“Kannauj is to India what Grasse is to France”
Kannauj, India’s Grasse, has been producing attar (Perfumes) for over four centuries, well over 200 years before France’s Grasse rose to prominence. In the old days, this town had over 800 perfume distilleries. Around 85,000 folks dwell in this city, with about 4,000 employed in the attar business. Ittar making is a skill that’s been passed down through generations.
Attar is an aromatic oil derived from natural sources like roses, musk, camphor, saffron, or agarwood. Except in rare cases, these natural perfumes are free of alcohol and chemicals.
Both men and women are drawn to attars. They possess rich flowery, earthy, musky, smoky, or grassy notes. Attars can be both warming (cloves, cardamom, saffron) and cooling (jasmine, vetiver, marigold) depending on the season.
Kannauj, the fascinating mitti attar, conjures the aroma of the earth after a downpour.
Shamama, a distilled blend of 40 or more flowers, herbs, and resins that takes days to prepare and months to age, is another sought-after concoction. The scent combines sweetness, spice, smoke, and dampness to create an ethereal experience for the wearer.
White jasmine blossoms and vetiver plants are used in summer varieties. The soil is utilized for monsoon varieties like Mitti ittar, which smells of damp earth, and winter varieties include Heena ittar and musk ittar.
ATTAR MAKING PROCESS
Attar is made by skilled craftsmen known as ‘dighaas‘ using a traditional steam distillation method called ‘deg and bhapka,’ which translates to ‘large pot and little pot.’
The dighaas begin by pouring the key ingredient into the deg, followed by cold water, then sealing it with a special clay. The concoction is brought to a boil by logs burning under the deg. The dighaas must ensure that the temperature remains constant during the process and that the attar doesn’t overheat or become contaminated.
Next, the steam travels from the ‘deg’ to the ‘bhapka’ (receiver) via a bamboo pipe known as the ‘chonga’. A layer of oil traps the evaporating scent molecules there, Sandalwood oil was formerly utilized for this layer, but because of its hefty price and scarcity, alternative oil-like substances are now employed instead.
Depending on the intended concentration of the final attar, the distillation process is repeated numerous times. It may take up to 25 days to complete the process.
The number of perfume distilleries has dwindled from over 800 to just over 100 in recent years, as synthetic fragrances outpace attars in popularity. Kannauj is witnessing a crisis at present. Demand for attar started plummeting as power transferred to British India. Pure Mysore sandalwood was and still is expensive, but when the Indian government banned the trade of sandalwood in the late 1990s, the price of attar soared. In place of sandalwood, natural replacements such as liquid paraffin are used, and although this kind of attar is similar to the original, it falls short. At the same time, affluent Indians transferred their loyalty to imported Western fragrances and deodorants to portray themselves as modern and upper class.
Only a few people in India still purchase attars. It is crucial to resolve the issue for these historic perfume industries to sustain their uniqueness and viability.