Unravelling the attar mystery

There’s something about “perfumes of Arabia”. They don’t find a mention in Shakespeare’s Macbeth for nothing. But what strikes you is the number of Arab customers that frequent attar outlets in Bengaluru. What is it that drives them to “Namma” city-based attar shops given that there is no dearth of perfumes in their homeland?

The “Oud al-Hindi” factor

“Oud” or Agar Oud forms the base for most attars. Arabs come looking for original Indian Agar woodchips or Oud and carry them home in large quantities. “Oud al-Hindi” (Indian Oud), has always been a prized possession and considered precious by Arabs. Its aromatic value notwithstanding, Indian Oud is known to have medicinal benefits as well. According to Islamic traditions (ahadith), Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) recommended the use of “Oud al-Hindi” (Indian Oud) as a remedy for throat illnesses.

“Arabs like burning Oud woodchips as “bakhoors” for fragrance. They are an integral part of their gatherings and social occasions. As raw material, they have always preferred the Indian Agar wood for the unique value it brings in. Indian Oud is considered the best among the most prominent forms of Oud, which include Oud Cambodi (Cambodian Oud), Oud Burmi (Burmese Oud), Oud Ceyloni (Sri Lankan Oud) and to some extent Malaysian Oud.

Arabs look for sweetness in Oud fragrance and Indian Oud being the richest among the lot in terms of oil content offers the sweetest fragrance and emanates the least smoke”, explains the manager of a prominent attar outlet in the city.

Cost is also a factor when it comes to purchasing Indian Agar wood. “It is expensive as it has limited cultivation. In our country, Oud mostly comes from Assam, as the environment there is conducive to its cultivation. It takes about 25 years on average for an Agar wood tree to grow. Arabs get to buy them here at a lesser price and they get the desired quality because of the regional proximity”, he adds.

Attar blends
The liquefied forms of these fragrances, popularly known as “attars” or “itrs” are the most sought after. The Agar wood sticks are boiled in huge containers for about 30-40 days after which, the oil content in the sticks gets separated and floats atop the solution. This layer of concentrated oil, popularly known as “Dehn-al-Oud” is the most expensive and raw of all Oud blends, although most finished Oud oils do undergo a slight dilution. Like bakhoors, Dehn-al-Ouds are also expensive, the most genuine of them even costing about 80-90 thousand rupees per tola (12 ml).

“It’s the source of attar oils that determines the cost. Like Oud, the sources for popular fragrances like “Ambar” (the source being a refined product of Ambergris, which is vomited by sperm whales) and “Mushk” (made out of a gland secreted from the part of a deer’s body) are hard to find. People have come up with similar fragrances but the genuine ones are very expensive”, an attar outlet manager reveals.

These base fragrances are then mixed with other floral and fruit essences to form a variety of attar blends. This mixing also determines the mildness and sweetness of perfumes. In a “mukhallat” (mixed) Oud attar for example, the base notes will remain that of Oud but the top notes could be of saffron or jasmine. Similarly, blends range from notes that are “woody”, to “spicy”. Extracts of products used for blending include those of sandal, rose, violets, jasmine, geranium, bergamot, saffron, tonka beans, patchouli, cedarwood, vetviver, lavender, clove, cardamom, cinnamon and so on.

Culture and tradition

In Muslim circles, attars hold a cultural and traditionally significant value. According to Islamic traditions (ahadith), perfumes are one of the three things that one shouldn’t say no to when offered (the other two being milk and pillow). This, coupled with the fact that the use of attar is recommended in the scriptures during occasions such as Eid and Jum’ah (Friday) prayers, attars are looked at as objects that form an integral part of celebrations and important occasions and a preferred gift item.

The trends

Attar shops are frequented by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The sales shoot up the most in the season of Ramadan, Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-ul-Adha. While Arabian fragrances are always a key attraction, attar outlets in the city have also started featuring French fragrances. “The younger generation prefers French fragrances these days. Most people who come to us ask for attar versions of Ferrari, CK, Hugo Boss and so on and we specialise in creating attar oils that provide that similar aromatic feel” says Ahmed Nawaz Khan, Sales Accountant, Imaad perfumes.

Going “mild” is the other trend that has caught on of late, attar sellers say. While stronger fragrances last long, people opt for milder and sweeter fragrances more”, says Khan.

‘Scent’illating, indeed!

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