Visit to Kannauj 3 —Traditional Perfumeries of Kannauj
Visit to Kannauj -- February 1996
Part 3: Traditional Perfumeries of Kannauj
Our first destination in Kannauj was the Fragrance and Flavor Development Center a recently developed institution dedicated in part to studying and developing better aromatic plant crops appropriate to the region; teaching entrepreneurs and scientists how to use various types of equipment for distillation and extraction of essential oils, concretes, and absolutes; providing test facilities related to quality, stability and evaluation of fragrances both natural and synthetic; offering courses in fragrance creation, application, and evaluation; etc. The facility contains a Compounding Laboratory, Application Laboratory and Sensory Evaluation Laboratory that have been designed on international standards. Another Laboratory was under construction while I was there that was to house a steam distillation unit, a solvent extraction unit, and molecular distillation unit. Experts from Europe have provided help in setting these units up and they are managed by qualified scientists trained by leading perfumers in India, U.K. and Poland. In short all the equipment and professional teaching required for training a new generation of perfumers is being established in this center so that fragrant products of various types can be developed that will be of international standards of consistency and purity.
Our first visit to the FFDC was brief as we needed to get established in a nearby hotel where we would be staying during our visit to Kannauj. After having a bite to eat we proceeded to the Pragati Aroma Distillery run by Mr. Pampi Jain and family. To reach that place we had to pass through the heart of the ancient city of Kannauj. It is a place of very narrow lanes, closely packed buildings, dense traffic of bullock carts, tongas, bicycles, people and an occasional automobile, van or truck. The buildings were of various types; mostly old and in a state of outer disrepair, a few well kept older ones and yet fewer still new and prosperous in appearance. Some very elegant but crumbling gateways were to be seen in various parts of the city that had been constructed by prosperous perfume houses of the past. This old city had a very classic Indian feel. It was a place existing for the sake of its inhabitants and not for any tourist trade and as such had its own way of life dictated by their needs and desires.
From all outer appearances the city is in a state of decline yet hidden within its precincts are close to 650 perfume houses producing attars of various qualities for the domestic and to a much smaller degree, international market. Resent estimates show that approximately 92% of their output is being consumed by the chewing tobacco, pan masala and breath fresher industry, 5% is being shipped to the Middle East and used as perfume, 2% is being purchased by aromatherapists, and 1% is being consumed locally. The estimated value of their output is $40,000,000.00 U.S. In addition to the attar manufacturers there are about a dozen distillers of sandalwood oil who annually produce 30 metric tons of the material, a large amount which is consumed by the attar industry.
When we stepped through the gates of Pragati Aroma Distillery, we entered into a world that few know exist. The world of perfumers and perfumery houses world wide is known for their secrecy and the world of the traditional Indian perfumer is no exception. It is rare that one can gain access to these places because each family and firm guards the secrets of their formulas closely and even though their is limited scope for variation all the special processes and techniques unique to any one operation are closely guarded. So I felt very fortunate to be able to actually see at least the mechanics of these distilleries. In truth, even if I desired to copy what they were doing it would not be possible for as will be seen this is an extremely labor intensive industry that can only exist in places like India.
It was into this rich and fascinating world that I entered when I visited Pragati Aroma Distillery. There in the smoke-filled room lined with distilling units and a rich and varied aroma I began to feel the pulse of this ancient industry. I eagerly took pictures of all that I saw hoping that I could capture the atmosphere of the place. Coming outside I entered a courtyard filled with vetiver root that was awaiting distillation in another section of the factory. Its rich earthy fragrance is one of my true favorites.
From there we proceeded to the huge boiler that was obtained from a railroad engine. This unit was used to heat the water to produce the steam required for the distillation of sandalwood oil located in another section of the factory. I visited the room in which these larger stills were kept that could hold up to 1000 lbs. of sandalwood powder. Several units were in evidence there. The time required to do one batch of sandalwood oil is 7-9 days and the copper containers into which the oil flows are sealed by the owner so no theft can occur of even tiny amounts as the oil is very expensive and precious. Another room was opened in which the larger pieces of sandalwood were stored before being pulverized prior to distillation.
All around was a buzz of activity. Many people were employed here, to fire the stills, to change the water in the water baths, to pour and filter oil into their proper containers, to weigh materials for making combinations of herbs used in Hina, to repair copper vessels, and so many other things. A factory of this size is basically a self-contained unit with almost every job being done in-house. It was most exhilarating to be in an atmosphere ancient, industrious, and ingenious in both its simplicity and complexity. At one point our host graciously served us delicious home-made sweets and tea as work continued around us.
Following our snack we visited the operation concerned with making "mitti"(earth) attar. This attar is produced by hydro distilling cracked pots made specially from the soil found in the dried up wells and ponds in the Kannauj area. It has the odor which is likened to what the earth smells like upon the first falling of the monsoon rains. From there we were taken to a storehouse where huge mounds of Tagetes minuta, a small flowered type of marigold were being weighed and prepared for distillation. This lovely little flower possesses a unique sweet fruity odor coupled with a soft herbaceous note. In one of the inner rooms I was able to photograph the weighing of the flowers on old fashioned Indian scales.
Having completed my photographic work there, Mr. Jain kindly offered the services of his van to take us to lunch at a local open air restaurant, Bhajarang Bhojanwalla, located along the main highway. Again the charm of India was revealed in an unexpected way. The owner of the establishment had clearly detailed his attitude on a large inscription to be seen on its walls,"Customers are my honorable guests.The hotel is my temple. The acts I do here are offering good services and good food. If it satisfies them (customers), then that is my biggest achievement." Sitting there in such good company I felt truly fortunate and blessed.
A whiff of the past /Article about the traditional uses of attars amongst Moslem population in India
Kannauj attar makers battle foreign synthetics /Article about problems faced by Kannauj perfumers
Visit to Kannauj 1 -- Meetings in New Delhi