My last holiday in 2018 was to the city of Nawabs – Lucknow. I have to be honest here it wasn’t on my ‘travel’ radar and required considerable pre-trip research. Among the many things that Lucknow is known for, I found attar (perfume), to be one of the most fascinating ones. The charm for me lay in its making process. So I headed to Kannauj, the place that has been giving Lucknow its perfumes for centuries.
Kannauj also called the Perfume capital of India and/or the Grasse of the East; is located about 150 kms from Lucknow, and was once the capital of the Emperor Harshvardhan. It serves as a mid-way stop on the deserted but comfortable six-lane highway between Agra and Lucknow. Though perfumes have been widely used for thousands of years they were made popular by the Mughals, particularly by the Emperor Shah Jahan (of the Taj Mahal fame) who shared his love for attar with his wife Noor Jahan. The heights of the art of perfume making in Kannauj were reached during the reign of the Nawabs of Awadh, who as we know were patrons of finer things in life.
Although a rapidly modernizing town, Kannauj still has a few perfumeries that follow the painstakingly long process of distilling and condensing called deg-bhapka. A copper deg (large vessel) is inserted atop its oven alongside its own water trough. It is attached to a bhapka (receiver), immersed in the trough, by a bamboo pipe that carries the vapors. The raw materials (pounds of rose or jasmine or other flowers) are mixed with water in the deg, the oven is fueled with wood and the resulting vapors are collected in the bhapka, filled with a base (sandalwood oil/paraffin). The final product is traditionally stored in leather bottles called kuppi, to maintain their delicacy.
The distilleries here seem to be quite oblivious of any traces of modernity with hardly any artificial lighting, no industrial machinery and processes supervised by experienced perfumers who rely on their instincts. The entire process is manual and up until some years back, no synthetic materials were used. After the restrictions on sandalwood trade, it became scarce & expensive to source, hence many use paraffin as a base. However, the perfume making process has remained unchanged. Rose remains the most widely produced scents for making essential oils, Rose-water and of course perfumes. However, one unique perfume, that these craftsmen have been able to capture brilliantly is that of petrichor – the earthy smell that wafts through with the first rains! It is made with broken pieces of parched clay pots mixed in water and boiled for six to seven hours to extract the delicate fragrance.
Its warm, organic and mineral-rich scent of the earth drifts through the air; as I twist open the golden cap of my glass bottle of mitti-attar. We don’t need to look any further than nature for inspiration.