The old surviving perfumery tradition of the country with its epicentre in the city of Kannauj, Uttar Pradesh, finds tangible expression in other major cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Lucknow and Hyderabad, in their in-built commercial spaces. This article looks primarily at the urban fabric of Delhi and the major traditional perfume or itr/attar shops that it houses in its commercial areas, in both old and new parts of the city.
The bazaar of Chandni Chowk, Delhi’s old market area, has been long associated with attar shops and attar sellers. Keeping the tradition alive, Chandni Chowk houses the city’s oldest perfumery, Gulab Singh Johri Mahal, in one of the busiest and most crowded lanes of Dariba Kalan. Amidst the dense rows of silver jewellery shops, the square box-shaped perfume shop stands gracefully disseminating its fragrances of itr/attar (natural perfume) near and far. The smell of itr is so intense and ubiquitous that one can easily locate the shop by trusting one's sense of smell and following the direction the scent is coming from.
The shop is like a historical artefact. Over 200 years old, it was established in 1816 by the father and son duo, Late Lala Johri Singh and Late Lala Gulab Singh. The surname 'Gundhi' came to be associated with their family in later years, with the title being adopted by their descendent and the visionary of the family business, Ram Singh Gundhi, who passed away on October 9, 2017. This man remained the main inspiration for the following generations involved in the perfume business, with his determination, belief in the potential of the itr business in the Indian soil, tremendous hard work, and uncompromising focus on quality, and he set the ideals and philosophy of their family business and the values to be passed on. The adoption of the surname Gundhi was derived from their long association with perfumes and their involvement in the perfume business. How the business came to be set up is not clearly recorded, but it is commonly believed that the itrs produced in this shop catered to the court and to the needs of the Mughal emperor, Akbar Shah II (reigned 1806–1837), and other members of the royal family.
The family identity is now synonymous with the craft of itr manufacture. Presently run by the three brothers belonging to the same Gundhi family, Atul Gundhi (the eldest brother), Praful Gundhi (the middle brother) and Mukul Gundhi (the youngest brother), Gulab Singh Johri Mahal’s perfume trade continues to grow far and wide in fame and influence.
Mukul Gundhi, the youngest of the three brothers, shared how itr-making is a fine craft and conducting business in perfume entails sharp vision. It depends on the geographical location, demand for the product, and the thought pattern or mentality of the people at large. Located in Dariba Kalan, the business had to adjust itself to the changing times. Urbanization spread, the residential population grew, commercialization increased, and as a result the nature of the market of Chandni Chowk also changed. The products were diversified so as to cater to all kinds of taste. The fragrant products are in the form of natural itrs, synthetic perfumes, agarbatti (incense sticks), soaps and various oils.
The production of natural itrs is carried out through the deg and bhapka system, mostly through the process of steam distillation. It is a costly, labour-intensive process, says Mr Gundhi. It requires skilled labour and the distilleries should be located close to the raw materials. As a result the deg-and-bhapka process is not feasible in metro cities, and is only possible on the outskirts, using fresh raw materials such as wood and cow dung, requirements to which a metro city like Delhi cannot cater. Moreover, the price of the natural non-alcoholic itrs is rocketing higher each day due to the increasing price of sandalwood oil in which the ingredients are collected after distillation. The price of the other raw materials, the cost of the labour involved and the transport cost also contribute to the pricing of the natural perfumes. By contrast, synthetic perfumes are cheaper, can be blended on the table top based on standard formulas, and depend on the standard proportion of the fragrant ingredients. Mr Gundhi goes on to say that, despite all the modern market forces, the blending of aromatics remains the most important part of this art-like trade, and the most delicate step of this craft. It is the most important trade secret which is kept safe and developed and fine-tuned solely within the family.
There are a diverse range of perfumes in their shop: the most famous and highest-selling natural and pure itr is Ruh-e-Gulab which is made of sandalwood oil and gulab essence extracted from roses grown in Uttar Pradesh and blended. Other itrs are prepared from natural raw materials like chameli (jasmine), musk-e-ambar, mitti, khash, keora and heena. The prices depend on the concentration of the essential oils. The most expensive itr is the Ruh-e-Gulab which costs Rs. 18,000 per 10-gram bottle, and the cheapest essence of rose comes for Rs. 1000. Jasmine itr is also quite popular. Mitti itr manufactured and mainly procured from Kannauj also has a special appeal among customers.
The shop has a tradition of catering to a range of customers, coming from near and far, from various cities and countries. Many celebrities of the country are also loyal customers of these products. While interviewing Mr Gundhi, two men came to purchase two bottles of shahi gulab to be offered to Shyam Bab, an avatar of Krishna worshipped in Rajasthan, the nearest temple to whom stands on the Delhi–Jaipur Highway. He happens to be one of the regular customers. Besides, many other customers of diverse age groups, income groups and interests are regular visitors to the shop. The shop also caters to the demands of connoisseurs of fine scents and foreign customers who are ready to pay for exotic natural and pure itrs. Exporting is still a problem but slowly they are diversifying into that part of the business as well. Mr Gundhi mentions in this context an episode where a lady from Australia came to Rishikesh to attend a religious congregation; she mailed him about her requirement of a specific kind of agarbatti. Once the mail was replied to, she transferred the money by evening and the product was dispatched readily. Due to the finesse and delicacy of the products, the Gundhi family is not yet ready for a ‘cash-on-delivery’ business.
It has been sheer hard work and uncompromising quality control that has kept alive the legacy of Gulab Singh Johri Mahal for over two centuries now. Mr Gundhi also acknowledged the contribution of the FFDC of Kannauj and the initiatives taken by Mr Shakti Vinay Shukla, Director of FFDC, in keeping the ittar tradition and the craft alive and vibrant. At the same time, he expressed his disappointment at the sudden suspension of the itr melas or perfume fairs that were held yearly at the INA market, Delhi. He urged the resumption of such congregations and the overcoming of all differences and pettiness, as it would only add to the prospects of the traditional perfume industry of the country, and help spread its aroma further in the coming years.
Apart from Gulab Singh Johri Mahal, there is another perfume shop in Delhi that caters particularly to the traditional perfume industry. Located on Janpath, Arihant Fragrances was established in 1979 by Mr Surender Jain. The first shop was opened in Palika Bazaar, and the Janpath shop was opened by Mr Arihant Jain in partnership with his father in 1995. The other two chains are Meghna Dry Fruits located in Lajpat Nagar, and Meghna Aromatics in Tughlakabad Extension. The inception of this business was not out of the love for perfumes. It started as a small dry fruits chain but later expanded to include itrs for profit-making purposes, as the potential of the industry was realised. The main inspiration was the heritage of Gulab Singh Johri Mahal and their craftsmanship in blending perfumes. Whatever the genesis, the business, Mr. Arihant Jain feels, is a curious combination of passion, talent and profit-making. The craft as well as the business grows on the person. The main trick of the business lies in the blending which is a matter of great creativity. He feels that despite the high costs of the natural itrs, the industry has a lot of potential because of the positive qualities of the natural products: they are pure, natural, alcohol-free with no added preservatives, safe for the skin with no side effects, highly concentrated, beneficial for blood circulation, help in healing, and have no shelf-life—in fact, they get better and stronger with time.
The shop has a range of perfumes starting from Rs. 200 per ml to Rs. 3000–4000 per ml depending on the ingredients and the concentration of the essential oil. Saffron, rose and ‘Ud’ itrs are expensive, while lavender and lily are the cheap ones. Beautiful names are attached to the perfumes to attract customers, for example, Jannat-e-Firdas, Majmu-e-Gulab, Al-Hind and Al-Habib are perfumes more often liked by western customers. There are many fixed customers. Many Germans order itrs in bulk and some Indian customers too have remained regular since 1975.
A very passionate, determined and optimistic young man, Mr Arihant Jain is convinced that the traditional Indian perfume industry has huge potential. And itrs blended by Arihant Fragrances are known for their texture, lightness and long-lasting smell. He dreams of expanding his work in such a way that the people of India recognise India, not Dubai or the Middle East, as the real land of perfumes whose inheritance dates back to the Indus Valley Civilization.
Scattered in the old and the new parts of the city, these two shops are undoubtedly keeping alive the perfumery legacy of the country. Unlike the other cities such as Lucknow, Mumbai and Kolkata, Delhi does not have a market specific to ittars. But these two scent shops and a few more small and informal shops selling itr near Nizamuddin Dargah and Jama Masjid, Chandni Chowk, contribute to the perfume-economy and the smellscape of the city. They remind us once again that when creativity blends with business in the right proportion, it produces the best fragrance.
Hara, Minoru. 2010. 'A Note on Sanskrit Gandha'. Studia Orientalia Electronica 108:65–86.
McHughes, James. 2012. Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in Indian Religion and Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.
 The Sanskrit word gandh means scent; the perfumers since ancient times have been referred as gandhikah or as Gandhi, and the perfume-merchants as gandhabaniks.
 The attars are made using a centuries-old technique of hydrodistillation, with copper vessels called deg (kettle) or stills, with openings for connections to the bhapka (receivers).