This ancient city is the perfume capital of India

As appealing to men as they are to women, attars have an androgynous quality. They have intense floral, woody, musky, smoky, green or herbaceous notes. Depending on the season, the aromas can be both hot (cloves, cardamom, saffron, oud) and refreshing (jasmine, pandan, vetiver, marigold).

(Related: Frankincense Trees – In Biblical Tradition – Are Harvested For Essential Oils.)

Kannauj produces them, as well as the drama attar mitti, which evokes the smell of earth after a rain and is made with shards of unbaked Ganges clay. Chamama, another local Kannauj invention, is a distilled blend of 40 or more flowers, herbs and woody resins that takes days to make and months to age. The scent manages to harmonize sweetness, spices, smoke and humidity and transports you to a realm from another world. Renowned perfume houses in Europe use Kannauj attar – whether rose, vetiver or jasmine – as a layer, a convincing accord in the composition of modern perfumery.

The art of perfumery

Kannauj concocted attar (also known as ittr) for more than 400 years, more than two centuries before Grasse, in Provence, became a juggernaut of perfume. Known locally in Hindi as degh-bhapka, the artisanal method uses copper stills fed with wood and cow dung.

Kannauj is a four hour drive from Agra and just under two hours from the historic town of Lucknow, a former princely state ruled by the Nawabs of Oudh. Like many small Indian towns, Kannauj is stuck somewhere between the past and the present. The time here does not pass, it simply accumulates.

The collapsed sandstone ramparts, domed minarets, and scalloped arcades recall the city’s primitive grandeur as the seat of the Harshavardhana Empire in the 6th century. On the main street, scooters and the occasional glittering Mercedes drive past fruit vendors pushing wooden carts filled with overripe guavas and bananas.

Immerse yourself in the narrow alleys of Bara Bazaar, the main market, and Kannauj goes completely back to medieval times. In this labyrinth, long-standing boutiques are full of finely-cut glass bottles containing attar and uh, or essential oil, each smelling better than the last. The men sit cross-legged on padded floor mats, sniffing vials and dabbing behind their ears with extraordinarily long scented cotton swabs. Presiding over this centuries-old trade is the attar sazh, or perfumer, conjuring and seducing with the aura of an imperial alchemist.

(Related: In a Kolkata Market, Flower Men Carry Their Items.)

“The world’s best perfumers have walked these narrow lanes, weaving their way through mud and cow dung to get their hands on Kannauj attar. There really is no such thing, ”notes Pranjal Kapoor, the fifth generation partner of ML Ramnarain Perfumers, one of the oldest of the 350 or so distillers still operating here.

Tegh Singh arrives and unloads his bouquets of flowers in the godown of Kapoor, an open stone courtyard that serves as a distillery. Ram Singh, the master craftsman of Kapoor’s attar, collects the petals in a bulbous copper still and covers it with fresh water. Before attaching the cover, Ram Singh wraps the rims with a mash of clay and cotton, which hardens and creates a formidable seal.

When the blooming broth begins to simmer, the steam flows from the still, via a bamboo reed, into a copper pot containing sandalwood oil, which easily permeates the saturated rose steam. .

About John A. Provost

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