< Back to Newsletters

Aromatic Traditions of India

Aromatic Traditions of India


(Periodically I do a sort of updated summary of the entire Fragrant Project which has been going on India over the years. As a new phase of this work is going to take place in October it seemed like the right time to try to share in words some of the events that have been part of that project. As there are many new newsletter subscribers it may give a bit more insight into how this work is evolving.)

As I have sometimes mentioned in past newsletters, in the earlier years of my life, between the age of 21 and 26 I had a chance to live in India on a small farm south of the city of Bangalore. In this lovely subtropical rural setting I had the chance to learn live simply during these important years of the life. The daily routine was very much in the ancient agricultural tradition. Rising early for meditation and then working throughout the day on all the activities by which a small farm exists. The days were often long but very evenly paced. It was a self contained existence with the work of the hands producing wonderful results in the food they we ate. Wheat, corn, ragi(a special grain of South India) peanuts, bananas, mangoes, coconuts, assorted vegetables formed the major portion of the crops grown where I lived. It was a wonderful experience to be involved with every part of this process from planting to harvest.Along with this came the knowledge of an ancient land which was absorbed through intimate contact with the land. A good deal of the time one needed to work only in shorts and a tee shirt without the need for shoes or other clothing. It was a benign environment as that region of India is blessed with a very balanced climate that suited outdoor living the year round.


In that experience the quiet cycles of nature, the changing of the seasons, the rising and setting of the sun, etc all became the measure of ones existence. It was in many ways a timeless way of living as this lifestyle has been part of the lives of the India people for thousands of years. For me it was an entire adjustment as I was coming out of a complex Western culture and had no grounding in such things but gradually the pulse of the land and her people seeped into my being creating a deeper awareness of the preciousness and sanctity of all life, seen and unseen. The things that happened during this time have influence everything that has happened in subsequent years. To this day I marvel that such a simple existence could have produced so deep an impact that it acts as the measure for all the things that have taken place since then. Indeed as the years go by, much that happened at that time that I was not consciously aware of has now become vivid in a special radiant way and the heart rejoices that by some good fortune or fate or karma or whatever one wants to call it, that this experience happened.
It was during this time also that the interest in the world of fragrance came sharply into focus. I think when there are fewer outer distractions, one becomes more attuned to the simple pleasure perceived through the senses. In the Western world we are under a constant birage of overstimulation and unless we ourselves take matters into our own hands these impressions can dominate all that we do. A person can definitely make a decision to limit their amount of involvement with the landslide of superficial stimuli that has been drummed up by the media and in fact many of us have chosen that path. But it takes an extra amount of effort to do so. One often has to move counter to the cultural trends to access a more contented and serene life style.
But during this phase I gradually became aware of the many wonderful and simple ways that fragrance influences the life of a person living close to the land. First of all, India even in this day and age remains a country deeply involved with agriculture. With over 700,000,000 of her one billion plus population involved in working on and with the land one can see that this type of rural lifestyle is bound to have a power effect on the culture.
Along with this India as a country possesses a great variety of climates, soil types etc on which grow a significant diversity of crops. Before the population grew to its immense proportions, one could find in India a treasure house of naturally growing aromatic plants and the people fo those ancient times developed a special connection to these gifts of nature. They were seen as sublime blessings from the Hidden Power which they felt controlled the entire universe. The many flowers, herbs, roots, woods, etc possessing redolent aromas were prized and woven into the very fabric of Indian life because they reminded people of the presence of the mystery of life lying at the core of all existence. Fragrance in its most elemental symbolism was seen as one of the most precious gifts because being invisible in itself it greatly effected the consciousness of those in its presence in a positive way. The plants possessing aromatic virtues often had revered sacred status as they were vehicles for holding the essences which touched peoples hearts in many wonderful and sublime ways.

Aromatic Traditions in Indian Culture (Information is provided for cultural interest, not as a recommendation for treatment of disease)

Throughout the length and breadth of India sacred aromatic traditions came into being which so impressed themselves on the lives of the people that even to this day they continue to exert a powerful influence on the entire culture.
In that regard we find these treasured botanicals being used in incense, medicine, garlands, attars(traditional perfumes, unguents and an incredible variety of other creative ways. Once when I was in Rajasthan in the city of Nathdwara we were shown how vetiver roots were woven into ropes and twined around large clay pots which held drinking water. When the water slowly evaporated through the clay it gave a wonderful perfume to the room and the roots in turn acted as an insulating and cooling agent for the water. The same roots were woven into mats that were placed on the outside of windows during the hot season and sprinkled with water to give a natural form of air conditioning. In other places one could find great garlands of flowers woven to decorate temples. One of our colleagues found a temple where the entire pillars of the temples were covered with marigolds and in that area people were doing pranayama. The air ladened with the fragrance of marigold is known to be very purifying since ancient times. It is also a natural insect deterrent and so one will not find misquitoes, cockroaches and other things infesting that area.
In another place we met with a lady who was a research scientists in Palumpur, a beautiful area of the Himalayas. She told us that when she was growing up that their family priest used to do special purification rites during different times of the year burning very specific combinations of aromatic herbs, roots etc. It varied according to the season. Having an inquisitive nature she asked him if there was some mystery behind what he was doing. He told her that yes there was a great secret in all these things and as she grew up she would come to know about it.
It is now known that a highly evolved form of social medicine arose in India in ancient times which was based on purifying the atmosphere by burning certain aromatic plants. During certain times of the year certain diseases tended to become more prominent and by burning these plants in large open air ceremonies called yagnas everyone present would breathe in the smoke which would boost their immune system against these diseases. The same smoke would lessen the presence of those diseases in the areas where they were burned. And these formulas were devised by the wise people of those times who had spent their lives in meditation and were very attuned to nature and could listen to the language of the plants. The formulas not only from season to season by from region to region.
The use of flower garlands was and is still wide spread. But in the ancient times garlands were woven of specific aromatic plants in particular combinations because the aroma coming from them was known to stimulate the higher centers in the brain. The tradition of putting garlands around the necks of revered people was not some external ceremony but had a deeper significance. The aromas wafting up to their nose from the garland adorning their chest would inspire them to talk to those gathered of the great and profound mysteries of life in an easy and delicate manner. Much symbolism and meaning surrounds the use of flowers for garlands.
This is just a small representation of what we have discovered on our journeys through India and truth be told it is just like the very tip of the iceberg. There are those who will come in the future who will begin to remember the real inner meaning of all these beautiful customs that came up in a sublime and spontaneous way because people living close to nature could read this most wonderful of living books directly. The whole universe spoke to them because their hearts were alive with reverence and respect for all life. Bowing their heart and heads with humility they opened their inner sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste to the universe so that each and every entity could speak to them of their inner most purpose.
Such beings were rare even in those days but the hearts of the people were much more receptive to their sublime teachings as they were rural folk for the most part and also loved the world in which they lived. So the sages just created some very elegant and perfect aromatic treasures to remind them to be awake and aware of the beauty and preciousness of the life they were living so that they could go deeper into the hidden meaning of their existence.
At the time I began my own investigations into this subject I had no idea where they would lead. I saw around me so many wonderful things like the grand flower markets, the streets of the perfumers and incense makers, the spice shops, etc but I did not have with me any guide to explain the meanings lieing behind it all. Even most Indians had forgotten what the purpose of all these beautiful things even though the outer aromatic traditions remained. But through many trips to India with my fragrance mentor, we began to receive small clues as to the significance of these wonderful outer traditions.
And with the passage of time, as the heart softens and becomes a bit more child like again, the meaning becomes more apparent. One can no doubt go into the deep intricasies of it all but more than anything it seems to me that the whole purpose of all these simple and beautiful traditions is to remind us that we are part of a grand miracle that can only be seen and understood when the heart becomes very simple, simple and receptive. Fragrance definitely awakens these ancient feelings in our within. They bring us very close to forgotten intuitive feelings in a second and with their gentle assistance we are suddenly issued into a glimpse of an ethereal world where we are free and loving beings. Once this happens then one may wish to seek some practical way to bring their life into that place where they can remain in contact with the most precious of experiences permanently. This then becomes part of each personsspiritual quest.

In future newsletters I may try to expand on one aspect of India's fragrant world or another. There are so many sweet things to say on the subject but as mentioned before my own knowledge is just at the beginners level.

With friendly regards-
Christopher