It might sound strange when I say that the sole purpose of one of my recent trips has been to experience an ultimate olfactory pleasure. But the fact is, I am inspired by the works of William Dalrymple and want to do an editorial feature on the history of perfumes.
Although the adoption of aromatics in India can be traced back to the Vedic Age, it was only around the 15th century, that it was perfected as an art, when a Mughal emperor introduced the practice of perfumery. That was the birth of attar-making in India. Centuries later, and despite the infiltration of modern luxury fragrances, this ancient art of perfumery still manages to survive in the lanes and alleys of Kannauj. Avail a cheap and air-conditioned car rental service in Lucknow for a trip to Kannauj.
The perfume capital of India
About 125 Km from the bustling city of Lucknow, I find this land of fragrance. I book a licensed and highly-rated taxi in Lucknow for the day and reached in no time. This is an almost obscure, dusty town, sitting on the banks of the Ganges in Uttar Pradesh. It came to know as the Perfume Capital of India and is still striving to make its recognition felt amid the cut-throat competition of fancy global brands. Dalrymple and many other historians compared Kannauj to Grasse in France, which known to be the Perfume Capital of the world.
As soon as I set foot in the town, I ask my driver to take me straight to the market. The cabbie seems a tad surprised to see a passenger traveling for two hours just to shop for perfumes. I read his curiosity and tell him that I am a writer, working on a story about Indian perfumes. We land at the hub of perfume stores. In any other small town, the markets would smell of food or traffic smoke, or anything that reminds you of the modern world. But not Kannauj. The only things that my olfactory nerves could sense and experience, were the heady notes of jasmine, rose, sandalwood, Kewda, marigold, and even fruits, mixed with a whiff of the old world. The shops were a visual delight too. The wide array of display cabinets, filled with glass bottles of colorful concentrates, was sheer art.
The scents of Kannauj
Kannauj has a legacy of creating the finest and unique blends of scents, which are way more long-lasting than regular perfumes. While the fragrance notes used in attars are a far cry from the subtle lavender, orange blossom, or myrtle found in France, it is the passion of these two towns for this art that makes the comparison justified. But what you can find here in Kannauj, you cannot find anywhere else in the world. From the fragrance of a rose garden to the scent of the earth after the first rain, the perfumeries of Kannauj has it all. Those who had seen the good old day, like our grandparents, would surely know the significance of these fragrances. I continued to walk through the fragrant lanes, trying to find nostalgia in the fragrances.
I reach one of the bigger shops in the area. It is quite swankier compared to its neighbors and has a bigger collection of attars. The shop is graced by a man in his mid-thirties, sitting at one of the counters and decanting a concentrate from a bigger carafe to a smaller glass vial. Shafiq happens to be the great-grandson of the original owner of this shop, who was one of the first perfumers of the town. While most people of our generation would be exploring life differently, this gentleman is happily carrying on his family tradition, with the addition of e-commerce and social media presence. He proudly shows off his best-selling attars and how his products are exported to the Middle East and other western countries. I ask him for a tour of his factory and he benignly obliges.
Magic in the making
We cross the narrow tenements of the town as we walk and talk about attars and their origins. Shafiq explains how the perfumers of Kannauj have started to experiment with new fragrances like the scent of fresh rain or ocean, and even grass. I also learn that every personality type can be associated with an attar.
Soon we reach the deep interiors of Kannauj, where all the magic happens. The façade of the factory is completely unassuming and has nothing fragrant about it. The dark brick and mortar building is guarded against sunlight since perfumes have to be kept away from the sun. At the entrance porch, a few older men are labeling empty glass bottles, soon to be filled with the magic potions. Inside, there is a furnace, rather a line of furnaces, each with an earthen pot sitting on it. There are a strange contraption and a small tank attached to each pot and a worker attending to each pot. I am told that the flowers or herbs that are used in each perfume are simmered in spirits and then distilled in cold water.
I stand and watch in awe, as the workers work their magic in the sweltering heat and yield the finest fragrances. The steaming cauldrons and the heady aromas of floral oils cause an explosion in my senses, giving me an experience like never before!