Attars: the world’s oldest form of perfume
Writing a complete history of the perfume and fragrance industry would be a truly thankless job. Nowadays, the word “perfume” has become a magic spell which, once cast, fills the air with the glamour of Gallic Eau de Toilettes and Eau de Colognes. Unless the entrenched stereotypes are destroyed, one will hardly accept the idea of ittars or attars, also known as ottos, being the world’s subtlest form of perfume and all of today’s perfumes being nothing more than their substitutes created by modern technologists – in short, just a stale copy. This would probably explain the paradox that, although natural herbal products are increasingly preferable to synthetic products in cosmetics, synthetic fragrance clones still overshadow the floral power of attars.
Nevertheless, the art of making attars is still alive. Unfortunately, few people know about the authentic ittars or attars, the true gems of perfume. In addition, just like any luxury and special item, they are also faked.
There is one more stereotype about perfume and perfume-making. We imagine perfume being made by mixing various fragrant “drops” with spirits or a special perfume diluent. In recent centuries, which saw the reckless technology industry replace the slow handicraft process, such mixing has become a modern practice used universally to achieve immediate results. Besides, instead of a pleasant scent, those “drops” often emit an irritating odour of chemicals. For those who are not allergic to these chemical perfume compounds, Aromata Mirabilia can offer some samples. A single sniff will be enough to get an idea of what modern perfume contains.
It should be emphasised that attars are not mixed; they are obtained through distillation, i.e. a process in the art of perfume-making seen as a sacramental equivalent to the transubstantiation of the most authentic alchemical substance.
So let us go back to the times when the beauties of Persian estates competed in making ever more magnificent perfume, spent hours mixing flowers, leaves, spices, bark, peel, roots and fragrant wood, distilling them and impatiently waiting for alembics to yield the first drops of a thick and viscous gold, purple, black earth and amber-coloured aromatic substance combining a bouquet of ambergris and musk, roses and sandalwood, henna and vetiver.
Itr is the Arab word for perfume. It has spread with the Persian language across the Middle East and South Asian civilisations that have been influenced by classical Persian culture. If you have not had a chance to see how an attar is made and have not smelled its aroma produced as a result of dozens of hours of distillation over a low flame, you will probably find it difficult to imagine the golden process of making perfume sweet as honey, strong as smoke, heavy as earth, light as a morning mist, cold as the Himalayan snow cover, hot as the white burning tropical sun and mysterious as gardens and cities lit up by a full moon.
Modern synthetic fragrances just do not compare with this universe of scents.
Real attars are made by means of distillation in large clay pots, which requires a lot of manual effort and extensive knowledge of substances. Depending on the type of attar, distillation takes three months to two years.
Sometimes attars are distilled into sandalwood oil that has already undergone distillation, and sometimes flowers with sandalwood powder and chips are slowly distilled in the same clay or copper pot. Sandalwood oil acts as a fixative and some kind of a container for extremely fragile and unstable floral aromas. The scent of sandalwood is seen as the quintessence of all scents. The scent of high-quality sandalwood could be compared to white colour or blankness encompassing all olfactory spaces: it keeps and upholds all scents without imposing itself.
The cult of perfume, fragrant plants and especially roses further spread with Persian culture to other cradles of civilization, particularly India, a country characterised by a very distinctive Indo-Persian culture developed in the Mughal era. Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty, is believed to have brought the Damascus rose and perfume culture from Persia all the way through Afghanistan to Al Hindi, as the Muslims called India, back in the XVI century. This ruthless conqueror had a burning passion for military campaigns and felt blissfully happy spending time in the gardens, enjoying undisturbed nature, rhyming and painting flowers.
According to Abul Fazal, the historian of the most famous Mughal ruler, Babur’s grandson Akbar had a great interest in perfume-making and enthusiastically supported it “for religious reasons”. The reception hall of his palace “was always scented with ambergris, Aquilaria and compounds created by His Majesty”. Upper-class women were passionate perfume makers as well. In the words of Francisco Pelsaert, a merchant who worked for the Dutch East India Company and wrote memoirs of the years of the reign of Akbar’s son Jahangir, women “spent days and nights trying to make the most subtle perfume they could”.
But the most famous story of perfume was authored by Jahangir himself (1605-1627) in his autobiographical work, Tuzuki Jahangiri. According to the emperor, once Asmat Begam, the mother of his wife Nur Jahan, was making rose water when she noticed “a thick mass on the surface of pots where hot rose water was poured from jugs”. Asmat collected the mass and finally realised that it was so rich “that a single drop of it rubbed into the palm filled the air with an enchanting scent of tons of red roses blooming simultaneously”. Jahangir was charmed by this delightful fragrance. “There is no other scent that could compare to it. It lifts the spirit and refreshes the soul. As a token of my gratitude for this discovery, I presented the discoverer with a pearl necklace”.
Akbar’s wife Empress Salima Sultan Begam named this essential oil Jahangir’s perfume (Jahangiri Itr). The West is more familiar with the version of Italian traveller Niccolao Manucci (1639–1717) who lived in the Mughal palace much later, based on which this perfume was allegedly discovered by Nur Jahan, the daughter of Asmat Begam, not Asmat herself. According to this legend, the Empress discovered ruh-e gulab while bathing in Shahi Hamam (the Royal Baths) when she noticed an oily film forming in water with rose petals left overnight. It is its distillate that turns into rose itr or perfume.
Perfume (or itr) was an integral part of Mughal-era palace culture in India.
The maharaja palaces of Gwalior, Patiala, Darbhanga and Mysore were famous for their itr. The heights of the perfume-making art were reached by Shia Nawabs of the Kingdom of Awadh situated on the banks of the River Ganges, who declared Lucknow to be their capital city. Under the rule of these Persophiles, who were dedicated to preserving their courtly manners, poetry, music and cuisine, Lucknow was renowned as Shiraz-i-Hindi or Shiraz of India (Al-Hindi).
The perfume-making art flourished under Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Awadh who ascended the throne in 1847 and ruled for nine years up until the Great Uprising, which marked the end of the Mughal era in India and the start of the century of the British Raj. In the wake of marginalisation of traditional Indian culture by the British imperialists, the Persian Muslim civilisation lost its previous political positions.
However, after India became a secular republic in the middle of the XX century, Al Hindi has survived to date not only in religion, Qawwali songs or the Urdu language but also in the rich scent of rose and other itr. “Ishk or mushk kabhi chupta nahi he,” they played on words in Lucknow, which meant “Love and musk are impossible to hide for long". Today Muslim weddings in Lucknow are still surrounded by the breathtaking scent of the famous Lakhnavi itr.
Today, traditional attars are mainly distilled in India. This, however, does not mean that they are sold on every corner. With India changing rapidly amid economic growth, there are just a few families still preserving their centuries-old recipes and distilling only traditional attars. There are also a handful of people who do not have this type of art as a family tradition but preserve it as a great value. High-quality traditional attars are mostly exported to Arab countries, Japan, Thailand, the United States… and Lithuania.
The tobacco industry, which uses attars to scent the best cigarettes, is the largest consumer of this type of perfume, followed by the fast-growing masala (tea and spice blend) and breath freshener industry. These two industries use a total of some 90% of all attars, with merely 5% of attars used in the perfume industry.
Skyrocketing prices of sandalwood and attars force the masala and tobacco industry to replace natural quality attars with chemical substitutes. An increasing number of new-generation non-industrial business representatives use paraffin and other petroleum products in distillation and extraction, making brilliant copies of attars by mixing synthetic ingredients. To be honest, I have been disappointed by young Indian perfume geniuses whose families had been distilling royal attars for centuries. Their descendants today are puzzling over ways to make exact copies of Chanel and Bvlgari using synthetic ingredients...
Nevertheless, there is some good news. Traditional attar-making is still alive, with the French starting to take interest in attars as well. Hopefully Aromata Mirabilia will no longer be a solitary refuge for attars in Old Europe. Maybe we will have some professional colleagues in Provence...
According to the Indian Express daily newspaper, manufacturers recommend attars for therapeutic purposes. “For years various herbal and floral scents have been known to have healing properties. For example, the scents of henna or saffron are known for their warming properties. Due to their pleasant warming and heating effects, they are popular in winter,” the newspaper says. The therapeutic properties of attars have also generated interest among some U.S. pharmaceutical research institutes.
Attar makers have no doubt that after all those Yves Saint Laurent, Nina Ricci and Lancôme are forgotten, the substances they distil in the traditional way will still exist, as a real perfume does not come from transient earth, it is proceeded from the intransient Self above.
Lakhnau – Vilnius, 2009
(C) Aromata Mirabilia, 2009
Transl. Ivona Valiukevičiūtė