When the first rains hit the ground, the smell of raw earth send millions of people into a state of olfactory bliss. Almost everyone associates the smell of petrichor with a distinct memory (mostly happy) and year after year, monsoon makes sure that nostalgia along with nature, remains as green as ever. For a city in India, however, just one season of this musty smell of wet earth simply wasn’t enough. So they found a way to capture this smell of rain in a small leather bottle, and capitalised on it too so that we might own a bottle as well, just as long as we can pay the price.
Kannauj, a city in Uttar Pradesh, is known as the perfume capital of India and the Grasse of the East. It specializes in six perfumes which are Rose, Henna, Shamama Henna, Mogra, Bela and the eponymous Mitti Attar among others. Made from cultivating soil from the region, ‘Mitti Attar’ and the technology that makes it, are many centuries old.
When I.J Bear and R.G Thomas wrote their famous 1964 article ‘Nature of Argillaceous Odour’ talking about the origin and chemical make-up of the smell of rain, they coined the term ’Petrichor’ (Greek work made from ‘Petra’, a rock and ‘Ikhor’, the tears of gods in Greek mythology) that finds many takers in this millennium. Little did they know that this highly appreciated scent was being bottled as perfume in India.
Some say that the art of distilling perfume that exists in Kannauj is around 5000 years old. Shakti Vinay Shukla, the director of Fragrance and Flavour Development Centre of India (FFDC), knows that for a fact. “The Deg Bhapkas used to make perfume in Kannauj are the same design as used in Indus Valley Civilisation. During the excavation, the terracotta distillation apparatus was found and is preserved in the Taxila Museum of Lahore, Pakistan. It is mentioned in the Dragoco report by Dr. Paolo Ravesti as well. There has been no change in the making of perfumes since then,” he told Homegrown.
Most believe that the art travelled through Kannauj via the Mughals where Emperor Akbar encouraged the Khusboo Khana during his rule. There are other stories that say that the 16th century Mughal Emperor Jahangir introduced this art in Kannauj as his wife Noor Jehan bathed in Rose petals. Whatever be the mythology, the smell has long lingered in the excesses of peoples’ minds.
In these record breaking summers, social media is rife with longing for monsoon and the light rain that makes the earth heave heavily with the spicy nose piercing smell of our roots. Kannauj satiates this hunger over a long process right from cultivating the clay, baking it, distilling it and capturing the steam it lets off when contained in the Deg Bhapka’s. Cynthia Barnett, an environmental journalist captured the process in her book, ‘Rain: A Natual and Cultural History’ where she visits the city in a quest to find Mitti Attar. In an article for The Atlantic, she succinctly describes the process. “The ancient, painstakingly slow distillation practiced in Kannauj is called deg-bhapka. Each still consisted of the copper deg—built atop its own oven and beside its own trough of water—and a bulbous condenser called a bhapka (receiver) that looked 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 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 vapors from the simmering pot into their sandalwood oil base,” she wrote. She described how clay was broken into disks and placed in these apparatus for baking.
Shukla says that the more the clay bakes in summer the better it is. “Mitti Attar has done a lot for Kannauj. We have received a geographical indication status. The geo-climatic conditions of the region make it favourable for the industry to grow. At FFDC, we are working on a project that can replace this ancient method. Right now the original method uses firewood and coal and is marred with safety issues. We want to modify this process and electrify it. We can make it more green and environmental friendly while making it easier to operate. Research has just begun and it might take two years to complete it,” he said.
Attar making in Kannauj has taken a hit due to the ban on tobacco, Pan Masala and Gutkha products by the government more recently however. And these perfumes are an integral part of making these products. “The companies involved in Attar making here are branching out into new avenues. They are looking at personal cosmetics, aromatherapy and more places to use their products,” explained Shukla.
Attar is many things; a natural smell that outlives chemical perfumes, a healer that claims it can curb mental instability, a conductor of heat in harsh winters and more. All attars, come in a kuppi which a small leather bottle. Shukla says that this bottle is a natural de-moisturizer like the human skin. The semi-permeable skin concentrates the attar inside while the moisture evaporates.
The sharp aroma of petrichor is known to refresh mind, body and soul and also signals the beginning of the most awaited season. You can now hold it close forever by ordering kuppis of Mitti Attar from the perfume capital of India. In Shukla’s words, it will remind you of both your childhood and your motherland.