Attar, also known as “itra” or “ittar”, has been in India for thousands of years.
Pure and natural attars are derived from different kinds of flowers (rose, kewra, chameli, bela, marigold, jasmine, lavende and so on), from grasses such as vetiver, and herbs and spices (cardamom, cloves, saffron, juniper berry, jatamansi and the like) by the traditional approach of steam distillation in a copper vessel.
Traditionally, sandalwood oil is used as the base to make quality attars but it can make the product quite costly. This is why foodgrade oils are now used as the base to make attars more affordable.
Kannauj, a small town in Uttar Pradesh, is known as the “perfume city of India”. Most of the attar manufacturers here have been in the business for generations and they keep their specific formula a well-guarded secret.
The steam distillation is carried out in copper vessels, referred to as degh, where the natural ingredients and water are kept. The vessel is covered and sealed with a special clay mix. The degh is connected by a pipe (referred to as chonga) to a copper receiver (bhapka) and a water tank. Wood, coal or cow dung is used as fuel. As the degh is fired, the vapour collected in the bhapka gets condensed and the oil collects the fragrance.
Traditionally, attar is kept in a kuppi made from leather, including camel skin, as it removes moisture naturally. Today, decorated glass bottles are used to store the perfumes. A famous attar from Kannauj is the “shamama”, made from a co-distillation of herbs and spices.
Flower power: Village girls plucking Arabian jasmine buds to be used for making attar in Kannauj.
Heady fragrance: Roses are among the prized flowers used to make attar.
Ready to steam: A worker pours flowers into a copper vessel called ‘deg’ before the hydro-distillation process.
Many hands needed: The process of making attar is both labour-intensive and time-consuming.
Ready to boil: A worker seals the copper vessel and lid with a special clay mix.
Burning bright: The furnace is made of brick and clay. It needs constant monitoring so that the heat is just right for the distillation.
Vital connection: A worker aligns a bamboo pipe (‘chonga’) with the copper vessel that receives the distillate.
Vapour catchers: A worker pouring base oil into a ‘bhapkar’, which acts as a receiver for the distillate.
Quaint containers: Attar is traditionally kept in ‘kuppis’, made from leather, (including camel skin), as it removes moisture naturally from attar and ensures that quality is not lost.
Bottled fragrance: Today, decorative glass bottles are the preferred containers as customers can buy them in many sizes.