Visit to Maharashtra, Blue Lotus 1
Blue Lotus 1
Last night we had our first beautiful rains of the season. Here in the Bay Area it is a long dry spell from March to November with little or no natural rainfall. As I have gardened all my adult life, the advent of this time of year is truly a delight because one feels in their own being the joy the plants feel when they receive the liquid nourishment from the skies.
I am just beginning to catch up with many practical details of correspondence, helping fill orders etc. Suzanne did an incredible job while I was away handling every dimension of the business. As all of you know it is just the two of us taking care of receiving orders, doing invoices, packing orders, ordering materials etc. It is a joyful job but one that has many parts to it each requiring careful attention. We are far from perfect in what we do, but by very good fortune we have all of you as kind and loving friends and customers which makes it a really remarkable and happy experience.
I hope that all of you safely received the multipart article on Agarwood Explorations. If not kindly send me a message and I will send it separately to you. A few people reported having parts of the story cut off from their e-mail so that is why I mention it. I still have a 3 part article on Blue Lotus Explorations to send but frankly I have not had the time to write it all down. It was an equally remarkable experience. My dear fragrance mentor, Ramakant Harlalka, has done a remarkable work with this exquisitely beautiful aromatic plant. He has become finely tuned to its inner feelings and the story which it has to tell and so I think you will enjoy the updated report on our adventures with this lovely fragrant treasure of the botanical world. Maybe next week I will have a chance to start writing about it.
Blue Lotus Explorations
*Christopher's note-This is the first in the series of articles on the Blue Lotus. It includes a few details from earlier trips to explore the subject of lotus(blue, white and pink), how the project got started, the different absolutes produced from the flowers etc. It will conclude with some of the new discoveries made when in Maharastra this October. I realize that there will be some repetition in this presentation as many details given here are present in earlier e-mails. But I hope to create a whole story for those who would like to understand how such a project evolves because it may inspire some of you to take up a similar work with the flowers that you love. I would also like to apologize for spelling errors, punctuation mistakes, etc. The time available to me for writing is small and I have to write from the heart and let it be at that for the time being. One dear customer has offered to proofread the articles and this will be initiated by the next newsletter.
The recently completed trip to India was for me a fulfillment of many long held dreams and aspirations in the world of aromatics. The first part of that adventure was chronicled in the Agarwood Explorations Newsletter in 5 parts. The second part of that exploration will now be taken up and concerns the Blue Lotus Explorations. I hope it may prove of interest to all of you.
Just as the intrigue of agarwood had captivated my attention many years ago, so the same thing had happened with lotus. When we hear the word lotus many ancient memories are conjured up. The word, for many of us has its own fascination and appeal on one level or another. The rich symbolism of lotus is a part an parcel of the mystical and religious traditions of the Eastern world. It has cast its spell on peoples from Egypt to Japan. Because the world is now a smaller place than ever, many of us have been able to partake of the rich cultural heritages which have existed in times and places beyond normal reckoning. Perhaps because of this deepening of our appreciation for the world as a whole we have been able to dive deep into the world of aromatic plants in ways that were not possible a decade or two ago. I think that one of the very best ways to connect with any time or place is through the plants that grow in a particular region because these precious denizens of the botanical universe have played a profound role in the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual lives of the people where they have been found growing.
Even though we may not be able to actually visit those places it is possible to sit in the comfort of our own homes and quietly imbibe their aromatic virtues. If we pay proper attention to them, listening to their message through our sense of smell, we can be wafted away on an aromatic magic carpet to explore beautiful worlds that on the deepest level link us all together in one family consisting not only of humans but all other denizens of the universe.
My personal relationship with lotus really began to unfold in Rajasthan in 1998. Ramakant Harlalka, my dear colleague and fragrance mentor and I had traveled to Jodhpur as part of our journey through Rajasthan to explore the states aromatic resources. Many of you already know that it was through his great kindness that I was able to penetrate into India's ancient and modern fragrance industry. In 1997 we had started a series of explorations to different parts of India so that I might gain a practical and aesthetic appreciation of what was happening in the countries rural hinterlands regarding the cutlivation, harvest and distillation/extraction of the aromatic resources existing there. Every four months I would leave the United States to travel with him to a new region of the country and due to his extensive contacts in the industry, we could see and experience many things which I could have never dreamed of experiencing on my owns. Because of his simplicity and purity of heart each journey became magical where one spontaneous event after another took place that enriched our appreciation of India and her botanical riches beyond anything I could conceive of. It was a wonderful experieine for me because I began to understand that there are many doors that we may pass through which only open when the inner conditions are correct. A person cannot pass through those doors through any amount of outer learning or with wealth or any other material thing. Those doors, which lead to ever increasing vistas of beauty and wonder open up when ones heart is very simple, respectful and loving. At least this is what I observed and participated in due to contact with this dear soul.
One of our colleagues in Jodhpur took us to the outskirts of the city early one morning to an abandoned palace of a Rajput king of bygone days. This palace was situated along a lake that was filled with pink lotus blossoms in full bloom. Standing there in the freshness of the early morning hours, gazing on this seen of radiant beauty, feeling the caress of the dawn air, and smelling the intoxicating sublime aroma of this elegant flower, allowed the heart to speak its own message without any interference. The clear thought that came was that one day by one means or another, a project should be taken up so that this essence might be shared with others that were not so fortunate to make the long journey to the place we were standing.
At that time I had no knowledge of how such a project might practically come into being. It is one thing to dream or envision something but quite another to move that aspiration onto the physical plane. If the aspiration is keen enough though, the doors slowly open up for such a thing to take place but it requires patience and perserverance as well as many other qualities that can only be dredged up as one goes deeper into the project. Perhaps one should be a bit insane(at least I qualify for that category) because the fears and worries that may likely come up when one is venturing into unknown territory are considerable.
After this seed idea took root, I had to decide where to start. On a previous trip to India I had the opportunity to meet with an extractor in South India, Mr Philip Samuel, who was doing some very nice work with Frangipani, Golden Champa and several other exotic flowers. His name popped into my mind because I was impressed with his dedication to extraction as a fine art and craft. I went ahead and contacted him regarding the extraction of lotus. He told me that it was possible but I would need to provide the financial backing for the project. He frankly told me that well financed French perfume houses had approached him with the same kind of proposal but when it came to putting up money for the experimental work they would not forward to him even one cent. I told him not to worry, that I would be there for him and would provide the finances for this ground breaking work. At that time there was no one to our knowledge doing authentic work in lotus extraction(although there were any number of companies around the world offering compounded materials)
so we had to build the whole database on lotus from scratch.
From my side, all the money I had was being generated through my work as a gardener in the Bay Area. I had a small but successful enterprise where I special pruning work for a group of wonderful people and the any money that remained after paying off the month to month expenses was set aside for the India project which in the initial phases concerned itself with traveling with Ramakant throughout the length and breadth of the land. Now I also began setting aside small amounts of money so Philip can begin the work of surveying his area for lotus ponds to see if it was feasible to do a semi-commercial extraction. It must be remembered that at that time we did not have any idea if the lotus would provide an appreciable amount of essence. Nor did we know how many blossoms it would take to make 1 or 2 kilos of absolute which seemed to me to b a good starting point.
So it was that I started sending money to him as required. It was a matter of deep trust in each other and this proved to work very well. Since I could not be physically present for this initial phase the progress of his findings needed to be sent to me via e-mail. Since earlier in my life I had lived and farmed in the very region he was operating it was not so difficult for me to imagine some of the discoveries he was relating to me. Yet one cannot help but long to see all the steps of the operation first hand. A plan was made for me therefore to come to India in July when the work of extraction was planned to begin in earnest.
In the meantime his foreman traveled extensively in the surrounding area. Exploring local rural communities in India is very different than we can imagine. Once you go off any main road you enter into a world that has been very little influenced by modern times. The roads themselves, if roads they can be called are often just dirt or partially surfaced routes between villages. From those somewhat defined roadways, there are thousands of dirt paths and tracks leading into private land holdings or even tinier villages. There are no road maps to such places and one has to travel on foot, by bullock cart, on bicycle etc to learn the lay of the land. His foreman and several of his associates took on this complex work with a lot of zeal and enthusiasm and through their efforts a number of sizeable ponds of both pink and white lotus blossoms were located within 4-5 hours of the extracting unit. It was a work that took weeks of searching and all credit goes to these dear souls for their diligent efforts to locate these precious blossoms.
Finally the day came when I could make the return journey to India. Ramakant, my fragrance mentor, and I traveled to Bangalore to get our first glimpses of the project. One might imagine the expectations that were being felt in the heart at that time.
Prior to departure for India, Philip seemed hopeful of having some amount of extracted pink lotus absolute to show us. Much depended on the arrival of the monsoon rains which, it turned out, were late in coming that year.
Before going deeper into what happened during that meeting and the subsequent visit to the lotus ponds it might be useful to mention why we opted for the conventional extraction method for procuring the essence of pink lotus. As many of you are aware the ethereal aromatic molecules of delicate flowers often cannot bear the heat that is generated during steam or hydrodistillation. A few do produce nice products like rose and neroli, but many do not. Even between the essence of rose absolute and rose otto their are great differences in olfactory characteristics because in the former process very little heat is used and in the later more heat is used. But an initial experiment on a pilot scale done by Philip showed that we could not get any yield of essence from lotus using a distillation process. Through this we realized that if we could get any aromatic material at all it would be through solvent extraction.
Another important point to realize is that just because one has the equipment and the technique for extraction, it in no way means that one is going to get an essence that captures the spirit of that plant. If extraction of that particular aromatic flower has not been done before then one simply has to proceed forward with the knowledge that the project could be a total flop, a partial success or a total success. This is where the anxiety may creep in because just to get to the stage where one can begin their work one has to invest a considerable amount of money. But through all this initial project setup, there was only a feeling in the heart that if we do not try to prepare this exotic absolute then nothing would be gained and we would never know what "could have been."
There is another point that requires some consideration. Even if a plant permits her sacred essence to be extracted she may not allow one to know her secrets all at once.
That is to say one may begin such a project and get some success but one should never think that they have understood the whole story. The extracting of any essence is as much and art and craft as it is a science. The technical equipment(which is very expensive for making the concretes and absolutes) is definitely a necessary part of the extraction equation but it is not everything. One must also develop a very special type of relationship with the plants being extracted and request them in a simple and humble way to show the way to better and better extraction techniques. Then maybe in the course of several years one can produce an essence that captures the inner radiant spirit of that plant. It is just to say that one does not suddenly come up with the perfect method of extracting or distilling any aromatic plant. It takes a long time to learn how to procure its essence in the finest and purest form.
So the fateful day came when Ramakant arrived in Bangalore. Philip graciously welcomed us and showed us a tiny vial of pure pink lotus absolute that he had been able to extract prior to our arrival. The monsoon had been late in coming and so the blossoms were scarce but at least he could give us an idea of what we might expect as we proceeded deeper into the project. The odor in its pure form was different than I had imagined. The top note was distinctly earthy medicinal before sliding into a powdery non-sweet floral heartnote which was closer to the odor as I imagined it.
It had good diffusive power coupled with relatively good tenacity.
It was only in the course of the next year that I began to learn a bit more about the importance of doing olfactory explorations in dilution. When any absolute is inhaled in its pure form it is truly to much for the olfactory receptors(unless one possesses tremendous knowledge of natural aromatics) In order to begin to detect the real attributes of the essence it is better to smell the material in dilution. A good diluent like high grade perfumers alcohol will decompress the essence and allow one to follow the aromatic path of the material in a more natural way. Through a series of simple experiments I also discovered that by blending the absolute in a dilution of 10% with sandalwood oil and letting it age for 6+ months that a truly sublime bouquet arose which seemed to me to capture the spirit of the pink lotus in a beautiful way. The same thing happened with white and blue lotus absolutes which were extracted at a later time.
All these things were not known to me though at the time of my first encounter with the essence of pink lotus. Even though the initial encounter with pink lotus blossom was not what I imagined it to be a small quiet voice encouraged me to be patient and let the learning process unfold. It was indeed no small feat that an actual essence had been extracted and for this a heartfelt gratitude was present. But, gulp!!!, Philip did inform us that the percentage of essence per volume of blossoms was tiny and to make 1 kilo of absolute would require many thousands of large blossoms.(Later we came to know that it required 25,000 blossoms to make 1 kilo of concrete and it required 4 kilos of concrete to make 1 kilo of absolute. In other words it required 100,000 blossoms to make 1 kilo(35 ounces) of absolute. The price for making such an exotic material was to be $8000 per kilo.(which did not include the investment for the doing the initial experimentations) Well all I could say was-"Go ahead" not even knowing how I could get such a sum of money together.
That night a very wonderful event occurred. It seemed as an auspicious sign to me. The entire region had been without significant monsoon rain. Then with the advent of evening the sky became dark and cloudy with brilliant flashes of lightning illuminating the heavens. Fresh and enlivening breezes began to sweep over the city of Bangalore and after several hours we were treated to a torrential downpour. The rains continued into the early morning. Philip had arranged the day before to pick us up before dawn so we might make an actual trek into lotus country so we could get a genuine feel for the work we were engaged in. The rain was so heavy at that time that it was difficult to see the road we were traveling upon. Philip became a little concerned that we might not be able to journey into the areas where the ponds were located because the road conditions would definitely worsen once we left the main two land highway. But by good fortune, with the rising of the sun, the clouds parted and the earth, freshened with the life giving rains appeared to us in her abundant beauty.
As we journeyed deeper into the countryside, India spoke to us of the ancient secrets hidden in her bosom and we grew more and more glad that we were being allowed to see things which very few people outside the local inhabitants had seen. We were in effect tracing the path that Philip's foreman had taken in his quest for lotus pond. He was in fact our escort on this journey as the road was well known to him. He first took us to a lovely white lotus pond that due to the rains of the previous hours had filled up. The wide plate like leaves held glistening diamond like drops of water at their center while above them hovered the pure white lotus blossoms which had just opened with daybreak. It was a wild and lovely scene with only the few of us in the vicinity to enjoy it. The soft ethereal fragrance of these botanical wonders permeated the atmosphere. On the road behind us a simple village priest was quietly passing on his way to the temple with several elegant lotus blossoms in hand to make as an offering. It was a scene not to be forgotten.
Our kind guide then told us that he wished to show us another pond deeper in the interior. At one place our driver had to bravely plunge into a swift shallow current of water that swept across the road as an overflow from the rains. We rocked back and forth but made it safely to the other side. Otherwise we would have been swept into the nearby creek bed. All of these small adventures added to the uniqueness of our journey.
The car halted at a small village where we were immediately joined by a group of children. These delightful and innocent souls became my guide to a nearby pond which had many beautiful white lotus blossoms blooming. They laughed and played along the way but were very careful in guiding me over damp and swampy areas. Several children took my hand so that I would not fall. It was a totally wonderful and sweet experience, an experience from another world where simplicity and companionship ruled the day.
One of the people who was traveling with us entered the ponds with a wicker basket and gathered several dozen of the perfect lotus blossoms. It is difficult to describe the impact these splendid creations have upon the heart and mind. It is no wonder that sages of many countries have used them as a symbol of enlightenment and perfection because they not only have the most exquisite form but from their golden heart radiates a delictable aroma that moves ones inner being in a strange and mysterious way.
The morning was well advanced by this time and we needed to turn around and begin our journey back to Bangalore. On the way home we briefly visited several other ponds which the local people told us about. The day's events were filled with deep meaning for me. I began to understand that no such project simply happens. It is the result of many people working in different capacities with a shared vision. Nature must first giver her blessing and only then can something of lasting merit evolve. The fact that the work had begun was in itself a sign to go forward. The need for patience in such endeavors is an absolute must. Of even greater importance is to create an environment where each person can apply their skills and talents to the fullest. If greed enters the picture at this stage then the doors of creativity which are most required to bring such a project to fruition may close.