The Art of Perfume-Making; Indian Kannauj Twinning Provence and Paris
The ancient city of Kannauj, known as India's perfume capital, is home to about 350 distilleries -- where petals' pleasant scent emanates even from the drains. While the modern-day perfumes are mostly alcohol-based because it is inexpensive, the old Kannauj distilling tradition has not changed for centuries, despite the passage of time. The craft of hydro-distillation called deg bhapka is still in use, making their perfumes long-lasting and unique.
India's best perfume artisans are leading suppliers of essential oils like jasmine, sandalwood, spices, as well as a large number of other natural ingredients, among which the precious pink rose stands out -- Rosa Damascena. It takes hours for the petals to become attar, followed by several months of aging in a camel-skin bottle. Once it is done, the price rises to $3000 for 2.2 pounds (one kilo).
According to legend, in the 17th, century empress Nur Jahan noticed that rose petals in her pool are leaving oil behind, but older records of attar manufacturing (essential oils derived from botanical sources) are known -- there is a mention of the use of agarwood oil in Harsha-Charit biography from the 7th century.
Today, in and around the historical city of Kannauj in central Uttar Pradesh, the attar-making industry is the source of income for about 50,000 families. Some of them are in the business for about 300 years, having their secret recipes for generations. The process requires years of learning and has been worked out to perfection, just as the knowledge of mixing the ingredients to obtain various perfume notes.
The local farmers are going to the fields to pluck the flowers even before sunrise, to preserve the strength of fragrance. After being transported to the city distilleries, flowers are placed into huge copper vessels and sealed with clay and cotton mash. Connected to a condenser placed in a water tank to distill the steam, copper vessels are put on fire.
The process of making the most expensive products, like agarwood and pink rose absolute oil is a challenging and time-consuming labor -- the fire has to be controlled and the water changed to remain the same temperature.
One of the famous attars from Kannauj is shamama, a scent distilled from 40 flowers and herbs, allegedly invented by Sheik Mohamed Ayub. Fascinating about shamama is that it takes months to age and it is widely used by luxury perfume houses in France and the United Kingdom.
The 26-year-old YouTuber Hassan Siddiqui, who reaches a global audience through his channel Perfume Review India, says “Ironically, they are sold back to India, at a considerably high price, and our people are unaware of this.”
Sadly, the traditional distillers from Kannauj are facing difficulties because, as time goes by, it is getting increasingly difficult to compete with cheaper and easier mass production. The International Perfume Park and Museum, an Uttar Pradesh government project, brings hope for this old craft to maintain and attract the younger generation.
It is designed as a part of the agreement between twin cities, Kannauj and the French town Grasse known as the “la capitale mondiale des parfumal". India's first Pe Museum's main goal ever, as a skill development center, is to preserve the old-fashioned way and increase the visibility of Kannauj, giving a much-needed boost and recognition to the attar industry.