Through the narrow lanes, with congested buildings, alongside people desperate to welcome us with open arms to avail their paid services; a variety of meat hanging and smelling; a sweet essence emerges suddenly from the next shop electrifying the sense of smell – an attar (ittar) shop. Dating back to history, in the 9th century, the Persian physician Ibn Sina known as Avicenna in Europe was first to drive attar of flowers from the process of hydro distillation1.
Attar is prepared mostly by age old process, using deg and bhapka method. The flowers and water are boiled in a big pot made up of mud, clay and soil know as deg and there is a connecting wooden bamboo pipe known as chonga coming out from the deg to a small pot known as bhapka kept in chilled water, thus collecting the condensed liquid. The second distillation is done with this collected liquid to extract attar.
Kannauj, a city in Uttar Pradesh is known as the perfume capital of india where they still make attar with deg and bhapka method, even today. However, in many other places, nowadays people are using faster methods and synthetic material to recreate the fragrance of attars. The main issue with that is the use of chemicals and artificial agents. They are good to use, cheaper to buy, smell is more or less the same but the risk is high – to skin and to clothes.
Technically attars are distillates of flowers, herbs, spices and other natural material2. In Delhi, as we visited the Nizamuddin basti, as a part of India Fellow induction training, I found that it’s home to some of the best quality attar ranging from Rs. 200 to Rs. 20,000 per tola (8 ml). Zam Zam, Al-Noor, and Qabil fragrance are some of the shops that I visited in the area.
In the basti, as I understood from multiple conversations over three days, the history of attar is 4-5 decades old. Zam Zam stood out as the first one to set up shop in the area. In their address also, it says shop no. 1. They established it in early 1970s, and have a range of at least 80 perfumes today. Some of their best fragrances include Topaz, Fawakeh, Hazr-e-aswad, Pink lady, Saut-ul-arab and White Oudh.
With affordable pricing and customized packaging, they attract people on the shop as well as online. They have their own manufacturing unit where they produce these attars. On the wake of this Covid-19 pandemic, they were one of the many businesses who suffered the most as their everyday earnings were mostly dependent on tourists/visitors coming for markaz and to visit Hazrat Nizamuddin dargah.
There are other small businesses, either individuals or families, selling attar of different varieties which come from different parts of the country, and also from other countries like Dubai and France. Locally, most of them procure it from Sadar bazaar and old Delhi. They get it a bit cheaper there because it is diluted with alcohol and certain chemicals. This quality of attar is often used as an offering for the dargah.
In the older times, and in fact, even today, attar is also used as a medicine for aroma therapy as the distinct fragrances trigger the nerves of the brain to eradicate the sickness related to our nervous system, or psychological health. The oil scents are known to freshen up the entire respiratory track of the wearer and of those around them. It also helps in curing headaches, if applied knowing the kind of scent that suits you. It can be easily said that attar can have a lasting effect on your mind and overall mood. It also has the ability to increase your confidence.
The lasting ability of the fragrance is what makes attar so special. Most of them can stay on your body for as long as 2-3 days with the same intensity as when applied. In comparison with modern deodorants and perfumes, the smells of which usually remain for 2-3 hours, attar is a more economical option. Manufacturers like Zam Zam also sell it for wholesale in case one wants to buy large quantities, or in bulk.
Due to its history with Mughals and then their successors, attar was earlier associated with royals or with the elite class of the people who used to wear it all the time. But now, with its increased range and variety, these are accessible and affordable to most classes of the society. With the passage of time, from Mughal era to present India, the market as well as the quality has evolved. There is an attar for every occasion, and hence, multiple reasons to buy and use one.
The pandemic has been a big set back to this industry, due to which their average sale has gone down to 10% of what it was earlier, at least for the sellers in Nizamuddin. If the per day sale used to be Rs. 4000 earlier, now it’s just about Rs. 400. There are many days when a shop doesn’t see even a single customer. All this while, their expenses have not gone down, such as rent, labour cost, and maintenance. With markets opening up and life going back to normal, the sellers are hopeful to continue business as usual.
“की ग़ालिब तेरी बस्ती,
में वो मौसकी का सरूर है|
निज़्ज़ाम की छाओं में,
सुकून का कवाल ज़रूर है|
गली गली महकता जो
इत्तर का नशा वो हुज़ूर है|“