The Historic Tale of Itr/ Attar
Updated: Mar 22
The word Attar is believed to have been derived from the Persian word ‘Itir’ which means Perfume. The word Itir is itself derived from a word from the Arabic language, that is ‘Itr’ which means perfume, fragrance, or essence. We know about the creation of Attars from a source called Kitab Kimaya Al-Itr which is a text written by Al-Kindi. The name of the text was translated into “The Book of the Chemistry of Perfumes” in English. It contains 107 recipes for fragrant oils, aromatic waters, and different substitutes for costly drugs. Other early mentions that we know of about the methods used to produce essential oils are from the texts of Ibn Al-Baitar who was a physicist, pharmacist, and chemist. He wrote a pharmaceutical encyclopedia named ‘Kitāb Al-jāmiʿ fi-mufradāt al-adwiya wa alaghdhiya’. This text written by Baitar reflects how originally fragrant oils were made and special emphasis was used on the mixing of orange water and rose water to derive essential oils. It was until the 12th century that only plants were used to make these oils.
If we carefully read the text “Studies in Islamic Invasion: The Muslim Contribution to the Renaissance by Ahmed Essa, and Othman Ali”, it tells us that the first one to derive Itr from flowers was Ibn-e Sina also known as Avicenna. Eventually, Damascus, Andalusia, and Iran became major centers of perfume making. Later this art came down to India and China. The Ni’matnama written in 1500 for the Sultan of Mandu also has texts which tell us about the mixing of scented waters and flowers to create fragrances.
In the Tuzuk-e Jahangiri, Jahangir describes an itr e Jahangir and says that “This ‘itr is a discovery which was made during my reign through the efforts of the mother of Nur-Jahan Begum. When she was making rose water a scum formed on the surface of the dishes into which the hot rose water was poured from the jugs. She collected this scum little by little; when much rose- water was obtained a sensible portion of the scum was collected. It is of such strength in perfume that if one drop be rubbed on the palm it scents a whole assembly, and it appears as if many red rosebuds had bloomed at once. There is no other scent of equal excellence to it. It restores hearts that have gone and brings back withered souls. As reward for that invention, I presented a string of pearls to the inventor. Salma Sultan Begam and she gave this oil the name ‘itr-i- Jahangiri.”
Even Jahangir’s predecessor Akbar has his name registered in this field. Sources tell us that Akbar had an entire department of perfumery so that he and his family can keep their mind and bodies well-scented in a country where the heat wave lasted for nearly 8 months, which followed a chilly winter. Sources tell us that the women of the Mughal Harem used to bathe thrice a day during May and June to beat the heat, and perfumes used to come not only from Kannauj but even from West Asia. Noted Historian Dr. Ram Nath has noted that these scents were not only used on bodies but were also burnt in the mahals to embalm the air. If we talk about Emperor Shah Jahan, when he was being initiated into the mysteries and the world of sexual activity, it is said that his body was massaged by female attendants using these fragrant oils. Before Mumtaz Mahal’s marriage to him, Arjumand Bano Begum, as she was known then, was anointed with scents similarly.
The Mughals who nearly perfected everything, made perfumery into fine art as they introduced exotic odors such as Mogra, Chameli, Champa, Gul-e-Zafran, araq-e-Gulab, araq-e-mushq, tasbih-e-gulal, and many more that were cultivated in the Mughal Gardens. During the later Mughals, the Sugandhi (perfume) makers were greatly patronized by the rulers, and hence even today if one visits an old establishment selling attars, it will waft you back to the Mughal era, even though these shops won’t have existed during those times. This article surely does count for a visit to the iconic “Gulab Singh Johrimal” Attar store in Chandni Chowk, located very near the Qila e Moalla (Red Fort).
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