Inside Gulabsingh’s Attar Shop in Old Delhi, Centuries Old and Still Thriving

Established in 1816, the store in Chandni Chowk still has a few surprises.  
Chandni Chowk, Delhi, India
In addition to their collection of oils, perfumer Gulabsingh Johrimal blends bespoke fragrances on demand. Photo: Nitin Chaudhary

Delhi’s most famous old perfumery, the unassuming Gulabsingh Johrimal, blends into the surrounding chaos of Dariba Kalan in Chandni Chowk. I might have missed it but for the sweet scent of perfumes, essential oils, and attars that emanated from it, rising above the street’s dominant stench.

Established in 1816, Gulabsingh’s is an old hand at blending perfumes. The shop is simply set up: shelves line the walls, holding countless glass bottles of different shapes and colours. Behind a counter is the workspace, where oils from large jars are poured into smaller bottles and packed.

Besides essential oils, perfumes, and attars, the shop also has incense sticks, aromatherapy sets, room-fresheners, and accessories, such as small glass perfume bottles and diffusers. The scents range from the fundamental floral aromas of mogra, rose, jasmine, and sandal, to blends that mimic the latest commercial collections from the houses of Armani and Hugo Boss. Despite loud and tacky names—Funtoosh, Tehelka, Gadar, Aakarshan—these compositions are a fair approximation of the international brands they emulate.

The store combines fragrances like musk and rose to make handmade soaps, incense, and dhoop sticks. Photo: Nitin Chaudhary

The store combines fragrances like musk and rose to make handmade soaps, incense, and dhoop sticks. Photo: Nitin Chaudhary

After sampling dozens of the store’s popular scents, I asked for oud: a smutty, earthy fragrance that I was introduced to by an Arab friend in Dubai. Disconcerting, crude, and uninhibited, yet still strangely alluring, it smells the way I think men should smell.

Oud is serious business in the Middle East, where Arab men invariably dab on a few drops before stepping out. In the past couple of years, it has caught the fancy of the rest of the world as well. And it has a strong Indian connection: Oud is derived from the resinous heartwood of tropical agar trees, which are grown mostly in India and Bangladesh. This resin, worth Rs 2,000 per gram, is among the world’s most expensive natural raw ingredients.

I figured I could find a cheaper version at Gulabsingh Johrimal. “You won’t like it,” said Mukul Gundhi, the shop’s proprietor. “Many Indians think it smells of sweat.”

There was some truth to this statement. When I persisted, I was shown two bottles of blends: White Gold Oud and Amiri Oud. Both carried strong notes of oud, and were also faintly reminiscent of the foul-smelling lanes I had left outside. But, well, this was the smell I had sought. I left with not only two bottles of oud, but a whole bunch of sweet-smelling souvenirs.

Getting There

Gulabsingh Johrimal has two shops in Old Delhi. The head office is at shop number 320, Dariba Kalan. A newer shop is located at 467, Chandni Chowk (011-23271345; www.gulab-singhjohrimal.com). Prices for 10 ml bottles start at Rs 30; popular fragrances are about Rs100, oud Rs 600.

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    Nitin Chaudhary is an adrenaline rush-seeking travel writer who lives in Malmo, Sweden. He hopes to travel the world in a boat.

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