< Back to Newsletters

Visit to Kannauj 6—Deeper into Kannauj

Visit to Kannauj -- February 1996

Part 6: Deeper into Kannauj

Following this meeting with Mr. Kapoor we went to a little museum that had been started by Dr. Agnihotri some years back when he was a practicing physician in Kannauj. He had since retired to Lucknow and later in the trip I had the chance to meet with him. Mr. Awasthi and another local man, Mr. Sharma, who is the current Director had assisted him in this project and were carrying on with the collection. One becomes tremendously moved when coming into contact with such collections which are the work of love carried on by people who have little to gain financially from such a project. Working with very little funds, these dedicated men had made a nice display of articles found in the area dating from 3,000 B.C. onwards. Some of the sculptural pieces where of rare beauty. Their dedication to this cause was such that they had even put together a book in Hindi, replead with photographs explaining in written and visual form the contents of the museum. Seeing their work I was reminded of how important it is to follow ones dream even if no one else believes in it or supports it. There have been times while working on this project, that I have felt a little downhearted and discouraged because I could not find anyone to help fund the most basic part of it. But as it has begun to unfold I have realized that even if no one else becomes interested in what I am doing I shall have been amply rewarded by the people I have meant and the places I have seen. This is a treasure that lives in the heart and cannot be bought at any price.

On the way to visiting Mr. Amarnath Tandon the proprietor of one of the oldest perfume houses in Kannauj, I was able to visit the home of a local potter engaged in making the pots of clay from special Kannauj earth used in the manufacture of Mitti attar. I was taken onto the roof of the house and this simple little man squatted on the ground and quickly turned out small pots using the simple tools of his trade. Towards the end of this delightful experience his little son came and sat next to him and we all laughed as we realized that the coming generation was already in training.

The home, factory, and office of Mr. Amarnath exuded history and culture. We passed through the outer gate into the inner courtyard and beheld elegantly constructed buildings that transported one into a quiet refined era. On the street one is aware to some extent of the presence of the modern world even in an old city like Kannauj, but when one enters such a courtyard one feels if they could be in another time and place hundreds of years ago. These experiences sometimes gave me the sense that I was on a magic carpet ride.

Mr. Amarnath graciously welcomed us into his abode which one entered through a exquisitely carved door. He showed us a written work he had produced in Hindi on the perfume industry of Kannauj that was a combination of thorough research and life-long experience. I hope that I will be able to translate it as it is one of the vital keys to understanding what has happened here over the centuries. His paper contains direct quotes from ancient scriptures and historical texts regarding the use of fragrance in the religious and social lives of the people.

In our discussions with him the subject of fragrance came up as it did at almost every place we visited. A topic of great interest to me is how the attars have been used at different seasons of the year. We touched on this subject briefly and from him I could determine that each oil has its special season of use according to its heating or cooling properties. Vetivert, Sandalwood, and Rose are said to be oils to be used during the hot season as they have cooling properties, Hina to be used during the cool season as it has warming properties, and Jasmine during the rainy season. I hope that as time goes on I will be able to find more information on the subject. Often these uses are linked with beautiful stories from India's ancient epics which adds another dimension to there use during special seasons of the year.

Before leaving Mr. Amarnath's home arrangements were made to return the next day to pick up samples of his oils, to visit the factory and shop and to view several special items related to the perfume industry which have been in his family for generations and which are connected with the time when the Mogul Empire was in full feather.

Our next visit was to the factory of Lala Pragatti and Co. which was flourishing under the able guidance of Mr. Mordwaj Saini, his three brothers and their families. There operation had only been in existence since 1969 but due to a committed family effort they had developed their operation into one of great prosperity. Adjacent to the factory was a virtual palace that housed this extended household. One of the unique characteristics of this factory which included a steam distillation unit for sandalwood and vetivert, and a hydro-distillation for attars, was the careful separation of wild vetivert according to the region of North India from where it came. In a number of places I had seen the distillation of this root going on but no attention was paid to its origin. Vetivert is a material that varies greatly in odor and chemical characteristics from place to place. Dr. Maheswari, who was accompanying us, has devoted a lot of time to research on this subject and had himself traveled to various regions in the north to gather wild material. He was instrumental in setting up a facility near Delhi where over 20 varieties of the material are being carefully grown and propagated by tissue culture. In the wild this grass tends to cross with others of its species and so it is difficult to maintain any regularity in odor characteristics if a particularly pleasing note is desired. By growing this grass under controlled conditions and division through tissue culture it is now possible to do so. The wild vetivert of North India whatever be its specific origin is considered a unique material from the fragrance level. It is considered by many to be superior to anything that can be grown by cultivation techniques. Because of this it fetches a much higher price.

After viewing the courtyard in which the vetivert was kept, we were shown the steam distillation unit for sandalwood and vetivert. As this was a family of devote Hindu's the boiler was seen to have auspicious symbolic inscriptions upon it which were invocations for prosperity and success. The boiler is considered the heart of the operation and as such must be properly cared for and appreciated and so each year a special ceremony was performed to bless it. Other parts of the factory also displayed these symbolic invocations and it was evident that these good people were very respectful of all their equipment and facilities. Sandalwood distillation was in full swing while we were there and the owners explained to us that a typical distillation would go on for 7-9 days. The oil obtained from each days distillation was kept apart until the very end when all fractions would be mixed together to produce the "complete" oil.

Our visit to the factory concluded with a tour of the attar making facility where they were in the process of distilling a mixed compound called Shamana. Dusk was deepening and the interior of the building were the stills were kept was quite dark save for the fires burning under the cauldrons. I set up my camera and took a number of pictures hoping I could capture on film some of the unique atmosphere of the scene. Our hosts then took us over to their lovely mansion where we sat in a congenial atmosphere eating delicious sweets and tea. Indian hospitality is such that one must not leave the home of ones host without taking some small snack or food item. It is a deeply held belief in India that a guest is someone to be honored and respected in a very special way and the guest must in turn be sure to do justice to what is offered on their plate. As we had made numerous visits during the day I was quite filled with treats that I normally would not take but some how I made my way through another full dish of specially prepared goodies.

Visit to Kannauj 1 -- Meetings in New Delhi

Visit to Kannauj 2 -- Trip to Kannauj

Visit to Kannauj 3 -- Traditional Perfumeries of Kannauj

Visit to Kannauj 4 -- Production of Traditional Attars

Visit to Kannauj 5 -- Trip to the Ganges and Further Explorations of Kannauj

Visit to Kannauj 6 -- Deeper into Kannauj

Visit to Kannauj 7 -- Visit to a Sandalwood Distillery

Visit to Kannauj 8 -- Farewell to Kannauj