Perfumed Heritage: Why Indian fragrances are some of the most sort after on the planet
The world’s oldest known fragrance tradition is a niche 21st century luxury indulgence for the very discerning the world over, unfold KISHORE AND SMITA IYENGAR.
ORIGINAL HOME TO ESSENCES
India is known to pioneer the art of making perfumes from natural fragrant substances. A tradition that pre-dates 7000 years, the art of natural, non-alcoholic perfume concentrates goes back to the time of the Vedas, the world’s oldest known scriptures and even to the Indus Valley Civilization, -the world’s first and most advanced. India being the treasure house of natural resources, the stunning diversity of innumerable flowers, herbs, spices and woods contribute to creating some of the world’s most exquisite and ethereal fragrances till date.
One of India’s oldest surviving traditional perfumeries is Gulabsingh Johrimal, dating back to 1816 in the heart of old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk quarter. Dodging the din and bustle, we step into this cozy fragrant haven welcoming us with intoxicating aromas of rose, jasmine, musk and oud permeating from traditional, antique Belgian-cut bottles neatly placed in sturdy wooden shelves.
An old grandfather clock ticking in perfect groove evokes nostalgia as Mukul Gundhi, India’s veteran traditional perfumer and seventh generation torchbearer of the house of Gulabsingh Johrimal welcomes us with tantalizing ‘masala chai’ and an effervescent smile!
“While my forefathers catered to the royals, the nobles and the crème de la crème of society, we have a diverse international clientele today right from wealthy Arab Sheikhs, European millionaires with a passion for niche fragrances, Chinese aficionados and renowned music maestros. They splurge on non-alcoholic perfume oils that range from woody, musky, Arabesque, floral, aquatic and even seasonal fragrances which are reviving today”, explains Gundhi.
EXOTIC AND EXCEPTIONAL
These fragrance oils are loosely called ‘attar’, from the Arabic ‘attaar’ meaning distiller. Gundhi elaborates, “ While originally, the term ‘attar’ was applicable specially to floral distillates over a sandalwood oil base, today it is a general term for all non-alcoholic fragrances. We generally say ‘pure attar’ to differentiate from synthetic counterparts”.
With a formidable repertoire of pure attars and ‘rooh’ ( Arabic for ‘soul’) or floral extracts sans the sandalwood base, along with innumerable blends which are gilt-edge symbols of Indian fragrance heritage, Gulabsingh Johrimal boasts of versatility, class and panache.
“From among Gundhi’s wholesome stock of essential oils, lavender, patchouli, grapefruit, Jasmine Sambac, rose, black, green and white musks are deeply healing and elevate spirits” smiles dental surgeon Dr. Vijay Ramchandani, a passionate fragrance collector.
While attars of indigenous fragrant Indian flowers like ‘kewda’ ( pandanus), ‘molshri’, ‘gulhina’, ‘kadamba’, ‘harshingar’ and ‘night jasmine’ immerse the senses in the pure, natural aromas of authentic Indian floral blooms as a deep sandalwood carpet note emerges towards the dry-downs, roohs of white flowers like ‘champa’ (plumeria), ‘chameli’ ( jasminum grandiflorum), ‘motia’ (Arabian jasmine) among a few are rightfully deemed ‘God’s own perfume’ by global fragrance lovers, owing to their deeply therapeutic and rejuvenating effect.
The art of seasonal scents was discovered in India centuries ago. Master perfumers through history have created exotic winter and summer scents from natural materials with innately warming or cooling effects. Gulabsingh Johrimal upholds the authentic attars that they once sold to the royal courts of ancient India. Attars ‘Hina’, ‘Shamama’ and ‘Mushk-e-Amber’ consist of over a 100 Indian spices over a sandalwood base! “The indulgent ‘Nawaabs’ or erstwhile Muslim royals were too dainty and feeble to cover themselves with heavy quilts during the freezing winters. They would instead smear our Attar Hina inside the cotton layers of their lighter quilts to provide themselves with the warmth of a heavier one!” smiles Gundhi.
Rooh Khus ( vetiver), kewda and ‘Attar Gil’ ( scent of the earth) are historic summer scents with their cool and calming effect. Interestingly, Attar Gil is a hallmark fragrance by Gulabsingh Johrimal which is derived from distilling fresh but broken earthen pottery over sandalwood, creating the effect of moist earth after the first showers of the legendary Indian monsoon!
Also called ‘Mitti Ka Attar’ or ‘perfume of the soil’, Attar Gil has been an international favorite since decades, considering that unlike other fragrances, it is ‘earth extract’ or literally, ‘distilled earth’!
‘Oud’ or agarwood which originally and historically comes from India’s vast forests, has been the favorite of Gulf Arabs for centuries and the demand for high quality Indian oud has catapulted dramatically the world over in recent years. Gulabsingh Johrimal is considered one of India’s most authentic perfumers to sell pure ‘Dehn Al Oud’ oil, sought after by Arab millionaires and Chinese healers for its deeply aphrodisiacal properties.
Mukul Gundhi’s signature blends that spell olfactory seduction are at crossroads between India, Arabia and the west. His masculine, audacious, woody ‘Amiri Oud’ is a classic oud masterpiece and India’s response to Arab fragrances tradition. ‘Shabaab’, a brilliant mélange of mandarin orange, palmarosa, saffron and oud take you on a journey of the old souqs of Arabia.
A subtle, understated and calming ‘Musk Rose’ with rose, white musk and ylang ylang spells class and sophistication. For a formidable sillage and record-breaking longevity, the traditional Indian ‘Madan Mast’ is a deep, dark and evocative labdanum, musk and rose icon in Gulabsingh Johrimal’s centuries-old collection, not forgetting, a sensual ‘Fitrat’ with sandalwood, musk and saffron, ‘Oud Gold’ and ‘Sultan’ with royal rose notes and ‘1001 Nights’, an all-time enigmatic musk that casts a mysterious spell with every whiff!
“Apart from enlivening homes as aroma dispenser oils, these concentrates have myriad advantages. They are extremely long lasting because of zero alcohol or water, with just a few dabs leaving you fragrant for a whole day, sometimes more! The shelf life of attars spans several decades and most of all, they are highly portable! You can even slip them into your pocket and handbag and are every traveler’s delight” smiles Gundhi.
In the blinding glitter of swank brands that flood the markets, Gulabsingh Johrimal’s endearing legacy spells awe, the freshness of traditional fragrance oils offering solace, reflecting centuries of knowledge, technique, insight and genius passed down the generations of expert noses carrying forward the world’s oldest fragrant tradition.