The Indian Perfume That Smells Like Rain

Mar 3, 2020 0 comments

Rainwater flows down a roof

Rainwater flows down a roof. Photo: Anna Nikonorova/

Love that musky, fresh smell of earth that permeates the air when the first rain of the monsoon hits the parched ground? It is known an petrichor, a pleasant cocktail of fragrant chemical compounds, some produced by plants, others produced by bacteria that live on the soil. These bacteria are the main contributors to the distinct earthly smell. When they die during periods of drought, they release a compound called geosmin which the human nose is extremely sensitive to. But the geosmin can’t get into the air until the first drops of rain splatter on the ground and eject the geosmin molecules from the soil. While researchers are only starting to understand the chemistry behind this wonderful fragrance, a small town in Uttar Pradesh, India, has been capturing this smell in a bottle so that one could wear it on their clothes like a perfume for hundreds of years.

Kannauj lies on the banks of River Ganges, between the cities of Agra and Lucknow. The ancient city has been home to the perfume industry since the days of Harshavardhana, who ruled north India in the 7th century. Kannauj’s perfumes were famous among Mughal Emperors who ruled India for nearly 300 years. Some 1,300 years later, nearly half of Kannauj’s 1.5 million residents are still involved in fragrance manufacturing using traditional methods.

Each morning local farmers pick a variety of flowers such as rose, jasmine, champaca, lotus, ginger lily, gardenia, and dozens of others and deliver them to over two hundred perfume distilleries dotting the city. The flowers are mixed with water and heated in large copper vats called degs. The aromatic steam is then transferred via bamboo pipes to a receptacle containing sandalwood oil which acts as the base for the attar, or perfume. The perfume is then transferred into camel-skin bottles whose porosity allows the excess water to evaporate away, trapping the fragrance and the oil inside.

Kannauj attar

A workers attends to the large distillation vats called “degs”.

Kannauj’s most remarkable product is mitti attar, or “earth’s perfume”. The process of manufacturing mitti attar is similar to any other aromatic compound, but instead of flower petals the degs are filled with flat bricks of dried earth, a dash of water from the nearby pond and then the vats are sealed with clay. It takes six to seven hours before all of the aroma is steamed out of the clay.

However unique Kannauj’s offerings maybe, the centuries-old business is slowly losing customers as India’s brand-conscious youths are increasingly turning to cheaper, alcohol-based products. A 100-ml vial of Ruh Gulab (rose attar), for instance, costs Rs.1,000—about $14, but you can get synthetic rose fragrance for as low as Rs.100, or less than $1.50.

“Most customers prefer modern perfume and deodorants. When a good deodorant can do the same job for you, why spend so much on attar?” asks Nishish Tewari, who owns a perfume shop in Kannauj.

Kannauj attar

Flowers, like these jasmine buds, have to be picked by hand before sunrise. Their essence must be extracted the same day. Photo: Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images

Rising cost of raw materials, especially sandalwood oil, which is not locally produced is also contributing to the worries of the manufacturers. Another problem is the lack of standards. The quality of the attar depends on the quality of the flowers, the time when they are plucked and the distillation process. Kannauj’s perfumers employ no modern machinery during the manufacturing process. While many fragrance makers take immense pride at the traditional methods (”We rely on our instincts, we know the attar is ready by the smell and feel of it,” a seventy-year-old perfumer once told AFP), the lack of modern tools make it very hard to maintain standard.

“To survive in the world market, it is necessary to have quality standards. Their standardization is essential to leave a fragrance in the world market,” says perfume seller Gaurav Malhotra.

Kannauj attar

Workers empty petals into large vats for distillation. Photo: Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images

But there is also a silver lining to the globalization of the perfume market. Many manufacturers have now gone online to sell their products resulting in increased customer base. For some manufacturers, more than two-third of their products are sold to foreigners in America, Europe, China, Africa and West Asia. Some manufacturers are also replacing traditional ways with new means such as steel cylinders instead of copper vats.

“Fragrance is part of our everyday life, muses Pampi Jain f Pragati Aroma and Oil Distillers. “We brush our teeth with flavoured toothpaste, bathe with a scented soap and then apply perfume. Fragrances will not go out of our lives. It’s just a question of whether we want to keep our traditions alive. That is the real challenge.”

Want to try out mitti attar? You can order online here.

Kannauj attar

Camel skin perfume bottles from Kannauj, where the perfume is aged. Photo: David Prasad/Wikimedia Commons

# The Atlantic,
# Better India,
# Nat Geo Traveller,
# Taipei Times,
# Down to earth,
# EarthSky,


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