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Visit to Kannauj 7—Visit to a Sandalwood Distillery

Visit to Kannauj

Part 7: Visit to a Sandalwood Distillery

The last visit of the day was to the home of Mr. Dubey who lived in the old style mansion of his forefathers. We passed from the street into a lovely courtyard with full grown trees, beautiful iron work, carved doors, etc. There we were met by Mr. Dubey who escorted to an open air lounge were we could continue our eating tour and talk about the rich history of his company. His grandfather was responsible for setting up the first steam distillation unit in Kannauj during World War I.Prior to the war sandalwood oil had been produced from the traditional hydro-distillation units like I have described and his grandfather was doing it on a scale large enough that it was being exported to England and America. After war broke out, England could not afford to pay for the oil in cash so they set up a deal where they would provide the most sophisticated steam distillation unit of the time to compensate for the cost of the oil. The equipment was duly sent to Kannauj and set up to begin production. This single English made unit provided a model upon which Indians of the area could make their own units and in this way steam distillation came to North India. This operation remained functional until the 80's when it was abandoned and a new factory set up. Now plans are being made to restore it to its old glory. As it was dark I could not photograph the historic and now defunct equipment so we arranged that we should return in the morning to do this work. One of the charming features of this old home was that the tradition of manually ringing the bell on the hour was maintained. It was a poignant reminder of a simpler time when clocks, cars, electricity and the like were rare items. We walked back to the hotel in the dark after a full day of exploring the hidden perfumers world of Kannauj.

The next morning we returned to the home of Mr. Dubey to photograph both the old and new factories. As I wandered through the abandoned equipment I could well imagine what a feat it was to get all the factory up and running. As their family home sits at some distance from the town proper, it was necessary to build a special road to transport the equipment their. To learn the technique of operation the grandfather ventured into south India where he could meet with the newly established Institute of Sciences in Bangalore. Although he was not educated formerly, he was a man of native genius, and through the guidance of scientists working there he was able to learn how to effectively use the equipment. It then became necessary to learn how to manufacture all the parts for repairing the equipment as well as developing like units and through his hard work all these things became possible. The knowledge he gained was passed onto his son which in turn was passed on to Mr. Dubey and family.

Through the grandfathers efforts the process of distilling sandalwood became standardized and thus totally acceptable to the world market. These progressive efforts established Mr. Dubey's father as one of the prominent members of India's fragrance industry and he was one of the founding fathers of the Essential Oil Association of India. The first meeting of that association took place in Kannauj during the 1920's. With these thoughts in mind I could only hope that this historic factory can be revamped and put back in working order. Such gems could provide a nice draw for people coming from abroad to understand the various dimensions of the fragrance industry. In fact, Kannauj is a place where both old and new exist side-by-side. With a little creative thinking and planning could be made into a living museum on the history of fragrance in India.

On the way to the new factory we passed a beautiful village well that had been constructed by Mr. Dubey's father. Overhead great neem trees spread their branches providing a cooling shade. The neem was selected for planting in such places because it is known to have great purifying powers. The air which exudes from them is fresh and pure and the leaves have an essential oil that is good for killing harmful bacteria. With this thought in mind, a small whole had been left in the roof of the well so leaves could periodically fall into the water. Seats were provided within its covered roof and outside troughs had been constructed so thirsty animals could have a drink. Much practical thinking had gone into this simple arrangement that was constructed for the benefit of man and beast.

The new factory was clean and efficiently run. Since this company was the first to produce sandalwood oil from steam distillation after having produced it in the traditional way before World War I, and since sandalwood is the base material for the attar industry I will attempt to describe how the wood is prepared for market at the sights were it is grown, how the sandalwood distillers further process for use in their stills, and how the old method of distillation differs from the new.

The most valuable part of the sandalwood tree is the scented heartwood. If the tree establishes itself in a favorable location it will begin forming the heartwood after 10 years of growth. At that point the girth of the tree will be about 9 inches and its height 10 feet. After 20 years the heartwood begins to form rapidly and reaches its prime in the 50-60 year range at which point the tree will be about 2-3 feet in girth, and upto 60 feet high. The trees having reached this stage and considered ripe for harvest are uprooted not cut, as the roots are highest in oil content. The appropriate time for doing this is just after the rainy season to reduce labor.

After the tree is uprooted it is reassembled on the ground to imitate the original structure of the tree. The branches not containing heartwood are lopped off on site while the branches containing heartwood are sawn as close to the trunk of the tree as possible. Numbers are assigned to each and every useable part so that a careful record can be kept of this valuable commodity. The wood is stripped of all the unscented white sapwood save for 3/4" which covers the heartwood. Final separation of sapwood from heartwood takes place at a centrally located storage depots.

Thicker and heavier portions of tree are cut into billets 3'6" in length and even the sawdust generated from this process is saved. Much attention is given to the cutting of the billets as knot and dent free wood fetches a higher price. The billets, sawdust, and root system wood are all carefully weighed before transport to the depot. This also helps prevent the loss of wood from theft.

In the sandalwood depot the remaining sapwood is carefully removed by people skilled in this type of work. Extreme care must be taken so that all the precious heartwood remains intact. After all the processes are completed the wood is separated into heartwood, branchwood, chips, and powder for auction. Even the sapwood containing a tiny bit of fragrance due to its proximity to the heartwood will be auctioned off. The wood is auctioned off from these sites twice yearly.

Due to its high value sandalwood is exploited by thieves and smugglers. They have developed many ingenious means for transporting the wood to people willing to illegally traffic in this commodity. Penalties for detection of illicit trading in it are severe and the government is making restrictions on the purchasing of sandalwood ever more stringent. Once a company has purchased it through legal channels, careful records must be kept as to how it is being used so that when officials check the records, the amount purchased and the amount sold match.

Once sandalwood is purchased by a perfume house it must be further prepared for distillation. The billets of branch and root are first coarsely chipped and then ground to a fine powder. Before the advent of steam distillation this 40-60 lbs of the powder was placed in the traditional copper still and allowed to soak for 48 hours. It was then distilled over an open fire with the vapors condensing in the copper receiving vessel resting in a water bath after passing through a copper or bamboo tube. The floating oil was then mechanically ladled off and refined further by filtration and other locally developed techniques. The odor of this hydro-distilled oil was thought to be superior to that obtained by steam distillation and it is said that some perfume houses still use this technique. A 4-5% yield of oil could be obtained if due care was observed in processing.

For steam distillation a fine powder is also used but care must be taken that it is not so fine that it turns into a creamy paste in the still. It must instead be of light porous consistency so the steam can pass through it without forming knots or channels. The copper or stainless steel stills used in for this are generally much larger than traditional ones and can hold from 1000-2000 lbs of powder. The basic rule for their design is that their height should be 25% more than the width. The false bottom is perforated allowing for passage of steam from below. In Kannauj at several places I visited, the steam was being generated by huge boilers that were previously used on coal burning railroad engines. The heat of the pressurized steam forces the wood to release its essential oil from tiny intercellular pockets. The droplets of essential oil evaporate and co-mingle with the steam which rises to the top of the still. The fragrance charged steam rises out from the still from a goose-neck shaped funnel and enters the condensation chamber. A cooled water jacket surrounds the coiled tube into which this vapor passes causing it to condense into liquid form once again. Upon entering the receiver the lighter essential oil rises to the surface and the water sinks to the bottom making it easy to separate the two. The quality of the oil is determined by the pressure at which it is distilled. High pressure will give a higher yield in less time but the odor quality will be unfavorably altered. Low pressure distillation is prefered by those companies who cater to the refined perfume market.

The crude sandalwood oil floating on the distillate surface is skimmed off, separated from the remaining liquid and scum impurities, and then filtered. The filter system that I saw at Mr. Dubeys factory consisted of a sequence of 5 brass screens and cotton pads through which the oil was poured. This oil as such is often used by the attar manufacturers. Further refinement is carried out for oils being sent to the international market. It will be distilled again with a superheated steam then further refined in a steam jacketed vacuum to remove the last traces of water. Each additional step in refinement may involve the removal of some of the oils medicinal virtues.Yield of oil from the steam distillation process ranges from 4.50 to 6.25%. It is an oil produced from roots, trunk/branch billets, and chips.The yield from the roots alone can exceed 10% with the other parts of the tree yielding considerably less. This in brief describes the two different processes used for distilling sandalwood.

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