Saunter through any traditional bazaar in India and you are bound to find at least one shop hawking small vials of attar (ath-thar) - perfumed oil extracted from its natural source.
Long before Grasse in France came to be known as the Perfume Capital of the World, and long after it has given up its traditional techniques of distilling perfume, Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh continues to extract perfumes and flavours from natural sources in the traditional degh bhapka or hydro distillation method. Unlike perfumes, attar is free of alcohol and also has medicinal qualities. For instance, perfumed oils of Khas have a cooling effect and are used in the summer and those of Hina have a warming effect, ideal for winters. Natural ingredients like flowers, barks and herbs are not always locally grown in Kannauj, they come from across India to be distilled mainly for export to Middle Eastern countries. The greatest demand is for varieties like rose and sandalwood, but there are exotic ones too, like Mitti Attar that attempts to distill the aroma of earth just before the rains.
An edited version of the article was published in Culturama's November 2012 Issue.