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Kewda, From the Travel Journal

Kewda - Orissa's Fragrant Floral King

More Images of Kewda

"The kewda (Pandanus odoratissimus) is another. It has a very agreeable perfume. Musk has the defect of being dry; this may be called moist musk-a very agreeable perfume In amongst the inner leaves grown things like what belongs to a middle of a flower and from these things comes the excellent perfume" Babur Nama-1525

India possesses a great wealth of aromatic plants which, until recent times, have been little known outside the country. Even at this time very little authentic information about plants such as Kadam (Anthocephalus cadamba), Parijat (Nycanthes arbortris-tis), Bakul (Mimopsus elengi), Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera, Water Lily (Nymphae nouchalii), Golden Champa (Michelia champaca) and Kewda (Pandaus odoratissimus) has been available. These exotic scents have played a very important role in Indian culture and have been used in perfumes, and cosmetics since ancient times. With the rise of artisan perfumery and other fragrance crafts a new interest in the ways ancient cultures have used their natural aromatic resources has awakened. Today we are entering a phase where countries like India can provide a whole new palette of exotic aromatics which offer us aesthetic windows in the heart and soul of a people, in a non-verbal intuitive way.

Many years ago, one of the great aromatic researchers of our time, Steven Arctander, wrote enthusiastically about some of the above mentioned exotic fragrances in his book Perfume and Flavor Ingredients of Natural Origin. On reading his book in the late 1970's my on interest in the flora of India became awakened and the desire to see the plants and smell their odors which he so wonderfully described possessed me. Already Indian perfumers had been adopting the Western means of synthesizing various aromatic chemicals and were composing Champa, Bakul, Hina, etc. without using any of the real essence of the flowers. So my shopping forrays into the perfume bazaars of Bombay only yielded the artifical product and on rare occasions the authentic item. At that time I did not have the ability to discern the true from the artificial but somehow I was prodded to continue my quest for the genuine item. Eventually, by great good fortune, I was led to one of India's dedicated researchers on natural fragrances, Ramakant Harlalka, and with his assistance have been able to move into the realm of aromas I once only dreamed about. It has become an intregal part of our work to not only locate sources for the genuine essential oils, absolutes and attars of India but to distill and extract as many of the flowers as we can so that lovers of fragrance the world over may have the opportunity to enjoy a sublime experience that has, to this time, been confined to a rare few in India.

One of the flowers which is dear to the Indian heart is Kewda (Pandanus odoratissimus) It grows on a small tree or shrub which is both cultivated and grows wild in coastal areas. It can also be found in some inland districts but the flowers seem to create their most exquisite floral bouquet in certain coastal localities, the most famous being the Ganjam district of Orrisa. The tree/shrub can reach a height of 18 feet. The densely branched plant is supported by aerial roots forming a thick impenetrable jungle. The long leaves possess prickly spines along the edges and mid-ribs making the plant tough to handle for those not use to their peculiar nature. The male flower "spikes"(a better technical word is infloresence) are 10-20 inches long. Along the central stalk of spike one can fine many true flowers each encased in a fragrant cream-colored spathe; a spathe being a leaflike structure enclosing a flower. A fully mature Kewda tree produces about 30-40 flower spikes each year weighing 5-6 each ounces each!!!!

My first actual contact with the Kewda tree came in March 1996 when I visited with Mr. Philip Samuel of Indfrag of Bangalore, Karnatika State. With the help of his able field manager, Sudhakar, an area had been located where a number of plants were found growing along a rocky stream bed. Kewda, is a moisture level and will grow in inland areas if it can find enough water to supply its needs. Even though it was early in the season a few flower spikes were present which we were able to harvest. In Orissa where the plant grows naturally and abundantly, the flowering period is broken up into three distinct seasons. 1.Dhoopkal/Hot Season-May/June(30% of total yield), 2. Bhaudaun Mas/Main Season/Rainy Season-July/September(60% of total yield), 3. Sheetalkal/Cool Season-October/November (10% of total yield). Within each of these seasons there is a forty day period when the flowers are harvested.

My next contact with the plant came this summer while once again journeying with Sudhakar and Ramakant while returning to our visit to the Lotus Ponds. When we were passing through a small village we spotted a flower vendor sitting beneath a wide-spreading tree and he was selling bundles of Kewda flowers. We stopped and procured from him a dozen of the huge spikes which we packed in the car. As we rode on through the warm afternoon the exotic aroma filled the air with the mysterious penetrating odor of this wonderful flower. Its initial olfactory impact is one of intense sharpness. It is crisp penetrating and diffusive to an amazing degree. As the olfactory perceptors open the "extremely sweet, hyacinth-honeylike odor"(Stephen Arctander) becomes apparent. It is a very heady, intoxicating bouquet that can only appreciated to the fullest extent when properly diluted in some high quality perfumers alcohol or in some superior grade sandalwood oil. Arctander recommends that the absolute prepared from Kewda be diluted to 1% for easier evaluation of the oil. Those who are encountering Kewda oil in its absolute, attar or ruh form for the first time will all be struck by this amazingly powerful topnote which, as the oil proceeds into its dry out phase, gradually fades to a gentle, fresh, sweet floral bouquet. To me it appears that the effect of the pure oil, especially the ruh(which I will describe in some detail), is that of refreshing and awakening tired brain cells. It is an oil of inspiration and creativity which seems capable of blasting away the cobwebs of lethargy or rejuvanating ones thinking process should it suffering from overwork. In the palette of the creative perfumer, it could a unique opening to an exotic floral journey into the heart of the East because of its unquestionable ability to capture ones attention and draw one deeper into its mysterious ethereal essence .

Regarding the full scale kewda distillation processes I have not yet had a chance to visit Orissa where the flowers are prepared as a "ruh" and "attar". Fortunately I have the able assistance of Mr. Manoj Avasthi of Uttar Pradesh, who is a professional photographer and distiller to turn to for information. He regularly travels to Orissa during the harvest season and has kindly documented the entire distilling operation for Ramakant and I. He has also started preparing the finest "ruh" and "attar" for us so that people outside of India who would enjoy experiencing this lovely essence can do so with assurance they are getting the pure and authentic product. Hopefully, this harvest season I will visit the Ganjam district in his company so that I can give a first hand account of my experiences but for now I will share what I can as many people are curious about this oil and would like to know whatever can be shared.

As detailed in several past articles, preparation of "attars" is a very ancient one in India. We do know that the Mughal emperors were fond of these superb oils and promoted the practice of distilling flowers, roots, herbs, spices, etc. into pure sandalwood oil. But it is possible the art and craft goes back all the way to the Indus Valley civilization which thrived in India 5000 years ago. Distilling vessels discovered there are very similar to those still used today by traditional perfumers of North India.What distinguishes this art and craft is the simple equipment which can easily be transported from place to place and which can be manufactured and repaired out of readily available materials. Copper, bamboo, clay, and grass are the basic materials required for construction and if a water source is at hand then a distilling operation can be set up even in the most rural settings(as is often done). For hundreds of year the perfumers of Kannauj have been moving about from place to place with their portable copper vessels preparing essences which are enjoyed for their fragrance. When India was not as populated as it is today, their were many locations where particular aromatic plants grew naturally which provided ample material for their essences. Modern means of transportation did not exist so the perfumer had to go the raw material rather than the raw material come to them. Today that practice still applies because most exotic flowers cannot be transported over long distances without losing their volatile aromatic constituents. One of the areas to which the perfumers went in season was Orissa for the Kewda harvest.

In the Ganjam district itself, where the finest conditions exist for growing Kewda, there are estimated to be 300,000 to 400,000 trees producing about 10,000,000 male infloresences which are used for the preparation of attar, ruh and hydrosol. Each day of the harvest season, men and women gather the flower spikes using long hooked poles, that allow them to reach high up into the tree and snap them loose. These spikes are collected in managable piles and transported to the factory by foot, bicycle, jeep, motor scooter or bullock cart. Tucked away in the veritable coastal jungle are small distilleries dedicated to kewda distillation. This area of India is still largely undeveloped. Few paved roads traverse this region and the vegetation is so dense that one would hardly know that in the midst of this jungle area are numerous distilleries producing high quality kewda products.

At the factory, any green outer leaves are stripped away so only the creamy white spadices remain. They long spikes are then cut into three to four sections and placed in the main copper cauldron or deg with water. The proportion of water to flowers is roughly 2:1. The rim of the deg is is totally encircled with a clay snake and the lid is forced down upon it using a simple metal clamp or kamani spring which slides under the rim and over the lid and into which a wedge is forced. One unique feature of some distilleries is that the lid is totally different than the conventional one just described. This lid is composed of a clay pot which, when inverted rests on the clay encircling the deg's lip. Stones act as weights upon the pot/lid so that a tight seal is formed between the deg and the lid. This arrangement is said to produce a very special type of oil because when the aroma laden steam rises into the hardened clay dome, a very subtle earth molecule distills out and mixes with the kewda steam before it passes through the bamboo pipe which connects the lid with the receiving vessel, sitting in a water bath below the deg.

The concentration of Kewda Attar is determined not by the number of kilos or pounds of flowers used but by the number of spikes used per kilo or pound of sandalwood oil. The customer may specify that he wants a 10,000 flower attar, a 15,000 attar and so on. It depends upon the end use. In a well prepared attar the sandalwood note will be present to a very minor degree if at all. It will only come out as the attar goes into its dryout stage. But one thing I have noticed is that a well made attar is truly the most exquisite form in which the kewda essence expresses itself. This has been noted almost uniformly with all genuine attars that I have encountered. There is some subtle intereaction that occurs over the period of many days that an attar is being made. When a fresh batch of  flowers is introduced into the deg, it is distilled slowly at low pressure for 10-12 hours (One can imagine how low that pressure must be as it should not blow the lid held in place by a large rock off) Then this process is repeated for 12-15 continous days. The rate at which the aromatic steam ladened molecules rise into the upper chamber, down through the bamboo pipe and into the receiver is calculated so that the sandalwood oil can slowly absorb the delicate aroma of the flowers. The reciever itself is being continually turned so that the material inside is continually being agitated allowing better absorbtion of the material into the oil as well as keeping the vessel cool which is necessary for proper condensation to occur. Along with the simple mechanics of making this process work, there is the element of human effort required to prepare a real attar which may contribute to the aura and mystique of the oil. The attar is much beloved by the Indian people and is used to as a perfume in its own right, for scenting clothes, lotions, hair oils, cosmetics, soaps, tobacco, and incense.

Regarding the preparation of the ruh, Mr. Avasthi was kind enough to supply me with some very important details. In Orissa about 200 kilos of Ruh Kewda are prepared each year at a cost of $7000 per kilo as compared to $1500-$1800 for a fine attar. The attar contains, on the average about 3-5% essence of Kewda with the rest being sandalwood oil. When Ruh Kewda is being prepared 5 different stills are charged with 600 flowers each. Three distillations are done one one batch of flowers. It means that three receivers are assigned to each deg. Tne first distillate(Agari) yields 10-12 kilos of aromatic water, the second distillate(Pichari) yields the same. In the third(Tigari) liquid parafin is sometimes kept to prepare a cheap quality "attar" or only the distillate is kept for making an inexpensive hydrosol. Only the first two distillates(Agari and Pichari) are kept for making the ruh. These are cooled down and in the evening the aromatic water is poured into one deg. It is immediately sealed and the bamboo pipe is connected to the receiver. Very gentle heat is given to the deg and about 5-6 kilos of distillate is collected in the receiver. During this time the receiver must be kept very cool and it is constantly rotated while fresh water is added four to five times.It takes about 1 hour to produce 5-6 kilos of distillate. The receiver is then hung horizontally on a wooden stand. The water is separated and the oil is collected by a special separating funnel. All of the remaining hydrosol is used in making the next batch of ruh which commences on the next day. About a thousand flowers(about 370 lbs) of flowers produces 1 ounce of Ruh Kewda. The Ruh is very very potent. It contains some of the most precious top notes of the oil which cannot even be captured effectively in an absolute.

The fragrant hydrosol produced either as a primary or secondary product has many uses. It is also one of the most important flavoring agents in preparing various food items including syrups, sweets, syrups, and soft drinks."Pandanus water is popular in Northern India and mainly used to flavour the phantastic sweets Indians can prepare from so commonplace ingredients as milk and sugar: ras gulla (cottage cheese balls cooked in syrup), gulabjanum (fried cottage cheese balls served with syrup) and ras malai (cottage cheese balls in condensed milk); the latter is also sometimes prepared with saffron instead. Another application are the highly aromatic rice dishes the Moghul cuisine is famous for (biriyani, see cardamom)." http://www-ang.kfunigraz.ac.at/~katzer/engl/index.html (This web page is a unique contribution to those interested in the culinary uses of spices. Check it out!!!!)

It is important to note that one seldom encounters a genuine kewda ruh, attar or hydrosol in the local market. The chief constituent of kewda oil is methyl ether of beta-phenylethyl alcohol(60-80%) which gives the characteristic aroma of the flowers. This aromatic component is sythesized on a large scale in India and it is widely used to produce so-called kewda products. This single constituent is readily identifiable by any person with some knowledge of perfumery, but in India, the cheapest product is often which is sold the most. There is not yet a great awareness about the difference between natural and synthetic products. The genuine oil, while containing a high percentage of the above mentioned componet contains a great number of other aromatic molecules which truly give the oil its complete profile. A simple gc/ms will easily detect this adulteration as well as show the complexity of the real oil. Today it is very very important for the sincere buyer of essential oils, attars and absolutes to use reputable gc/ms services to assist in the identification of pure oils. It is one part of the ethical equation in selling oils which are claimed to be of natural origin.


Web links regarding Kewda(Pandanus odoratissimus) and related species
Uses of kewda in Hawaiian culture

Page showing commercial items made from Pandanus leaves

Technical information on the Pandanaceae family

Pandanus as a source of food during times of famine

Pandanus as a house planthttp://www.csdl.tamu.edu/FLORA/imaxxpnd.htm
Images of different Pandanus species