The scent in the wind!

The use of perfumes and fragrances added a nice whiff to life during the Moghul times, writes R.V. SMITH, citing many examples

February 12, 2012 04:44 pm | Updated 06:30 pm IST

A Moghul water-colour painting depicting the use of perfumes. Photo: Special Arrangement

A Moghul water-colour painting depicting the use of perfumes. Photo: Special Arrangement

The second Itr and Sungandhi Festival in Delhi unfolded the whole magic of perfumes. Much has been written about this unique festival but the historical aspect has not been properly explored. One misconception is that rooh gulab itr was discovered by Nur Jahan. Actually it was the discovery of her mother Asmat Begum. According to Dr. R. Nath, Jahangir noted in his diary as follows: “I have regret for the Jahangiri itr (named after him) that my father (Akbar's) nostrils were not gratified with such essences. This is a discovery which was made during my reign through the efforts of the mother of Nur Jahan Begum. When she was making rose-water, a scum formed on the dishes into which the hot rose-water was poured from the jugs…. She collected the scum little by little. It is of such strength in perfume that if one drop is rubbed on the palm of the hand, it scents a whole assembly and it appears as if many such rose-buds had bloomed at once. There is no other scent of equal excellence to it. It restores hearts that have gone (broken), and brings back withered souls. In reward for that invention, I presented a string of pearls to the inventress.”

Department of perfumery!

There you have it straight from the horse's mouth as it were. The historian goes on to say that Akbar the Great had a whole department of perfumery so that he and his successors could keep their bodies (and minds) well scented in a country where the hot climate (and its ill-effects) that lasted nearly eight months in a year could be countered effectively.

One has to keep in mind that sweating irked the Great Moghuls, who inherited their ancestors' love for the cold regions, where men and women did not perspire so much. The big harems of these emperors meant that they had to engage with many women and to make their bodies fresh again constant use of scents became necessary. The same held good for the ladies, who also had to take several baths during the months of May and June, unless the emperor and his entourage were in places like Kashmir. Perfumes were brought not only from Kannauj and other parts of India but also from West Asia.

To go back to Dr. Nath's interesting findings, scents were not only used on the body but also burnt in the mahals to embalm the air. “Incense was daily burnt in the harem in gold and silver censors of various beautiful shapes and designs. Besides these, sweet-smelling flowers were used in large quantities. Araqs, itrs and oils were extracted from the flowers.” When Shah Jahan was being initiated into the mysteries of sex, it is said that his body was massaged by female attendants with exotic oils. Before Mumtaz Mahal's marriage to him, Arjumand Bano Begum, as she was known then, was anointed with scents similarly. If gossip be true, there was a Mir Attar in Bahadur Shah Zafar's time, to spread fragrance in the harem. It is a fact that beauty alone does not attract a person if the object of his desire perspires with a bad odour.

The Moghuls who excelled in nearly everything that they did made perfumery into a fine art. Chameli, mogra, champa, molshri, juhi, nargis, harsinghar, gul-e-zafran, gulab, kamal, kamalini (lily), tasbih-e-gulal, hina and malti were some of the fragrant flowers that were cultivated in Moghul gardens and their scents extracted. Ambar-e-Ashab, says Dr. Nath, cost one to three gold mohurs per tola in Akbar's reign. Zabad (civet scent) up to one gold mohur per tola. Mush-e-Muskh up to Rs.4.5 per tola (at a time when the rupee was 500 times its present value). Then there were araq-e-gulab, araq-e-muskh, arq-e-bahar, arq-e-chameli and loban. The sugandhis (perfumes) of Chandni Chowk were greatly patronised by the latter Moghul emperors and made a fortune that way. Some of their shops still exist with fancy bottles of perfumes that waft you back to Moghul times.

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