The origins of perfume go back to the dawn of time. The attar is one of the first form of fragrance that came into being thousands of years ago. True witness of the history of perfumery, attar reveals an ancestral tradition full of mysteries. Discover the origins of this non-alcoholic perfume reated in India, still very popular in the Middle East.
Attar, a historical perfume
What is attar, this oily perfume?
The attar is an oily perfume, therefore without alcohol, which has its origin in India and the Middle East. Of Arabic etymology, the term attar (also written atr, ittar or othr) could be translated by “scent”. This word would be itself a derivative of sugandha, a Sanskrit term which means “aromatic”. Perfume was born thousands of years ago, when the first civilizations crushed and then infused plants, particularly flowers and wood bark, in water or oil.
Thanks to numerous discoveries, perfume has gradually turned to the use of alcohol. This material is used as a solvent, to “carry” the olfactory molecules. The manufacture of attar does not require alcohol. It is traditionally created with vegetable oil, usually sandalwood oil. The attar is thus a very unctuous and often very persistent perfume. A single drop is enough to embalm you for several days…
A thousand-year-old manufacturing process
The method of making attar, called degh-bhapka in Hindu, has hardly evolved since its beginnings. This artisanal process uses copper stills that the perfumers heat with wood and cow dung! Flower petals (rose, tuberose, jasmine…), spices or wood shavings are poured into the degh, the name of the still, then covered with water. Once the vat is closed, the craftsmen coat it with cotton and clay on the edges. This mixture creates a kind of seal, which will harden and become airtight. The water is then brought to the boil. Thanks to a bamboo rod, the odor-laden steam is deposited in another copper tank, called a bhapka. This one contains the sandalwood oil. It is this oil that will “absorb” the steam saturated with odoriferous molecules.
This process can take about ten hours and is often repeated for several days with fresh plants to reach the expected concentration. The attar is then put in camel skin bottles for a few days or even weeks, to evacuate all the humidity. To maintain the mystery, the exact formula of each attar is kept secret and is passed on from generation to generation.
As you can see, attar is a fragrant product of choice. It is as much appreciated by men as by women in the Middle East, who put a drop behind their ear. Just like alcoholic perfumes, attars can give off all sorts of notes. There are hot and spicy formulas, made from saffron, oud or cloves… But also much fresher attars thanks to jasmine, cypriol or vetiver for example.
If it has always or almost always been synonymous with olfactory pleasure, attar was long used in religious rituals to express devotion to the deities. As a sign of wealth, Indian aristocrats even scented their curtains and bed linens with vetiver attar to get a cooler feeling when the nights were too hot. Attars were also used for therapeutic purposes, as evidenced by the writings of Avicenna, the great Persian philosopher and physician of the 10th century.
The origins of attar
When it comes to the origin of fragrances, the Egyptian civilization is a precursor in the manufacture of perfumes from plants. However, India also has very close links with this olfactory universe since ancient times. Indeed, archaeological excavations carried out in the Indus Valley have revealed very rudimentary stills that date back to a very distant era.
However, it was not until the 16th century that India became the cradle of attar manufacturing. It is under the Mughal empire that the attar spreads. Akbar, emperor descended from Genghis Khan, established a culture based on refinement and pleasures. He even founded a ministry in charge of developing perfumes for the body and for the flavoring of dishes. The emperor applied astronomical quantities of oud attar on his body, and had the doors and furniture of his palace coated with these precious compositions. It is even said that courtesans and queens never left their attars of rose, hung around their neck in small vials. Faced with a growing demand, the production settles and develops in the city of Kannauj, in the region of Uttar Pradesh.
The attar at the time of the modern perfumery
If it is little known in the West, the attar is very used in the East, especially by Muslims because of the absence of alcohol in its formula. Since the time of the Mughal Empire, attar has become the most developed form of perfume in India and the Middle East. However, since the arrival of the British colonists in India, the demand has gradually decreased. Many Indians turned to imported perfumes from the West, gradually abandoning this type of fragrance. In addition, the traditional attar is evolving because of the scarcity and high price of sandalwood. Sandalwood oil is often replaced by substitutes such as liquid paraffin.
Even today, the manufacture of real attar still takes place in Kannauj, in the family distilleries which have hardly changed for 400 years. However, it is less appealing to the new generation, which seeks perfume from Europe, and more particularly from France. In the West, luxury attar is beginning to attract a niche clientele looking for a certain oriental lifestyle.
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