Attars are the Traditional Perfumes of India. While they may be called essential oils by some, they are in fact quite different. I was first introduced to Attars at a NAHA Conference in October 2000, when I heard Christopher McMahon’s presentation on these wonderful aromatics. I was reminded just how special and different Attars are, when I visited Durga Interiors in Vancouver (on 4th one block east of Banyen Books) for the first time last Sunday. Most of their stock is modern and antique East Indian Furniture and Artifacts, however, they also source and sell, genuine Indian Attars.
The art and craft that goes into preparing the Attars has been around for many hundreds of years. It is a process that generally stays within a family and is handed down from generation to generation.
The word ‘Attar’ as it is used in India, refers to those perfumes which have been prepared by hydrodistillation of aromatic plants into a receiving vessel containing sandalwood oil. The process starts with the growing of the plants. Some farmers will allocate a percentage of their land to growing a crop like Jasminum sabmac, Jasminum grandiflorum, Rosa damascena and will tend to the crop alongside their vegetables, fruit, grain and legume crops. Other plants grow in the wild and only require harvesting. Whether the plants are cultivated or wild, when the time for harvesting comes it takes many hours of labour to produce enough material for distillation.
In principle distilling attars is relatively simple. Aromatic materials are placed with water into a distilling vessel, which is heated from below. As the water heats up the plants release their volatile constituents and the aroma rich steam rises up, passing through a bamboo pipe, insulated with twine, and enters a receiving vessel containing sandalwood essential oil. The receiving vessels sits in a cool water bath where the steam condenses. As the steam cools, the plant essence and water separate. The essence becomes absorbed into the sandalwood. The sandalwood fixes the volatile constituents which prevents them from evaporating out again. Each day new aromatic plant material is added to the distilling vessel and the process of distillation is repeated. Over a period of 15 days the sandalwood becomes permeated with the fragrance of the material being distilled into it.
During the process it is very important that the attendant is aware of the rate at which the water is evaporating so that the botanical material never becomes charred due to contact with the bottom of the distilling vessel. Typically 5 kilos of sandalwood oil are kept in the receiving vessel. During the first phase the aromatic botanicals are distilled for about 4 and a half hours. Then the process is stopped. The first receiving vessel is removed and a second is attached. During the entire time of distillation the fires are carefully tended and the receiving vessels are turned by hand. There must be a constant flow of cool water on the surface of the receiving vessel so that condensation occurs and the aromatic molecules are absorbed into the sandalwood. Distillation is continued for another 4 hours. At the end of the day the spent botanical material is removed from the distilling vessel. The two receiving vessels are placed in a cool place overnight so that the water and the sandalwood being charged with the aromatic molecules can separate. The next morning before distillation is continued a new batch of fresh botanical material is added to the distilling vessel and the water is siphoned off from the two receiving vessels and readded to the distilling vessel along with the correct amount of fresh water, then the process is repeated with only one change. The second receiving vessel is used in the first phase and the first receiving vessel is used in the second phase. This process continues for a period of 15 days and the oil becomes more and more perfumed with the essence of the plant.
In addition to being a slow and labour intensive process, it takes a lot of aromatic plant material to produce even a small amount of attar, according to Christopher McMahon’s presentation it can take 1350 pounds of Rosa damascena flowers to produce 5 kilos of regular strength attar. No wonder true Attars are expensive.
Because creating true Attars is a very labour intensive process, requiring dedicated and careful human attention, there has been a decline in the number of companies who continue with these time-honoured techniques. Cost cutting techniques by less scrupulous people could include ’stretching’ the sandalwood with liquid paraffin or relying on synthetic chemicals and natural isolates for the aroma.
Certainly true Attars can enrich our lives through their wonderful aroma and what it invokes in each of us. If you are in the Vancouver area and want to experience true Attars you can visit Durga Interiors. Christopher McMahon’s company White Lotus Aromatics does offer some Attars for sale and if you do a search on line I am sure you will find others.