The Process of Making Attars in the Fragrance Capital of India: Kannauj


Attars are the purest forms of perfumery and have survived the wrath of time and still find their relevance in the perfume world today. Populary known as the Ittar ki Nagri ( The town of Ittar) Kannauj was the pioneer since the inception of attars in India to deliver a multiplicity of fragrances to the let alone the country but the world too.

Ittar stands for Scent in Arabic and it is from there that the culture of ittar was also introduced to India through Queen Noor Jahan the wife of Jehengir the famous Mughal King.

The process of making ittar is a rarher labour intensive one which ends up bearing a sweet  yet small result at the end.

The process begins when to distil the scent the botanical is placed in vegetable oil or water. Over time the scents from the botanicals seep their way into the oil or water infusing them with the redolence. The water and oil would retain the scent after the plants or flowers are removed.  It’s a wonderful fact to know that pure attars don’t actually have an expiry date and many of them smell better the older they are. Attars are a luxury and in ancient times were used in offerings to the gods. Attars are like wine the older the better.

 The Attar-making is a labor intensive process, requiring great talent, skill and patience. It can take over two weeks to make a small batch of a single attar. The distillation process, called deg bhapka, is painstakingly slow and long, with no trace of industrial machinery or modernity.The copper deg is built atop its own fireplace and has its own trough of water. It is connected to a bulbous condenser called bhapka, which receives the fragrant liquid after distillation. Anywhere from twenty-five to three-hundred and fifty pounds of flower petals are collected and placed inside a deg. From the deg, a long bamboo pipe leads downward to a copper recepticle that contains sandalwood oil. Water is added to the deg, and the lid is sealed down with a mixture of cotton and clay. The deg sits over a fire and contains no modern guages or thermostats. As the steam collects, it condenses and flows into the receiving vessel.

The fire must be constantly monitered to keep the correct temperature. Too much heat will burn the flowers. It will also create too much pressure which can explode the clay seal around the deg. The low heat and pressure preserves the fragile fragrance oils better than the hotter steam distillation method used to obtain essential oils.

The receiving vessel sits in a pool of water and is continually rotated by hand to blend the oils and keep them from overheating. Throughout the day, the master distiller monitors the deg and receiving vessel by feeling them with his hands and listening to the sounds from inside. When necessary, wet towels are rubbed over the vessels to cool them down.

At the end of the day, the distillation is stopped. Overnight, as the oil cools down, the water separates from it. In the morning, the water is poured off from the oil and put back into the still. Freshly picked flowers are added, and the process begins anew. This process will be repeated for fifteen to twenty days, until the sandalwood oil is completely saturated with the fragrant oil of the flowers.

Mitti attar is made even today in Kannauj’s traditional perfumeries, where sinewy craftsmen tend to fires under ageing copper cauldrons or degs to make this remarkable perfume.

The perfumes were traditionally stored in camel-skin pockets but are now kept in bottles made from buffalo skins. The fragrant essential oil trapped in the sandalwood oil base, contained in these leather bottle or kuppis, is placed in the sun to allow the excess water to evaporate and for the true scent of attar to develop – warm, organic and mineral-rich.

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