Tales and Trade of Indian Fragrances

The forests of Agarwood in Assam suffuse the woody Oudh in the air, roses spread their freshness across the historic town of Kannauj, and, spice gardens of cardamom, clove and pepper cover the Southern Indian belt. India has been home to some of the finest fragrances that have been used in perfumery for centuries.

Ancient works on medicine and Ayurveda talk about aromatherapy for wellness and healing in detail. Cultural practices and traditions further attached importance to the use of fragrances for the purpose of sacred rituals, self-adornment, as well as hospitality. All this contributed towards perfumery to become a highly advanced craft and a flourishing industry in India since antiquity.

This is corroborated in several texts, one of them being Kautilya’s Arthashastra. The work mentions perfumes made of sandalwood, aloe, incense and camphor as sara or articles of high value. It further elaborates on the usage of scents for different purposes including the adoration of the king, welcoming guests and gifting expert weavers. Being a priced commodity, Arthashastra also laid down punishments in case of adulteration and emphasizes the adequate usage of perfumes. Another work, Mānasollāsa composed by the Chalukyan King Someśvara III, talks in length about the use of various fragrances, unguents and aromatic oils – made from flowers, spices and herbs – used by the kings at different occasions. During the rule of Krishnadeva Raya, a unit was set up specifically dedicated to the storage, production, and innovation in perfume-making.

Perfumes, evidently, held a distinct position in India’s social, cultural and commercial fabric. Concomitantly, indigenous aromas also constituted a significant portion of the luxury trade, traveling far across the mainland. P.K Gode cites the Panchatantra that suggests “of all trades, the trades of the perfumer is the best … In the case of the trade in cosmetics and perfumery what one purchases for one (rupee) can be sold for hundred (rupees).” Traveller accounts mention perfumes along with spices, textiles, sandalwood and other precious commodities being exported from India to West Asia and farther away to Rome. Another sought-after fragrance was Oudh derived from the Agarwood trees grown in forests of North and North Eastern India. From here, Oudh travelled to South East Asia, where it was in-turn cultivated for local usage, China and Japan. Oudh was also exported to West Asia where it became particularly popular as itra or attar and for its usage in incense sticks.

Thus, perfumes, as well as sources of fragrances, were amongst India’s finest cultural exports in the past, adding significantly to its economic prosperity. Kannauj, the capital of Harshavardhana in the 7th century, became the hub of perfume manufacturing especially due to the traditional methods of making rose-scented oil-based perfumes, essential oils and flavourings. Even today, the age-old practices of collection, distillation and bottling continue to be practiced by small-scale local producers, filling the lanes of the old city with a mild whiff of roses and sandalwood, the base oil.

However, the scale of trade and domestic manufacturing of fragrances has reduced significantly over the years. Today, while the global fragrance and flavour industry accounts to be worth USD 24.10 billion, India’s share is merely USD 500 million.

A substantial contribution comes from chemical formulations of aromas used in consumer products, food and beverages as well as fine fragrances. One of the leading players in the industry is Privi Specialty Chemicals Ltd. that supplies chemical aromas to international giants such as Switzerland-based Giuvadian and Firmenich, French-based Robertet and the US-based multinational P&G. Commenting on the trade of chemical aromas, Mahesh Babani, Chairman and MD of Privi Chemicals says “ the Indian aroma chemical industry has experienced a phenomenal success growing in double-digits over the years, a trend which will continue as India emerges as a global chemical manufacturing hub in competition to China.” Another component of India’s global share in the fragrance industry is the export of raw materials – spices, herbs and flowers as India lead the production and export of mint, jasmine and lemongrass among other aromatic sources.

While the country’s commercial contribution to the fragrance industry increases gradually, India has remained a source of inspiration to many international perfume brands. At the London-based niche perfume house, Ormonde Jayne, one can find perfume titled Champaca. To the founder, Linda Pilkington, it evokes memories of her travels across India and the aroma of hot chai and steaming basmati rice. The Italian luxury brand Bulgari captures the sweet smell of rajnigandha or tuberose and bottles it in the shape of a bright orange gemstone – mandarin garnet, thus presenting the Omnia Indian Garnet.

Besides floral tones, fashion houses have also looked up to Indian culture and living for their creative muse. For instance, Radio Bombay by DS & Durga, a US-perfumery deconstructs the Mysore santal and invokes the joy of listening to Geeta Dutt’s songs on hot summer afternoons. A relief from the scorching heat is presented by Un Jardin apres la Mousson of the French luxury brand, Hermes. This is the aroma of the soil after rains also known as petrichor or mitti attar in Kannauj. The French perfumer and writer Jean-Claude Ellena allude to this fragrance as “a serene expression of nature’s rebirth after the monsoon rains." In the east, Japanese designer house Issey Miyake launched Shades of Kolam, inspired by the summer fragrances of flowers, kolam art and spices. The list, though expansive, is incomplete without the mention of Shalimar one of the most iconic inventions of the French perfumer, Jacques Guerlain. The fragrance was first created in 1921 and re-released in 1925. Even after hundred years of its existence, Shalimar remains a best seller.

In the past few years, there has also been a rise of homegrown brands making niche fragrances based on aromas like chai, tamarind, kewra, turmeric and mahua flowers, distinct to India. However, the number of such brands remains a handful. Scaling up the Indian fine-fragrance industry to achieve its former glory, if not surpass it, requires cutting-edge research and innovation, market-led interventions and investments and most importantly, high-quality products. While the love for olfactory indulgence has kept the centuries-old fragrance industry alive in India, it is time we reclaim our global position as a powerhouse of perfumery.