, sweet-spicy-woody Hina Shahi, Manzar, an amber- floral and woody-musky-florals like Sultan and Oud Gold to name a few, were the first souvenirs of quintessential Indian fragrance heritage to seduce my olfactory!
Being one of the country’s leading upholders of its centuries-old perfume tradition, Gundhi sheds light on his lineage, his repertoire and the skill passed down by his forefathers, his passion reflecting in his versatility and keen insight into the ancient art of attar making.
When and how did your tradition begin?
It was way back in 1816 when my ancestor by the name of Shri Gulab Singh established an attar business in the Chandni Chowk area of Delhi along with his son Johrimal Jee. Hence the name ‘Gulab Singh Johrimal. He hailed from the northern Indian town of Jhajjar which was previously a part of the Punjab, and is now in the state of Haryana.
How is ‘attar’ generally made?
Pure attars are made through the process of steam distillation with sandalwood oil as the base and steam is passed over the petals of various flowers. Agarwood or Oud oil is generally prepared by softening the tough wood. We specialize in what is called Attar Gil or Mitti Ka Attar ( perfume of the earth) meant to replicate the fragrance of moist earth after the first showers of the Indian monsoons. We use fresh but broken earthen crockery instead of petals to make it.
While attars usually have a sandalwood base, the term Rooh ( Arabic for ‘soul’) or Dehn along with the ingredient name, would indicate a 100% pure extract, like Dehn al Oud ( pure Oud oil), or Rooh Gulab ( pure rose oil) devoid of any base oil.
Large copper stills called Deg are used for the process. While the current techniques were invented by the Mughals, the ancient Vedic ones were lost in time.
Is the trend of using synthetic attars fairly new? Were the older ones purer?
They sure were. The manufacture of synthetic attars happened with the development of chemistry in India. I must mention that the word ‘Attar’ comes from the Arabic word Attaar or distiller. Previously, the term was used only for pure attars ( non-synthetic, using natural, real ingredients). But today, it applies to just any non-alcoholic fragrance.
What were the sections of society that preferred attars in the olden days? What is your current clientele like?
India has always witnessed a great socio-economic disparity between several classes within the population. It is believed that apart from the affluent business communities of that time, my forefathers would have even catered to the Mughal rulers who had a legendary passion for attars. Affordability has always been the question. In the olden days, pure attars were more affordable as compared to today when prices are exorbitant. We make synthetic alternatives to the real ones, which are quite intense.
Today, a vast section of people buy our products. Employees of multinational companies, college students, businessmen, devout Hindus who offer attars to idols of their deities, devout Muslims who wear attar before offering prayers ( since alcohol in any form is forbidden in Islam). We believe in hospitality and equal respect, be it a wealthy client buying in the thousands or a street-side rickshaw puller who demands a ten buck bottle
Is India truly the treasure house of ingredients?
Absolutely. The list is endless! To name just a few, we are endowed with a vast variety of flowers like Kevda or Pandamus Odorifer that grows along the coastal belt of Orissa in south-eastern India ( and nowhere else in the world!) , the Jasmine family, comprising of Champa (Magnolia Champaca), Chameli (Jasminum Gradifiorum), Motia ( Arabian Jasmine or Jasmine Sambac), Mogra (Abelmoschus moschatus), and of course the rose. We have woods like agarwood (Aquilaria malaccensis) also called Oud, found in the dense forests of the Assam in the very east, sandalwood and innumerable spices like cardamom, cinnamon, clove, pepper, and nutmeg. Apart from attars, we even sell essential oils based on these ingredients.
Can your current repertoire of traditional perfumes be traced back to the olden days (200 years or more)?
A lot of it I would say. While the manufacturing techniques have remained constant, my paternal great-grandfather brought in several innovations despite having lived a fairly short life. Since his time, we have witnessed many changes. We have to evolve with the times. The Oud varieties, particularly the synthetic ones are fairly recent additions, introduced around the 60's or 70's.
What other types of oils are used as bases for attars?
Sandalwood only. India has the world’s best sandalwood with more than 90% santalol content, as compared to the South Africa and Australian counterparts with just around 65%. The British government during the colonial rule, seized the land of anyone who grew even one sandalwood tree on it. Unfortunately our government has continued the tradition making pure sandalwood extremely expensive and difficult to find.
The Arab World has been famous for its use of attars. How do you differentiate Arabic attars form the Indian ones?
Well, quite true to their personality traits, the Arabs prefer loud, intense, audacious and heavy notes that would permeate the space in just a whiff, stunning passers-by with nose-popping and wide-spreading sillages! Indian attars on the other hand are softer, milder and gentler.
Were blends in vogue in ancient times?
Never. It is a relatively new concept. It would require some amount of knowledge and insight on the part of the customer for us to be able to offer him or her a satisfying blend. Perfumers here don't get paid for the time they would spend in creating bespoke blends unlike in the west. The concept is at a nascent stage in India.
What about the incense-making tradition?
It has been around for ages. My grandfather was the first to introduce the culture in Delhi after learning the craft from Bengaluru in the south. Previously, incense was made of pure agarwood sticks and hence the name agarbatti or ‘light/flame of the agar’. But today they are synthetic powdered ingredients stuck together by the jiggit adhesive. Charcoal often makes incense burn better. Like attars, our incenses represent the diversity of our exquisite indigenous ingredients.
It is said that you make special attars for different seasons.
Summers call for cooler notes such as Khus or Vetiver, Attar Gil and Kevda. Hina, Shamama and Mushk-e-Amber with their bold mélange of spicy notes emerging from a sandalwood base are best suited for winters due to their warming effect. The Ta’seer ( or ta’theer) , Arabic for ‘effect’ of a fragrance or a note decides the same.
The indulgent Nawaabs in their day would have lighter quilts stitched during freezing winters as they were too delicate to cover themselves with the heavier ones weigh over 5 kilos! The trick was a hearty smearing of Attar Hina inside the cotton layers of the quilts that provided the warmth of the heavier ones! ( laughs).
You can find out more at the Gulab Singh Johrimal website: http://gulabsinghjohrimal.com