What is Attar?’ is one question which has both been answered and yet researched for its trueness even today. True Attar is a source for what we may say – A ‘Sensuous’ experience for our souls. One ‘true-in-all-respects’ Attar may be explained as a perfume oil that is produced from flower petals steam-distilled using low heat and pressure. Besides most Traditional Indian Attars prepared from flower petals, some Attars are also produced from exotic (and valuable) woods, spices and resins. During the production of Attars, the steam carrying the fragrance oils is gathered into a container of 100% pure, natural and yet mild Sandalwood oil. I must tell you that this entire process, besides being cumbersome, runs for over several weeks. The perfumed extract and the Sandalwood oils then blend together till the entire essence of Sandalwood is fully and completely soaked into the blend with the perfume of the flowers.
Why Sandalwood Oil?
Before I proceed with other aspects of Attars, I must make you aware on why and how the purest and organic Sandalwood oil is an integral part of the making of ‘true’ attar. The all expensive and rare, 100% pure and natural oil of Sandalwood acts as the ‘base’, or ‘fixative’ of the resulting Attar. Moreover, it creates a ‘bonding’ between the molecules of the fragrance oils and allows their ‘delicateness’ to develop and last longer. There is Nature’s ‘magic’ at work here! As similar to a fine wine, true Sandalwood-based Attar gets better with its vintage. One cannot find a more natural and better perfume than ‘true’ Attar.
The History of Attars
Let us ‘peep’ briefly into the historical aspects of Attars as well. Various archaeological surveys and excavation assignments have revealed huge and round stills made of pure Copper. These stills were used for preparing and making Attars and are believed to be at least Five-thousand years old! Yes, you have read it right.. These stills were called ‘Degs’. During the seasons of the flowers, traditional Attar artisans, carried these stills with them and travelled across India to make their Attars On-The-Spot. Even today, the remotest villages and rural areas which lack easy transportation facilities; yet, a few traditional Attar-makers travel with their ‘Degs’, closest to the harvests of various flowers. The equipment may have been improvised, if at all, in the last five thousand years.
How is Traditional Attars Made?
Preparing Attar is one cumbersome and laborious process and requires great expertise, skill and patience besides a lot of time. It may consume a fortnight to prepare a small batch of one such single Attar. Some Ten to One Hundred and Fifty Kilos of flower petals are collected and placed inside a Deg. From the Deg, a long bamboo pipe leads downward to a copper made receptacle that is filled with Sandalwood oil. Once water is poured into the Deg and its lid is sealed with a mixture of cotton and clay, the deg is subjected to heating without the use of any modern gauges or thermostats. As the steam collects, it condenses and flows into the receiving vessel.
The fire has to be constantly reviewed and monitored, so as to maintain the correct temperature level as excessive heating may burn the flowers. It will also create too much pressure which may explode the clay seal around the deg. The low heat and pressure also helps preserving the fragile fragrance oils better than the hotter steam distillation methods that produce and obtain essential oils.
The receiving vessel sits in a pool of water and is continually and manually rotated to blend the oils and also to prevent from overheating. Throughout the day, the master distiller monitors the Deg and receiving vessel by feeling them with his hands and listening to the sounds from inside. When necessary, wet towels are rubbed over the vessels to cool them down. At the end of the day, the distillation is stopped. Overnight, as the oil cools down, the water separates from it. In the morning, the water is poured off from the oil and put back into the still. Freshly picked flowers are added and the process begins again and anew. This process is continued and repeated for Fifteen to Twenty days, until the Sandalwood oil gets completely saturated with the fragrant oil of the flowers.
Why are ‘True’ Attars so rare these days?
Over the past ten to fifteen years the prices of Sandalwood have increased steeply in India. One may see prices doubling twice in a year. More so, the honorable Government has also put certain restrictions on cutting and use of Sandalwood beyond a limit. Sadly, most of the genuine artisans have closed their operations and moved to other professions. Of those still producing Attars, many deploy Petroleum-based ‘Paraffin’ instead of Sandalwood oil and synthetic fragrances instead of real flowers to save costs. It is very important to understand why today’s most so-called ‘natural’ and ‘true’ attars are stamped as ‘adulterated’, when analyzed. The term ‘Attar’ is increasingly being used to describe any cheap perfume. Due to the high cost of materials and labor-intensive nature of the Attar-making process, traditional Attar-making is dying a slow death. We do not know how much longer they will be available for us. It is up to us, the consumers of attars, that how we may support and protect this art from dying by lending our true support to those remaining handful natural Attar makers. By purchasing their attars, you may them regain and re-instill their confidence that their work and expertise is valuable and that they may train their next generations to continue this ‘fragrance’ tradition.