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Champa 1, From the Travel Journal

Sona Champa-Sacred Flower of India
by Christopher McMahon


Mother mine, to the wild forest I am going,
Where upon the champa boughs the champa buds are blowing;
To the ksil-haunted river-isles where lotus lilies glisten,
The voices of the fairy folk are calling me: O listen!
                  ---Sarojini Naidu, The Golden Threshold


Part 1: Intrigue of Champa

More images from my Champa explorations

Several years ago, while studying about the exotic flowers of the East I came across a reference to one called golden champa. The name itself had a strong appeal for me and I became interested in uncovering whatever information I could on the plant. Further research revealed that the delicate flower possessed a rich, ethereal odor that was much prized by the people of India. The tree upon which it grew had glossy green leaves and towered to height of 100 feet in a pyramidical shape. When the tree was in bloom, covered with thousands of golden fragrant blossoms, it was said to be a sight of rare and exquisite beauty. The people of India held the tree in such high esteem that it was often planted near temples and ashrams where its color, form and fragrance could be enjoyed by people coming into those refined environments. Women loved to place the closed buds in their lusterous black hair and in the course of the day, the flowers would open releasing their divine fragrance both for the individual to enjoy as well as those in the immediate environment. A perfume was also made from the delicate blossoms that was said to have notes of orange-flower, ylang-ylang, and tea rose. Each new piece of information intrigued me more, and I became determined to see the tree for myself and to inhale its divine odor.

In 1995 I had the opportunity to visit the Bangalore area where I came in contact with Mr. Philip Samuel, Director of Indfrag Aromatics, a progressive company involved with the distillation of essential oils and extraction of floral absolutes. One of his specialties was Champa Absolute. He was kind enough to take me to a rural district where the champa flower was just coming into bloom. Our road wound through quiet villages and past small farms until we came to a place where he had the car halt. We got out and walked through well-kept fields until we came to a small grouping of lovely tall champa trees. The species he showed me was the white variety, Michelia alba. Looking at the tree, which were at least 60 feet in height and at the base perhaps 40 feet in width, I could not help but wonder how the villagers could collect the numerous delicate flowers that graced the tree. He said that they were adepts at moving about on bamboo ladders as well as climbing on the interior of the tree and could collect the majority of flowers in this way. A few creamy white flowers were within our reach and weplucked them so I could enjoy the exquisite scent of the flower that had such a strong attraction for me. As I inhaled its odor, I tried to perceive what its essential characteristics were. It had a diffusive warmth that was easy to draw in. Its overall bouquet was definitely exotic and mysterious. Mingled its sweet floral essence was a tinge of rich spiciness that gave the overall fragrance a complexity that is rare in the realm of aromatic botanicals. The effect it had on me was uplifting, intoxicating and ethereal. It brought to mind images of people entering in the inner sanctuary of an ancient temple and sitting quietly where their minds were filled with the richness of some inner understanding that was timeless and spaceless.

Standing beneath these sacred trees in the midst of a part of India that has remained little changed for thousands of years, I understood why it was so important for me to have actually made the journey to that place. The entire atmosphere conveyed something which just was not possible to get from any book. A small farm house stood nearby, where the simple rural folk went about the activities of their daily lives. Bullocks were tethered near the trees where we stood and they quietly munched on their pile of hay. A gentle breeze blew through the trees as we enjoyed the simple sites, sounds and smells around us. We had stepped out of the 20th century into a place where nature and humans still interacted in an intimate way. Permeating that simple place was the spirit of a land whose people that have worshipped, in a multitude of ways, the grand mystery of life for thousands of years. An intregal part of their worship has been the perfect gifts with which the plant world has provided them in the form of exotic flowers, aromatic spices, earthy roots, fresh herbs, and precious woods. For some reason the land of India has possessed and continues to possess an astonishing range of such aromatic botanicals and in each part of the country the people have used them to symbolically express their love and devotion for that Hidden Power that is the source of their life. When one holds a lovely champa flower in their hand they can easily understand what a powerful bridge of communication this is between the seen and unseen world. The perfect form, color and fragrance of the flower so beautifully expresses the high aspirations that are concealed within the human heart. The delicate flower with its fine shape and color are like the human body in which the spirit dwells. When the first gentle rays of the sun alight upon the delicate blossom it gives up its perfume so that the enviroment in which it dwells is bathed with its delicatable fragrance. In the same way when the sun of spirituality awakens in a persons heart the good qualities flow out as a natural blessing upon the world in which they live. In the Indian mind, this world of metaphor, symbolism, and simile is vibrantly alive as a living power and that is why these ancient aromatic traditions have so much meaning. I felt very grateful that Mr. Samuels had introduced me to that place where I could once again imbibe a little of the precious gift of spirituality which has been part of India's heritage for many millenia.

This experience increased my interest in the champa tree and its flower and my next exposure to it came on a visit to Bombay in July 1997. This was the beginning of its bloom season in the coastal areas and one morning my fragrance mentor, Mr. Ramakant Harlalka, took me to the wholesale flower market in Dadar. On one previous occasion we had visited there and the remembrance of that time was a delightful one for me. Very early in the morning, flower-laden trucks enter the city from farming communities surrounding the city. Wholesalers purchase their projected needs for the day, and open their shops at 5:00 AM to prospective buyers who come to purchase flowers for weddings, funeral ceremonies, religious gatherings, etc. Individual flowers of jasmine, tuberose, rose, chrysanthemum, marigold, champa, bakul, kadam, are massed in mounds and sold in kilo quantities to discerning customers. Some flowers are sold on their own stalks like water lilies, lotuses, roses, etc. for special religious functions, for florist shops catering to the modern consumer, or for other private use. Anyone can go and enjoy the vibrant market activity which is veritable riot of color and smell. Casual visitors needs to be sure to keep out of the way as carts, porters, and consumers move through the narrow lanes carrying their fragrant wares to one or another destination. Our special quest for the day was to find the merchants of golden champa and as the season was just beginning not many flowers were available. Finally Ramakant guided me to a stall where a man reknowned for the quality of his flowers was doing business. There, nicely spread out on his table were some superb specimens of the golden champa flower. They had been plucked just prior to the opening of the bud and lay there in all their elegant golden beauty. These flowers would soon find there way into the hands of some fortunate person who would string them into a garlands, sell them as individual hair ornaments or offered as single flowers at home altars or in the temple. On the way back to his home, Ramakant showed me a champa tree which he used to climb as a boy so that he could bring his mother flowers to put on the home altar. 


Part 2: Champa Attar Production


During this same visit to Bombay, one of our colleagues, Mr. Manoj Avasthi of Kannauj was visiting a rural district in Orissa that was famous for its champa trees and for the distillation of champa attar. After several days of ardous travel, he was able to locate the right village and there he was able to photographically document the entire culture surrounding the harvest and distillation of champa. The soil and climate of that region were highly suited to the plants needs. Growing under natural conditions, the trees had reached an enormous size. Young men and boys perched in the trees with long sticks upon which hooks had been fashioned to pluck the flowers from the trees. A golden rain of champa fell upon the ground where the they were collected in bamboo baskets for transport to the weighing station. At the weighing station the merchant crouched upon the ground with his simple hand-held scale, weighing out the flowers so that the collectors could be paid and the distiller could purchase them for his perfume. A simple distilling unit was set up near the weighing station so that the delicate essence of the flower could be immediately extracted. A large copper cauldron or 'deg' was filled with water and the fresh flowers placed inside. A ribbon of clay perhaps 4" thick was placed around the rim of the cauldron and a lid placed on top of that. A special piece of metal, curved at both ends, and called a 'kamani' spring was then slid under the lib of the cauldron and over the lid. A wedge of wood was then driven between the spring and the lid forcing it down onto the clay ribbon and creating a tight seal between it and the cauldron. Separately a long necked receiver called a 'Bhapka" was filled with 5 kilos of pure sandalwood oil. Into its mouth a cotton wrapped bamboo pipe was inserted. The other end of the bamboo pipe was inserted into the cauldron's lid and a tight seal was formed their using cotton and clay. As the pipe was affixed to the lid, the receiver was placed in a water bath formed from and old steel drum.

With all parts now in place the fire was ignited beneath the copper receiver and the distillation process commenced. Great care was exercised in maintaining the proper heat so that the floral material suspended in water would not burn and also the proper pressure could be maintained. No mechanical gauges are afixed to the lid which means the pressure is regulated through long experience of controlling the heat of the fire. As the proper pressure is reached the flowers begin to release their volatile aromatic chemicals and pass along with the steam into the receiver. On the receiver side an assistant constantly monitors the heat of that vessel by feeling its exterior temperature with his hand. As it gets warm he changes the water in the water bath as it is critical that it should stay cool so that condensation occurs. After 4 hours the the condensed material and sandalwood have filled the receiver and so a new one is affixed and the process continued for another 4 hours. At the end of that time the process is stopped for the day and the two receivers are allowed to cool overnight before the oil and water are separated. Once this occurs the water that is siphoned off is added to the cauldron for the distillation to take place that day as it contains so valuable water soluble aromatic molecules. This process is repeated for 15 days or until the oil has become saturated with the champa fragrance in the proper proportion. In a high quality attar the actual percentage of champa essence absorbed in the sandalwood oil will be about 3%.


Part 3: Fragrance of Champa


An olfactory study of this oil is a worthwhile experience. First of all the distillation process itself takes place over a number of days and the heat and pressure are low as compared with steam distilled oils. The sandalwood oil is allowed to slowly absorb the volatile consituents and fix them in a most delicate and exquisite way. After the distillation process is completed the oil is allowed to mature for a number of months. It is stored in special leather bottles and kept in a dark, cool place. The proportion of champa to sandalwood is just about perfect in a properly made attar. Higher concentrations sometimes end up masking the supremely fine subltle notes of the oil. The same holds true with floral absolutes which are much to powerful to study in their undiluted form. One must remember that it takes thousands of flowers to produce a kilo of oil and if one attempts to study the distillation of so many blossoms without first diluting it is possible that the olfactory nerves can become overstimulated and hence unable to detect the subtle nuances contained therein. Sandalwood is the perfect medium for such a dilution as its soft rich, and deep precious woods notes blend perfectly with almost any oil. In the case of the attar, the process of natural dilution goes on for almost two weeks and the gentle intermingling of the two oils allows a bouquet to develop which is truly heavenly. It is a complete and perfect perfume onto itself.

It takes many hours to explore the hidden depths of the oil. After dipping a clean cotton swab or perfumers blotter paper into the oil one should repeatedly inhale it at intervals over the period of a day. Already I have tried to describe the quality of the fresh flowers fragrance and one can certainly detect many of the same basic notes in the attar. It is impossible of course, to perfectly capture the smell of the fresh flower, as it contains extremely volatile molecules that the slightest amount of heat will destroy, but the basic character of the flower's fragrance is certainly maintained in a true attar. The great advantage of the attar is that the sandalwood oil only releases the top, middle, and base notes over a long period of time so one can enjoy all the richness and beauty of the essence over a very long period of time. In the end one can only say that the fragrance is almost perfectly balanced and anything added to it would only detract from its ethereal loveliness.

Traditonal Uses of the Champa Tree:(The following information is for cultural interest and not meant to perscribe for the treatment of disease) The flower has a number of other cosmetic and economic uses. Hair oils are prepared using a special technique of layering the fresh flowers between husked sesame seeds and allowing the fragrance to become absorbed into them over the course of a day. The flowers are then changed and new ones placed and this process continues for a number of days until the seeds have been properly charged with the fragrance of the flowers. Then the seeds are cold pressed and the resulting oil is used for perfuming the hair. The flowers are also used for producing a yellow dye for dyeing textiles.

The leaves also possess aromatic properties and can be steam-distilled to yield an essential oil. Steven Arctander says it is, "sweet oily-grassy, reminsicent of perilla oil but less punguent, more delicate. The odor also reminds of the fragrance of freshly cut stems or leaves of tulips. After this interesting fresh-grassy topnote the odor changes into a delicately sweet, tea-like or hay-like fragrance with and undertone of sage clary and rose leaf absolute. Indeed an interesting oil."

The bark has slightly aromatic qualities and is used as an adulterant for cinnamon. It adds flavor to betel nut which is chewed for its digestive and stimulant properties. Seed and fruit of the tree also have various uses. In some areas the fruits are eaten.