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Visit to Kannauj 2—Trip to Kannauj

Visit to Kannauj -- Trip to Kannauj

Part 2: Trip to Kannauj

On the evening of February 19th, I began the second major phase of the exploration of India's fascinating, dynamic and thriving fragrance industry. The focus of this journey was to study the ancient attar industry located in Kannauj, Uttar Pradesh. For at least 500 years since the time of the Mogul Empire the art and craft of the perfumer has been practiced here using equipment and techniques that have remained basically unchanged. Just as Grasse, France is considered the capital of the fragrance industry in Europe so is Kannauj considered in India.

The trip to this center began from the New Delhi Railway Station where I had the great pleasure of traveling with Mr. Ramakant Harlalka of Bombay and Dr. Masheswari of New Delhi. Both of these gentlemen possess a profound knowledge of India's fragrance industry within their respective disciplines. Ramakant is a chemical engineer whose company is involved with the fractional distillation of natural essential oils and manufacture of aroma chemicals. His involvement with India's essential oil industry is deep and he has made it a regular feature of his work to visit on a regular basis all the parts of the country that produce an incredible diversity of oils. It was due to his interest and enthusiasm for my proposed project of studying the fragrance industry of India from as many angles as possible that this current trip had been made possible. His colleague, Dr. Mashewari, is a distinguished scientist who has devoted his life to the study of the chemical properties of essential oils. It was a great honor to be in the company of two such dedicated people who were willing to generously share their knowledge and expertise with me.

There is something truly magical about starting a journey in India from a train station. This is the most popular mode of transportation in the country and as such it is a place teeming with life. A Westerner first encountering a metropolitan railway station would be overwhelmed with the shear mass of humanity from every walk of life. The hustle and bustle and seeming chaos really does have an order and plan to it but not on first appearance. The whistles and clangs of trains entering or departing from the station, vendors hawking their wares, porters hustling to the cars with the luggage of the passengers, villagers coming to or leaving the city dressed in their local costumes, sadhus and yogis meandering through the crowds, and countless other scenes wash over one as one proceeds towards their own destination. It is a rich and diverse scene full of life and vitality; an ever changing panorama. I felt very happy to be in this crowd of life preparing to go to a very ancient part of the country.

We all got settled in our compartment and had the chance to talk about our upcoming trip. We were all anticipating a new adventure as it was impossible to predict what we would encounter and discover in Kannauj. Plans had been made to visit certain facilities and contact one or two local people but as my colleagues also had only limited exposure to this traditional industry all that could really be arranged was a starting point for our explorations. When one plans a trip in India it is always wise to remember that such plans have a way of taking on an unexpected form of their own. One may have some idea in their mind of what it is they expect to do and see but their is almost always some element of surprise and mystery that appears at a certain point that, if one is proceeding with sincerity and appreciation of what is around them, allows penetration into fascinating worlds.

As we traveled through the night I became better acquainted with these two wonderful men. Their is an innate humility in many Indian people that moves the heart in a profound way. I had met Ramakant for a few hours on a previous trip to Bombay and I only had one personal meeting with Dr. Maheshwari while in Delhi prior to this trip but from these meetings I was easily able to determine just how sincere, dedicated, and qualified these men were in their respective disciplines. In my conversations with them I could see that their whole life was a dedication to their work and that in spite of facing many obstacles they had achieved a high degree of success. But what was even more amazing was that their work had not led them to complacency or contentment with what they had achieved but rather had further awakened the spirit of enquiry in their hearts. Ramakant had, in fact, told me that nature was and is such a great and powerful force that we could only hope to understand a little of the secrets contained therein but at least one could hope to make some small contribution to the total body of knowledge in this line. It is difficult to describe in words how beautiful the attitude is of those who have great scientific and technical training but have not lost that childlike sense that the world is full of wonder and mystery. In their company that attitude was all pervasive and I felt very glad to be sitting on the train traveling with them towards our destination.

In the early morning hours we reached Kanpur a major industrial center of Uttar Pradesh. Kannauj is about two hours north of this busy city and to reach their we engaged a taxi. As the sun rose we passed into the rural districts of that area. India is still an agriculturally based country with over country with over 70% of the population engaged in farm work of one type or another. These farms, are for the most part, like what we in the West call "truck farms" i.e. small acreage holdings that are planted in diversified crops adapted to local climates. These small farms and the local villages that support them are the backbone of Indian culture where the spirit and life of the country has been preserved for century upon century. Here families live on from generation to generation engaged in lifestyles that have only been slightly altered by the advent of modern machinery. Still one can see the fields being plowed by bullocks and the transfer of goods to market being done by animal drawn carts. Of course, tractors have entered the scene and are effectively used where finances permit but they have not markedly changed the basic flow of life in the country.

The region which we were passing through was located quite close to the Ganges river and radiated the ancient heritage of India. This area has been one of the major cradles of Indian civilization for thousands of years. Wheat fields interplanted with mustard, mango orchards, various vegetable and flower crops were planted in a way most pleasing to the eye. The only part which seems out of harmony with this natural landscape are the towns that crowd along the main paved roads that connect major trading centers. Little planning has gone into these clusters of buildings which trade in goods which are primarily of modern make. They lack in the natural organic beauty which one often finds in the smaller villages located off of these roads and are seldom see by visitors to India.

I feel a tremendous happiness as I look across these country scenes. Interspersed with field and village one sees various temples and shrines both old and new which Indians construct as tributes to their belief in the life divine. The symbols, images, and architecture of these sacred edifices may be different than what we encounter in our religious institutions of the West but the purpose is the same as they are the sacred spots were people express their belief in a Power that transcends human understanding. I mention all these things because one of the primary means that the Indian community expresses their devotion to that great mystery is through flowers. Often temple precincts contain lovely flowering trees and shrubs and the idols and sanctuaries are bedecked with jasmine, rose, marigolds and other precious specimens of the botanical kingdom. Flowers and the fragrances of flowers are considered fit offerings to the gods, be they in the form of incense, fragrant oils, sacred unguents, or the natural material itself. Since very ancient times these aromatic substances have been used in all types of purification ceremonies and to create an atmosphere condusive for worship. In fact, according to the ancient traditions of India the first and primary purpose of all aromatic plants was for use in devotional and healing practices. Only later did the royalty of the country adapt them for use in their more secular activities. In these beautiful country settings it becomes easier to understand why these special gifts of nature, both fragrant and delightful in form, were selected to express the refined feelings of wonder and awe at the mystery of life that exist in the heart.


Visit to Kannauj 1 -- Meetings in New Delhi

Visit to Kannauj 2 -- Trip to Kannauj

Visit to Kannauj 3 -- Traditional Perfumeries of Kannauj

Visit to Kannauj 4 -- Production of Traditional Attars

Visit to Kannauj 5 -- Trip to the Ganges and Further Explorations of Kannauj

Visit to Kannauj 6 -- Deeper into Kannauj

Visit to Kannauj 7 -- Visit to a Sandalwood Distillery

Visit to Kannauj 8 -- Farewell to Kannauj