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In pictures: Fading fragrance of Kannauj, India's perfume capital
The surviving perfumeries in Kannauj, the Grasse of the East, still use age-old methods to produce all-natural scents
Growing up in India, I had always associated seasons with smells.
White jasmine (motiya) and vetiver (khus) were summer smells.
Mitti attar, which captures the scent of wet earth, makes me dream of an impending monsoon.
Heena and musk attar were for winter, with their heat-generating properties.
In search of these childhood scents, I ended up on a trip to a dusty little Indian town in the state of Uttar Pradesh -- Kannauj, India's perfume capital.
A small town on the banks of the Ganges, Kannauj has been guarding the secret of attar, the traditional Indian perfume, for centuries.
Situated on the historical scent trade route that brought perfumes from India to the Middle East, Kannauj's perfumeries were famed.
Technically defined as a fragrant essential oil (often extracted from roses) attar is more than the smell. The culture of attar production is the heritage of the people of Kannauj.
To dab on attar is to appreciate the genius of ancestors and incomparable quality of natural botanicals.
Kannauj perfumeries will boast that attar made with sandalwood oil will never lose its scent and will outlive any chemical-based perfume.
The aromatic oils also have great healing properties.
Despite this, the chemicals are winning.
The traditional attar industry is fast losing ground in Kannauj due to the high cost of production. Chemical alternatives and paraffin-based perfumes are much cheaper to make.
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Pushpraj Jain, owner of Pragati Aroma Distillery, knows of five traditional perfumeries that have closed down just this year.
Sandalwood oil production is virtually gone, he says, with all but one of the 21 remaining mills closing its doors in last decade.
"We have been making attar for generations -- it is in my blood," says Jain, who is in his late fifties. "But people are forgetting the value of attar. That it is completely organic and holds therapeutic value as well."
Like a rose
Walking through Kannauj, I found crumbling old perfume houses at every corner.
Their magnificent centuries-old facades give the whole town a medieval feel.
Groups of women can be seen sorting through the piles of flowers and herbs. Trained hands and noses are busy mixing rare and exquisite ingredients that go into exotic fragrances.
The chaotic Vijay Market is flanked by shops selling attar, rose water and incense.
The most popular attar is that of rose.
As the Mughal Emperor Jahangir once said about the rose: "There is no other scent of equal excellence to it. It restores hearts that have gone (broken) and brings back withered souls."
Getting there: The most convenient way to reach Kananuj is to fly to Kanpur. Kannauj lies about 80 kilometers from Kanpur, about two hours' drive.
Kannauj has a few budget accommodations available. The best bet is the UP Tourism-run Rahi Paryatak Aabas Griha (+91 56 9 4234 275; Rs 400 per night).
Where to buy attar outside of Kannauj:
Gulabsingh Johrimal, 467 Chandni Chowk, Delhi; +91 11 2326 3743
Pragati Aroma Oil Distillery, 32 Princess St., Mumbai; +91 22 2201 6509