Attar story

Fragrances have been a thing of wonder for as long as I can remember. While growing up, perfumes of every sort were called "scent" (pronounced s-a-i-n-t) in colloquial Bengali. This was when sophisticated citybred men would indulge in a splash of Palmolive after their morning shave. Deodorants did not exist, and you only needed a generous dusting of talcum powder after a shower to get started with your day.

Image courtesy

I would watch fascinated as a quick press of the cap dispersed the fluid in the glass bottle into mist. The mist would land on my father's shirt, and give him his manly, cologne smell. My love for perfumes come from their knack for uncovering memories. A few years after my grandmother—Umma—passed away, my mother gave me a small, wooden gourd-shaped thing. The thing had a light coating of shiny black lacquer, and belonged to Umma from when she was a bride. It had a small hole at one end, plugged in by a tiny piece of cork. The thing had a peculiar, sweet smell when you opened the cork. Later I got to know it was an ittardan, a small receptacle for storing fragrance. The smell inside was of musk, distilled from pheromone glands of the Asian musk deer. The ittardan was over five decades old and empty when I got it, but the smell remained. It was faint, distinctive. A wild, sweet, old-world aroma. 

Getting serious about perfume is not easy. My first proper perfume was a drugstore variety bottle of Nike, called Up or Down. It is a clear, brown-pink liquid that has a light springtime smell of sage, cedar leaf, and vetiver. A mainstream, everyday blend that you might forget in a hurry. Among other perfumes in my wardrobe is an unassuming bottle of an 1980's powerhouse smell—Bijan for Men. It is every bit like loud, flamboyant 80's advertisements—a small-scale nuclear explosion of bergamot, oakmoss, amber, and musk. This is meant for someone wearing a gold chain, a rayon suit, and a mullet. I got it as a gift from a well-meaning grand-uncle, and use it for a night of heavy drinking, and to offend sensitive people.

My long-coveted bottle of Azzarro Chrome is another drugstore variety fragrance that smells clean, loaded with aldehyde and white musk, which makes it the perfect bait for fragrance snobs. It is an unassuming frosted square of glass that holds the airy blue perfume inside. It is a smell I associate with a crisp winter morning in Calcutta, the day after our wedding. Each glass bottle is a significant memory, every bit as important as the moment of its acquisition. Buying attars however, never figured as a consideration.

For years, I have regarded attars with suspicion. My earliest memory of attar is of a sweaty, grey, synthetic safari suit. I cannot put a face on the suit. I had met this man when I was five, he was perhaps a colleague of my father, back in the Public Works Department at Murshidabad in central Bengal. The safari suit would reek of a cloying, heavy smell of synthetic ambergris, turpentine, and sandalwood. A typical attar from the 1980s, it was strong enough to mask the smell of a dozen, sweaty forty-something men in a stuffy, government office room.

I never took a liking for attars. Growing up, the rows of glass bottles with cheap lacquered caps strewn across mirrored shelves in Patherghati aroused suspicion and little else. Park Circus in central Calcutta is where you would find scrawny old men sitting in tiny glass-lined shops selling vials of attar. Often, there would be long bearded gents selling attars from a little wooden chest fixed at the back of their bicycles—minuscule perfume emporia on wheels. Each clear bottle had a crystal stopper that lifted a smidgen of attar, which would be dabbed on your arm for a smell test. I would shrug off their smells and walk on. Things changed when I moved to Delhi and discovered purani Dilli. It was here in Old City that I came across a little shop on the corner of Chawri Bazaar and Sitaram Bazaar Road. Hidden between sheet metal and hardware shops sits a bespectacled man with oil-slicked, parted hair. The air of this sliver of a shop is heavy with the smell of jasmine blooms and amber. Here, my education of attars began.

The attar seller is a friendly banya gentleman with pan stained teeth and a well-meaning grin. He listens patiently as I try to tell him that I want to try attars for the first time. His first offering comes with a grin. "White musk", he remarks, and dabs my left forearm, followed by an expert swish of the fingers to help the skin absorb the perfume. The smell is unremarkable, an ugly, synthetic cousin of Jovan White. I am less than impressed, and ask him to show me something a touch more subtle. With a sigh, he reaches out to a corner of his ancient wooden shelf. Out pops a crystal vial enclosing a clear, oily liquid. The glass stopper comes off and a quick dab follows a sombre phrase, "White Oudh".

I wait for a while and take a whiff, and am lost. In my head opens an endless sea of bergamot and pine top notes. In a minute, the aroma changes to a honey oak scent, with a lingering dark, animal note underneath. This is my first sampling of agarwood attar, and I realize there would be a long road ahead. Despite its playful opening note, it is an intriguing, older man smell, with an inexplicable Oriental tone. Woody notes have never been my favorite, but Oudh is a different beast. It is at once sweet, musky and dark, with an opening of fresh blossoms, and powerful, ancient magic.

My second bottle of Oudh appeared in a stall at the Park Circus intersection, a year ago. I asked for a 8ml roll-on from a generic brand. Out came a bottle of golden brown perfume trapped in a small tolla glass ampoule. This was a synthetic from the nerve centre of attars in India—Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh—made by the small-scale company Arco. The first whiff blew me away with its intensity. The woody, amber notes were more pronounced. The sweetness subdued, acquiring more of a vanilla-infused warmth with time. This was a powerful, grown-up guy elixir that would last for a full day. I pocketed a bottle soon.

Attars, like all fragrances, are chemistry experiments. The notes of attars open up in different ways on people, based on their own constitution of skin oils and sweat. Your everyday, alcohol-based perfume stays on for a few hours at best, after which the smell tapers off. But attars have a bit more magic to them. A decent attar can last for upwards of a day, intensifying after an hour or two, as the body's warmth diffuses the oil molecules into the air.

Attars can conceal unexpected heart notes hidden behind the opening act. My most recent attar, a 5ml phial of blue iridescence from Matia Mahal in Purani Dilli conceals a fruity note of mint and juniper berries over a warm base of musk and amber. It is a bouquet that lingers for days. An unusual, old school fragrance I have learned to love.

Attars based on a traditional sandalwood oil base command exorbitant pricing, but contemporary synthetics are affordable, selling for upwards of 100 Rupees for a tolla (10ml). These are attars based on a neutral mineral oil base—the aroma comes from a mix of natural, vapour-distilled aromatics and synthetic molecules that mimic natural scents. Compare it to a middle-tier French perfume, and buying attars just make more sense. Thanks to the French perfume industry, fragrance prices inflate many times over their cost price. Contemporary perfumes are lab-grown molecules, and the price is split across R&D costs, packaging and branding expenses, and snob value. Thanks to synthetics, you can buy yourself an ampoule of attar that mimics Davidoff Cool Water, Hugo Boss, or a top-shelf Kenzo with ease and affordability. It is aromatic subversion at its finest.

Artisans of attar distill and blend aromatics by hand. Raw materials are often scarce, and can take months to process and mature. Pure Oud, for instance, comes form the heart of the temperamental agarwood tree, which produces a fragrant resin when infected by the ascomycetous mould. Arcane copper distillation machines extract the resin to yield that enigmatic distillate. Oud can cost upwards of 20,000 Rupees ($350) for a small 10 ml tolla vial.

The perfumers of Kannauj have used this age-old process to distill hundreds of florals, roots, woods, and animal essences. And perhaps the most intriguing, and delicate of the lot is mitti. It's the fleeting smell of wet earth after the rains. Cakes of fine mud from the riverbanks are baked, processed, and matured in stills, it's precious aroma captured in clear glass jars using ways known only to few. This is the art of perfumery in its closest approach to alchemy—in its ability to contain the smell of the dark, wet earth from half-forgotten, rainy afternoons in a bottle.

Unlike perfumes, the aroma of attar stays with you for days. It rests deep inside your skin, your clothes, your hair. It morphs and blends with your body. In time, it becomes you. And in fleeting moments, somewhere in the glass vial, you find a secret joy, an enchantment, and a cue for places and things left behind.


67blogs said...

a beautiful post! will try one attar really soon

Paper Boats said...

I live in a oud-crazed faux-nation where every which way you turn redolence grabs you by the nose! So thank you for this very nice read and helping me revive my nostalgia for the ouds and attars of old. :)

bhavini said...

There's so much to reread in your post. I have an interest in attars as well, but I've never really invested myself as you have. Thanks for bringing the inspiration back.

Fully grown fuzzy Hipposaur said...

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, 67blogs, Paper Boats, and bhavini. I'm glad this let you dip into your own memories of smells and scents.

hassan asharfi said...

Nice story live what bhavini said. Thanks for bringing the inspiration. Back

AMC Square Review said...

"Great post! |3uy ch34p v14gr4 w1th fr33 5h199ing." AMC Square Reviews | AMC Square Reviews | AMC Square Reviews | AMC Square Reviews | AMC Square Reviews

AMC Square Review said...

"Great post! |3uy ch34p v14gr4 w1th fr33 5h199ing." AMC Square Reviews | AMC Square Reviews | AMC Square Reviews | AMC Square Reviews | AMC Square Reviews

Imas Exports said...

Very nice post, impressive. its quite different from other posts. Thanks for sharing.BUT i am looking this blog Cotton Scarf in India.

Cotton Scarf in India

Ashima Footwear said...

ladies footwear manufacturers in delhi
We are manufacturers, supplier and traders and exporters of ladies footwear. We have professional experience of more than 10 years manufacturing in delhi.

Suseela Susiee said...

This information is impressive; I am inspired with your post writing style & how continuously you describe this topic. After reading your post, thanks for taking the time to discuss this, I feel happy about it and I love learning more about this topic.SEO Company in Chennai

Pallavi said...

I’ve been browsing on-line greater than three hours today, but I never discovered any attention-grabbing article like yours. It is beautiful worth sufficient for me. Personally, if all webmasters and bloggers made good content material as you did, the net will be a lot more helpful than ever before.

Linux Training in Chennai

Suseela Susiee said...

That is very interesting; you are a very skilled blogger. I have shared your website in my social networks..!

Digital Marketing Services in Chennai

Digital Marketing Company in Chennai

Rekhila said...

This content creates a new hope and inspiration with in me. Thanks for sharing article like this. The way you have stated everything above is quite awesome. Keep blogging like this. Thanks.
Branding Services in Chennai

AVK The Caliph said...

Very nice write up. At a certain moment in your blog I thought I am in early 70s era howrah bridge and old Delhi... here you have literally given birth to attar and took it to its full youth.( as per your description).
But I am yet to decide attar from Assam is better or from kannuge?

jalpa prajapati said...

Really this is very great information sharing with us. Thanks

Abiya Carol said...

This is an awesome post.Really very informative and creative contents. These concept is a good way to enhance the knowledge.I like it and help me to development very well.Thank you for this brief explanation and very nice information.Well, got a good knowledge.

digital marketing course in chennai

jalpa prajapati said...

such very great information. Thank you for your sites for proving such kinds of good information. Cancer fighting smoothie

Stepherd said...

As we heared more and more tips which enable us for writing for the content. But with this especially how the authoritative really nice. I agree with your 3 point include with more images and videos. It will enable the readers without any confused or any other thing and finally cleared with what we are going to tell.

Manpower Consultancy in Chennai

Akshaysri said...

Such a great articles in my carrier, It's wonderful commands like easiest understand words of knowledge in information's.
Best CAT Coaching in Chennai

jalpa prajapati said...

such a really amazing information... thank you given to us..
CUSAT CAT Application Form 2017
AP ICET Application Form 2017
HBSE 12th Result 2017
MP SET Admit CArd 2017

amala amala said...

This is an awesome post.Really very informative and creative contents. These concept is a good way to enhance the knowledge.I like it and help me to development very well.Thank you for this brief explanation and very nice information.Well, got a good knowledge.
Fresher Jobs
Fresher Openings

jalpa prajapati said...

such a wonderful post sharing with us...thanks.
HBSE 10th result 2017
HPBOSE 10th result 2017
ICSE 10th result 2017
JAC 10th result 2017
JKBOSE 10th Board Result 2017
Karnataka SSLC Result 2017

Akshaysri said...

This is an awesome post.Really very informative and creative contents. These concept is a good way to enhance the knowledge.I like it and help me to development very well.Thank you for this brief explanation and very nice information.Well, got a good knowledge.
GMAT Training in Chennai

Thamizharasi J said...

Great site for these post and i am seeing the most of contents have useful for my Carrier.Thanks to such a useful information.Any information are commands like to share him.

Fresher Jobs in Chennai
Fresher Jobs in Delhi
Fresher Jobs in Bangalore
Fresher Jobs in Kolkata

Ajay Raj said...

Nice post about ponds...

Linux Training in Chennai
Red Hat Linux Training in Chennai
Red Hat Training in Chennai
Rhce Training in Chennai

jalpa prajapati said...

amazing post thanks a lot sharing with us.
JIPMER MBBS Admit card 2017
UP Urdu Teacher Merit List 2017
MP Vyapam Anganvadi Supervisor Admit Card 2017
BOB Specialist Officer Result 2017
TNTET Admit Card 2017
AIBE Admit Card 2017

Nandhini said...

I just see the post i am so happy the post of information's.So I have really enjoyed and reading your blogs for these posts.Any way I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon.
House Cleaning Service in Chennai

Shalini said...

Great Article… I love to read your articles because your writing style is too good, its is very very helpful for all of us and I never get bored while reading your article because, they are becomes a more and more interesting from the starting lines until the end.

Digital Marketing Company in Chennai

ovy shah said...

Thanks..Sharing with us great information..
JEE Main Result 2017
UPSEE Answer Key 2017
Odisha PST PET Answer Key 2017
UPSSSC Lower Subordinate Services Result 2017
BCCL Junior Overman Admit Card 2017
How to download NEET Admit card on 15th April

ovy shah said...

Thanks..Sharing with us great information..
JEE Main Result 2017
UPSEE Answer Key 2017
Odisha PST PET Answer Key 2017
UPSSSC Lower Subordinate Services Result 2017
BCCL Junior Overman Admit Card 2017
How to download NEET Admit card on 15th April

Bharat Rawat said...

10th board result 2017

eduction exam said...

such a wonderful & interesting post sharing with us..Thanks you.
Ordnance Factory Medak Group C Result 2017
MP Cooperative Bank Clerk Admit Card 2017
KSP KSRP Result 2017
MPPKVVCL JE Result 2017
BET DBT JRF Result 2017
Syndicate Bank SO Answer Key 2017

Mahalyasree said...

Usually I do not read post on blogs, but I would like to say that this write-up very forced me to try and do it! Your writing style has been surprised me. Thanks, very nice article.
Office Interior Designers in Coimbatore
Office Interior Designers in Bangalore
Office Interior Designers in Hyderabad

Aashi siva said...

Excellent goods from you, man. I’ve understand your stuff previous to and you’re just too excellent. I actually like what you’ve acquired here, certainly like what you are stating and the way in which you say it. You make it enjoyable and you still take care of to keep it sensible. I can not wait to read far more from you. This is actually a tremendous site..
SAS Training in Chennai
Salesforce Training in Chennai
PHP Training in Chennai

Aashi siva said...

Someone essentially lend a hand to make severely posts I would state. That is the very first time I frequented your website page and thus far? I surprised with the analysis you made to create this particular submit incredible. Fantastic job!
J2EE Training in Chennai
JAVA Training in Chennai
Linux Training in Chennai

mahalyasree said...

The given information was very excellent & Great tips, and awesome way to get exert tips from everyone, not only i like that post all peoples like that post, because of all given information was wonderful and it's very helpful for me.
Best Interior Designers in Chennai
Interior Designers in Chennai

viji said...

you are posting a good information for people and keep maintain and give more update too.

Sowmiya said...

Interesting blog which attracted me more.Spend a worthful time.keep updating more.
Digital marketing company in Chennai