Equally alluring to men and women, attars have an androgynous quality. They strike intense floral, woodsy, musky, smoky, green, or grassy notes. Trotted out by season, attars can be both warm (cloves, cardamom, saffron, oud) and cooling (jasmine, pandan, vetiver, marigold).
(Related: Frankincense trees—of biblical lore—are being tapped out for essential oils.)
Kannauj produces these, as well as the dramatic attar mitti, which evokes the scent of earth after a rainfall and is made with shards of unfired Ganges clay. Shamama, another home-grown Kannauj invention, is a distilled blend of 40 or more flowers, herbs, and woody resins that takes days to make and months to age. The scent manages to harmonise sweet, spice, smoke, and damp and whisks one off to an otherworldly realm. Renowned perfume houses in Europe use Kannauj attar—be it rose, vetiver, or jasmine—as a layer, a compelling chord in the composition of modern perfumery.
The art of perfume-making
Kannauj has been concocting attar (also known as ittr) for over 400 years—more than two centuries before Grasse, in France’s Provence region, emerged as a perfume juggernaut. Known locally in Hindi as degh-bhapka, the artisanal method uses copper stills fuelled by wood and cow dung.
Kannauj is a four-hour drive from Agra and just shy of two hours from historic Lucknow, a former princeling state governed by the Nawabs of Oudh. Like many smaller Indian cities, Kannauj is wedged somewhere between past and present. Time here doesn’t move on, it simply piles up.
Crumbling sandstone ramparts, onion-domed minarets, and scalloped archways recall the town’s early grandeur as the seat of the Harshavardhana Empire in the sixth century. On the main drag, puttering scooters and the occasional glistening Mercedes careen past fruit sellers pushing wooden carts piled high with guavas and overripe bananas.
Duck into the narrow lanes of Bara Bazaar, the main market, and Kannauj reverts fully to medieval times. In this labyrinth, longtime shops are crammed with finely cut glass bottles holding attar and ruh, or essential oil, each smelling better than the last. Men sit cross-legged on cushioned floor mats, sniffing vials and dabbing behind their ears with extraordinarily long perfumed cotton swabs. Presiding over this age-old commerce is the attar sazh, or perfumer, conjuring and enticing with the aura of an imperial alchemist.
(Related: In a Kolkata market, the flower men wear their wares.)
“The world’s best perfumers have walked through these narrow lanes, making their way through mud and cow dung to get their hands on Kannauj attar. There is really nothing like it,” remarks Pranjal Kapoor, the fifth-generation partner at M.L. Ramnarain Perfumers, one of the oldest of roughly 350 distillers still operating here.
Tegh Singh arrives and unloads his bundles of blossoms in Kapoor’s godown, an open-air stone courtyard that serves as the distillery. Ram Singh, Kapoor’s master attar craftsman, scoops the petals into a bulbous copper still, and tops it with fresh water. Before fastening the lid, Ram Singh packs the rims with a clay and cotton mash, which hardens and creates a formidable seal.
When the flowery broth begins to simmer, steam flows from the still, via a bamboo reed, into a copper pot holding sandalwood oil, which readily imbibes the rose-saturated vapour.