Culture By Amtul Jamil
As a kid, I accompanied my mother to Lucknow Perfumery located near the entrance to Anarkali Bazaar. I enjoyed the feel of the shop and the ritual of smelling ittars offered for selection. My mother’s favorite was Khus, and she wore it all summer long.
The word ‘ittar’ or ‘attar’ is an Arabic word that means ‘scent’. Ittar is a natural scent derived from herbs, flowers and wood; it is widely used in Pakistan, India, the Middle East and the Far East. It is highly concentrated; only a drop is used, and a small bottle lasts for months. Ittar is worn directly on the body; it is long-lasting and body heat intensifies its smell.
One legend traces the origin of rose ittar to Empress Nur Jehan. The princess’s bath water was sprinkled daily with rose petals. Once, on a day when the princess did not bathe, her bath remained filled overnight. The next day, when preparing the princess’s bath, the servants added fresh rose petals after removing the old ones, but did not change the bath water. Nur Jehan exclaimed that her bath exuded a fragrance such as never before. Upon learning that rose petals had remained soaked overnight in the bath, causing them to emit oil because of the hot weather, she commanded that a vapor of rose perfume be prepared for her. And so gulab ittar was born!
Sufi worshipers use ittar during meditation circles and dances
The Mughal nobles loved ittar and it was a practice of nobility to offer ittar, in tiny crystal cut bottles known as itardans, to their guests when bidding them farewell. Oud, a rare aroma from the agarwood, was popular with the Mughal princes. Chameli was the favorite perfume of the Nizams of Hyderabad. The great poet Mirza Ghalib too was an ittar lover; when meeting his beloved in the winter months, he would rub Hina on his hands and face.
At one time, when the Emperor Humayun was engaged in a battle in Umer Kot, a son named Akbar was born to him. Now Humayun had no gifts to share with his companions to celebrate the birth. It is said that he opened his bottle of Muskh and gave a little to each companion saying:
"Pray that my son Akbar’s fame spreads far and wide just like the fragrance of Mushk spreads far and wide."
A Persian verse expresses the power of this aroma:
The Perfumier does Not Need to tell
‘It Is Mushk’."
Pink desi rose has the purest essence
Traditionally, a father on his daughter’s marriage presented her with a box containing six tiny bottles of ittar (girls before marriage were not allowed to use ittar as it could attract male attention). The box usually contained Gulab, Chameli, Motia, Hina, Sandal and Amber. In families with high social status, hand-painted crystal bottles stored the scents, and the boxes containing them were ornate and decked up. Ittar played a role in family life; its use complemented the comfort in the home.
Scent is curative and aromatherapy is popular in alternative remedies. The khushboo of ittar was handy for alleviation of maladies in Indian households. A cure for restlessness and anxiety was Lakhluba, wherein a fresh earthen glass was filled with water and a cucumber piece and a Khus stick were added to it; smelling it calmed restlessness. Sandal oil was rubbed on the forehead to cure headaches. The shamama smell is used for cold and flu. Khus prevents the effects of lu; if you apply Khus before riding a bicycle in the summer, you are protected from the effects of the hot weather. And when fatigued you must smell Motia. Rose petals have a medicinal value; as a matter of fact, all eye drops contain rose water essence.
Of course scents too are subject to whims of taste and temperament. A friend narrated that her father wore Shamama, her mother Gulab and her aunt Khus. The ittar-wala would arrive in her home carrying a leather case containing an array of ittars. He put a dab on a small stick with cotton at the end; this was sent to the women’s quarters, and her mother, after smelling the offerings, chose the one she liked the best.
The girls in the Mughal harems were taught the art of enticement through dress, dance, poetry and knowledge of "how to attract the king through scent". In the khawab gah (dream room), a relaxation place for the king before retiring for the night, music, dance, poetry and fragrance filled the evening.
The Mughal nobles loved ittar and offered ittar, in tiny crystal cut bottles known as itardans, to their guests when bidding them farewell
An elderly neighbor of mine told me that her uncle was a smell lover; he kept a room full of ittar. When his sawari drove down a street, people knew by the aroma in the street that he had passed that way. Every year, when his itardans were cleaned, the cotton balls used for cleaning were saved; in the winter a couple of cotton balls were placed on the coals whenever the heating stove was lit; the whole house filled with fragrance. Upon his death, his ittars were bequeathed to his family members – a fragrant part of their inheritance!
A special ittar, a mixture of Hina and Amber, was created before Partition, though in those days ittars were not usually mixed; the caption read ‘Special Quality’; a thread was tied to the neck of the bottle and the bottle placed in a special box. This ittar was bestowed as a gift to the beloved. But its unique combination recipes, inscribed in Persian, are now lost forever. Though ittar was a Muslim tradition both Hindus and Muslims used it as a symbol of love.
Wearers claim Gil smell gives taskeen to the rooh (peace to the soul); some put it on curtains at home during the rainy season to enjoy tranquility
Just as flowers are seasonal so too are fragrances; ittars are worn according to the seasons. Khus in the summer, Gil (the aroma of earth after the first raindrops) in the monsoon; wearers claim Gil smell gives taskeen to the rooh (peace to the soul); some put it on curtains at home during the rainy season to enjoy tranquility. Hina is a winter smell, Gulab is used all year round.
Ittar has its rituals; if one wore Khus in winter or Hina in summer, the wearer was deemed to be an ignorant boor not versed in the culture of ittar. Eid was a special occasion and all children received a dab. If Eid came in winter, Hina was worn; and Khus if Eid came in summer. Suhag was a special blend for brides and it was said the fragrance permeated the mind and heart of the couple forever. Shamama was usually worn for Friday prayers.
Ladies took a drop, rubbed their palms together to wake up the smell, applied it to wrists and neck and rubbed it on their dupatta so the khushboo could soak in there. The ladies added khushboo to their last mug full of bath water to keep smelling nice. Some would dilute a drop of Khus, Gulab or Hina, in rosewater to soften the smell. At a Mehndi function, a drop of Hina was added to the mehndi and the bride’s hennaed hands smelled sweet.
Perfumery is a prosperous industry. The nose of a perfumer is very precious. Indeed, the French insure the noses of their perfumers. It is tradition that when you visit an accomplished perfumer, you are given gifts of perfume samples or invited to smell her very special fragrances. When I visited a perfumer recently, I was offered a whiff of mushk, a divine and unforgettable smell!
Some prices quoted by a wholesaler: Gulab – Rs. 10,000/12,000 per tola. Khus, Rs. 2,000 per tola. Mushk (an extract from the navel of the black deer) is the most expensive and costs more than Rs. 50,000 per tola; it is almost impossible to get.
Pink desi rose has the purest essence. Pink roses have become rare in Pakistan as growers turned to planting red roses; there was more money in red roses as they are used in bridal functions and in the garlands worn by the bridegrooms.
In Shahdara, Lahore, there is still an old garden of pink roses where perfumers go to purchase their flowers.
Even before Partition, perfumers would come to Lahore from all over India to buy roses. The older a rose bush the more the smell. The more the petals the greater the essence; The desi rose has 36 petals, the wild rose 24. In Shahdara, there are four hundred to five hundred pure varieties of roses.
Ittars are made very early in the morning at fajar. Flower petals are put in the still soon after the flowers are cut for that is when their smell is most intense. As the day progresses, flowers lose their smell to heat.
In Pakistan and India, some essence extraction is still done in the old way. Round copper stills called degs are taken to a flower plantation; one maund of petals and one maund of water are put in a deg overnight; a wood fire is lit under the deg; the boiling water steam is routed via a pipe to a big cauldron, kept in a nearby lake for cooling. The steam turns into water in the cool cauldron and water and oil become separated in the condensed steam vapor; the oil floating on top is called absolute. Absolute is pure essence (also called ‘rooh’). Absolute flies from clothes in 15 minutes. Sandal oil is added to stabilize the essence so scent can last for 24 hours. These days, Pandari is used to stabilize as sandal oil has become very rare.
The city of Kanauj in Uttar Pradesh is the home of ittar making. In Kanauj even the water gulleys in the streets have khushboo. Every house is into perfume making; one house makes Chameli, another makes Gulab and so on.
A strong connection is often established to a particular fragrance and one person will apply only Gulab, another only Hina; a person may become hooked to a smell and feel a lack when he does not smell it. The ‘shaukeen’ have a selection of fragrances: they reserve one smell for Thursday, another for Friday and so on.
Aging a smell releases the essence, the ‘rooh’. In the old days, people bought 1 tola of ittar, such as Oud, put it in an itardan and then used it after 10 years; the ittar bottles were made of leather or glass. When essence is left in a bottle, the smell will grow stronger; in colognes or perfumes with an alcohol content, the smell vanishes when the alcohol evaporates.
Ittar has an effect on the body; warm ittars such as Musk, Amber and Oud increase body temperature and are used in winter. Cool ittars such as Rose, Jasmine, Khus and Kewda are cooling for the body and are used in the summer.
In our times, there is an explosion of smells; there are around 400 smells; new fragrances are created by blending two or more blends. Smells come from nature and cannot be manufactured by mixing chemicals; even when chemicals are mixed a drop of smell has to come from nature to create fragrance.
In ancient times scent was linked to the sacred. The use of aromatic materials was limited to religious and medical use and was the domain of the clergy and apothecaries. However, the use of fragrance passed to the public when with the advent of Islam all Muslims were enjoined to use perfume (if they could). Fragrance was recommended for the Friday congregational prayer, for preparation for the pilgrimage, and purification during the washing ritual of the dead.
According to the mystics, all senses except smell give pleasure to the body; the sense of smell gives pleasure to the soul. Sufi worshipers use ittar during meditation circles and dances.
We "see" the world largely through our eyes and ears and our sense of smell is under-used. Yet mothers can recognize their babies by smell, and newborns recognize their mothers in the same way. A smell attracts and makes us want to know another or repels us and makes us avoid another; it is part of the biology of attraction.
Smells retain an uncanny power to move us; a whiff of a long-forgotten scent takes one back to a bygone moment: the memories evoked have a haunting quality. Indeed, the smells that surround us affect our well-being throughout our lives.
Amtul Jamil is a freelance contributor