The soul of the rose

For more than 400 years, since the time of the Mughal emperor Jahangir, the Indian city of Kannauj has been distilling flowers to make perfume.

But the industry is in decline. Synthetic perfumes are pushing the distilleries towards closure - and these exquisite scents may soon be lost forever.

A visitor to Kannauj could easily miss the signs of what was once the city’s main industry. But among the cars, lorries and street vendors, just occasionally a cart passes by laden with flower baskets, and turns through a large gate into the stone-paved alleyways of the old city.

Kannauj, Uttar Pradesh, India

Kannauj, Uttar Pradesh, India

Twenty years ago there were 700 perfume distilleries in Kannauj. Today there are fewer than 100. The distilleries produce oil-based perfumes, or attars, from flowers such as rose, jasmine and henna through a process of steam distillation.

What makes them unique is the intensity of their scent, but also the time and resources needed to make them.
It takes four tonnes of hand-picked roses to make just 1kg of rose attar.

Before sunrise, the flowers of the Damask rose are picked by hand from thorny bushes, and sent to the distilleries to be used the same day.

There they are tipped into large copper pots, or dhegs, with a small amount of cold water.

Under the pot, a fire is made with wood or dung, and the water is boiled for four to six hours. The hot steam releases the essential oils of the flower, which condense and flow down bamboo pipes to a receiver pot.

The perfumer's job is a complex one. If the dheg overheats, the resulting scent will be too smoky. Judging how long to heat the dheg is also critical. These skills have been passed down from father to son for generations.

But according to Vev Bhav Pathak, the young manager of the Muna Lal and Sons distillery, demand for attars is in decline.

Attars are not cost-effective products. They’re expensive to make and few people understand this. Even fewer appreciate their value.”

One reason for the high price is the increasing scarcity of sandalwood. Sandalwood oil can be used as a perfume by itself, but it is also traditionally mixed with the rose oil that emerges from the dheg’s bamboo pipe.

Deforestation, though, has prompted the Indian government to ban the felling of sandalwood trees, and the wood has become “practically unaffordable”, says Pathak.

Muna Lal and Sons, like most of its competitors, now uses cheaper paraffin-based products as the base for its attars, but these alter the scent and are less appealing to customers who knew and loved the authentic sandalwood version.

The market for an even more exclusive product - known as ruh al gulab, or "soul of the rose" – is smaller still.

This is made by distilling the rose oil a number of times to increase its concentration and consists entirely of the essential oil extracted from the flower, unmixed with any other substances.

The emperor Jahangir (1569-1627) wrote in his autobiographical work, Tuzuki Jahangiri, that there is "no other scent of equal excellence… It lifts the spirit and refreshes the soul."

Painting of Jahangir

Painting of Jahangir

To produce 1kg of ruh gulab requires almost double the amount of rose flowers - eight tonnes. At Muna Lal and Sons the wholesale price of that 1kg is $18,000.

In India, there are some wealthy customers who still buy attars and ruh al gulab. But Kannauj's biggest domestic client is now the chewing tobacco industry. Pure rose oil is a natural product that is safe to consume by mouth, and a tiny drop is sufficient to flavour a large quantity of tobacco.

Outside India, one of the biggest markets is in the Middle East, where dheg-produced attars have long been highly valued, and there are plenty of customers who can afford to buy them.
In 2014, fragrance sales in Saudi Arabia were valued at $1.4bn; an average Saudi consumer was estimated to spend $700 per month on attars alone.

"It smells like you have walked into a garden of roses, or that fresh smell you get when you've walked past a bouquet of fresh flowers," says Hussah al-Tamimi, a Kuwaiti woman in her early thirties, describing ruh al gulab. "It has to be subtle, and it has to smell natural."

One reason attars are valued by Muslims - both in India and the Middle East - is that they are made entirely from natural substances that can be applied directly to the body, without the addition of alcohol. In this respect they differ from modern scents that are mixed with solvents and sprayed through an atomiser.

In the Gulf region attars increase in value the older they are. As a result, they have historically been offered as presents to brides at their wedding, along with incense and gold, in a wooden chest called a dezza.

"When my father wanted to ask for my mother's hand in marriage, he travelled to India to find her the most valuable perfumes for her dezza," says 31-year-old Dalal al Sane, also from Kuwait City. “Some of those perfumes she still has today, and hopes to give them to her children when they get married.”

But men also wear perfume. In fact rose oil has traditionally been considered a masculine scent in the Gulf and has only recently begun to be worn by women too.

"My father applies rose attar on his hands, when he greets family at home - specifically between his thumb and index-finger, so that it leaves a nice scent on the hands of others when he shakes their hands," al Sane says.

Although Arabian merchants have traded incense for spice and perfume for centuries, it was in the early 1900s that the trade first took off in Kuwait.

The first shop in the souq in Kuwait city dedicated entirely to perfumes, Atyab Al Marshoud, was opened by Sulaiman al Marshoud in 1925, who traveled regularly on dhows to India with his father. It’s now Sulaiman’s son, Waleed, who runs the shop, and continues to maintain the links established by his grandfather with Indian distillers.

Today, perfume shops have flooded the souq. Rose attars from Bulgaria and Turkey are highly esteemed, but the ruh al gulab from Kannauj is recognised as something unique - a tola (an ancient measure equivalent to about 11.5g) sells for roughly 200 Kuwaiti dinars ($650, £520) at Atyab Al Marshoud.

Perfume shop in Dubai

Perfume shop in Dubai

But as a luxury product expected to be of the purest quality, some consumers are willing to pay this price.

"The more difficult it is to obtain it, the more valuable the perfume is," says Waleed Al Marshoud.

How long Kannauj will be able to continue supplying traditional attars and ruh gulab, though, is unclear.

"Demand for dheg-based perfumes is next to nothing today," says Pushpraj Jain, owner of the Pragmati Aroma Distillery.

"Today's generation is only interested in modern perfumes, and I have to innovate to make sure I can meet their demands."

While he continues running the dhegs in his distillery, alongside new perfume plants, unease about the future of attars is widespread in Kannauj.

Ousman a perfumer at Muna Lal and Sons distillery, has no doubt about the superiority of the product he makes.

“The difference between a synthetic perfume and a natural one is like the difference between food cooked in a microwave and food cooked in a wood-fired oven,” he says.

And yet he fears the industry is slowly dying. He persuaded his children to take up a different trade - one that would pay more than his, and allow them to live in greater comfort.

Visible evidence of a struggling industry is not hard to find in Kannauj. The distilleries still operating often look starved of investment - one still uses a boiler taken from a Victorian-era paddle steamer...
And there are the already dead distilleries, with shafts of light from boarded-up windows revealing old copper dhegs covered in dust and cobwebs.
The soul of the rose lingers in these places. But how much longer will you be able to smell it?