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

Visit to Kannauj -- February 1996

Part 5: Trip to the Ganges and Further Explorations of Kannauj

The next morning proved to be an important one for us as we were introduced to Mr. Bhakti Shukla from the FFDC and Mr. Awasthi a local man and proprietor of a small perfume shop. Our host of yesterday, Mr. Pampi, had told Mr. Awasthi that we were visiting Kannauj and that he should meet with us. As it turned out Mr. Awasthi was to become one of the true sources of knowledge about the industry as well as a person familiar with those companies with the best reputations in manufacturing attars. He was the one that worked behind the scenes to arrange our meetings with some of the major perfume houses of the city.

Mr. Pampi Jain once again sent his driver to take us on an early morning expedition to the Ganges river. On that fresh, cool spring morning in the ancient land of India, we traveled through the countryside to the holy river held sacred by the Hindu people for thousands of years. One of the reasons a place like Kannauj could come to prominence in ancient times was the fact that it was located in a great river where domestic and international trade could easily be transacted. During the era of Harsha Vardan a great ruler of India whose kingdom existed in the area of Kannauj during the early part of the 6th century the perfume industry is known to have been thriving. There is no doubt that perfumes and fragrances in different forms had been appreciated and used hundreds of years prior to his reign but it is during his era that more complete records have come to light. He was a patron of the arts and it appears that his interest in the perfume industry was substantial. Abundant water from the Ganges and four other rivers in the area, a mild climate, and a natural abundance of flowers, roots and herbs made the area a natural choice for perfume production. At that time India also had sandalwood forests in the north part of the country and the fragrant wood of the trees could easily be transferred to market on the river which at that time was much deeper than it is today. One of the most delightful of all fragrant roots, khus, was and it is to this day found growing wild in the region. Other rare herbs and aromatic plants from the Himalayas could also be transported down the river and exotic spices from the south coast could find their way to Kannauj via the Bay of Bengal. Even ships from nearby Malaysia and Indonesia could ply their wares on the banks of the Ganges.

 The technology for producing the oils seems to have been in existence as early as the 3rd century BC as a water distillation still and receiver have been recovered from the ruins of Harrappa and Mohenjadaro. How this things came to Kannauj is not known but after seeing with my own eyes the simple equipment used for making the exotic fragrances of India it is not difficult to imagine how this industry could have been in full force by the 6th century if not much earlier. One of the reasons why so few detailed records remain of the earlier times is that prosperous area of North India were always sources of contention either among neighboring kingdoms or from foreign invaders. It seems that the mentality of such people was to erase the memory of those that had gone before them so that they would appear in the eyes of the people to be the greatest. This is evidenced by the fact that many great sculptural treasures are still being recovered from dried up wells and ponds, or when farmers plow their fields and come across some buried objects. It is thought that the local residents of those respective eras from which these works of art come hid them from invaders so they would not be destroyed.

During the reign of the Moguls more comprehensive records have been uncovered regarding the perfume industry of North India with specific references to the superior state of the art and craft as it existed in Kannauj. These few things are mentioned only to give some idea of how long perfumers have been at work in this area and it is amazing that their skills are still be applied today in an unbroken chain from the distant past.

While my friends bathed in the holy waters of the Ganges I took photographs of an old temple complex. It was a serene place with towering trees overhead and several images and icons particular to the Indian faith. An old farmer and a sadhu were the only people in the precincts and they did not mind that I was taking pictures in hopes that I might capture a little of the beauty of this quiet place. On my way back to meet my friends I was able to take a picture of a Sadhu sitting outside his small ashram dedicated to Lord Shiva. This early morning outing was redolent with things simple, old, and deeply religious. Even though the country has gone through so many difficulties and is facing innumerable challenges arising from pollution, over-population, disease, etc. one can still feel the powerful life force surging beneath the surface. There is among many Indians a deep belief in the spiritual life and I think it is what has kept India from succumbing to seemingly insurmountable problems.

On our way back from the river we had breakfast at the Bhajaranga Bhojanwalla once again. Delicious puris, vegetables, and a round of carrot halwa gave us substance for the mornings work. The first official meeting of the day was with Mr. J. N. Kapoor of Jagat Aroma Oils Distillery. This company has been a regular advertiser in Perfumer and Flavorist a superb fragrance industry magazine published in the USA. I had written to them some years back as I was, at the time, thinking of starting a modest business selling essential oils and attars. Their product list was so interesting and well presented that I felt eager to visit there and see their operation first hand but other work demands came to the forefront so this project was abandoned. So it was interesting to see how now the seed which had germinated years before had now come to fruition. Just before leaving for India, while preparing for the trip, I had the opportunity to review past issues of Perfumer and Flavorist and there I discovered an article by Mr. Kapoor called "Attars of India-A Unique Aroma"(January/February 1991) This article is truly excellent and provided me with some idea of what I would be seeing on my visit to Kannauj. It is, to my knowledge one of the only in-depth articles written on the subject and all the processes he described helped tremendously in preparing the information in this article.

Mr. Jain Kapoor and his son, Pradeep welcomed us to their home and distillery. One of the best services this company has performed for the traditional industry is to advertise their products in international trade magazines. Survival of this ancient art and craft may depend on a better presentation of its existence to the world market and currently Jagat Aromas is the only one involved in promoting it. From our discussions it became apparent that the current success of the attar industry was dependent on the tobacco, pan masala, and breath fresher industries as they consume 92% of the output. Previously the Middle East had consumed 20-25% of the output because attars do not contain any alcohol and the use of alcohol in any form was strictly prohibited by the Muslim faith. As some of these regulations have relaxed somewhat, the demand for Western perfumes had greatly increased in that region of the world with a significant reduction in demand for the natural perfumes. As that demand decreased the demand from the Indian tobacco industry increased but their are signs that this market may beginning to change. In that competitive line of products their is a tendency for smaller companies to search for cheaper substitutes in the form of aroma chemicals which are readily available in India. Although the use of such chemicals may have additional harmful side effects apart from that already present in tobacco, pan, etc. their is not enough public awareness to check their use. Even traditional attar manufactures have adopted the practice of adulterating their sandalwood based products with synthetic chemicals which imitate the fragrances of exotic Indian flowers. In many instances even the use of sandalwood has been abandoned and liquid paraffin has been substituted. One more pressure has come upon the industry in the form of more health awareness among those who can afford the more expensive tobacco/pan products using attars. If this awareness continues to grow, and it is likely that it will it, could result in a significant drop in the use of attars. Unless another market starts to develop the industry could suffer a lot.

Part of the problem lies among the attar manufactures themselves. Jagat Aroma Oils Distilleries aside from being the only company in Kannauj to advertise internationally is one of the few local perfume houses to have quality control analysis equipment. Assurance of purity, concentration, source of material, etc. all must form part of the advertising package and this takes a certain amount of planning and foresight. In other words the traditional perfume houses which have so closely guarded the secrets of their operations may need to become more information oriented if they are to survive in the coming years. If this can happen even more prosperity may come because there are few places in the world were such lovely products can be produced by age-old techniques. It is even possible that such a lovely locale could become a center where people from around the world could come to study exotic natural fragrances first hand.

Another topic that came up in our discussions was that of the seasons in which the flowers bloom as I am in the process of planning future trips to India to photograph the growing, harvesting, transportation to market, and distilling of the various flowers. Mr. Kapoor kindly gave me the basic outline for the bloom seasons which appears is listed here.

1. Gulab(Rose damascena)-March/April

2. Motia(Jasmine sambac)-April/July

3. Gul Hina(Lawsonia alba)-May/September

4. Keora(Pandanus odoritissimus)-June/October

5. Khus(Vetiveria zizaniodes)-December/February

6. Chameli(Jasmine grandiflorum)-September/December

7. Kadam(Anthocephalus cadamba)-July

8. Hina/Shamana/Amber(fragrant spice, herb, woods, etc. compound)-throughout the year

 9. Sandalwood(Santalum album)-throughout the yea

10. Mitti(earth of Kannauj)-throughout the year

11. Genda(Tagetes minuta)-February/March

12. Champaka(Michelia champaca)-April/June

13. Maulsari(Mimusops elengi)-throughout the year

It is important to note that not all the flowers mentioned above are grown in the immediate proximity of Kannauj. For instance Keora is a product of Orissa and when the season comes for harvesting the flowers the attar makers of Kannauj travel there and set up their stills on the spot to extract the essence of the fresh flowers. Many times these setups must be made in remote villages and jungles where there is a total lack of modern conveniences. The copper vessels, bamboo pipes, etc. are all portable, easy to repair, and light weight, so it is easy to transport them to these distant localities where they can be set up using local materials of clay, brick and water. In these localities the only thing one needs to is to construct some sort of oven in which the still can sit so a fire can be built underneath it. The receiver can be placed in any type of water holding container, be it a brick lined tank, pond, or even a running stream. The connecting bamboo pipe can be easily cut to any length to adjust for the various distances between the distilling unit and the receiver and so a number of adjustments can easily be managed according to the site. These on-the-spot setups are a vital part of the operation as the quality of the oil is often dependent on immediate distillation of the fragrant principle of the plant. For most exotic flowers, the volatile fragrant aromas of the plant begin to dissipate soon after picking. Also the full fragrance of the flower is often most concentrated just before dawn so they must be picked and distilled within a very short time.

Following our discussion and a tour of their quality control facility, Mr. Kapoor escorted me to his brothers factory which is dedicated to attar distillation. One unique part of the operation which I had not seen elsewhere was a unit where various aromatic substances were placed in sand and then baked. This was done to burn off a displeasing topnote, leaving behind the desired fragrance of the material. A particular type of sea shell was being subjected to this process while I was there. The remaining product would then be ground and added to a Hina compound. At this factory they demonstrated for me how the mixture of oil and water from the previous days distillation was separated by pouring it into a vessel with a spigot at the bottom which allowed the lighter oil to sit on top and the heavier water to be drained from below. I was very grateful to see, in a practical way, the different phases of these operations.

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