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The fragrance of greatness

Explore the art and craft of making the heavenly Attars

 

BY HARPREET KAUR

During ancient times when people wanted to freshen or liven up their rooms or wanted a soft lingering fragrance around them, they collected fresh sweet-smelling flowers in a basket and kept them in rooms, bathed in them or wore them in their hair or on their shoulder with a pin. Even now, some people keep dried flowers in cupboards and spices like kali mirchi, lavang etc tied in a small packet, to give clothes a fragrance of their own. Even barks of trees and leaves are placed in cupboards.

The art of extracting oil to create perfumes was acquired later. These attars are in great demand today, extracted from various oils and mixed with others to get wonderful smelling non alcohol-based perfumes. They come in sprays, roll-ons, or just dab-ons and are priced between Rs 50 to 10,000 for a mere 10 gm attar bottle.

Attar is a Persian word meaning fragrance, or essence, and is used to describe both the manufacture and application of these oils. Perfume describes a range of products that contain alcohol, heavily diluted with synthetic additives.

Attars are derived from plant extracts and have a range of rich scents. Although attars are simply individual oils, others may be composed of careful blends of various oils, resins and concentrates (two or more) and placed in a natural base oil.

Attar was first produced by the great Persian physician Hakim Ibn Sena (Avicenna in English). He was regarded as the greatest physician of his times, and used these for medicinal purposes. Attars include some individual essential oils, suitable for fragrance such as sandalwood, amber and patchouli. Sandalwood is both - an attar (used for its smell) and an essential oil. Attars can be blends of multiple oils, sometimes as many as 30 or 40 are blended together (a secret that many Attar-making families hold dear).

Process

Traditional attars of India are rarely found in their pure form today. Often, they are adulterated with synthetic chemicals or more of the base oil to give it a distinct smell. Often, they are stretched with liquid paraffin and other substances. In the traditional process, various flowers, roots, herbs, spices, etc are hydro-distilled in copper vessels into a receiving vessel containing sandalwood oil.

A certain proportion of flowers or other aromatic plants are put into a copper vessel containing water, sealed and heated. Their aromatic vapours rise through bamboo pipes and pass into another copper vessel containing sandalwood oil, sitting below the larger distilling one.

Sandalwood oil is the base with which each extracted oil has to be mixed to give a distinct smell and whiff. These vapours condense, and after days of distillation, the water and oil separate, allowing most of the aromatic molecules to become adsorbed into the sandalwood oil.

The water is decanted and added back to the distilling vessel for the next day’s distillation. The process, in the case of flowers like rose, jasmin, kewda, raat rani (night queen), is repeated for a minimum of 15 days until the sandalwood becomes totally saturated with the perfume of that particular flower. The process for making heena and amber is much more sophisticated and requires numerous other steps and as many as 60 natural ingredients go into their production, which takes months.

Great care is taken in maintaining the proper heat and pressure, so that the floral material suspended in water does not burn. As the proper pressure is reached, the flowers begin to release their aromatic chemicals and these pass along with the steam into the receiving copper vessel. As it gets warm, the water is changed in the water bath, since it is critical that it should stay cool for condensation to occur.

After four hours when the condensed material and sandalwood have filled the receiver, a new one is fixed and the process continues for another four hours. At the end of it, the process is stopped for the day and the two receivers are allowed to cool overnight before the oil and water. Once this occurs, the water is siphoned off and added to the cauldron for the distillation to take place.

The most expensive attar is rooh gulab, which said to have been discovered by Noorjehan, wife of Emperor Jehangir of the Mughal era. The story goes that she went for a morning bath and was delighted with the fragrance of the oily layer on the water which had been left overnight to cool. When distilled, it turned out to be rose attar. Old texts mention that the floral group primarily used for attar manufacture was rose, bela, jasmine, champa, molesari and tuberose, along with roots like vetiver and ginger. Sandal, cinnamon and aloe bark were also used. Heavy odours like musk, myrrh and ambergris, were also used with khus. Sandalwood oil forms the base as, during distillation, the original smell of sandalwood vanishes and the oil captures the fragrance of the flower.

Uses of attars

Place one drop of essential oil on a tissue and inhale (to ensure that you do not have a reaction to the oil.)

Use the steam inhalation and use up to 10 drops of oil. You can use a diffuser or lamp scent ring.

Add a few drops of oil to your laundry wash, drain, vacuum bag filter, or on a tissue for placement in your drawers.

You can add up to 20 drops to almond oil for a massage. Keep away from sensitive areas. (Do not apply essential oils to the skin without first diluting them).

Add them to your bath water and come out smelling lovely.

These oils can be used to make home-made lotions, facial toners, shampoos, perfumes, soaps, shower gels, and other natural products.

These essential oils come in very small bottles, commonly sold in 5ml, 10ml and 15ml sizes. The more expensive oils are common in sizes starting at 2ml and 1 dram sizes.

Although essential oils do not become rancid, they can deteriorate and lose their therapeutic benefit over time. Oils such as the citrus oils will oxidize and begin to lose their aroma and therapeutic properties. Some oils such as patchouli and sandalwood improve with the passage of time.

Avoid deterioration and protect the aromatic and therapeutic properties of your oils by keeping them in amber or cobalt blue bottles. Dark glass helps to keep out sunlight which can hasten deterioration. Essential oils should also be stored in a cool, dark place.

Some of the well known perfumers available in India are from Nemat Enterprises, AA Attarwala and Habib International.

BY HARPREET KAUR

 

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