Fragrant Earth: Is It Possible To Bottle The Scent Of First Rain?

Captivated by Kannauj, India's perfume capital.
Rose petals Kannauj
Rose oil, extracted from the petals of the Rosa damascena (damask rose) variety, is one of the most popular bases for perfume and ittar. Kannauj has several rose plantations, but the best and most aromatic petals are grown near Aligarh 200 km away. Photo: Frederic Soltan/Corbis/Imagelibrary

Two constables and a wooden bench are parked in the middle of a narrow, unpaved road. Behind them is my taxi with a young, belligerent driver at the wheel, and a two-hour-long unruly tail of buses and tempos. We’re at Bangarmau, a tiny city in Uttar Pradesh’s Unnao district, and one of the constables has just told us that we can’t go any further. Shivpal Singh Yadav, U.P.’s Public Works Department minister and Chief Minister Akhilesh Singh Yadav’s uncle, is holding a rally in the area. The entire district is hemmed in by rope boom barriers, and traffic is “not allow”.

There’s no reasoning with the constables, so I plead with them to let us pass on the basis of an invalid press card and an invented, ill husband. Finally, one of them lowers his voice and urges me to follow a cloud of dust rising to my left along a dirt path. It is the minister’s convoy and if anyone stops my taxi, unmarked by Samajwadi Party stickers, I am to pretend to be a journalist covering the campaign.

I’m only passing through Unnao on my way to Kannauj, a Yadav family stronghold since 1999, but my concerns are completely unpolitical. I’m headed to the city looking for mitti ittar, or petrichor perfume, intrigued by the idea that the scent of wet earth can be distilled into miniature glass vials. Several epithets—“India’s perfume capital”, “Grasse of the East”—have been applied to this nondescript town. According to estimates, its nearly 450 small and big ittar manufacturing units employ close to 40,000 people. The fragrance trails across the country (including to perfumers Gulabsingh Johrimal, my favourite shop in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk), the Middle East, and Europe’s perfume houses. Two years ago, the U.P. government had applied for a Geographical Indications registration for five articles manufactured in the state: The list included glassware from Ferozabad, Saharanpur’s wooden handicrafts, and perfume from Kannauj.

I learnt about the city’s fragrant credentials two years ago while researching a book on an allied business in neighbouring Kanpur. I stowed it away for a future visit, until late last year when a Twitter conversation with my social anthropologist friend, Sarover Zaidi, awakened me to the idea again. Sarover had tweeted about mitti ittar; she brought me an ampoule of the liquid from a Dongri perfumer on a subsequent meeting, and I was captivated by its woody-sweet notes.

Sandalwood oil Ittar

Most traders say the ittar industry is no longer profitable: The harvesting of flowers is a labour-intensive process, and the price of sandalwood oil continues to rise. Photo: Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images

Even though I’ve come looking for the earthy fragrance—and have lived away from north India for only over a year—I am unsettled by how dusty everything feels in the coarseness of early winter. I cough my way past moss-covered cattle bathing pools, colour-blocked neon mosques and temples, and a bewildering number of wall advertisements for “Raju Tents-Shankar DJ”, to arrive in Saraimeera on the outskirts of Kannauj. This corner of town is surrounded by cold storage warehouses and has one of the city’s two or three hotels. I brace myself for the musty smell of bed linen and cheap rose deodoriser that seem to infect most small-town establishments. Instead, the lobby of Hotel Rajdhani is pervaded by the same perfume I have come looking for. The manager Mr. Shukla—a man given to long, meditative silences—is only prepared to answer queries about room rates and hotel facilities, and is completely nonplussed by my excited questions about the hotel’s choice of air freshener. But he soon warms up to my little quest. None of the people I had made an appointment to meet are answering my calls, so I take up Shuklaji’s generous offer to give me a ride on his bike to the ittar shops in the heart of town.

Kannauj has been Akhilesh Yadav’s constituency for many years, and his wife, Dimple was elected unopposed to the Lok Sabha in the 2012 by-election. Posters all around the city allow neither locals nor visitors to forget that. But there is 24-hour power supply, Shuklaji tells me. That’s necessary for Kannauj’s cold storage units, several of which have been started by families involved in the ittar business. He’s convinced I am following the wrong story: The real one lies in the cold storage of potatoes from nearby Hardoi, because the city’s legacy as a perfume town has nearly faded.

But I detect no evidence of that in the Safdarganj and Farsh Street areas, where the bulk of ittar shops are concentrated. The streets look like Chandni Chowk’s Dariba Kalan from 10 years ago. Despite the trails left behind by the market’s sizeable canine and bovine traffic, it’s an olfactory playground. Shuklaji introduces me to Rajeev Khatri, the proprietor of Lala Kedarnath Khatri Perfumers in Katra, who answers all my ignorant questions with patience.

Ittar Counterfeit Perfume

Ittar shops produce low-cost counterfeits of famous perfumes that sell better than traditional fragrances. Photo: Chirodeep Chaudhuri

The Khatris established their shop in 1968 and manufacture all manner of synthetic perfumes and ittars. He tells me that the base for most ittars is expensive sandalwood oil, but several of Kannauj’s oil-producing factories have closed down in the last few years, leading to a slump in the industry. Most ittars are available either in floral variants—rose,motia, champa, genda—or as herb-spice mixes like hina and shamama. Mitti ittar, considered the hardest to extract, is one of a kind. I am surprised to learn of its uses: as an additive to paan masala and tobacco, as treatment for nosebleeds, and as an antidote to the craving to eat mud experienced by some pregnant women. He tells me all this while daubing my wrists and forearms with different ittars, and when we are up to my elbows on both sides, he offers to show me how mitti ittar is extracted at his factory down the lane.

Before we can leave, I ask Khatri what’s inside the large steel jars, labelled “Compound No 1” or “23”, perched behind a glass vitrine. He casually mentions “constituting” synthetic perfumes, since it’s no longer feasible to manufacture only ittar. “If you give me a perfume,” he says, “I can have it bottled and ready for you in three hours.” In other words, a counterfeit. I ask him if he has Cool Water. He swivels halfway in his chair and signals to one of the workers to bring me a bottle: It smells just like the real thing. I get such a kick out of the gaudy packaging, the handwritten Devanagari transliteration (“kul vaater”), the shifty nature of the enterprise, and the thrill of finding a whiff of Switzerland at home that I pick up ten 100-millilitre bottles as souvenirs for friends. I am disappointed that he is out of Hugo Boss Deep Red.

The six-room Khatri factory is on the ground level of a square plot adjoining their residence. One of his six workers is sealing packets of Vaseline with twine, another is sifting through rose petals, while the supervisor is checking the fourdeg-and-bhapka units in which ittar is produced. Khatri explains that while the scent is no longer stored in traditional camel-skin pockets (kuppis), the process of extraction has remained unchanged for the last several centuries.

The flower petals are placed in large wood-fired copper vats (degs) that are connected by hollow bamboo pipes to smaller vats (bhapka) full of sandalwood oil. Water is poured over the petals and the vats are then sealed with clay. Most factories make about three extractions from the same base: The first extract is the strongest and the scent wanes with every subsequent flush. The three extracts are then mixed together with sandalwood oil and bottled for use. In the case of mitti ittar, the process is repeated with clay cups (kulhads). Before the cups are dunked into the cauldrons, they should not have contact with water. “If you drink tea from the cup the first time,” Khatri says, “you’ll smell the earth. But if you refill the cup, it’s gone.”

We go over to Khatri’s home for tea and jacket potatoes, roasted in the embers of the deg’s woodfire. There I meet his father, who tells me about the Ain-e-Akbari legend I have heard twice since I landed in Kannauj. This is how it goes: A servant at Akbar’s palace in Agra noticed some drops of rose oil floating on the surface of Noorjehan’s bathing pool. He figured that the oil was accidentally produced when rose petals came in contact with warm water, and presumably devised the steam-and-condense process to extract it. The process soon caught on. “He was from Kannauj,” says the elder Mr. Khatri, as explanation of how the city’s ittar industry started. As I take their leave, he asks me if I have been to the Gaurishankar temple yet. I promise to go there the next day.

But the following day, I haul myself to the Fragrance and Flavour Development Centre (F.F.D.C.) despite Shuklaji’s gentle entreaties (“Arre, it is very far, madam.”) I walk for a few moments outside the hotel before hailing down a tonga that drops me to a “tempo” (shared autorickshaw) that deposits me outside the pale walls of the 25-acre property. I’ve spent all of 20 minutes on the road.

At F.F.D.C., the dynamic Mr. S.V. Shukla, the centre’s director, debunks the elder Mr. Khatri’s Noorjehan story with a PowerPoint presentation. “The ittar industry has existed since the time of emperor Harsh Vardhan (7th century),” he says. He shows me a picture of a terracotta deg-and-bhapka unit in the Takshila Museum in Lahore, Pakistan, discovered during an Indus Valley excavation. He also instructs me to read the ancient tract Charaka Samhita, which includes a list of the 26 different herbaceous and aromatic materials used in the composition of the therapeutic oil, anu tail. “Fifteen of those are used in the composition of hina and shamama,” he tells me above the sound of trains passing by Kannauj city’s railway station next door.

Perfume Kannauj Vat

The deg-and-bhapka process of extracting essence has remained unchanged for several centuries: Some experts pin it as far back as the Indus Valley civilisation. The petals are emptied into large vats that are connected to smaller ones to catch the extract, which is mixed with sandalwood oil. Photo: Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images

The centre is involved in a variety of activities to promote and scale up the ittar industry. They conduct workshops around the country, have set up gigantic distillation units, and several aromatic plantations—including rose, cypriol (nagarmotha), vetiver (khus), lemon, and turmeric—at the Kannauj campus. Babulal Baruah, one of the centre’s employees assigned to take me around, rattles off compound names, explaining the fine difference between basil and tulsi, but I am terribly distracted by the smells around me.

He puts me through a spot test, where I am to guess the origin of five essential oils. I am accurate about four samples, and find it unreal that I can find a specific memory with each fragrance. Fennel (sweet) reminds me of my mother’s purse, and post-lunch plunges into its depths for a carved silver box full of saunf; the refreshing orange neroli, of a college teacher who caught me snacking on a keenu orange in the middle of a lecture. Dreamy citronella is reminiscent of cool white sheets and Odomos-slathered summer nights on the terrace, during my Delhi childhood. The bitter and pungent neem smells of freezing winter mornings and being chased by my mother intent on disciplining my wild hair.

I leave with several bottles of all these oils, and another exhortation to visit the Gaurishankar temple. As I go, Baruah gives me a few petals of the hybrid Damask rose to eat. I can detect their bittersweet tang on my breath long after dinner.

Jasmine Bud Perfume Extraction

Flowers, like these jasmine buds, have to be picked by hand before sunrise. Their essence must be extracted the same day. Photo: Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images

The next morning, I take a tempo with Banarasi-brocade interiors and a loudspeaker blaring Akshay Kumar songs, down to the Gaurishankar temple. The complex, which also houses the Kshemkali temple, is administered by the Archaeological Survey of India. The shrine is clean, and isolated enough to accord young lovers breathing space, but those are about the only things going for it. The marriage and prayer halls look like gaudy fuschia confections, painted in candy-wrapper green and yellow. Local families have erected these, and even a marble bust of emperor Harsh Vardhan, which seems to be modelled on a blurry picture from a history textbook. On the commemorative plaques, I recognise several names from the perfume market, and decide my time will be better spent trekking one last time through the market’s aromatic galis.

I am back in Mumbai two days later. As I unpack my bag, I realise my clothes are strewn with lemongrass strands from F.F.D.C.; moist rose petals have made it inside my laptop’s skin. The bottles of ittar and oils I have bought, have mercifully survived the flight, and my living room is infused with a medley of perfume notes. Some of these vials will go to the friends they are meant for, but I know that even months later, a corner of my flat will always speak of a dusty little U.P. town.

Appeared in the April 2014 issue as “Fragrant Earth”.

Most ittars have a floral base, but herb-spice blends like hina and shamama are popular in Middle-Eastern countries. Photo: Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images

The Guide

Orientation Kannauj is a city in western Uttar Pradesh, located on the banks of the River Ganga, about 372 km/6 hours southeast of Delhi. It is located 160 km/3 hours west of the state capital Lucknow, on SH38, and 85 km/2 hrs north of Kanpur on NH91.

Getting There Kanpur is the closest airport to Kannauj, but Lucknow’s Chaudhary Charan Singh International Airport is better connected. There are several direct daily flights from Delhi and Mumbai to Lucknow, from where you can take a taxi (₹3,500 for a one-way trip) to Kannauj. The town has two railway stations, but Kanpur is the closest major railhead, and better connected with the rest of the country. The best way to get to Kannauj from Kanpur is via one of several express trains that halt at the two cities (₹75 for a one-way trip); taxi services connecting the two are scant.

Seasons Uttar Pradesh experiences a long, dry, hot summer (Apr-Oct) when temperatures hover around 35°C; May temperatures can go over 40°C. Winter (Nov-Mar) is comfortable, with an average daytime temperature of 22°C. July and August are the rainy months, but not uncomfortable.

Explore Kannauj’s ittar and perfume shops are concentrated around the Safdarganj, Subzi Mandi Road, and Farsh Street areas, located in the heart of the city. It’s best to take a tempo (shared autorickshaw) to one end of Subzi Mandi Road, and walk your way past the perfumers. The city also has a number of ASI-administered monuments and temples, including the Gaurishankarand Kshemkali Devi temple complex, Annapurna Devi temple, and the Bala Pir Dargah, but these are not well maintained.

Stay Accommodation options in Kannauj are severely limited; it’s a good idea to camp at Kanpur and drive to the city. Otherwise, Hotel Rajdhani has basic, clean rooms and linen. The in-house restaurant has poor lighting, but serves simple, vegetarian north Indian food (G.T. Road, Saraimeera; 05694-234215;; doubles from ₹1,800).


    Karanjeet Kaur was formerly Chief Senior Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She likes stumbling through small towns and is the last person to board the plane. She will always pick the mountains over the beach. She tweets as @kaju_katri.

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