I sidtinctly remember the scent of my grandmother. It was a strange smell, one mixed with the fragrance of her body and the raw crispness of her cotton sari. It was neither floral nor musky, but a comforting scent that filled the room with her presence. Years later, when I chance upon her vanity box, I discover an empty crystal bottle, with ‘oud’ written on it. A quick whiff confirms the potency of her secret fragrance - the attar.
Derived from an Arabic word which means scent, attar or ittar is a non-alcoholic perfume, which includes natural flowers and herb extract. A revered possession in the Mughal era, it has a cultural heritage attached to it. It is believed that Noor Jehan, the wife of Prince Jehangir used attar in her bath. The acclaimed poet Ghalib too rubbed the ‘famous’ hina attar on himself before he met his love at night. Even in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, the traditional smell of the attar in flowery scents of mogra and champa was mostly used during rituals.
Apart from being intrigued by its trivia and history, I wanted to revive the memory of my dadi’s scent, and find a fragrance that didn’t dim with the passage of time. My search led me to Mohammad Ali Road - the famous lane that is dotted by attar manufacturers and suppliers. The attar gully is a small bylane following the bright green Zakaria masjid. Once there, your nose guides you to the several different makeshift as well as large shops that pride themselves in selling the ‘No 1 attar.’
Following the maze, I enter the first shop I see - Al-Madina Perfumes, a small shop that is decorated with colourful and exotic bottles of attar. The owner, Mannan Attarwala has been selling attar since 12 years. According to my research, I ask for the most popular oud attar. He smiles and asks, “Are you sure you want oud?” I nod. Seconds later, he rubs a dime-sized amount of a green-black coloured oil on my hand.
The first whiff is too strong for my liking; it has a very intense woody odour rather than the refreshing scent that I had imagined. “It is derived from agarwood that is grown in Assam. Everyone may not like its fragrance. It is very strong at first, but its true scent emanates once it is accustomed to your body temperature,” he explains.
He shows me modern perfumes like Blue Water, Sportiff even Romeo which are chemically made by copying the popular foreign scents that are made abroad. Attarwala admits, “People no longer come for the traditional attars as they are too strong and very costly.
Everyone now wants a sweet smell that fades off quickly and can double as a deodorant. Traditional attars are not for such fast-use. They sometimes even define the personality of an individual.” Still wanting to try my hand at the traditional attars, I ask him for a fresh smell that doesn’t cloy my nose. He gives me a bottle of Jannat-ul-firdous or Garden of Heaven, a wild musky fragrance scent that is believed to made for heaven. He adds, “Jannat –ul-firdous is the most popular scent among the masses because it is refreshing and can be used by both men and women.”
My next foray is into a big attar showroom called A Hami Bros, which I am informed, is the best stop for some authentic and traditional attar fragrances. Looking around I notice some new varieties - both traditional and modern. My eyes veer towards a giant green coloured crystal bottle. “That is Khus. It is made from the root of the vetiver or khus and is derived from the tree that is mostly grown in Bharatpur, Rajasthan,” says Ahsan Hami, the owner of A Hami Bros, who has done a course in Perfumery Technology, UDTC College, Mumbai.
In the next couple of minutes, I am doused in various scents of the famous Ruh-e-gulab, Jasmine, Mogra and funny sounding synthetic attars such as Blue water, Passion and Silsila. When I ask him to show me some other pure attars he answers with a grin,“Nothing is pure; it is all natural. Every scent goes through a distillation process and the water of it is slowly condensed and collected in a jar. As it is not as effective on it’s own, we mix an essential oil such as sandalwood or lemongrass to dissolve it in the solvent.”
Hami also informs me that though the pure attar manufacturing is now a dying art, patrons including celebrities, industrialists and businessmen still come for the traditional oud, or a Khus attar even when one tola (approximately 10 ml) can cost you anywhere between Rs 40,000 to Rs 1,00,000 depending on its maturity. He asserts, “It depends on the scent that a person gets accustomed to. People don’t mind buying the most costly perfume if they swear by it. But, honestly, such people are very few. It’s more of the liking that a person has towards a scent which is very subjective.”
My journey to trace the long-established attar takes me to my last stop, Ajmal Perfumers, where Aftab Ghaniwala, manager, promotion and exhibition, speaks extensively about the war between natural and synthetic perfumes. “Rather than the composition, the saleability factor matters. Both chemically based as well as natural ones are equally famous. We have a person who comes for oud as well as a Tempest (Sweet vanilla based fragrance). It is subjective and depends on a person’s taste.” He also cleared the confusion about the mitti fragrance that I thought was pure. “It is not pure, we mix in chemicals that produce the same smell as the fragrance of the earth after the first rain showers. It is humanly impossible to collect such an authentic smell through distillation,” he affirms.
In the end, covered in a cloud of varied fragrances, I am positive that there is nothing like a ‘perfect’ scent. Each one matures with time and has it’s own sweet memory. As for the oud attar that my dadi used, well, that scent will always remain a mystery!
Popular summer attars
Some of the summer fragrances are also used in aromatherapy
5. Mitti Attar
Heavier attars are mostly worn during the night and also have healing and medicinal properties