REVEALED: See Why One Indian City Makes Perfume That Smells Like Rain • illuminaija

REVEALED: See Why One Indian City Makes Perfume That Smells Like Rain


REVEALED: See Why One Indian City Makes Perfume That Smells Like Rain

Of all the smells you can recall, which are the most pleasant ones? Go ahead, indulge in a few seconds of shut-eye.

Love that musky, fresh smell of earth that permeates the air when the first rain of the monsoon hits the parched ground? It is known as a

petrichor, a pleasant cocktail of fragrant chemical compounds, some produced by plants, others produced by bacteria that live on the soil.

These bacteria are the main contributors to the distinct earthly smell. When they die during periods of drought, they release a compound

called geosmin which the human nose is extremely sensitive to. 

But the geosmin can’t get into the air until the first drops of rain splatter on the ground and eject the geosmin molecules from the soil. While

researchers are only starting to understand the chemistry behind this wonderful fragrance, a small town in Uttar Pradesh, India, has been

capturing this smell in a bottle so that one could wear it on their clothes like perfume for hundreds of years.

Kannauj lies on the banks of River Ganges, between the cities of Agra and Lucknow. The ancient city has been home to the perfume

industry since the days of Harshavardhana, who ruled north India in the 7th century. Kannauj’s perfumes were famous among Mughal


Emperors who ruled India for nearly 300 years. Some 1,300 years later, nearly half of Kannauj’s 1.5 million residents are still involved in

fragrance manufacturing using traditional methods.

Each morning local farmers pick a variety of flowers such as rose, jasmine, champaca, lotus, ginger lily, gardenia, and dozens of others

and deliver them to over two hundred perfume distilleries dotting the city. The flowers are mixed with water and heated in large copper vats

called degs. The aromatic steam is then transferred via bamboo pipes to a receptacle containing sandalwood oil which acts as the base for

the attar, or perfume. The perfume is then transferred into camel-skin bottles whose porosity allows the excess water to evaporate away,

trapping the fragrance and the oil inside.

Kannauj’s most remarkable product is mitti attar, or “earth’s perfume”. The process of manufacturing mitti attar is similar to any other

aromatic compound, but instead of flower petals the degs are filled with flat bricks of dried earth, a dash of water from the nearby pond and

then the vats are sealed with clay. It takes six to seven hours before all of the aromas is steamed out of the clay.

However unique Kannauj’s offerings maybe, the centuries-old business is slowly losing customers as India’s brand-conscious youths are

increasingly turning to cheaper, alcohol-based products. A 100-ml vial of Ruh Gulab (rose attar), for instance, costs Rs.1,000 about $14,

but you can get synthetic rose fragrance for as low as Rs.100, or less than $1.50.

“Most customers prefer modern perfume and deodorants. When a good deodorant can do the same job for you, why spend so much on attar?” asks Nishish Tewari, who owns a perfume shop in Kannauj.

REVEALED: See Why One Indian City Makes Perfume That Smells Like Rain

The rising cost of raw materials, especially sandalwood oil, which is not locally produced is also contributing to the worries of the

manufacturers. Another problem is the lack of standards. The quality of the attar depends on the quality of the flowers, the time when they

are plucked and the distillation process. Kannauj’s perfumers employ no modern machinery during the manufacturing process. While many

fragrance makers take immense pride in the traditional methods (”We rely on our instincts, we know the attar is ready by the smell and feel

of it,” a seventy-year-old perfumer once told AFP), the lack of modern tools makes it very hard to maintain the standard.

“To survive in the world market, it is necessary to have quality standards. Their standardization is essential to leave a fragrance in the world

market” says perfume seller Gaurav Malhotra.

But there is also a silver lining to the globalization of the perfume market. Many manufacturers have now gone online to sell their products

resulting in increased customer base. For some manufacturers, more than two-thirds of their products are sold to foreigners in America,

Europe, China, Africa and West Asia. Some manufacturers are also replacing traditional ways with new means such as steel cylinders


instead of copper vats.

“Fragrance is part of our everyday life, muses Pampi Jain f Pragati Aroma and Oil Distillers. “We brush our teeth with flavoured toothpaste,

bathe with scented soap and then apply perfume. Fragrances will not go out of our lives. It’s just a question of whether we want to keep our

traditions alive. That is the real challenge.”


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