Today a business model, previously a sacred ritual, Ittar (Attar, from the Persian word Atr meaning fragrance) is a very ancient art form.
Legend has it that early mystics would burn herbs and forest roots on their fires to aid their mediation. Later, sacred oils were worn on the journey to enlightenment and even today certain Sufi ceremonies use the oils as an aid to worship and meditation.
Oils distilled naturally from botanical sources without the use of alcohol were found in the excavations of the ancient Indus civilisations, dating back 5,000 years.
Strictly, Ittar is the distillation of flowers in sandalwood oil. 10,000 roses are needed, simmered in 50 litres of water in large copper distillation vats, to deliver 12 ounces of Ittar, which is eventually formed after the second distillation of the scent from the flowers. This means of extracting the oil, without using alcohol is still used.
In Mughal India, the art of giving and wearing Ittars was honed along with their exquisite jewellery making, cuisine and architecture. Ittar was used to confer status, to reward and honour guests, and was given in exquisite jewelled cases (in its solid wax or cream form) or in beautiful crystal flacons (in the oil form).
On one of my annual pilgrimages to India this year, I visited Lucknow, Varanasi and Hyderabad. In all cities, I was offered an Ittar bath. The scent lingers forever on the skin and the sensation of deep relaxation is quite uplifting.
In Hyderabad, the preferred scent of the Nizams was Jasmine whereas other centres developed more herbal Ittars. One of the most famous is Mitti Attar, which has a wet earth smell, evoking the monsoon – so critically important to large areas of the Indian subcontinent. Other manifestations include, of course, the famous Agarwood (Oud). Ittars are seasonal and are classified as warm (musk, amber, oud) or cool (rose, jasmine, khus – a type of grass).
Today, many Ittar shops in Hyderabad still exist, and some have branded scents such as Ajmal and Nizam Attar.
I had the great fortune to visit the British Residency in Hyderabad, which is being renovated and will become a centre for art, literature and performing arts. Built by the Nizam of Hyderabad for James Kirkpatrick, it is a beautiful Palladian mansion, until recently sadly neglected. Kirkpatrick was a famous lover of the Indian way of life and married an Indian noble woman, the subject of a documentary shortly to be released based on William Dalrymple’s White Moghuls. It is not beyond the realms of fancy to imagine him gifting his guests Ittar and using it himself – certainly his wife would have done so. It would be wonderful if, amongst the new development in the Residency, a corner could be devoted to this most courtly of perfumes and its sacred and political uses.
Lucknow was the capital of Awadh and is another scene of a British Residency – in ruins after the Great Uprising of 1857. But it is unlikely that any Ittar was used in that sad place, for this Residency was very formal. But the highly courtesan life of Mughal India continued outside the walls of the Residency in this famous city of politeness, mannered society and courtly behaviour. In the old city, perfume makers still use age old methods to make the Ittar for which the city was famous.
Varanasi also has a long tradition of Ittar used in the sacred festivals and rituals and downstream is Kannauj, known as Attar city and still involved in perfume making in the traditional method. Dating from the Harsha dynasty of Emperor Harshavardhana, over 80% of Ittar manufacturing in India is now conducted in Kannauj and 40% of the working population are involved.