Perfumery Tourism

Rose, kewra, chameli, bela, marigold, jasmine, lavender… the litany of floral wonders has transformed a little town in the state of Uttar Pradesh, into India’s perfume capital. It may not be what Grasse is to France, but Kannauj has for centuries served as the heart of the perfumery business in India. Kings and commoners have paid homage to the creations of the humble artisans who have honed generational skills to produce some of the most seductive perfumes, or attars as we know them. Did you know Kannauj is best known for its ‘mitti attar’–a glorious fragrance which has captured that evocative scent of rain soaking into dry earth?

An intrinsic aspect of Indian culture and heritage, attars from natural fragrant oils and extracts have found a voice in a variety of products–ranging from incense sticks to hair oils, from beauty aids to culinary flavourings–apart from being used to make us smell nice.

The author of the great narrative of the Indian perfumery business, today’s a rather nondescript township of Kannauj comes into its own as a very special place in the country’s artisanal outpourings. That’s because the crafting of a great attar requires imagination and a gut feeling… dedication to organic processes–and the joy of working with nature’s bounty.

Though the truth of how far back the perfume industry of Kannauj goes is lost in the mists of time, its commonly accepted that its amazing legacy is linked to the 6th century reign of Raja Harshavardhan, whose ‘Kingdom of Kannauj’ covered northern India, and not just this little township, the Kanyakubja of yesteryears that remains as a reminder of that great king’s territories.

Located on the banks of the holy Ganga, Kannauj was the gateway of India’s ancient perfume industry. The rich alluvial soil of the Gangetic Plains was perfect for growing roses, jasmine and vetiver, along with other key ingredients of its attar portfolio. Until the 1990s, Kannauj was still home to 700 distilling units producing organic scents. With the onset of chemical and paraffin-based perfumes (less time consuming and very much the western trend) the number of units producing eco-centric attars started falling off to almost a third of that. Also, machines just can’t replicate what your instincts can do when preparing the exquisite attars so meticulously by the ancient methods. An intrinsic part of the scent making gets lost by that robotic approach.

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