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In Kannauj, hope in a bottle
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India is the world’s largest exporter of attar, but the olfactory art and science inspired by Nur Jahan’s love for the damask rose has changed in its profile from a high-end personal indulgence to an industry additive. Soma Basu goes on a sniffathon to discover the city in Uttar Pradesh that revels in the recognition and revenue of the trade

October 20, 2023 01:31 am | Updated February 08, 2024 04:34 pm IST

The traditional hydrodistillation equipment used in making attar. 

The traditional hydrodistillation equipment used in making attar.  | Photo Credit: Richard Kujur

In Kannauj’s Bara Bazaar, where people, puttering vehicles, and buffaloes mix in labyrinthine streets, thumb-sized glass bottles of lightly coloured liquid are everywhere. In rows of shops — even those selling shoes, clothes, utensils, and groceries — the shiny made-in-China bottles are proof of a booming business. Punctuating the lanes are century-old perfumeries housed in decrepit ancestral havelis, ancient scents wafting out of their half-open wooden doors. Attar, distilled extracts of flowers and herbs in a base of sandalwood oil, got its geographical indication (GI) tag a decade ago, but like Kannauj itself, a city just 130 km from Uttar Pradesh’s capital Lucknow, and spread across just 8 sq km, was beginning to feel tired.

That changed this September, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave out gifts representing India’s heritage to G-20 dignitaries. Kannauj’s attar, in two fragrances — the pink damask rose native to the region and the earthy petrichor — were made for the occasion, and presented in embellished glass bottles.

The 112-year-old Munna Lal Sons & Co., which created them, is the first perfumery and the only one so far from Kannauj to position the traditional product as a brand in the global market. Called Zighrana, its line was first launched in New York in 2015, and a year later in India through online retail. The perfumery belongs to the family of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP from Kannauj, Subrat Pathak, who in the 2019 Lok Sabha election wrested what was the Samajwadi Party’s ‘safe seat’ for two decades. For the 400-odd attar makers in Kannauj though, that was of no consequence. “It is our loyalty to the product that makes Kannauj world famous,” declares Jagat chaat wala, who draws customers for the khasta (fluffy) kachorialoo tikki, and paani-puri he sells. One wall of his 2x2-metre shop is stacked with attars. Prices vary from the chaat wala to the ‘showrooms’, ranging from ₹80 to ₹5,000 for 10 ml depending on a variety of factors.

Watch | How is the famous attar of Kannauj made?

The fraternity shares a collective pride in attar, despite the fact that it has changed considerably in its profile. From being a luxury personal product used by people of refinement in Mughal times, it is now a raw material cheapened by its use in the FMCG industry. Bulk of what is sold as attar in parts of India’s walled cities is far from the original.

Shakti Vinay Shukla, the principal director of Fragrance and Flavour Development Centre, Kannauj, says attar has only a 0.1% share of India’s perfume export market. “Look at where the market is now: from your morning toothpaste to a night cream, gutka, pan masala, incense sticks, soap, shampoo, detergents, cleansing products, Ayurvedic medicine, sweets, spices, deodorants — every item of daily use has attar in it. The nature of the business has changed,” says Shukla.

The Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises pegs the worth of India’s fragrance and flavour industry at ₹10,000 crore annually. Sources say this is a conservative figure as there has been a record 11-12% growth in the last seven years. Globally, India commands 10% of the fragrance and flavour market and remains the largest exporter of attar in the world, sending it to 71 countries. Given the unorganised nature of the attar trade, insiders guesstimate the value of Kannauj’s fragrance and flavour industry is over ₹1,200 crore per annum, of which attar accounts for ₹100 crore.

A perfume’s soul

Mohammed Alam, whose great grandfather established the Ayub Mohammed Yaqub Perfumery in 1896, talks with pride about how attar is made with natural extracts using the heirloom hydrodistillation process, sans alcohol and artificial preservatives.

While the children of weavers and farmers are turning away from their traditional occupations, that is not the case with attar makers across Kannauj. “There is a sense of dignity in doing what our forefathers did,” says Nishish Tiwari, helming the family-owned Gauri Sugandh perfumery. “Every eighth person in Kannauj is directly or indirectly involved in this traditional perfume industry,” he says, sitting in his store lined with glass bottles of different sizes.

Glass bottles of different sizes at Gauri Sugandh perfumery in Bara Bazaar, Kannauj. 

Glass bottles of different sizes at Gauri Sugandh perfumery in Bara Bazaar, Kannauj.  | Photo Credit: Richard Kujur

This is because attar production is low investment, costing within ₹1 lakh. It can be set up anywhere, even a courtyard at home. “Whoever invests is confident of returns. Vendors of the world’s top perfume companies walk the congested lanes of our wholesale market to do business,” he adds. Non-disclosure agreements and a series of agents prevent attar makers from revealing names, though.

A storied past

The bulbous onion-head minarets, ruins of fort ramparts, and scalloped archways leading to the city and market are a throwback to the place’s beginnings. Local lore talks about 7th-century Kannauj as Kusumpura, the city of flowers. Its location on the rich Gangetic plains meant land fertile enough for roses, and a river that aided trade, from the time of Harshavardhana’s empire.

Then came the Mughals, with Jahangir proclaimed as the first royal patron during his reign in the early 17th century. Stories on the street tell of his wife, Nur Jahan, who is supposed to have fired the imagination of perfumers to create rose attar, because she soaked the petals of Kannauj’s fragrant roses in water, for scented baths.

As the demand for attar grew, Kannauj would be enveloped in fragrance, because the distillates of rose extract were discarded in the channels criss-crossing the city. Today, they are reused.

Kannauj is best known for its rose attar.

Kannauj is best known for its rose attar. | Photo Credit: Richard Kujur

The British fascination with it saw the product flourish during colonial rule. Production was scaled up for export, says Pradeep Kapoor of Jagat Aroma Oils Distillery, started by his grandfather in 1880. Kapoor says his family foresaw the export potential of attar and was among the first exporters in the late 1940s.

Missing an ingredient

Attar took a hit when hundreds of distilleries shut down after the Central government restricted the availability of sandalwood in the 1990s. Earlier, there were about 150 distilleries extracting oil from sandalwood. This formed the base of the perfume, 95-98% of the product. To this a floral extract was added. Today, there are less than 20 distilleries left.

The low availability of the wood spiked the cost of oil to ₹1 lakh and upward for a litre, resulting in attar’s price escalating first by 150%, and then by 900%. It made business sense to switch to liquid paraffin (karpur), jojoba oil, or low quality Indian sandalwood grown in Australia and Egypt. Synthetic compounds are used, says Kapoor, a member of the Attars and Perfumers Association. “Attar is only an aura now. Alcohol-based deodorants, sprays, and strong perfumes appeal to new consumers,” he says.

In addition, ‘rival’ products, such as oud, made from agarwood, native to north-east India, have been impacting the market. The rising demand in West Asia for the woody, intense, and longer lasting aroma of oud has undermined the sweet, mild flower-scented Kannauj attars.

Flower power

The traditional, manual process of extracting the floral fragrance, however, is unchanged and helps the ancestral industry stay afloat. Before the first rays of the sun break, women pick the last batch of the season’s pink damask roses, called chiniya desi gulab locally. The approach to the four-acre stretch is via a potholed, muddy tract. The flowering fields are the only places women form a part of the trade.

Depending on the call for plucking flowers, Gomti, along with her niece, works in different fields. “We come at dawn to pluck roses to avoid injury from the prickly thorns; the morning dew softens the stem, and it is easy for us to walk through the rose fields,” she says.

The journey of Kannauj’s famous rose attar begins in the fields with the plucking of the damask rose.

The journey of Kannauj’s famous rose attar begins in the fields with the plucking of the damask rose. | Photo Credit: Richard Kujur

Gomti carries the daily yield of flowers on her back to the village chaupal (platform), where an agent buys them to sell in the flower mandi (market). The rates are fixed every quarter collectively by farmers, agents, and flower market traders. Gomti says she sold gulab for ₹30 a kilo from July to September, when the yield plummets to 2-6 kg on alternate days. In winter, she is ready to load up to 50 kg a day; it will fetch her ₹80-90 a kg. “The men work faster than us and pluck more,” she says, implying they earn more.

Abdul Moyed Khan, a farmer, says of the 2,000 varieties of roses grown in India, only two — rosa damascena and centifolia — are used in attar. Though they can be grown round the year, the highest yield is between October and March.

Lieq Ahmed, who traditionally grew tobacco, says farmers like him in nearby villages of Luthpuri, Jalalpur, Chippatti, and Khitiriyapur, have switched to growing flowers. He cultivates rose, jasmine, mehendi, marigold, and more. “As Kannauj’s perfumeries grew their businesses, the demand for flowers grew,” he says. Some like Gopal Saini, who reaps 500 quintals of roses every season, also grow 15 varieties of other flowers.

Field to furnace

Across extracting units in Kannauj, the message is often repeated: machines or laboratories cannot produce the same magical scents as the manual process does. The flowers arrive from the mandi and the master worker, known as the dighah, unloads the bundle into big copper vessels, known as deg, that line the perfumeries in open-air yards. The deg is filled with distilled water and sealed with a cotton and clay mash. The sarpos (lid of the deg) is hammered into position to create an airtight seal. The bhatti (clay furnace) is then lit with cow dung cakes.

The dighah at work in Meena perfumery.

The dighah at work in Meena perfumery. | Photo Credit: Richard Kujur

The deg is connected by a bamboo pipe called chonga to another copper pot called bhapka (receptacle of steam). The bhapka holds the base oil. The steam condenses into water in the bhapka, which is placed in a gachchi (cooling water tank). The dighah follows the hiss of steam and his years of experience tell him when to stop the distillation process. As the bhatti dies out, he cools the deg’s outer surface with a wet cloth dipped in multani mitti (fuller’s earth), and a new bhapka is placed to repeat the process.

After the old bhapka with the already obtained condensed vapours cools, the mixture of oil and floral extract is separated through a hole in the condenser-receiver. The distilled extraction is put back in the deg for brewing with the next batch of fresh flowers. This distillation and blending process is repeated for days until the right potency of attar is achieved. The less expensive attars in the market may go through fewer distillations and have a lower quality base oil.

Many perfumery owners compare the process to cooking dum biryani on a slow wooden fire in sealed clay pots and preparing the rice-meat mixture in a pressure cooker on an LPG stove. “The taste can never be the same. That is why one litre of pure rose attar can sell for ₹2.5 lakh or more,” says Rajat Mehrotra, a third-generation perfumer. The next generation of perfumers in their 20s is getting into the trade, with the same conviction.

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