Thursday 8 April 2021

Where even drains smell of roses — inside India’s perfumery Kannauj

 Ancient city of Kannauj traces its perfume-making history to Mughal empress Nur Jahan. It continues the legacy of making ‘attar’ through hydro-distillation technique.

It is said that perfume flows through the drains of the ancient city of Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh. And this is no exaggeration.

In the perfume capital of India, which is home to about 300 small, medium and large distilleries, a pleasant fragrance constantly lingers in the air and the remnants of roses and other flowers are strewn across the city, including in the drains.

Pink roses being prepared for extraction of essential oils through hydro-distillation in Kannauj | Photo: Manisha Mondal | ThePrint

The centuries-old tradition of distilling perfumes or ‘attar’, also pronounced itr, in Kannauj dates back to the Mughal courts, and this legacy continues. The old-world perfumery still uses the traditional method of distilling perfumes that are based on essential oils and not alcohol.

Woodsy, floral, musky and androgynous, attars are markedly different from alcohol-based perfumes. They’re made from essential oils extracted from flowers and other ingredients, which are dissolved in water or oil rather than alcohol. And this makes them more fragrant and easily absorbent.

On World Fragrance Day, 21 March, here’s a look inside Kannauj, the perfume capital of India.

Raw materials

India grows 31 of 300 naturally fragrant raw materials required to manufacture perfumes, and is also a leading supplier of essential oils like mint, jasmine, sandalwood, tuberose and spices in the global market.

Pink roses being plucked from a field on the outskirts of Kannauj | Photo: Manisha Mondal | ThePrint

At present, pink roses are in full bloom on the outskirts of Kannauj, which are cultivated by several farmers. These roses are considered to be the most fragrant, and the oil extracted from them the most expensive. Farmers sell them to agents at approximately Rs 35 per kg, who, in turn, supply them to the city.

Mohammed Shakir, 23, a local flower farmer, said he grows about 15-16 kg of roses within two days. “I have to pluck roses only thrice a week and they can fetch me up to Rs 80 per kg, depending on the season,” he told ThePrint.

Other popular flowers are bela or arabian jasmine, champa (plumeria), marigold and kewda. Roots of plants like henna are also used to make attars.

Nur Jahan’s legend and geographical proximity

For many in Kannauj, perfume-making is their primary profession, but there is a web of rich history and mythology around the occupation.

According to local legend, the business of perfume making in the city started with Mughal empress Nur Jahan, wife to emperor Jahangir, in the early 17th century.

A perfumery in Kannauj | Photo: Manisha Mondal | ThePrint

The empress used to bathe in a pool with rose petals and once noticed that the flowers would leave oil behind in the water and concluded that the fragrant oil could be extracted from flowers.

Nur Jahan was an avid enthusiast of fragrances and therefore, Jahangir encouraged research on their extraction and development. The legend states that some men (the exact number is unclear), who happened to be from Kannauj, managed to extract the fragrant oil from the flowers for the queen.

According to Pranjal Kapoor, who heads M.L. Ramnarain perfumers in the city, founded in 1888, Kannauj’s position as the perfume capital of India also developed because of its geographical position.

“Kannauj is located near big cities like Agra, Kanpur and Lucknow, and isn’t too far away from Delhi either. Its soil is fertile with the Ganga nearby, so it was probably developed as this perfume industrial hub by the emperors,” Kapoor said.

Traditional methods of distilling

In Kannauj, the traditional way of hydro-distillation is still widely in use instead of the newer and faster method of steaming.

Perfumers in the city believe that this traditional method gives unmatched fragrance.

“The scent profile of the traditional method is unique and unmatched, which is why we stick to it, and this is what makes Kannauj’s attars truly special,” T.N. Tandan, a perfume distiller, told ThePrint. Tandan owns Devi Prasad Sunder Lal Khatri perfumers, which was founded in 1870.

Almost everyone in the city is engaged in attar-making in one way or another. The first part of the process starts at the break of dawn when farmers and labourers go to their fields to pluck flowers of the season.

These flowers are then transported to distilleries located in the city. They’re put into huge vessels called deg made of copper. An average vessel can hold 100kg of flowers of varying sizes. The tightly packed deg is then capped with clay so that air can’t escape.

These are connected to a bhapka, another receiver made of copper, which acts as a condenser and is placed in a water tank. The deg is put on fire on a furnace and the bhapka distills the steam.

This process is extremely laborious. “On an average, one will extract 180 gm of rooh gulaab from 400 kg of flowers,” Kapoor said.

The traditional method of perfume-making using hydro-distillation | Photo: Manisha Mondal | ThePrint

Famous attars

Kannauj manufactures essential oils, attars, floral water and floral absolutes. Among the unique and popular attars offered by the city is shamama, which is made from the roots of henna.

“Shamama is a popular, unique attar of Kannauj. It is a concoction of over 41 natural ingredients including herbs, spices and essential oils and every family has a unique recipe of its own here,” Kapoor said.

Mitti attar is another popular offering, which was an attempt to capture the smell of rain (petrichor) in a bottle.

“Mitti attar is made by co-distillation of earthen clay pots with sandalwood oil or other oils. It is quite soothing and calming. Other than that, it is also used in other creations of perfumery wherein it is used as an ingredient which brings out an earthy foundation to the concoction,” he added.

The essential oils from Kannauj can range from Rs 25 for a small 1 gm bottle to over Rs 20 lakh per kg.

“We’ve divided our products into 3 categories: Rs 10,000 per kg, Rs 60,000 per kg and Rs 1,60,000 per kg across all our fragrances,” added Tandan.

“The two most expensive products are agarwood oil (from aquilaria trees in Assam) that can cost up to Rs 25 lakh a kilo and absolute oil of rooh gulab (from pink roses) that sells for up to Rs 8 lakh a kilo,” he said.

(Source: The Print)

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