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Visit to Kannauj 4—Production of Traditional Attars

Visit to Kannauj -- February 1996

Part 4: Production of Traditional Attars

The first place we visited was a high-roofed room in which perhaps twenty traditional stills were kept and which were at the time being used for the distillation of a perfume called Hina which is the combination of numerous herbs, roots, spices, and fragrant woods. Each still consists of three parts, a copper cauldron or "Deg" that holds the water and fragrant material to be distilled, a copper receiver with a long narrow neck called a "Bhapka."(In Hindi, "bhap" means "steam" so a "bhapka" is a vessel that captures the aroma laden steam from the "Deg") The "Deg" and the "Bhapka" are connected with a hallow bamboo pipe called a "Chonga". It is wrapped with twine processed from local grasses. The twine serves as an insulator.

The "Deg"(still) sits above the "Bhapka"(receiver) in an oven like encasement made of brick and clay. When the distillation process is to begin the "Deg" is filled with the requisite amount of material be it a single flower as with Rose, Jasmine. Keora, or Champaca or a mixture of herbs, spices, etc. as is the case with Amber and Hina. A single charge of flowers for a standard-sized still normally ranges from 90-120 lbs. The plant material is covered with just enough water so that it floats freely. Care must be taken not to put to much or to little water. Too little water will cause the floral material to burn and too much will require a longer distillation time resulting in waste of fuel.

After "charging" the still with water and botanical material the lid or "Sarpos" is sealed with a mixture of cotton and clay. The "Sarpos" which is also made of copper contains one or two openings into which the bamboo pipe/pipes are inserted which in turn are connected to the receiver/s ("Bhopka") Tight seals of natural material are required at all connections so that the valuable aroma laden steam is totally captured in the sandalwood oil. The amount and quality of the oil is totally determined by closely monitoring every step of the setup procedures.

The "Deg" is heated from below by a fire made of wood or cow dung. The heat of the fire must be closely monitored so that it is not to hot nor to cool. An even heat is vital for proper distillation so that the delicate volatile aromas of the plant are not destroyed. Thus the fires under the still are closely tended at all times by people skilled in this work.The lid of the "Deg" is fitted with a leaf spring called a "Kamani". The "Kamani" keeps the lid from blowing off as pressure builds in the still.

The receiver("Bhapka") for an average size still contains 5 kilos of sandalwood oil. The unique feature of the "Bhapka" is that it acts as a condenser as well as a receiver. If the distillation process is done properly there are some real advantages to this process from both the aroma and therapeutic point of view. In a modern steam distillation unit when the aroma laden vapor passes into the condenser some of the most volatile and valuable aroma constituents are lost. These are called the"head space" vapors. Much scientific research has verified the loss of these "head space" vapors. In this traditional method these same vapors are trapped in the sandalwood contained in the receiver and as sandalwood is a fixative par excellence these valuable vapors are preserved.

The receiver sits in a water tank below the still and the water in this tank must be periodically changed so that it remains cool thereby allowing the volatile vapors to condense into the sandalwood oil. The highly trained and skilled craftsmen who manage the stills are able to determine how much vapor has condensed in the sandalwood oil by feeling the round part of the receiver under water. Normally a change in receivers is made after the first four hours of distillation and the process is continued for another six in the new receiver. When the receivers are being changed the still is cooled down by wiping its surface with wet cloths so that a temporary pause in the distillation process is affected.

The aroma charged receivers are allowed to sit until the next morning when the mixture of oil and water is separated by pouring the liquid into a special vessel which has a spigot in the bottom . Normally the oil sits on top of the water so the water is drained out from the bottom of the vessel until the very first signs of oil appear. This water also contains some valuable fragrant constituents and so it is added back to the still when the fresh batch of flowers is put in the still on the beginning of the new days work. This entire process will be repeated as many as fifteen times depending on the concentration of oil desired. In the end the oil from both receivers will be added together to produce a total product of the distillation.The more concentrated the oil the more expensive it will be and usually an attar distiller will offer oils in two or three grades to fit the needs of his clients.

Once desired concentration has been reached the total distillate is poured into leather bottles for storage. Leather is a choice material as any water still contained in the oil can pass from the porous membrane by osmosis but no oil will be loss. If there is any unrefined material left in the attar it will settle to the bottom and can be easily removed by filtering. This storage method for the oils has been in existence for centuries and people engaged in the cottage industry of making them is still to be seen in Kannauj today.

Up to this point the simplest method of hydro-distillation has been explained as it concerns the use of only a single floral material distilled into sandalwood. But there are other more complex distillations that take place and these are exemplified by such attars as Hina, Saffron and Amber. Each one of these fragrances are a special compound of numerous ingredients and each producing family or company has its own special recipe that is totally unique. There are some common characteristics for each of these fragrances but each will have some unique quality that is produced by some special ingredient known only to its maker. It is said that as many as 100 different fragrant materials are used in their production.

The starting point is usually a combination of ground botanicals that are put in the still with water as is done with floral material. Just as with the flowers a distillation time of 10 hours maybe common. But during the course of several weeks, even up to a month, various combinations of aromatic materials or even a single botanical maybe distilled in the attar "bouquet" to give it an added richness and complexity. A few of the special processes I witnessed will be explained when I describe visits to the factories that were doing them.

But whether the attar is of a single floral note or a complex bouquet consisting of many ingredients, one other distinct advantage of this method of this type of distillation from the fragrance standpoint is that the odor improves with age. Sandalwood is not only an excellent fixative but a fantastic preservative and if such oils are carefully stored it has been found that like a good wine they improve with age. To see a diagram of the deg setup click here.

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