The word ‘Attar’ or ‘Ittar’ comes from an ancient Persian word ‘attar’, ‘otto’ or ‘ottar’, that means perfume, fragrance or scent.
Attar are prepared products of essence of flowers, herbs, spices and other natural materials over the base oil by traditional hydro-distillation method with deg and bhapka. It is being made and used over centuries in India especially at Kannauj.
Attar is quite ancient in India; it’s more than 5,000 years old. We find mentions of fragrance and perfume in the olden Indian epics and Granths. The earliest record of perfume-making in India can be found in the ‘Bri- hat Samhita’, an encyclopaedia authored by the 6th century philosopher Varahamihi- ra – who lived in the north Indian city of Ujjain. The kings would begin their day with fragrance. According to ‘Agni Purana’, they would take baths with over 150 varieties of fragrances. A large number of men and women were engaged in preparing fragrances amongst whom the woman numbered the most. These women were called Gandhkarika or Gandhhadika. These fragrances were known as Itra.
Archaeological evidence shows the earliest inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent held plants in great reverence. With the passage of time, scented oils were extracted by pressing, pulverizing or distilling aromatics vegetable and animal produce. Such processes led to the development of the art of alchemy, the earliest indications of which are available from the perfume jars and terracotta containers found in excavation of the Indus valley civilization.
This art of perfumery has survived for centuries and speaks volume for the Indian perfumes. Archaeological excavations of Indus valley civilization (Now Northwest India, Pakistan and Afghanistan) have revealed round copper stills are called “degs‟. Following the seasons of the flowers, traditional attar-makers, with their degs, travelled all over India to make their fresh attars on the spot. Even today, few traditional “ittar- makers'' travel with their degs during the harvesting period. Their equipment has changed little over a period of thousands of years!
There are many sources which cite that use of attar oils and fragrances added a nice whiff to life during the Mughal times in India. Most of the Mughal emperors and their queens were fond of attar fragrances and this led to the discovery and development of attars in India. Court historian Abu’l-Fazl ibn Mubarak chronicled Mughal emperor Akbar’s regular usage of attar and incense sticks in the Ain-e-Akbari (Constitution of Akbar) – a 16th-century detailed document. According to historians, the popular Mughal emperor Akbar had a whole department of perfumery so that he and his successors could keep their bodies (and minds) well scented in a region where the hot climate could be countered effectively.
There are several stories about the origin of attar, including one involving Mughal emperor Jahangir, who is credited as the first patron of the industry because his wife, empress Noor Jahan was a connoisseur of itra and used to bathe in water perfumed with rose petals. Soon people began experimenting with natural scents, with the encouragement of Jahangir, leading to a culture of attar-making that continues to this day.
According to some sources, the process of development of attar from roses was discovered by the Mughal queen Noorjahan.
The ruler of Awadh, Ghazi-ud-Din Haidar Shah used to prepare fountains of Attar around his bedroom. These fountains would create a very pleasant fragrant and romantic atmosphere by functioning continuously.
Jasmine Ittar was the favourite perfume of the Nizams of the Hyderabad state. The fondness for itra during Mughal periods reached its acme; the Mughal had settled the Gandhies (experts in making itras) sanctioned them lands and let them make the different varieties of itras. Even to this day, rose cultivation on a massive scale is going on in the Malwa borders of Rajasthan from where different species of beauteous roses are exported to the foreign countries and within the union territories.
The history of attars is very much associated with the history of Kannauj, a small town in Uttar Pradesh in India, 200km from New Delhi, well known in ancient time as “Harsh Vardhan City” today it prides itself as the “Attar City” or the perfume city of India. This town connects to the legacy of Itra from ancient time to till date through Mughal period and Awadh Riyasa.
Kannauj perfume has a long historical background and Kannauj had perfume trading for thousands of years. Due to the key role of perfume production in Kannauj, the city is known as “the perfume capital of India” and “Kannauj is to India what Grasse is to France”. An expert in the region says: “Kannauj has been the perfumery town of the country for thousands of years”.
Legend has it that the forest dwelling ascetics used certain fragrant jungle herbs and roots in their bonfires during the winters. The shepherds who grazed their sheep in that region found die perfume lingering in the burnt wood, long after the ascetics left the place. Word spread about this incident and some enterprising people searched and found fragrant herbs and roots. Then the experiments on ittar began and the first ittar were finally made in Kannauj