Scents and Sensuality in India

in Overview
Published on: 31 May 2018

William Dalrymple

William Dalrymple is a historian, art critic and writer based in the UK and New Delhi, India. His non-fiction books have received numerous awards and he is also one of the co-founders of the Jaipur Literature Festival.


Surrounded by thick forest on a hilltop plateau lost in the jungles of central India, Mandu is reached by a narrow road that corkscrews steeply up a near-vertical ravine. At the top lies a landscape of fallen palaces, shattered domes and overgrown arcades—all that remains of one of the most singular experiments in pleasure that the world has ever seen.


Fig.1: Perched on the Vindhyas with the Malwa plateau to the north and the Narmada valley to the south, the rocky outcrop of Mandu held a strategic role in the land route between the North and South of the subcontinent.


Figs. 2-3: The rugged landscape is dotted with ruins, mostly from the Khalji rulers in the Sultanate of Malwa. Ghiyas-ud-din shifted the capital of the Malwa Sultanate from Dhar to Mandu in the late 15th century.


In 1469, Ghiyath Shahi succeeded to the throne of the Sultanate of Malwa, which then controlled much of the region. In his accession speech, the new sultan announced a major change of state policy. For 34 years, he said, he had supported his father in enlarging his dominions by the sword. Now, he declared, he would no longer seek to extend his territories. His son, Nasir Shah, would assume responsibility for the day-to-day running of the state. In the meantime, Shahi proposed to give himself up to the pleasures of this world, in the hope that his subjects would also share in the delights of this life, as a foretaste of those in the next.


Fig. 4: Domed pavilion of the Jahaz Mahal (or Ship Palace) framed by an ornate floral window, late 15th century


Fig.5: A series of sloping arches in the Hindola Mahal (or Swinging Palace). These highly inclined buttresses that angle over 77 degrees give this large durbar or audience hall the name ‘Hindol’.


Fig. 6: Jahaz Mahal was built by Ghiyas-ud-din between two large artificial lakes to house his large harem. From a distance, the palace looks as if it were a ship (Jahaz) afloat in the water body.


Shahi set about his new policy with gusto. He filled Mandu with 16,000 beautiful female slaves and the good-looking daughters of his feudatory rajahs; to house them, he set about constructing lavish palaces with lotus- and star-shaped pleasure pools. According to their talents and proclivities, some were taught dancing and drama, others the art of music, singing or flute-playing. A few were trained as wrestlers. The brighter princesses were given a thorough education and invited to join the sultan at meals, or else trained to run the administration, keeping accounts or administering the state factories. The walled hilltop citadel was henceforth defended by an army of 500 armour-clad Abyssinian women.


Fig. 7: Spiral aquaduct built by Ghiyas-ud-din in the late 16th century. Water forms an integral part of the paradisiacal landscape that Ghiyas-ud-din hopes to achieve in his pleasure palace.


Fig. 8: This stunning piece of water architecture fuses motifs of a floral/cusped archway alongside with step-wells popular in North India.


Meanwhile the sultan set to work recording the things that gave him the most intense pleasure. His book ‘Ni’mat­nama’, or ‘Book of Delights’, survives today in the British Library, having passed through the eager hands of the Mughals and Tipu Sultan before being packed off in 1799 to the greyer skies of London by the conquering East India Company.


Fig. 9: Leaf from the Ni’matnama or The Book of Pleasures, currently housed at the British Library, one of the earliest instance of a cookbook illustrated with fine miniature paintings in the pre-Mughal style. This recipe book contains recipes for cooking curries, snacks, sweetmeats and also fragrances or attars.


Fig. 10: The double pot distillery to extract some of the faintest and most refined essential oils from flowers and spices from the Ni’matnama manuscript, late 15th century.


The book is one of the greatest records of the life and pleasures of the bon viveur ever written. It includes advice on all manner of matters, such as hunting expeditions (don’t leave home without a picture of your beloved, camphor to have rubbed into your feet, your best sparrow hawk and a cheetah or two). There are pages of recipes, which range from ten different ways to concoct the perfect samosa (don’t forget to add saffron, fried aubergines and ginger) to instructions for making the medieval Indian equivalent of Viagra: Ghiyath swears by sparrow brains fried in milk and ghee—eat this, he writes, and smear a mixture of balsam oil, cardamom, Tibetan musk and honey on your penis, and the combination will produce ‘strong lust…desire returns, joy is bestowed on the heart, there are erections and semen flows.’


The biggest surprise of the ‘Ni’matnama’, however, is its focus on olfactory pleasure and its obsession with perfumery, which Ghiyath clearly regards as important to the life of the true hedonist and as much a subject for refined connoisseurship as his modern Western equivalent might regard his wine cellar. About half the book is taken up with advice on distilling rosewater, and recipes for incense, deodorants and fragrant salves. The sultan was especially concerned with designing the most perfect ittars, or aromatic oils.


There are several chapters devoted to perfumes for the House of Pleasure, which contain some of the most detailed advice in the whole book. They give the recipe for a perfumed paste, known as ’abir, whose aroma has been enhanced by the addition of a stupendous list of ingredients: ‘[Add] mango, ambergris, saffron, musk, essence of mouse-ear plant, Chinese camphor, boiled juice of spikenard; put in flowers scented with aloes, white sandal, sesame oil scent, sweet basil, artemesia essence, turmeric-leaf essence, sacred basil essence, cardamom juice, sandal juice.’


Fig. 11: Illustration of the mustachioed Sultan Ghiyas-ud-din enjoying the company of his numerous concubines in the Jahaz Mahal.


His directions for scenting a woman’s body show the same detailed concern with creating the most sophisticated kaleidoscope of fragrances: ‘Rub perfume separately into each joint,’ he suggests. ‘[Use] pellets of perfumed paste. Wash the hands in rosewater. Take the sap from the bark of the mango tree and from the bark of the wild-fig tree and from the pepal tree and wash the body [with it]. Rub aromatic paste, perfume and musk into the armpits. Rub rosewater and musk onto the intimate parts and rub sandal on the throat. Essence of musk is good for the mouth. Rub rosewater on the forehead, use scented-flower oils of every kind, make ’abir with the sweet scent of jasmine, polish the front teeth, rub perfume into the handkerchief, wash the whole body with rosewater. Put on a white chador and apply scent to it.’


The ‘Book of Delights’ is important, for it brings into confluence for the first time two of the ancient world’s most sophisticated traditions of perfumery: that emanating from Persia and Arabia, on the one hand, and a quite separate ancient Indian tradition that goes back to the time of the Vedas in the first millennium BC. It also reveals most clearly how, in India, mastery of the science of perfumery was once regarded as an essential part of the art of living. Perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, knowing how to use scent was seen not just as a matter of sophistication, but an essential cornerstone of a civilised life too.


It is an art for which India was once envied and famed—but which is now much diminished. Today, when someone arrives in India they will pass through a duty-free area filled with the same alcohol-based fragrances that are available in any other big city around the world. Most of these originate from the four major Parisian perfume houses, and all derive their techniques from a tradition that has its roots in the experiments of the perfumiers of Grasse from the 16th century onwards. The Delhi duty-free shop contains not one single fragrance made in India.


Fig. 12: A series of glass vials that contain the famed perfumes of Northern India.


After the Great Uprising (or Mutiny) of 1857, when the British conquered and dispersed the princes of Delhi and Lucknow, the two last remaining North Indian Indo-Islamic courts, the ittar business hit hard times. The perfumiers served the wealthy Muslim ruling class of those great cities and depended on its sense of style; but the rise of the industrial Hindu middle class did not favour their trade. Hindustani music and classical dance, which appealed to the recently enriched, found new patrons and migrated easily from the court to the concert hall and stage. But the arts that had appealed to the Mughal princely class—miniature painting and perfume-making—faced a future of ever-diminishing demand.


Fig. 13: Ittar-saz in Lucknow


Kannauj is the ancient centre of ittar manufacture. Once renowned as India’s most magnificent city, it has been sacked many times; the ruins of old temples and battered mosques and shrines dot the fields around the dusty, sprawling village that forms the modern town. These days, apart from an archaeological museum displaying fragments of seventh-century sculpture, all that remains of the city’s former sophistication are 100-odd ittar distillers. They stayed, after the courts had vanished, because the alluvial soils, fertilised by hundreds of years of monsoon Ganges floods, are particularly well-suited to growing rose and jasmine. As one ittar-loving friend put it: ‘The most fragrant roses on Earth rise in this blood-stained soil.’



Figs. 14-15: Kannauj is one of the most important centres of attar manufacture in all of South Asia. The entire process remains largely unmechanised and artisanal, following the footsteps of old techniques, skills and scents.


I smelled Abdul Gafoor’s ittar distillery before I saw it. Down a narrow lane came the mingled scent of wood smoke mixed with a strong whiff of flowers, sandalwood and spice. Double doors opened onto a space, dotted with goats and chickens, that was part-farmyard and part-factory. In the centre of a big courtyard were two lines of large copper pots or deghs, facing onto a series of water-filled cooling tanks. Each tank was connected by a long-necked copper receptacle known as a bhapka, which lay, filled with sandalwood oil, partially suspended in the cold water. Linking degh and bhapka were two pipes of hollow bamboo through which the vapour, or rooh, would travel.


It looked remarkably rustic, but, as Abdul Gafoor explained, the simple machinery powered a manufacturing process that crystallised thousands of years of experience and generations of experiments with different formulae. For making shamama, for example, each family of distillers had their own secret combination of ingredients, including lichen, juniper berries, nutmeg, mace, turmeric, spikenard, oak moss, cardamom, clove buds, laurel berry, valerian and red sandalwood. After the different botanicals had been ground, the copper cauldron would be filled with water and the fires lit. Once hot enough, the lichen would be added and distilled for four hours into the bhapka. The other ingredients would be added at successive distillations, each adding a new layer of complexity. Every distiller jealously guards their hereditary recipes, regarding them as more sophisticated and subtle than those of their neighbours.


Different ittars, Gafoor said, have to be made at different times of day. As jasmine gives out its perfume most strongly at night, it should be harvested before dawn, brought to the distillery no later than 4 am and added to the still before first light, when the perfume begins to disappear. Ittar of roses, in contrast, should be distilled soon after dawn; the roses would be delivered at 7 am and the fires started an hour later.


After several weeks of distillation, the oil, like a good wine, is set aside to age. In due course, it would be sold for a minimum of $1,500 a kilo. The problem, explained Abdul Gafoor, was that because many of the traditional ingredients were now elusive or unobtainable—the trade in musk pods was banned in the 1970s, and that in sandalwood is now highly regulated—and because the users tend these days to be old and far from rich, fewer and fewer manufacturers have been able to resist the temptation to replace expensive botanicals with cheap chemicals. ‘I would guess as many as 80% now secretly adulterate their ittar with synthetics,’ he said. ‘The new generation know little about ittar. So few connoisseurs are left who can still appreciate or notice the difference.’


In the narrow bazaars of the holy city of Varanasi, an old ittar-saz acknowledged that this substitution had happened in most of the ittars they sell: ‘The distillers are getting increasingly clever about finding and designing chemical substitutes,’ said Anand Mehrotra as he sat in his office near the burning ghats. ‘How to ensure the purity of ingredients? It is all mixed up. This is what the business is now about.’


He wobbled his head from side to side in resigned disapproval: ‘And anyway,’ he said, ‘many young people just want new alcohol-based scents like this.’ He waved his hand at what he said were his two most popular lines: Black Cash and Facebook.


For India’s ancient traditions of scent to be saved before the manufacturing processes, recipes and secret family formulae are lost, they have to surmount several impediments. In addition to the legislation affecting trade in ingredients, there is the problem of fashion and perception: for many Indians, ittar has come to be associated with ancient grandmothers dabbing it behind their ears with buds of cotton wool, and bearded gentlemen in frock coats loitering in the narrow bazaars of old cities.


But some of India’s leading young perfumiers think they can change this. Often trained in the West, they are convinced that there is much to be learned from traditional Indian perfumery. Work is being done to find out if some of the formulae can be adapted for Western consumption in an alcohol-based form. And there have already been a few successful attempts to repackage ittars and make them available in high-end boutiques, such as the Maharajah of Jodhpur’s store in the Mehrangarh Fort. This echoes what happened with traditional scents in some Arab countries. In Dubai, for example, the Arabian ittars are sold in modern malls as luxury items to the top tiers of UAE society. There, connoisseurs like to layer their scents, to mix the rich, deep notes of traditional Middle Eastern ittar with top notes from lighter Western perfumes.


And there are entrepreneurs involved in the world of Indian aromatics who are waking up to the untapped potential of the ittar tradition, such as Vivek Sahni, who is about to launch a range of upmarket ayurvedic ittars, and Anita Lal who runs Good Earth, India’s biggest design house, which has done a great deal to bring Indian aromatics to the market. ‘We haven’t yet worked out the packaging, or how to apply the oil,’ Lal says, ‘but I feel strongly that we need to crack this. The tradition is still there; it’s intact. But it won’t be for much longer. It’s time to rescue it and I promise you, we will rescue it.’


The perfumier who has done most to revive ittar is, appropriately enough, of Lucknavi stock. Jahnvi Dameron Nandan trained in Versailles and recently started her own India perfume brand, The Perfume Library, inspired by Indian scents and ingredients. ‘Alcohol is a great diffuser of scent,’ she said. ‘But oil is more intimate, closer to the skin. The two can work well together, and this is something many Middle Eastern connoisseurs are discovering. Ittars come from the earth, they are in some way the art of the earth, and are associated with cultures that live closer to the earth. There is so much we can learn from the arts of the traditional ittar-saz.’


Jahnvi explained that she was just about to launch her first oil-based scent, Afturi, inspired by traditional jasmine ittars: ‘I am very ambitious for what we can do with these amazing fragrances, working with naturals and botanicals [rather than synthetics] which stem from the country’s ayurvedic and ittar traditions, and using traditional ingredients ranging from sacred basil and tumeric to cypriol, mimosa, mango and cardamom. I plan to take oil-based fragrances global in 2017. Alcohol can damage your skin, but pure oil-based fragrances are not just good for your skin, they are healing for your spirit.’


She points out that traditional Indian ingredients are some of the most sought-after in the world: ‘Indian vetiver is used in Guerlain fragrances. Dior and Mugler use the sambac variety of jasmine from Mysore, which is superb. Indian tuberose is also considered the best.’ With a flourish, Jahnvi produced a small bottle from her bag. ‘Meet Afturi,’ she said, spraying a small drop on my wrist. Immediately, the restaurant filled with a subtle and sensual jasmine scent with clear back notes of sacred basil, and maybe also some lime and tuberose. It was an ittar, but an exceptionally light one, and rather than applying it with cotton wool buds, Jahnvi had found a way of using a diffuser spray: ‘Spraying a fragrance on your palms is definitely the most modern gesture of applying it on scent or clothing,’ she said. ‘I think it’s essential that we find new gestures of diffusion if we’re to bring ittar back into use with our middle class.’


‘Afturi is a work in progress,’ she continued. ‘It’s not quite there yet.’ Then she surprised me again: ‘I’m currently using the recipes of the “Ni’matnama” to help me complete the composition. I’m waiting for the moment of inspiration when Ghiyath Shahi will help me find the right note to round it off.’


I asked if she was often in the habit of looking at 15th-century texts from the Sultanate period to find inspiration to crack a modern market. ‘It depends,’ she replied. ‘Much of my sense of scent comes from my Lucknow genes—you just have to find the right way to bring it out and let it take form and then make it. Indian perfumery is largely an oral tradition. None of the ittar-saz in Lucknow will ever write down their compositions—they are family secrets and too precious ever to be committed to paper. It’s all handed on by word of mouth. But there are many ancient texts like the “Ni’matnama” which can help us recreate that world of fragrance and feeling that is now lost.’


She sprayed the Afturi onto her wrist and took a small sniff. ‘I sometimes feel like a child playing on the foreshore,’ she said. ‘And in front of me is this whole ocean of knowledge that we perfumiers today have barely begun to explore.’


From 1843 magazine © 2017 The Economist Newspaper Limited, London. All Rights Reserved.