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Attar – World's oldest form of perfume

Attar or Ittar or Itra is one of the oldest forms of perfume in the world, derived from a Persian word "Itir" which means perfume, these are some of the most subtle form of the modern day perfumes.

The history of ancient perfumery dates back 5000 years at the time of Indus Valley civilization where people used them as religious offerings to God. In 1526, Mughals came to India from Central Asia to set up the great Mughal Empire and with them came Persian and Arabian artistry of fragrance designing and perfume making.

For thousands of years, ittars were a medium to attract angels and ward off darkness or evil spirits. Sufi saints and worshippers used ittars for meditation circles and dances; they also believed that these aromas had cooling and warming effects on our bodies during different weather seasons. There was also a customary practice of nobility to offer ittar to guests at the time of their departure – a practice which is still common in some parts of Awadh or modern day Lucknow.

Fragrances like sandalwood, rose, kewra, khus, saffron, camphor, musk etc were part of Mughal hammams and Akbar The Great is believed to have a separate department called "Khushboo Khana" at the majestic Agra Fort for his personal royal bath.

Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi or Shahjahanabad is home to one of the oldest scent shop as Gulab Singh Johri Mal was established in 1816 and is located in Dariba Kalan which is one of the oldest jewellery markets of Asia. For 201 years, this company has been spreading fragrance throughout India.

From Lucknow to Hyderabad and Agra to Vadodara, attars were integral part of lifestyle of Royalties of most Princely states of India. The famous poet Mirza Ghalib is believed to have rubbed his hands on face of his beloved when he met her in chilly winters of Delhi, Nizams of Hyderabad is believed to have massive collection of his favorite Jasmine ittars. One of the most famous ittar enthusiast – Mughal emperor Jehangir was pioneer of creating Ruh-e-Gulab, a famous rose perfume which is still exported to various countries of the world from India.

The ancient, painstakingly slow distillation practiced in Kannauj is called "Deg-Bhapka". Each still consisted of the copper deg or cauldron built atop its own oven and beside its own trough of water and a bulbous condenser called a bhapka or receiver that looks like a giant butternut squash. When a fresh supply of flowers comes in, 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 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 vapors from the simmering pot into their sandalwood oil base.

Distillery workers have inherited precise skills from fathers and grandfathers over generations and they must closely monitor the fires 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. They must also keep the trough of water that holds the receiver cool enough for the vapors to turn back into a liquid, imbuing the sandalwood oil with their heady scent. Every few hours, they switch out the receiver, cooling down the deg with wet cloths each time to stop the condensation. A typical 100-pound batch of petals takes 6-7 seven hours to distill.

Indian made attars are widely popular in Middle Eastern countries, Europe and USA where they make for base of designer perfumes as well as used in aromatherapy. Grasse in France is regarded as the perfume capital of the world and many Indian practitioners travel to France to get training in perfume industry.

In India, attars are extensively used to flavor pan masalas and cigarettes, however some attars like kewra, gulab, mehndi, marigold and also used extensively in Indian cuisine.

Since synthetic perfumes have taken over the fragrance industry, this traditional art of making attars from herbal and organic materials in dwindling fast and we would need to develop a process through which we can help the "ustaads" and "karigars" who have worked really hard to make this ancient aromas a household name across the globe.

At Tappas Voyages, we create customized and personalised tours to destinations that have this unique artistry of manufacturing ittars. Come travel with us to Delhi, Agra, Lucknow, Hyderabad, Vadodara and other places where this dying art still exists and contribute in sustainable development of one of the oldest perfumes of the world.