Capturing the evolving narrative of Indian fragrances through the lens of the past and the present

Words by Sreshta Bhattacharya

Fragrance has a lot to do with how it makes you feel! After a long day at work when I finally settle for a hot water shower and apply the Nargis body mist, I forget about all the worries in the world and slowly cuddle up to the comfort of my couch. The strong smell of Ayurveda takes me back to the smell of the incense sticks that my grandma used to light during her evening pujas at home. 

That’s the power of smell! It can make you nostalgic, confident, happy or even relaxed and we don’t shy away from desiring the same. It is in fact true that man was created to indulge in and explore simple pleasures of life. This phenomenon is not new to the Indian society. If one closely observes the history of India, they would know that men spent years to build, design and craft indulgence; reflecting a strong interplay of culture and sensibilities.

From composing ragas to please the patrons of music lovers to the creation of kebabs and sherbets to appease the taste buds of the Mughal Empire, humans have continuously innovated to fulfil desires of the heart, soul and spirit. However, while these were tangible and easily perceptible, the sense of smell was rather difficult to capture. It required enormous artistic understanding and scientific knowledge to create perfumes blending natural and synthetic substances. Thus, perfumery was seen as a fusion of art and science!

Use of Natural Ingredients 

The earliest trace of Indian perfumery was documented in Brihat Samhita, an encyclopaedia by a 6th century philosopher Varaha Mihira, encapsulating rich articles on natural sources and its means of preparations. Traditionally scents were found in hair oils, bathing oils and massage oils by mixing aromatic elements with remedial herbs. Sesame seeds were considered as the central most aromatic element. Essential oils from Ficus, Cinnamomum, Saffron, Lotus and Camphor extracted through several treatments served as other essential herbs to the perfume recipe. 

A slow transition from this was the ‘steeping’ of spices and flowers in oil or fat to create a pleasant scent. Following similar natural processes and blendings, Indian perfume makers drew its aromatic essences from fruits, barks – woods, roots, and organic products like musk, lac and civets. Fragrances were designed with a ‘keen nose’ for various seasons and were made available in different forms like paste, ointments, powder, incense stick, mouth fragrances etc. Driven by the excitement of several combinations, makers could create up to eighty-four kinds of natural fragrances.

The Book of Delights by Ghiyath Shahi

As more and more fragrances were created, the need for indulgence peaked among emperors and sultans of ancient India. The great Malwa Sultan - Ghiyath Shahi was particularly driven by the pleasures of the world. He documented varied things that brought him pleasure in Ni’matnama, or the Book Of Delights and about half of the book spoke about the wonders of perfumery. He wrote about various perfumes applications like sandal on the throat, musk on armpits and the importance of rubbing perfumes separately into each joints etc. Giyath Shahi’s Ni’matnama looked at perfumery from the lens of desire and beauty. It reflects a beautiful blend between the sophisticated perfumery of Persia - Arabia with the 
Veda-centric traditional perfumery of India. 

There is also a classification of mitti attars that has an earthy essence to itself, specifically of petrichor. It is also called the Earth’s perfume

Arrival of attars/ittars with the influx of Mughals

For those who appreciate a nice whiff of attar in their contemporary perfumes, should know that its presence in the Indian history exists since the times of the Mughals. Mughal emperors and their queens were extremely fond of the attar fragrance. Noor Jahan specifically was a connoisseur of ittar and was fond of bathing in water perfumed with rose petals. Reflecting on the same, her husband Emperor Jahangir encouraged the culture of attar making under his reins. 

If one goes shopping for attar perfumes, they will find them seasonally categorised bases their effect on the human body. Musk, amber and kesar belong to the warm ittar family as they are known to increase the body temperature during winters. Similarly rose, jasmine, khus and mogra belong to the cool ittar family as they have a cooling effect during summers.

Among natural musk, oud is celebrated by perfumers and alchemists till date. As a matter of fact, oud’s popularity has risen globally over time due to its presence as ‘heartnotes’ in several $100-$150 dollars international perfumes brand for its unique smell. Sandalwood and Rose oils known for their healing and calming properties are found in several natural or ayurvedic luxurious brands. Extracted Oil from jasmine flower is considered to be a popular yet expensive ingredient in perfumes. There is also a classification of mitti attars that has an earthy essence to itself, specifically of petrichor — the fragrance that follows the first rain and often called the Earth’s perfume. 

Several of these classifications was brought in by the Mughal Sultanate. Beyond indulgence, the Mughals brought in an ‘acquired smell’ to the world of Indian Perfumery!

The history and the tradition of ittar making still lingers in the streets of Kannauj, a small town in Uttar Pradesh, renowned as the perfume capital of India! Other authentic ittar makers are found in the Dariba area of Chandni Chowk, Delhi, and in the old areas of Agra and Hyderabad.

Ittar makers are going beyond the product and focusing on local and cultural references in branding and packaging to create a sense of belonging, nostalgia and association with the millennials

Striking the Indian Chord!

The essence of Indian perfumery is somewhere lost today amongst the duty-free sections of several airports celebrating modern alcohol-based fragrances. Most of these originate in France, specially in four major Parisian perfume houses. 

The modern civilisation has witnessed globalisation, rise of modern techniques and swift growth of ecommerce which has further led to the rising popularity and availability of western fragrances. This has caused many premium fashion brands to take the centre stage in the world of perfumery. However, several Indians perfume makers still strive to capture the ‘smell of India’!

Makers today attempt to build a homegrown contemporary yet luxurious brand that pays homage to the Indian naturals. Beyond the use of indigenous ingredients, makers are going beyond the product and focusing on local and cultural references in branding and packaging to create a sense of belonging, nostalgia and association with the millennials. Some perfumers also pay close attention to the local climatic conditions which play a strong role in fragrance formulation and setting. Natural ingredients are chosen from different parts of the world that best compliments the Indian climate. For example, a source mentions that geranium oil is sourced from Egypt instead of China because it reacts better to Indian weather. 

Today Indian perfumes are created using high-tech plant in one part of the world, and assembled and bottled in another before importing to India with safety regulations. However, it is interesting to note that many will have some part of it ‘made in Grasse, France’. 

Indian fragrances today are branded and premiumised. Larger players are capitalising on the rich ayurvedic formulations, while several new and modern players are striving to capture the contemporary cultural context and the memory of smell of native India. 

Attempting to strike a balance between maintaining its roots in cultural traditions and appealing to the modern consumers, Indian perfumery is evolving and will continue to have an interesting story to tell encircling the ‘scent and sense’ of changing India.