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Have You Been To The Perfume Capital Of India?

Have You Been To The Perfume Capital Of India?

The historical city of Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh may have lost its regal charm but it deserves to be on your travel bucket list as a centre of India's legacy perfume-making centre following traditional methods and organic ingredients

An old gate reminding of the fragrant legacy of Kannauj
An old gate reminding of the fragrant legacy of Kannauj Image credit: PradeepGaurs / Shutterstock.com

Before India had liberalised its import market, one of the most popular buys for Indians travelling abroad was perfumes. Today, the market has a glut of foreign and Indian brands and is expected to grow further, according to industry reports. But not many know that one of India’s oldest perfume business centre, with its traditional ways and organic ingredients, are fighting a losing battle against branded lifestyle products.

Around three to four hours’ drive - depending on the traffic - from Agra, Kannauj looks like any other dusty north Indian town. Little remains of this once glorious city-state, now part of Uttar Pradesh, which traces its antiquity to the days of the Mahabharata and which rose to its greatest height as the capital of Emperor Harsha (590 to 647 CE) when it was called Kanyakubja.

But even as you walk through the streets of the old town, you cannot miss the fragrant note in the air; even the sludge flowing through the roadside drains sometimes reminds you of a floral note. That is because a large number of families in the town are engaged, for generations, in the making of ‘attar’ or natural fragrant oils and extracts, which are widely used in making perfumes to essential oils for consumer products such as soap, shampoo, etc. to flavouring agents for food, etc., and even for medicine.  Even the distillate is not wasted but used for making agarbatti or incense sticks.

Although it is not known when Kannauj started manufacturing attar (also known as ‘itar’, ‘itra’ or ‘itr’) but seventh-century biography Harsha-Charit, written by the emperor’s court poet Banabhatta, contains references to the use of agar wood oil. It is also believed that the manufacturing of attar attained great heights during the Mughal period.

Ittar makers of Kannauj can draw out the fragrance from a large number of natural ingredients, such as different kinds of flowers (rose, kewra, chameli, bela, marigold, jasmine lavender, etc.), from natural products such as vetiver, and herbs and spices (cardamom, cloves, saffron, juniper berry, jatamansi, etc.). Usually, the flowers are plucked at dawn so that they retain the best fragrance. 

It is said that the perfume-makers of Kannauj had mastered the art of distilling the delicate fragrance of the fresh rain on dry soil into a perfume long before Australian mineralogists, Isabel Joy Bear and Richard Grenfell Thomas, discovered the chemistry behind the heady smell and named it ‘petrichor’. Known as ‘mitti-attar’, it is one of the most sought-after perfumes of Kannauj. Another famous attar from Kannauj is the ‘shamama’, made from a co-distillation of different herbs and spices. There are several families who make the shamama but each has its own strongly guarded secret recipe.

But what makes Kannauj’s attar-making industry even more interesting is that despite the passage of time, they still follow the traditional method, a highly labour-intensive and time-consuming hydro-distillation process, called ‘deg bhapka’. 

The ‘deg’ is a copper still into which the natural ingredients, such as flower petals, are put along with water. The pots are covered with lids and sealed with a special clay mix. These pots are placed in clay furnace (‘bhatti’) fired with wood and cow-dung cakes. The deg is connected to the long-necked ‘bhapka’ or the receiver, which is also made of copper, through the ‘chonga’ or a twine-wrapped bamboo pipe, which acts as a condenser too. The bhapka whose mouth has been covered with cloth sits in a cooling chamber filled with water (‘gachhi’). A base oil, usually sandalwood oil, is poured into the bhapka. As the deg is fired, the vapour from the ingredient collects in the bhapka, gets condensed and the oil collects the fragrance. But it is easier said than done. 

The fire for the deg has to be just right and controlled by adding or removing the fuel. The water in the cooling tank has to be changed so that the water maintains the required temperature. One has to remove the bhapka after the desired amount of fragrance is collected. Before removing the bhapka, the deg has to be cooled with a wet cloth to stop the vapourisation.  All these steps require years of experience to know how to run the process to perfection.  Just as it is important to know the right way of mixing the ingredients to produce various notes in the perfume. Collecting the fragrant oil at the right time also requires expertise. Some attar, such as the shamama, requires a second round of extraction in the ‘patila’ (a different kind of copper pot). Even today, the most sensitive attar is stored in camel-skin bags (‘kuppi’); these bags also help in the removal of moisture and allows storage for a long period without decreasing the quality of the fragrance. However, manufacturers are being forced to look for cheaper alternatives, said one. The attar, as essential oils and perfumes, is sold in the shops in bottles of various sizes, some of which are works of art by themselves. Some of the attars or essential oils are also exported. 

However, many traditional manufacturers feel it is difficult to continue with the eco-friendly traditional process due to competition from alcohol-based and mass-manufactured perfumes, as well as the rising cost of raw materials. Even procurement of sandalwood oil is difficult after most local factories closed down. Several manufacturers are now forced to use liquid paraffin or DOP (dioctyl phthalate). It is important to address the issues to allow the traditional industry to maintain its authenticity. Several allied sectors also depend on this traditional perfume industry – such as brick kilns, supplying of raw materials, bottle manufacturing, etc. 

Although Kannauj Perfumes got the Geographical Indication tag in 2014, and its fragrances are exported to many countries, it is sad that Kannauj has not been able to turn into a tourist attraction like Grasse, the French town known as the ‘perfume capital of the world’. A sprucing up of the town and the facilities, training a few local people to act as guides, and a well-laid out drive/walk encompassing flower nurseries, manufacturing units, and the emporiums, can go a long way in preserving a ‘made in India’ venture that had been launched here long before the phrase was coined. 

Information: Kannauj is about 80km by road from Kanpur and about 125km from Lucknow. It lies on the main broad gauge route of the Indian Railways between Kanpur and Mathura. The best time to visit Kannauj is in winter. There are a few hotels in Kannauj but they are basic in nature. For a tour of the perfumeries, it is best to take help from the local people. Also, seek permission before entering the manufacturing units or photographing the place. Lucknow based travel-company Tornos holds customised tours of Kannauj.

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