The fragrance of the earth rises like tule-pond mist,
Shrouding me in impalpable folds of sweet, cool smell,
Lulling my senses to the rhythm of the running plough,
The jingle of the harness,
And the thin cries of the gleaming, bent-winged birds.
Everson, William, 1912-1994:WINTER PLOUGHING
As time goes on, the wonder and amazement that occurs when smelling some natural essence goes deeper and deeper into the heart. When we contemplate the multitude of factors that go into the the extensive palette of pure odors which nature provides us from her balsamic resins, fresh grasses, precious woods, punguent herbs, aromatic spices and exotic flowers, one feels that some great miracle is transpiring in which they are able to participate. The elements that act as the supporting cast of the growth of any plant; the sun, earth, air and water are each precious in their own right. Each contributes in some way to the health and well being of the plant. The mix of the different elements is unique in each part of the world and it is the infinite variety that exists within each that gives many unique characteristics to each oil.
The mystery of the earth itself cannot be fathomed by the human mind. As we stroll across any small piece of land, we are liable to forget that it is teeming with an unseen life. Molds, fungi, micro-organisms, minerals, earthworms, water, and so many other things are active there producing the environment in which the seeds and roots of plants are nourished and brought into expression in an incredible array of color, form, odor, and texture which the greatest artists of the world have endeavored to capture glimpses of in their paintings, sculptures, poems, etc. When we look at any piece of land and smell the variety of odors emitted by the plants growing there, it makes one realize how profound the subject of the earth is. The plants living, in basically the same environment are selecting from the soil very special components which are going to give the flowers, herbs, roots etc their distinctive odor. It is truly a wonder of wonders.
It seems fitting therefore that in some bygone time, perfumers of India(and perhaps of other ancient cultures as well) should have turned their attention to the earth and its own special aroma. There use to be, and still are, regions of the world where the farmers depend upon the seasonal rains for growing the crops that will give them life and prosperity. The eager scanning of the skies for the approach of the monsoon rains and the exhilarting joy which arises in the hearts of rural peoples when the first rain drops moisten the parched earth, giving forth an order which is at once earthly and divine is a treasured experience. Indeed many of us, have in our own way, had such experiences. Even though our lives may not be so intimately tied up with the earth as farming communities, we have all enjoyed that incredible aroma which comes when rain falls after some intense period of drought or heat.
It has been my good fortune, to spend 6 years living on a small farm in South India where the monsoon rains provided the majority of the moisture needed to grow corn, wheat, mangoes, coconuts, peanuts and other crops of that sub-tropical zone. The coming of the rains created a unique atmosphere of joy and hope that transcends all religions, castes and creeds. The pure sweet smell of the dry earth giving forth its intoxicating aroma when moistened by rain is deeply enshrined in the heart.
"The smell of April is here. It is faint and indefinable, yet it is real. It is an effluvium of unbonded brooks ofpastures and bush fields, drying roads, gathered up by warm winds and whiffed over the earth. Soon the smell of the soil will be freed, the elemental stimulating odor that is unlike every other and that exhilartes today as when the rist man tilled the soil. It is a creative perfume that suggests teams afield, growing crops, the very essence of the romantic earth. If there were no other criterion by which to distinguish the real farmer, born to the land, I should know him by his response to the smell of the furrow; this redolence will be his incense, it will be an aroma stronger than the balm of the pine woods or the wild tang of the sea, it will bring him from the factory and the city and send him into th field with his plow or with any implement that will open the ground an set its fragrance free. It will unlock old merories, grown dim with the rust of years; it will fill him with dream of flocks on soft pastures and of corn or cotton in long straight rows; it will inspire him with health; it will vision him of summer and harvest, and set him into the determination of spirit that will carry his year to the finish."
L. H. Bailey The harvest of the year to the tiller of the soil
It seems fitting therefore that in some bygone time, perfumers of India(and perhaps of other ancient cultures as well) should have turned their attention to the earth and its own special aroma. Some noble soul thought to themselves that this feelings and emotions of that sacred, special and auspicios occasion, the falling of the first monsoon rains, should be captured in a pure essence. With the extensive knowledge developed in the distillation of traditional attars, they realized that it might be possible to distill the odor of the earth. And what better raw material to work with than the earth itself. They problem then arose as to which earth to use for this fragrance. After much experimentation it was found that the earth dug out from beside river banks, dried ponds or wells was most suitable. During the dry season the earth was excavated and brought into the vicinity of the distilleries. The earth was then carefully moistened and formed into crude plate like vessels. These vessels were then slowly baked. These plates were then loaded into copper distilling vessels called degs to which water was not yet added. The deg was carefully sealed save for one whole into which the water would be poured at the commencement of the distilling process. This particular step was of critical importance. Normally when any other distillation was going on, say with rose or jasmin, the water was first added to the vessel and then the flowers, but in the case of earth or mitti the reverse process was observed. The reason for this was that as soon as the water touched the baked vessels the most precious aromatic molecules were released and it was important that these should not be lost. The idea is that the vessel would be sealed after quickly pouring in the water so these ethereal vapors would immediately pass through the connecting bamboo pipe to the receiving vessel containing sandalwood where they would be trapped. A full description of this process is given in the article on Mitti found on the web site.
Another interesting thing to be noted is that the aromas from different types of earth contained very distinctive notes. It is not that the distillation of the earth yields only one type of essence. So far I have had the opportunity to sponsor the distillation of Mitti mainly from the Kannaunj which is on the banks of the Ganges River but I have also smelled Mitti from the Yamuna River area it is distinctly different.
The fragrance of the earth is dearly loved by the village women of the North especially in the areas where the attar is produced. The man who distills attars for us reported that the oil is applied during the months prior to child birth as it is both very calming for the mother and is said to help the soul stirring in her womb to begin to adapt to the earth plane. Another old perfumer reported that whenever his mother had an epileptic seizure, family members would apply mitti to her body and she would recover more quickly than otherwise. These are just simple illustrations of some of the folk uses for the oil.
It is certainly true that this is an aroma of a very unique order. It is after all the odor of the earth which has become absorbed in sandalwood over many days of distillation.It is at once soft, radiant and mellow. A very deep quiet, cooling essence in which is contained the power and beauty of the land from which it came. Each essence has its own story to tell and if we learn to listen to its tale we can slip into times and places beyond conscious memory.
As many of you already know, the production of traditional attars is very dear to my heart. It has been a project I have dreamed about supporting for some time and now for the past two years this work has been going on. After carefully studying the declining state of the tradtional industry we realized that it would be best to engage a trusted colleague to do this work for us on an exclusive basis. So we have procured for him several copper distilling units which he has put on his property in Kannauj for distillation of locally available flowers. He also has a set of portable distilling units which he takes to different regions of the country where other flowers and aromatic plants grow that have rich meaning in Indian tradition. A number of these like Parijata(Nyctanthes arbortris), Bakul(Mimopsus elengi) and Kewda(Pandanus odorastissmus) are little known in the West whereas Gulab(Rosa damascena), Motia(Jasminum sambac) and Khus(Vetiveria ziazaniodes) are more well recognized. These are subtle but rich essences which require a minimum of 15 days to produce. Some of them like Gulab and Motia we are starting to produce in extra strength versions(20+ day distillations) The longer the distillations go on(again you can read more about the intricasies of attar distillation on my web site) the more permeated the sandalwood becomes with the pure essence of the flowers. Hopefully these lovely essences of ancient beauty will find a place in the hearts of people outside of India as they are true gems of the botanical world.
This month I have put together a selection of all the attars in a set for those who have note yet explored them. These are in 1/3 dram(1/20th of an ounce bottles) Included in the set are:
2. Bakul/Mimusops elengi
3. Sona Champa/Michelia champaca
4. Gulab/Rosa damascena-from the May harvest
5. Monsoon Gulab/Rosa damascena-from the smaller September harvest
6. Khus/Vetiveria ziazaniodes
7. Parijata/Nyctanthes arbortristis
8. Kewda/Pandanus odoratissimus
9. Gulhina/Lawsonia inermis
10. Motia/Jasminum sambac
11. Genda/Tagetes erecta
12. Shamama/a combination of 60 plus ingredients requiring two months to make
The price for the set is $60 Individual samples are $6 a piece.
Mitti is on special for $60 per ounce or $35 for .5 ounce.
Friendly regards, Christopher
PS Kindly note there is a whole series of articles on the web site concerning many of the plants used in attar production. If you begin exploring some of the lesser known ones like Parijata, Bakul, etc. you may enjoy reading the articles simultaneosly. Of course one need not rely on any written word to enjoy these precious essences. They can speak their own language, but the articles can provide some interesting insights into the consciousness of the Indian people about them.