Visit to Mysore and Bangalore 1, Pink and White Lotus Ponds
Visit to Mysore and Bangalore - July 1998
Part 1: Pink and White Lotus Ponds
"Lotus - Essence of Perfection"
Symbolism of the Lotus
When the word "lotus" is spoken, it creates in the mind an image of perfect beauty for those who have beheld this wonderous flower. With its roots anchored in the mud of the pond or lake in which it lives, it rises up through the water to bloom on a stately stalk. Whether its color be blue, pink or white, the same elegant form presents itself. In the early morning before the dawn rays cause its petal to unfold, it stands erect and serene in the pose of the folded hands as when people greet each other in India and other Eastern countries. The graceful enfolding of the radiant inner core of the flower by the outer petals in the cool pre-dawn hours reminds one of the patience and calmness one must have while dealing with the many visitudes of life. If somehow one can maintain a serene equipoise so sublimely embodied in the lotus blossom prior to unfolding then when the mind is touched by the spirit of truth it can blossom in an unassuming manner, revealing the golden radiance which always exists in the heart. Then just as the unfolding petals of the lotus release their fragrance into the morning air; fresh, innocent, and pure, so can a person release the natural fragrance of true contentment, kindness, forgiveness and love into the environment in which they live.
No: it is not yours to open buds into blossoms.
Shake the bud, strike it; it is beyond your power to make it blossom.
Your touch soils it, you tear its petals to pieces and strew them in the dust.
But no colours appear, and no perfume.
Ah! it is not for you to open the bud into a blossom.
He who can open the bud does it so simply.
He gives it a glance, and the life-sap stirs through its veins.
At his breath the flower spreads its wings and flutters in the wind.
Colours flush out like heart-longings, the perfume betrays a sweet secret.
He who can open the bud does it so simply.-Tagore
Lotus of Rajasthan
Several years ago I became enthused about the idea of extracting the essence of the lotus. I had been traveling with my dear friend and fragrance mentor, Ramakant Harlalka in Rajasthan, when one day we visited a pristine lake outside the city of Jodhpur that was covered with splendid pink lotus's. We arrived there early in the morning just at the time the sun was causing the petals to unfold presenting to us a spectacle of beauty like I had seldom encountered. The faint ethereal odor of the lotus blossoms gently penetrated into our nostrils, and we enjoyed a fine few hours exploring the lake and its environs. Situated on the south side was an old palace of some forgotten king and we enjoyed looking down on the lake from that elevated view point. After this visit we began to discuss how we might extract the wonderous essence we had smelled. It was reported in the old literature that once upon a time the lotus essence had been extracted but now was no longer done. I felt the time had come to see if we might capture the fragrance of this flower for others to enjoy.
Extraction of Lotus Essence
In 1998 this work began in earnest. One of our dedicated colleagues, Mr Philip Samuel, in South India had a nice extracting unit near Bangalore and I enquired from him if he might take up this work. South India has numerous lotus ponds exisiting in rural areas and he felt that he could gather enough flowers to do produce a small amount of what is called a floral absolute. After careful investigation of his area he discovered that there were several ponds of pink white lotus within a reasonable distance of his factory. The pink were more accessible and were available in greater abundance, so it was decided to make our first attempt at lotus extraction with them. Also the pink lotus begins blooming earlier in the year than the white(which is basically a monsoon flower) so trials could begin almost at once.
In the months of April and May the first trials began. At that time I was in the USA eagerly waiting for news of how the project was unfolding. I received word from India that a tiny sample had been made and was being sent by courier. About a week later I received a dark pink viscous liquid with small waxy particles that was the first endeavor at lotus extraction. The first time one encounters such a smell, especially after one has experienced the living essence can be a bit disappointing. What we have in our mind and what actually comes forth upon extraction can be two different things. It is important to bare in mind that the extracting and distilling art and craft is not simply a technical exercise but must include a vast knowledge of the plants themselves, their habits, the time when their essence is the most, etc. One cannot learn such things by sitting around and speculating what might and might not work, because certain things must be learned through experience. Still when I smelled the oil, I could detect the echo of the fragrance of lotus as I had remembered it. One first had to pass through a predominant medicinal dimension of aroma(which is also present in the living flower) before they entered the heart note which contained the first glimmerings of the lotus essence. It is not like any smell of other flowers that I have encountered. It is not pervasively sweet, but somehow is a combination of the watery/earthy element which feeds and nourishes the growing flower combined with a soft, delicate aroma which partakes of the air in which the flower unfolds. There is what one might call a powdery note that reveals itself in the dryout of the oil and this was definitely discernable in the first attempt at lotus extraction.
Personal Visit to the Lotus Ponds-South India
A decision had to be made as to whether to go deeper into the project and I felt that if we did not attempt this work now then at least from a personal standpoint it might never happen. In order to gain a more personal connection with this process, I arranged to travel to Bangalore with Ramakant so we could visit the ponds, see how the flowers were being harvested, visit the extraction facility while production was happening,etc. Thus in late July we began our grand exploration of the area with the able assistance of our colleagues foreman who had been instrumental in scouting out the surrounding area so he could show us various locations where ponds were located. I had a strong desire that the white lotus in particular should be extracted and so Mr. Sudhakar had given a lot of attention to locating several such ponds. They were deep in the interior of that region and he had only found out about them through the help of one of his village friends. This gentleman had spent weeks surveying the area. Since there are no road maps to such interior locations, one has to find their way by asking questions of villagers, following their leads to remote places, often walking long distances to get there and then staying in primitive surroundings. It is not the work of the timid.
Up to that time the monsoon rains in the Bangalore region had been below normal. As the white lotus comes forth in greatest abundance during that time we were cautioned that we would see only a fraction of what would be available once the rains had started in earnest. Arrangements were made to depart early in the morning for the ponds as it was expected that we would require 3-4 hours to reach there. Picking up Sudhakar at 5:00 AM we began our journey in the dark predawn hours. The previous night a fierce rain store has finally initiated the beginning of the monsoon rains. In fact as we journeyed toward the outskirts of Bangalore the rain was so intense it was difficult to see. I was concerned that we might not be able to complete this important part of the trip which had been long awaited and for which I had traveled thousands of miles to participate in. But as the dawn broke in the East the rains abated and we began to enjoy the outlines of rural India coming into view. This experience is beyond the scope of our day to day lives in the West. It is difficult to conceive of a land where things still remain in large part as they have for thousands of years. Traveling on those backroads is at once exhilarating and difficult because one can rest assured that in order to enjoy the unique landscape one has to endure many bumps in the road.
Along our route we had to travel through places where the streams were sweeping over the tarmac. In other places the tarmac ceased to exist altogether and we had to wend our way through muddy tracts. But our driver whom we had hired in Bangalore was up for the task and managed to negotiate his way through numerous difficult places. At around 8 o'clock we reached the first white lotus pond. Due to the previous nights rain the ponds were rising and by good fortune there were numerous blossoms displaying their beauty for us to see. One might think that the lotus sits just above the water but in fact the flowers we saw were on talk stalks, 4-6 feet above water level. Just this one glimpse alone into the world of the white lotus was reward for the long trip from the states to India. One may plan such things in their mind, and make all possible efforts for it to happen, but only by good fortune do such events manifest on the physical plane. I eagerly took out my camera and began the photographic documentation of pond and its bounty. As I was engaged in this work, a village priest came along the road with a cluster of white blossoms in his hands which he was going to offer in a small local temple. He kindly allowed us to photograph him with this most glorius of votive offerings.
From the first pond we journeyed deeper into the region. As the rural beauty of the region increased so did the difficulty of passage along the road. It was as if we were having to pay some price for admittance into this hidden world. At our next halt, which was an hour's distance from the first pond, we got down at a remote village and walked into a pond that was coming alive with white lotus. One could easily see the effect of the belated rains on the area as a large section of the pond had dried up but the whole eastern end had enough water to support a healthy population of the graceful blossoms. The village children clustered about me, and became my escort into a world where no artifice of modern times existed. They approached me with a sweetness and joy that was a delight to experience They carefully showed me the way around all the muddy spots and places where I might fall. They were, in their own assuming way, like the lotus we were seeing, simple, innocent and pure.
While we were enjoying this scene, our guide ventured into the pond with wicker basked in hand to collect lotus blossoms. A certain care has to be taken in choosing the blooms. There is a period of a couple of days where the blossoms are maturing. On the third day(according to my understanding) is the proper day for the blossoms to be harvested. Apparently the blossoms continue to bloom for another couple of days but with a decrease in their fragrant essence. Our guide moved about deftly cutting the blossoms and placing them in his basket. After a nice bunch had been secured, he returned to shore and we had a chance to photograph the blossoms in mass. The villagers were very intrigued by our interest in this flower as it was as a natural occurrence to them as the many other plants that occupied there area. In the course of the next couple of hours we were able to visit several other large ponds.
The visit to the lotus ponds was memorable and stimulating. It gave us a good sense of what might be possible in that part of India but it was also apparent that the ponds we visited were quite difficult to reach and if the roads became closed due to weather conditions, which seemed highly likely, there would be no firm supply of the blossoms.
This is always a true challenge when sourcing raw materials. Because we are little in contact with the production of oils, it is easy to overlook all the detials that go into actually distilling and extracting them. The whole world of natural oil production is one that is largely dependent on the vagaries of nature. One may exercise a lot of technical expertise from the horticultural standpoint or they may be a master distiller, but unless the raw material is obtainable from the environment and in sufficient quantity to make some particular oil, all such talents and equipment will be of no avail.
Production of Pink Lotus Absolute
After returning to the USA Philip informed me that it would not be possible to produce white lotus absolute because he could not procure enough blossoms to justify using in extracting equipment but he also confirmed that we could move ahead with pink lotus which I consented too. Several months went by while a stock of concrete of the blossoms was created. Each day a certain number of kilos was processed into the concrete which is the basis for making the absolute. At that time I had not concept of how many blossoms it would take to make one kilo of absolute. When one begins to consider the real figures of production then one truly wonders how it is extract some of the exotic oils.
Now after a couple of years of work on this oil we know that it takes something like 20,000-25,000 blossoms to make one kilo of concrete, and from 75,000-100,000 blossoms to make one kilo of absolute. It is a staggering number of flowers. The extremely waxy blossoms yield a very tiny amount of absolute. And when we talk of the blossoms in such large numbers we have to remember that they do not shower down from the sky and land in the extractors of the factory. Each one has to be hand harvested by a human being. They then have to reach the factory by one means or another. At the factory the petals and center of the flower have to be separated from the green portion which holds the petals together. Then they have to be loaded into the extracting units after which they are washed with hexane several times to remove the waxes, pigments and essential oil from the flowers. After going through the delicate process of removing a large proportion of the hexane from the concrete, the concrete has to be washed in alcohol. Chilling, filtering and vacuum distilling of the alcohol from the absolute then must take place before one gets the final product or absolute. This is a very concise and simple explanation of a whole complicated process just to illustrate how many things are required to create an end product.
This then is the process which was set in motion for the production of one kilo of pink lotus absolute. It was truly one of the scariest commitments I had ever made. If one wishes for guarantees for success, then this is not the field to enter especially if one is interested in creating an entirely new product. Yet it all seemed correct to me. I had come far enough in life's journey to know that certain risks are worth taking and that there was no reason to shy away from this challenge. Philip and his team were equally taking a chance although the financial commitment from my side was assurred. Still without their willingness to do the practical work, it could not have happened. Four months past by as the stock of concrete was prepared. Finally enough was created to prepare the absolute. In November 1998 I received the first true pink lotus absolute that I was aware of. I felt a mixture of emotions when smelling the oil. It was definitely an improvement over the first test batch that had been done and it was the best that could be done in this early stage of the game. A lot of sincere effort had gone into its production and it was not without its merits from an olfactory standpoint as well. A real event had taken place upon which a foundation could be built and I could say for certain, backed with the proper documentation that we had taken some important steps in extracting the essence of Lotus
It was equally apparent to me that as we worked with this project we would need to somehow discover how to reduce the top note of the lotus which was strongly medicinal. The proportion of its presence in the absolute was more than in its natural state. Part of the problem in examining such and oil is that one is smelling the essence of 100,000 blossoms in a very concentrated space and this is not at all what the nose is meant to imbibe. So while keeping the bulk of the pure oil for my clients who were interested in any form of pure lotus, I did a few experiments with diluting it in sandalwood oil in various proportions. It defintely helped round off some of the rougher edges of the absolute. I also learned that in any new absolute there is going to be a period of time which is required for the oil to mature. It can be anywhere for 6 months to a year. When we speak of an absolute we are not just talking about the volatile constituents of the oil but also certain alcohol soluble waxes and pigments which acutally comprise the bulk of the oil. These play their own valuable role in that they help preserve the volatile essential oil but I think one needs to let each part settle down into their natural balance before they assess the true olfactory charactertics of the oil. Then also one needs to find some medium for exploring the oil that allows one to enter into its head, heart and body notes without being overwhelmed by its concentration. In the world of olfactory analysis it is seldom considered a good idea to evaluate an oil on its out of the bottle odor. It is simply to strong. That is why one should consider using perfumer smelling strips, or some diluent which suits the final product. Without taking the time to study a fragrance through the different stages of evaporation, one cannot really understand the strengths and possible weaknesses of that oil. But in the end I knew that a lot of work lie ahead with the lotus in order for it to reveal more of its ethereal characteristics. Seldom does one find success on the first stroke although one hopes for enough of success so that they can continue on with their explorations which was accomplished.
The Lotus Project Continues
In 1999 we began the second phase of our work. By that time Philip was scaling back on his work with the extraction of floral absolutes and was putting more of his attention into botanical extracts. Another colleague of ours had a fine extraction facility near Madurai in deep south India and in their area were many lotus ponds containing both pink and white lotus. They agreed to take up this next phase of the work. Again we felt it appropriate to visit the area during the harvest season and in March Ramakant and I journeyed south to explore the lotus ponds of that area and to see the setup of their factory. Early one morning we were taken to some huge ponds just outside of Madurai and we got to see the lotus harvest taking place in the unique fashion of the local people. They had small iron wash tub like boats which they sat cross legged in. Using their hands as paddles they went about the lake harvesting the blossoms. It was a unique and beautiful site. Surrounded by lovely farm lands with giant rock mountains jutting out of th plain in the distant one became entranced by an ancient world that could produce so much beauty on every level.
Part of the reason for the visit was also to confirm if we could bring a group of Westerners to visit South India and see production of various absolutes and essential oils first hand.
Seeing this beautiful and accessible area it gave us confidence that this, at least, was an experience we could share with other fragrance enthusiasts.(Fortunately at every stage of our journey we were able to locate the people and places which could bring this industry to life for those wishing to get a behind the scenes glimpse of India's fragrance industry)
It seemed important to me that we should share the real dynamics of the industry with others so that people might trust in the work we were doing. It is natural that a certain amount of scepticism might surround such a project. It is quite easy to claim that one is producing something as exotic as Lotus Absolute but it is quite another thing to do it and also to share that experience with like minded people. So while enjoying this first visit ourselves we also were laying the foundation for a visit in September for a group of aromatherapists, essential oil company owners, and lovers of the aromatic kingdom in general. After visiting their facility which was superb, and getting the general feel for the Madurai area we felt that we could now safely bring a group to India to share in a world we had been exploring for the past three years. In developing our plan we concluded that September would be the ideal time as we could share the harvest of white lotus and the preparation of its concrete with the group.
On the day when the lotus bloomed, alas, my mind was straying, and I knew it not. My basket was empty
and the flower remained unheeded.
Only now and again a sadness fell upon me, and I started up from my dream and felt a sweet trace of a
strange fragrance in the south wind.
That vague sweetness made my heart ache with longing and it seemed to me that is was the eager
breath of the summer seeking for its completion.
I knew not then that it was so near, that it was mine, and that this perfect sweetness had blossomed in
the depth of my own heart.-Tagore
Sharing our Project with Friends
The day that we brought our traveling companions to the lotus ponds is a powerful memory for me. After traveling through the rural districts of South India for two days into an ancient world of increasing beauty, we arrived in Madurai in the evening. After visiting the superb Meenaskhi Temple we retired for the evening so we could rise early the next morning to visit the ponds. I do not think anyone really knew what to expect, including myself. Yes I had seen the lotus ponds before and had imbibed the gentle ethereal odor of the blossoms. It had moved me deeply. But I did not know what would happen when sharing this world with a group of 21 companions coming from Hong Kong, USA, England, and France. I felt it would at least be a special treat, but could not truly envision what might happen beyond that. When we got down from the bus at the first small lotus pond, a gradual transformation began to take place. It was just sunrise and the gentle beams of light were beginning to illuminate the elegant lotus blossoms encouraging them to open their petals and release their sweet aroma onto the air. It was just a small pond along the main road and could hardly be called impressive, yet the flowers already were casting their spell upon the people gathered there. Then our kind hosts had us walk in along a dirt road to a larger pond along which was situated local temple. Here the transformation deepened. I watched in quiet amazement as peoples faces began to soften and take on a natural lustre and relaxation that had not been present before. It was a type of intoxication but not in any overt way. Everyone was holding white lotus blossoms in their hands and gently inhaling their fragrance. It could not have been a more lovely scene. I am certainly not sceptacle about the power of fragrance to uplift and inspire people but I had never seen anything like this. It was as if the heart of each one of us had cast off the many day-to-day burdens and was basking in some soft joy that was both natural and transcendent. If one could say that time could be suspended, then perhaps this was such an event.
The local people living along the pond also joined in our revery. We all mingled together in a most congenial way. It is difficult to describe because on one level there was nothing abnormal about it. It was a time of natural happiness which is perhaps very close to what we are capable of feeling all the time if not so wieghted down with the hundreds of cares and worries of everyday life. But be that as it may, it was wonderful to see the sweet beauty on everyone's faces. The lotus blossom being a symbol of enlightenment and perfection had certainly worked it magic upon us. In ancient India the sages often created such special situations so that people could feel drawn towards their natural center. They knew that in certain environments one would automatically introvert and get glimpses of a world inside their own heart. In some small way I think that is what happened with us.
I think, in retrospect another dimension of this experience which seems very special to me now was that the question of feeling uneasy in a totally foreign environment seemed totally absent. India can be quite unnerving to a Westerner unaccustomed to the peculiarities of that culture and rarely can one enter such a rural environment and feel comfortable. But such was the case in this instance. I thought it was quite remarkable because when I first started going to India in 1971 I was often totally out of sink with what was happening around me.
From this large pond we went to yet another larger pond. Underneath tall arching trees we sipped on fresh coconut juice straight from the shell as one of the villagers had brought dozens of them for us to enjoy. People wandered up and down the edge of the pond drinking in the beauty of the blossoms, the wild birds flying in and out of the reeds, the richness of the farm life surrounding us, and the entire ambience of an ancient land saturated with a spiritual life which had been alive and intact for thousands of years. Reflecting on this time, I think one can safely say that with all the best efforts we make to create beautiful oils, that there can really be no substitute for the essences as they exist in nature in the setting in which a plant grows. The plant somehow extracts from the earth the most precious of substances, hidden vibrations of a hidden life and perfumes the air with them. Those who come into the influence of those plants imbibe an entire experience that somehow unites the various visible and audible parts of the world one has entered. The impact it has upon the heart is very deep. I think at that time without knowing exactly how it happens, one can, begin to understand the language of the plants and to hear what virtues are contained within them. It may just be a very personal message, one that reminds us to be appreciative and open to the sublimer influences within and without, or it may be one where we are capable of understanding how to better use such plants in the service of others, but however that may be one certainly comes a way with their own life touched in a deep way which is where all healing starts.
This is in no way meant to downplay the importance and benefit to be derived from aromatic oils extracted or distilled from nature's botanical jewels. It is only on rare occasions that many of us can enter nature's sanctuary and refresh ourselves with sublime experiences like the one we enjoyed in South India. In that case, a beautiful oil becomes like a bridge into a realm that we may not have the opportunity to physically explore. It can coax us away from habitual patterns of thinking and living which often deplete our energies. But we can do our part to envision the many ways in which an oil and the plant it comes from have effected the lives of people in different times and different places. We can think of the miracle that has has occurred in transforming the essence of a plant into a tiny vial of precious oil that we can open as the mood strikes us. Blessing all the many works that have brought us this gift we can enter into the spirit of gratitude which makes all life beautiful and radiant.
So it is that our work has continued with the lotus, both pink and white. This year, with the addition of Ramakant's direct involvement of the conversion of the concrete to absolute, the medicinal note moved to the background and the heart of the lotus essence became more evident. On the evening of the day we visited the lotus ponds, we were able to show our companions the processes involved in making the concrete of white lotus, as enough blossoms had been gathered to fill one of the extracting vessels. In the subsequent days several kilos were made of this precious essence and soon the absolute will be prepared. Even if captures a hundred part of the memory of that day it will be quite sufficient and perhaps to those who could not travel with us it will bring them in contact with the pure joy of that experience or perhaps something even more beautiful.
Chandogya Upanishad Excerpt
In the center of the castle of Brahman, our own body,
There is a small shrine in the form of a lotus flower
and within can be found a small space.
We should find who dwells there and we should want to know him.
And if anyone asks, "Who is he who lives in a small shrine
in the form of a lotus flower in the center of the castle of Brahman?"
We can answer:
"The little space within the heart is as great as the universe.
The heaven and the earth are there; the sun, the moon, the stars;
fire and lightening and winds ...
For the whole universe is in Him and He dwells within our hearts."