CHANGE UNIVERSE: Magazine Jewels
Delhi | Store GuideApril 6, 2009

Scent per Cent Indian

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"A good perfume is like a good woman, it shouldn't be too blatant; it should slowly but surely make way into your mind and your heart." — Ram Singh

Is there anything that can evoke a memory like the wafting fragrance of a real desi perfume?  In this regard, attar - the centuries old Indian art of blended perfumes - comes redolent with nostalgia when the elegant, dignified, sophisticated, grand and unhurried lifestyle made people praise the aesthetic subtleties of grace and personal charm.

Attar, originally an Indian perfume, has a heritage of multipurpose potency behind its distilling.  These unforgettable fragrances of the world are presented in cut glass decanters.  Now these fragrances are in vogue in the Parisian fashion seminaries, especially since Naomi Campbell, the bewitching model, fell for Indian mehndi and attar of late.  Stolen from fresh flowers, the fragrances are whisked into glass bottles after a very tedious and long-drawn process.

I am walking in Chandni Chowk when suddenly an old Indian man bumps into me with a box filled with old glass bottles.  I almost fall to the floor and - mortified by the incident - he invites me into a small shop to drink rose water essence, the same thing my grandmother used to give me after a long, heartbroken cry.

Here I am in this very old apothecary.  Aromas and scents permeate the atmosphere in a room filled with very old wood furniture and very old salesmen.  Nobody seems to care about my entrance.  I drink the delicious filtered water while I watch the busy activity around me.

A young couple, apparently bride- and groom-to-be are picking a few items for their home and wedding.  The young girl sees my increasingly curious interest and asks what I do.  After I hand her my card, she proudly shares with me that people often use the same perfume for years, in fact sometimes for their whole lives.

She then elaborates, talking to me out loud and looking upward as though she is reciting a script, while her husband-to-be experiments with different sandalwood essential oil samples.  "The queen of all attars happens to be Rooh Gulab, which was discovered by Noorjahan, the wife of the Mughal emperor Jahandir.  Once, when she went for her morning bath, she found an oily layer on top of the water.  It was kept to cool overnight and when it was later distilled as she had ordered, it turned out to be the costliest attar - priced at 3500 rupees per ten grams.

I decide quickly, hearing the story, to ask another extremely old man to bring me a small bottle of that specific attar.  The brothers Ram Singh and Krishna Mohan Singh - owners of Gulab Singh Johri Mai, Delhi's oldest attar shop established in 1816 - explain to me that it's not an easy job to collect pure and fresh flowers for the purpose of extracting attar from them.

The Singh brothers relate their tales of running from pillar to post in search of fresh, pure flowers for gathering.  For Rooh Gulab - the attar of roses - they visit the flower gardens of Kannauj, Aligath, Ghazipur and Jaunpur.  The condition is that the flower must be plucked at dawn and used before the sun rises, for after that the fragrance begins to leave the blooms.

Young men and gods dreamed of maidens walking in a cloud of jasmine, rose and marigold scents.  I am now ready for my own consultation.   I am offered a wooden tray with different small, bottled scents.  I am to choose the ones I like.  Like Cleopatra, I pick the heart before seduction, I wear sandalwood powder on a wick of attar-soaked cotton tucked behind my ear .  It's a symbol of prosperity and culture.

Mr. Singh suggests increasing the powerful effect desired by using the fragrant attar along with burning incense sticks daily.  The incense is burnt in a gold and silver censer.  "I see," I reply.  I ask to include herbal soaps without animal fat in my basket.  I keep with my scent selection from the wooden tray.

One of them particularly captures my attention.  It's Frankincense. I remember studying the Torah portion of the week where the Hebrew priest Cohen Gadol valued Frankincense highly and used to spread this essence in the sacred temple tabernacle.  I request more information about the essential herb Boswellia Sacra's mystical properties:

The word is from the French word 'Franc' meaning 'luxuriant' or 'real incense' and together with Myrrh, it was the first gum to be used as incense.  Also known as Olibanum, Frankincense was used by the ancient Egyptians as an offering to the gods and as part of a rejuvenating face mask.  It was also used to fumigate the sick, in order to banish evil spirits.  I decide to take the attar, the incense sticks and the essential oil for my bath and massage.

The old man slowly packs every single one of the 7 scents I have chosen in different forms.  All of these were sampled with a coffee bean sniff break in between, from aromatherapy oils to soaps, fragrance and incense sticks and cones to perfumes, attars to medicinal drops.  Among those I chose were Tuberose, Amber (in a large glass bottle), Jasmine, Indian Neroli, (better than Tom Ford's), Lavender, Tangerine and Lime.  I will treat my depression, rheumatic pains, hangovers, migraines and digestive ailments.

And like men - nawabs, rajas, landlords, subedars, and nobility during the reign of Akbar Shah II sat for hours - I did too, delicately sniffing and choosing my attars.  These were placed in exquisite boxes with ivory inlay work and Belgian cut-glass decanters, then sent to the inner sanctums of Mughal queens and princesses and other purdah-clad women from the nobility to sample and select their favorite fragrances.

While I wait at the cashier for my bill to come, Kristan Mohan laments that this quaint way of keeping fragrant is gradually slipping into the realm of "antique things in our grandfather's time."  But the elder brother Ram is hopeful as he says, "Attars are like flowers - as old as them but as fresh as tomorrow's new drops."

Without a word but perfumed to my soul, I leave the shop with a smile.  Through nobody has the time and delicacy to make it a passion anymore, I was privileged enough to have bumped into a man that made me understand my fondness for this art still remains untouched.

Joelle's Picks:

Attars for the summer: Rooh khus - protects from hot, dry winds.  Cooling effect, five drops when added to 1 kg of sugar makes a perfect drinkable syrup.

Attar Keora: Cures both high and low blood pressure.  Just the thing to beat the rising mercury.

The Old Shop: Gulabsingh Johrimal- 467, Chadni Chowk-Delhi/Ph:+91232.637.43/32919886/E-mail info@gulabsinghjohrimal.com

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