Strategically located on the banks of River Ganga, the city of Kannauj was once an important trading hub for Indian perfumes, spices and silks that were sent mainly to the countries in the Middle East. The city has a glorious history with its strong connections to the Ramayana and Mahabharat as well as being the capital of Emperor Harshavardhan of the Vardhana dynasty. References of attar making is seen in Harshacharita written by Banabhatta as early as the 7th century. It is also believed that the manufacturing of attar attained great heights during the Mughal period.
The city steeped in culture still has remnants of sprawling forts and royal facades that stand testimony to its ancient heritage. Kannauj has traditionally been a perfumery town for thousands of years. It is said that Kannauj is to India what Grasse is to France and that is a very significant indicator of the exemplary art of perfume-making that flourishes in the city. It is this great accomplishment that helped Kannauj perfumes receive the Geographical Indication tag in 2014 for its originality and mastery in the art of perfume-making.
The intricate process of perfume-making starts every morning with bagfuls of rose, jasmine and other petals and heady spices delivered by the local farmers to the perfume distilleries. It is interesting to note that the traditional labour intensive and tedious hydro-distillation process, called ‘deg bhapka’ is still preferred as the locals believe that attar making is all about instinct and the right nose.
Each still that follows this ancient, painstakingly slow distillation has a copper deg that is built atop its own oven and beside its own trough of water is a bulbous condenser called a bhapka (receiver). When a fresh supply of flowers comes in early morning, the craftsmen put pounds of rose or jasmine or other petals into each deg, cover the deg with water, hammer a lid down on top and seal it with mud. They light a wood or cow-dung fire underneath, then fill the receiver with sandalwood oil which serves as a base for the scents and sink it into the trough. The deg and bhapka are connected with a hollow bamboo pipe that carries the fragrant vapours from the simmering pot into their sandalwood oil base.
The fires are closely monitored so the heat under the cauldrons stays warm enough to evaporate the water inside to steam but never so hot that it destroys the aroma. It is imperative to keep the trough of water that holds the receiver cool enough for the vapours to turn back into a liquid imbuing the sandalwood oil with their heady scent. Every few hours, the receiver is switched and the deg is cooled down with wet cloths to stop the condensation.
On an average it would take six to seven hours before all of the aroma steams out of the clay. At that point, the men would drain the receivers from a hole in the bottom, siphoning off the water that had condensed in the vessel until only the rich, fragrant oil that had pooled on top remained. The attar is not finished until it is poured into a special leather bottle called a kuppi and sealed inside. It is believed that attar not stored in the kuppi is essentially ruined. The entire distillation process is eco-friendly and there is minimal wastage. The waste inside the deg is collected and recycled for making agarbatti and dhoop.
The most famous fragrance is of petrichor known as mitti attar which means capturing the scent of rain which is a well-guarded secret between generations of families who are in this business. The natural perfume is free of alcohol and chemical except in some productions.
Written by Lakshmi Subramanian
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