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Visit to Kannauj 8—Farewell to Kannauj

Visit to Kannauj

Part 8: Farewell to Kannauj


We returned to Mr. Amarnath Tanden's shop at 11:00 A.M. as he wanted to show me a few things that we did not have time to see on the previous day. These included a 16th century book containing formulas used by his father for compounding attars. It was a rare family heirloom from the past that had been put into practical use. His father had made pencil notations in the book that indicated the dates when he had tried the various formulas. He also displayed a lovely glass casket from the Mogul period which had been used to hold bottles of attar. Finally he showed me a giant leather bottle that must have been able to hold 100 lbs of attar that had been made several centuries earlier. These antique articles helped create a picture in my mind of how this industry has been continuing on in an unbroken line from the distant past to the present. He then very kindly presented me with a few choice samples of attars still made by his perfume house.

Before leaving we were shown the room in which one more special product is made using fragrant flowers. It was the Indian version of the French enfleurage process. Enfleurage as practiced in France was a method of extracting the oil of delicate flowers like jasmine and tuberose which continue to produce perfume long after being cut. These flowers were individually placed on a glass plate containing a thin layer of purified odorless animal fat called a chassis. These plates were stacked one on top of another and the flowers left for 24 hours so that all the perfume present in them and exhaled from them would become absorbed in the fat. Then these flowers were plucked off by hand and a new batch was placed on the fat. This process was repeated up to 36 times. This saturated fat was known as a Pomade.

The Indian method uses cleaned and husked sesame seeds in place of the fat. Fresh jasmine, keora, rose and other flowers are spread in alternate layers on the floor of a cemented pit. Exhausted flowers are replaced by fresh ones every 10-12 hours until the seeds are saturated with the perfume. The fragrance laden seeds are then placed in old fashioned stone grinding mill run by a bullock moving in circles and the oil is expressed at very low temperatures. Approximately 1300 lbs of flowers will be used to saturated 500 lbs of seeds. The oil produced from these fragrance saturated seeds will be designated as Sira(high grade) oil. Two lower grades are also produced called Baju(middle grade) and Raji(low grade). They are products obtained by using the spent flowers of Sira Oil . This oils are primarily used for the production of hair oils and cosmetics.

From Mr. Tanden's shop we proceeded to the home of Mr. Awasthi whose wife had prepared a truly delicious lunch for us. The humble and gracious hospitality of these lovely people remain as a very special memory of my trip to India. There is so much love, courtesy, and kindness in the way they treat visitors to the home. Such treatment comes out of an age old tradition and it warms ones heart to the core. In these simple settings one feels more than a king or queen. It is a direct spiritual communication which passes from heart-to-heart which requires no words or thoughts to justify or explain. After finishing our lunch, we worked on the translation from Hindi to English of Akbar Aini(The Reflection of Akbar) a work actually written in the time of the great Mogul ruler in which a chapter is found describing the perfumers trade and the use of perfumes by the royal court of that era. Mr. Ramakant gave many illuminating comments on the observations of the court historians concerning their understanding of this subject. He found that their comments about raw materials, their harvesting or collection, etc. were based on sound common sense. I hope that in the future we can produce a commentary on this work as it gives a rich insight into the state of the art and craft of perfumery of that time.

Later in the afternoon we visited the home of Mr. Subhas Gupta, the Director of Export and Marketing for Beniram Moolchand a well respected perfume house of Kannauj. This company, along with Jagat Aroma Oils Distillery, has developed some international markets for their aromatic products. Their product line was impressive. Essential Oils, Attars, Masala Agarbatties, Aromatic Distilled Waters, Herbal Carrier Oils, Aromatherapy Combinations, etc. all formed part of their export business. In the adjacent factory we were able to see traditional stills that had some modifications geared at improving the quality and quantity of hydro-distilled oils. Attention was also being paid to developing more sophisticated packing.

This type of energy and foresight is required if the international market is to be tapped and this ancient industry is to be preserved. It is going to require an all around creative effort of those living in Kannauj to come up with a plan to preserve and save their art and craft and perhaps even rescue some of the knowledge that is being lost with the older generation. From what some of the other distillers told me, many more exotic fragrances were being prepared in the past, but their production has been abandoned because the market has changed. In order to preserve the old wisdom it will be necessary to set up a research center specifically geared towards this industry where standards for quality can be established. Good ideas need to come forth for packaging that will appeal to foreign markets yet capture the mystique of India. Such a center could have facilities where people from abroad could comfortably stay. At this center seminars on fragrance could be held, visits to flower producing areas could be made, products of local make could be displayed, etc.

Our next visit was to the factory of Munnalal and Sons where we met with the current proprietor Mr. Patali. He had a nice establishment bustling with activity. He explained to us how his company was producing the Hina attar. After hydro-distilling the herb/spice/root mixture in the traditional still it was poured into another copper vessel that contained musk, ambergris, and saffron. A special lid was fitted on top of this unit preventing any escape of vapors and this mixture was subjected to a very low heat for twelve hours so that the very costly ingredients could be totally absorbed into the mixture. It is important to note that these attars which are a combination of many botanicals become richer with time and so the more they age the better.

Mr. Patali though old in years, was a man possessed of tremendous vigor and bright intelligence. He was one of the most informative people we met and clearly explained to me some confusions I had about the production of different grades of the same attar. He made it clear that these were the result of customer specifications and were the direct result of the number of times a fresh batch of flowers was put into the still and distilled into the receiver. This could be 5, 10, or 15 times depending on the demands of the customer and the eventual use of the oil. His willingness to give clear details on his operation was much appreciated and one could sense from the activity in his compound that there was a deep commitment to producing quality products of great purity.

The day was completed when we returned to the FFDC facility for a slide show of Mr. Awasthi's images. He has already done some impressive documentation work on the fragrance industry of Kannauj and I realized that this work could easily be entrusted to him as he has excellent photographic skills and is on-site. He is able and willing to travel to the various places where oils are being extracted at the different seasons so this will reduce the number of trips I will have to make to North India to photograph the dynamics of the attar industry. I feel most fortunate that a local person of his calibur is willing to help with the project because I am beginning to realized that there is a huge territory to cover, both physically and informational, to produce a work that will do justice to the subject.

Early the next morning at 6:00 A.M. Ramakant and I took a tonga ride to the Ganges river and got there just in time for sunrise. On our way back from this enchanting site we came to a roadside temple where an elderly Sadhu was picking tagetes flowers to offer to the deity within. We asked his permission to take a photograph. He was pleased to oblige. Ramakant told me something very interesting about this flower. Its main season of harvest comes during the festival of Dussera which is in the month of October. This festival celebrates the homecoming of Rama after his victory over Ravana, the king of Lanka. This story is recounted in the Indian epic, the Ramayana. When he came to his kingdom he ordered that the homes of all the people be decorated with a garland of Tagetes and Mango leaves above the door. This was done as part of a purification ceremony.

Now, in modern terms, it has been found that certain chemical components in the Tagetes flowers and Mango leaves do in fact help purify the environment as they contain chemical compounds that are effective against bacteria, flies, cockroaches and nematodes. One of its primary components is ocimene which is extracted by molecular distillation and sold on the international market for its beneficial effects in cosmetics. Ramakant told me the modern scientist who studies the ancient stories and traditions with an open mind often discovers the use of specific plants mentioned therein often has a strong scientific base. There can be no doubt that people of the past were keen observers of nature as their lives were totally dependent on living in harmony with their immediate environment. Their clothes, houses, foods, cosmetics, etc. were in most instances derived from things obtained in the local area so their dependence upon nature's gifts was not a luxury but a necessity. It was only natural that they should speak of these botanical treasures with a great deal of reverence and respect but beneath their appreciation of them was a practical wisdom that helped people to live more healthfully and happily

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