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Hina - India's Mystery Perfume

There is an aura of mystery surrounding the Indian perfume known as Hina or Shamama. It is a rich, deep and intensely oriental fragrance much prized in India and the Middle East but relatively little known in the West. It should not be confused with Henna, the term is also used in connection with the red paste produced from the leaves of the plant, Lawsonia inermis, popularly used to decorate the hands and feet of women for special functions and as a hair colorant.  The perfume Hina (Shamama) is an entirely different product and this newsletter sheds some light on as to how it is made and the processes involved in its manufacture.

Very few people have had the opportunity to visit the ancient perfume center of Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh which has been one of the main centers for Hina manufacture for centuries and where this intricate and detailed process continues to this day. Knowledge of the Hina making process is a carefully guarded secret and has been portrayed, at best, as one in which a number of aromatic herbs, spices, roots, seeds, etc. have been combined and hyrdodistilled to produce the characteristically potent oriental fragrance. Even if one does visit Kannauj, the Grasse of India, they would find the cities perfumers reluctant to talk of the exact processes involved in the perfume or attars manufacture as each family or company has its own secret recipes that is handed down from generation to generation. Fortunately I have been allowed some access into this "hidden" world through the kind assistance of my Indian colleagues Mr. Ramakant Harlalka and Mr. Manoj Avasthi. Through their efforts I was allowed to visit some of the finest perfumeries of the city and photograph the basic procedures involved in attar manufacture. Subsequently Mr. Avasthi was allowed to photograph, in more detail the steps involved in Hina manufacture. Because of his life-long association with the industry, he was also able to give me a detailed verbal account of the equipment used, the raw materials involved, how they are combined, etc. This information should prove useful to those interested in understanding more about this fascinating perfume.

The world of the traditional Indian perfumer is, from an outsiders viewpoint, exotic, mysterious, and fascinating. In our modern world, with the great emphasis on computerization and mechanization, their(the perfumer's) world remains one in which labor-intensive activity predominates. From the gathering of the raw materials to the final perfume product, the human element predominates. Many cottage industries center around providing materials for the perfumers art and craft. Copper vessels, bamboo pipes, leather bottles, bricks, and numerous other products are needed for the practice of their art and craft and so thousands of people in the local area draw some if not all of their wages from working directly for a perfume house or in some related field. The wonderful thing about it is that local people can live in rural environments with their families and friends while earning enough to make ends meet by practicing simple, time-honored crafts.

In the perfumery itself their is a constant hum of activity. Copper cauldrons called "deg" sit in rows encased in earth and brick underneath which fires are built to produce the heat to water-distill the aromatic raw materials from which the Hina attar is made. Skilled workers move about the factory gathering together all the materials to commence the distillation process. From the storehouses the raw herbs, seeds and spices are brought that are then ground or chipped prior to combining in specific proportions according to secret family recipes. In certain cases the aromatic ingredients are lightly roasted. Some of the raw materials used are tumeric, spikenard, yew, oakmoss, cardamom, juniper berry, nutmeg, mace, clove bud, ambrette seed, laurel berry, valerian, and red sandalwood. The grinding of the aromatic botanicals fills the surrounding area with the subtle odors particular to each plant. Other workers busy themselves with the filling of the copper cauldrons of water, checking the twine encased bamboo pipes which connect the cauldrons to the long-neck copper receivers, preparing cotton-impregnated clay "snakes" used for tightly sealing the cauldron with its lid, wood being weighed and apportioned for the fires to be built beneath each cauldron, etc. It is a real joy to witness the way in which the different parts of the process unfold and on observing the careful attention to detail, one realizes that each person involved possesses his or her own unique skill and understanding which is critical to the success of the entire operation. I think it is really helpful to realize that simplicity is also beautiful and that people working in these less mechanized ways have a level of skill and knowledge which is commendable.

The first step of the distilling process begins with the charging of charila or lichen into the still. Several types of lichens are gathered in the Himalayas and used for this purpose. The notes which it contributes to the overall Hina compositions are dry, woody-earthy, bark like ones which while adding their own unique odor values also have superior fixative properties. 5 kilos of charila or lichen are added to the cauldron or still having 40 kilos of water. The lid of the still is then put in place using the clay "snake" as a sealing agent(the snake completely encircles the round lip of the still upon which the lid sits. Then to firmly clamp the lid to the cauldron, a "kamani" spring is used. It is a flexible piece of metal with hooked ends which slides under the lip of the cauldron and over the lid. A wedge is then driven into the space between the lid and the spring making a firm seal. A unique feature of lids used for the Hina distillation is that they have two holes in them which means that two bamboo pipes or "chonga"can be inserted into them at a time as opposed to one which is used for the making a single note attar. Before connecting the twine encased pipes(the twine is an insulating agent) to the still they are inserted into the long necked copper receivers or "bhapka" which hold 5 kilos of pure sandalwood each. The bamboo pipes are wrapped with a coarse cloth at the place where they enter the receivers neck so that a tight seal is formed when the two are connected. Only when the receiver and bamboo pipe have been affixed to each other are they connected to the small hole in the lid of the still. In the process of connecting this unit to the still the receiver comes to rest in a water bath so that when the aroma laden steam passes through the pipe into the receiving chamber it condenses and either becomes absorbed into the sandalwood or separates out as water. At this point the fires fueled by cow dung or wood are ignited and the distillation process commences. Heat of the fire is managed by the most experienced workers because it is the only way of regulating the speed of distillation. Familiarity with each material being distilled is a must as each has its own requirements. Failure to monitor the heat correctly can result either in the material not releasing its aromatic constituents to the full or burning the material as it is in direct contact with the water which has only the thickness of the copper separating it from the fire.

In the case of charila or lichen the first stage of the distillation process goes on for 4 hours. During that time the receivers are regularly checked to see if they are maintaining a cool enough temperature for proper condensation to occur. As soon as the water in the receivers bath becomes to hot, fresh cool water is added so that the right temperature is maintained. At the end of 4 hours the original receivers are removed and new ones attached as the condensed material has filled the vessel and it needs to cool and fully separate. But the aromatic principles of the charila have not been fully exhausted so distillation is continued for another 4 hours. The next day the oil and water are separated via a small hole in the bottom of the receiver. The oil floats on the top and the water sits at the bottom and so a person adapt at the separation process slowly drains off the water until the very first signs of oil appear. Great care is taken not to waste any of the precious oil. The water itself contains valuable aromatic constituents and is added back to the cauldron for the new days distillation. This process is repeated for 10-12 days until the sandalwood becomes charged with the proper percentage of the lichens aromatic molecules.

The second stage is initiated by placing several lightly roasted and ground botanicals like spikenard, valerian, galangal root, cyperus root and sugandh kokila in the water filled copper still. 3 kilos of dry material to 40 of water is the approximate proportion used. This mix is distilled into the lichen aroma permeated sandalwood oil for a period of 4 hours and this process is repeated adding new material each day, over a period of 5 days. Approximately 15 days have passed in performing the first two stages and the sandalwood oil has now taken an added dimension of rich and depth contributed by the roasted roots. Each of these oils is known for their deep mysterious spicy, sweet-woody, animal-like notes. These are true base-notes that give the oil an extraordinary tenacity. Sandalwood oil while lending its own subtle, mellow and rich notes to the overall composition is even more esteemed for its ability to absorb the aromatic molecules of material distilled and transform them into something even more beautiful than when they stand on their own. It protects, enriches, and elevates any aromatic molecule that comes in contact with it.

In the third stage 1 kilo of unroasted ground spices, herbs, and seeds like cinnamon, clove, cardamom, nutmeg, mace, patchouli and ambrette are placed in 15 kilos of water and distilled into the aroma charged sandalwood oil. This mixture of botanicals which includes a number of botanicals not known outside India and which varies from company to company adds another level of complexity to the perfume. Now hundreds of aromatic molecules from different sources are permeating the sandalwood and beginning to interact with each other. Power, tenacity, richness, depth, and mystery increase at every level of this perfumes creation. The challenge before those who practice this art and craft in its most refined form is to get them to balance so that the composition does not become muddled and that its complex essence reveals itself as something possessing a distinct character and personality.

Up to this point the perfumer has utilized traditional hydro-distillation techniques to produce an exotic base oil that must capture ever more complex levels of the fragrance kingdom. In another innovative process the perfumers of Kannauj create a perfumed product called "choya". There is a type of shell that is has some unique aromatic notes that are considered invaluable for the overall character of Hina perfume. The shells are crushed and placed in a bed of sand upon which a fire is ignited. When the sand heats up the fishy smell of the shell comes out and the note the perfumer is looking for remains. This "burnt" shell is then added to pure sandalwood oil and placed in a special earthenware vessel. This vessel has a large oval body with a small rounded head that has a small spout protruding from it. The whole vessel is tilted so that the head and spout are below the rest of the body. A gentle fire is set beneath it and very slowly the fragrant substance drips out of the spout to produce "choya ral". Another "choya" called "choya loban" is produced by adding benzoin directly to the same type of earthen ware vessel only without sandalwood oil. It is similarly heated and the more volatile principles of the gum are distilled into the receiving vessel. It is a natural way to produce an oleo-resin.

Now the fragrance-ladened sandalwood oil and choya's are added to a special vessel that will serve as the crucible for the final stages of Hina production. Previously produced single note attars of Champa, Rose, Jasmine, Bakul, Keora and Mehndi are added along with saffron crushed in rose water, ambergris and musk. This entire mixture is sealed in the metal vessel which has a special lid in which water is placed. The entire composition is macerated at very low heat for 24 hours. After cooling the solid materials are skimmed off and the perfume is placed in leather bottles to mature. The entire process can take up to two months from start to finish and a true Hina attar begins at $1000 per kilo and goes up from there. The price increases with the time of processing and the rarity and cost of ingredients used. Only a very few houses truly dedicate themselves to making the authentic product as with modern technology it is possible to produce a reasonable facsimile Hina perfume using synthetic ingredients. It can be produced at a fraction of the cost and to those not acquainted with the finer nuisances of the real item, it has an odor reasonably close to the original.

But the truth is that nothing can come close to the real item produced by a talented perfumer. In his hands many of the herbs, spices, roots, seeds, and flowers of India are transmuted into a perfume of rare beauty and mystery. It is as if they have gathered together all the precious botanical materials of India, in the form of her aromatic spices, earthy roots, exotic flowers, and precious woods and representing the unique range of climates, soils, and topographies of the coastal regions, mountain ranges. river valleys, high plateaus and arid deserts and transformed it into an embodiment of that ancient and sacred land. This intricate and complex process requires vast knowledge of the countries rich and varied botanicals as well as special techniques of extraction and distillation. It is no wonder that this fragrance is dearly loved by the countries people.