Adding fragrance to festival

Attar has become a religious obligation as it is believed that attar was used by The Prophet, as it was non-alcoholic

A man pouring attar into a small bottle in Hyderabad. Mohammad Aleemuddin

Attar or Ittar, perfume oil generally made from flower petals distilled in water using low heat and pressure,  is an integral part of Ramzan at the Nizam’s home town of Hyderabad. The scents are preferred by Muslims as they contain no alcohol and made out of natural ingredients like sandalwood and rose petals. From the famous Madina Hotel to Charminar and beyond small shops offer hundreds of varieties of the attars and many of them have been doing it since 1897.

Attar shops, which also stock surma--a purified form of a special dust used  to enhance the beauty of eyes--do brisk business during Ramzan. “It’s like fasting, praying, iftar and haleem. Attar spreads the festivity in the air and angels gather where ever there is nice fragrance,” says Divesh Kothari of famous Bhagavan and Company. Divesh’s ancestors migrated from Gujarat as they found a connoisseur in Nizam.

The attar shops attract the passersby not only with the fragrance but also with the glitter of the chiselled antique glass containers holding thick coloured scents. The glass enclosures that contain these heavy Nizami bottles add to the attraction and a free trial of whiff is irresistible. “We offer an ambience along with the free whiff. Customers are offered a mattress to sit and a pillow lean on while we offer them a wide variety to choose from,” he adds.

Afzal, who owns a small shop near the arch in front of Charminar, says that  many who enjoy a free whiff might not finally buy the perfume because the smell lingers on for days without even paying a penny. “The scents we sell are naturally made and takes years in making. Where as the deodorants and perfumes that come as sprayers are cheap and easy to apply unlike the scents that we offer,” Afzal says.  He is planning to offer nizami attar in spray form.

Natural perfumes are very expensive as they have sandalwood oil. Only the Nizams could afford it, while the synthetic ones are cheaper. Even the odour lasts longer,” reasons out Divesh Kothari.

Ashwini Kumar of Purnadas Ranchhoddas attar shop says that restrictions on sandalwood extraction is another reason for the exorbitant rates of the scents. There are two different ways of making attar — one is the distillation process to make the natural ones and the other is blending. It’s blending of essential oils,” he explains. About 3 ml attar can cost Rs 30 to Rs 100 depending on the variety.

“Women also visit our shops but they prefer delicate scents made from rose and sandalwood extracts. Women prefer to put a few drops of the attar into the bathing water or water tub. The fragrance lingers on throughout the day. We manufa­cture at home and it takes almost three to four months to make a bottle of attar,” Khan, who also owns a shop,  says. Khan makes around 10 kg of attar every year and the price range also starts from Rs 200 for 3 ml for the best. These natural scents are free from chemicals. The Indian attars start from Rs 50 and go up to Rs 1,000. However, French and Arab attars cost Rs 40,000. Jasmine was Nizam’s favourite.

“Nizams’s favourite was jasmine and we were asked to distill more of the particular fragrance,” says Majid of Shaalibanda, a manufacturer of attars. Chunilal Dayaldas of Laad Bazar, Al Saba Perfumers of Mir Chowk and Deccan Bahar of Afzal Gunj are some of the famous attar makers in the walled city.

“Traditionally kings used to offer attar to their guests at the time of their departure. They are generally filled in beautifully carved itardans (glass containers). Among Sufi worshippers the use of attars during meditation circles and dances is quite common,” says Majid.

The word “attar”, “ittar” or “othr” is derived from Arabic. There were also a large number of references to cosmetics and perfumes in Sanskrit book Brihat samhita. It gives a list of eight aromatic ingredients used for making scents.

The earliest distillation of attar was mentioned in the Ayurvedic text Charaka Samhita. The Harsha­charita, written in 7th century AD in northern India, mentions use of fragrant agarwood oil. Attar was prepared by storing precious flowers and sacred plants in water or vegetable oil till their fragrance was infused into the liquid medium. The material would then be removed and a symphony of their aromatic beauty would be held in the ittar. Attar figures in romantic stories of a bygone era. When ever Mirza Ghalib met his beloved in the winter, he rubbed his hands and face with attar hina.

In Ain-e-Akbari, Abul Fazal, has mentioned that Akbar used attar daily and burnt incense sticks. A princess’s bath was incomplete without incense sticks and ittar. A very popular ittar with the Mughal princes was the one prepared in Assam. Rose Attar, Motia or jasmine, kewda, saffron, agarwood, gul hina, genda (marigold), champa, bakul, blue lotus, pink lotus, white lotus, rajanigandha, jafari, shamana, amber, chameli, gul mohar, juhi, Islamic Bakhur, khus, mogra and loban are the famous attars preferred by the Mughals and the Nizams.

According to Dr Hina Kousar, an Unani medicine practitioner, attars have special medical value and they are generally classified based on their effect on human body such as warm attars’ such as musk, amber and kesar (saffron) are used in winters, they
increase the body temperature. Cool attars such as rose, jasmine, khus, kewda and mogra are used in summers and have cooling effect on the body.

Bade Mian of Ek Minar masjid in Nampally says that there is also a religious angle to the use of attar during the holy month of Ramzan.

“We believe that attar was used by The Prophet, as it’s non-alcoholic. So it's more of a religious obligation too. Not only Muslims but also many Hindus who were born and brought up in the walled city use attar regularly and are very proud of their
tradition.”

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