The fragrance of royalty

Indian scents

Delhi’s Nizamuddin is better known for Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya’s dargah (mausoleum).

Walking toward it, one cannot miss the waft of fragrances that awaken and enliven our senses. During my last visit, instead of going straight to the dargah, I took a narrow lane and found myself in an exquisite ittar market. Glass-panelled shops with beautiful crystal bottles holding perfume oils enchanted the passers-by.

Walking into one of the shops, I started a conversation with the owner, Mohammad Faizan (23 years), who is taking forward his father’s business. “My father came to Delhi some 60 years ago from Bulandshahr in Uttar Pradesh, and he started this business for Islamic reasons. There is sunnat in it, and no work is considered purer,” Faizan tells me. This reminds me of Eid, when it is customary for every Muslim man and woman to apply ittar. Muslim men also wear ittar on Fridays for their jumma prayers.

Ittar, a term with Persian roots, is natural perfume oil derived from herbs, flowers and wood. The Arabic word is attar. The oil, obtained through hydro or steam distillation, is aged. No alcohol is used in ittars. Hence, unlike synthetic perfumes, ittars are worn directly on the body: insides of wrists, behind ears, insides of elbow joints and back of the neck.

History relates that the Mughal nobles of India were great patrons of these oils. The Jasmine ittar was a particular favourite of the Nizams of Hyderabad. It is also mentioned in Ain-e-Akbari by Abul Fazal that Emperor Akbar used ittar on a daily basis.

It is also said that a Mughal princess’ bath was incomplete without ittar; particularly Oud which was, and is, prepared in Assam. Legend has it that Mughal Empress Noor Jehan discovered one of the most expensive and exotic ittars, Rooh-e-Gulab, while in her bath.
Faizan informs, “Our Indian products are home-based and mostly come from Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh.” It is today the ‘Ittar city’ or the perfume city of India.

“Our products have varied markets within and outside India. Oud is most in demand outside India, especially in the Gulf.” He tells me that Oud is like wine, gets better and more expensive with time. “Oud starts at Rs 10,000 for 10 grams and can go up to lakhs, often auctioned. This perfumed oil is mostly for the royal families of Saudi Arabia.”

And that, “Arabs don’t use it as perfume 70 per cent of the time; they mostly use it as an aphrodisiac. The perfume increases the body pressure.”

The Indian government apparently, reveals Faizan, has put a ban on the export of Oud since its source Agarwood (dark resinous heartwood) is a rarity. “Arabs mostly come all the way to Delhi and Mumbai to purchase them.”

The popular ittars within India, Faizan tells me, are the flower extracts Raat ki Rani and Bela. “But these perfume oils, in natural form, come very costly because of the processing mechanism. Hence identical products, not natural but made of essential oils, are in demand in Indian markets.”

Though ittar has a steady clientele, Faizan states that pure ittar is almost a thing of the past because of its price. “People, especially youngsters, can’t afford pure ittar and so go for western perfumes available in good price.” But he does admit that they get clients from diverse religious backgrounds and not just Muslims. Besides, they get corporate demands too.

“Denim makers approach us for water-based ittars. When denim is being processed, the heavy chemicals used leave a very pungent smell. To remove this smell, they use water-soluble ittars.”

Faizan shows me a bottle of Ruhkhas, which is used in summer for its cooling effect. “The more you sweat, more will the fragrance last,” he says.

Then he dabs a drop of some bliss on my right wrist. It is Shamama-tul-amber, he tells me, which is priced at Rs 1,200 for 10 ml. “It is made of garam masala (Indian spices), amber (a rare extract from the Salmon) and sandal oil. It is in huge demand in the Gulf and India and all other cold places. It keeps you warm.”

On my left wrist, he adds a dash of Oud. I came back smelling divine, with fragrances on me that survived two showers.

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