Even the word for it is beautiful — petrichor, the fragrance of the first rain. Songs have been sung and poems written about it. But did you know you could get it in a bottle?
In the perfume capital of India — Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh — a century-old process is used to recreate that loamy smell of the first shower, as an attar.
There are about 400 attar perfumeries in Kannauj but only about 10 per cent of them make the mitti attar, according to the government-run Fragrance & Flavour Development Centre (FFDC).
“The process takes about 15 working days,” says Akhilesh Pathak, a fourth generation perfumer who has inherited one of Kannauj’s oldest attar-manufacturing companies, Munna Lal Sons. “Ironically, monsoon is the most difficult time to produce mitti attar, because the procedure involves baking clay extracted from topsoil, all of which is hard to do with squelchy monsoon earth. Typically, we don’t produce mitti attar in the rains as a result.”
Mitti attar is used as a fragrance, an air freshener, an essential oil — and in aromatherapy, because the smell of it is so calming.
“I have been hoarding my 100 ml bottle for about four years now because I love how amazing it smells,” says Suman Bolar, 45, a freelance writer from Bangalore. “I use it for various purposes – I put it in the washing machine when I wash my bedsheets, often put a few drops on my pillow before I sleep and sometimes just dab it behind my ears to feel good.” Bolar got her first bottle years ago, as a gift from her husband, and ordered this bottle online.
Satish Dhar, 38, a Dehradun-based researcher and another ardent fan of the mitti attar, say it’s uncanny how close it comes to petrichor.
“I use it as an air-freshener because its earthy smell has a very soothing effect that never fails to lift my mood,” says Dhar, who discovered the perfurme through his work with an NGO for organic farmers.
Here’s how mitti attar is made, then.
Clay is extracted from the topsoil and baked in a kiln, then immersed in water within copper cauldrons called degs, which are then sealed with earth.
A cow-dung fire is then lit underneath the cauldron and the vapour travels through bamboo pipes to condense in receivers, over a base of oil, to form the attar. The process is called hydro-distillation.
“The clay used for this purpose is baked exactly like a chapati,” says Shakti Vinay Shukla, director of the FFDC. “First, it is made into a soft dough, then flattened into discs, which are baked at a fairly high temperature to prepare them for hydro-distillation.”
The attar is stored in leather bottles, which absorb the moisture and further concentrate the fragrance.
Watch: How mitti attar is made
“The price of a bottle can vary from Rs 40 to Rs 1,000 for 10 ml, depending on the base oil used,” says Gaurav Mehrotra, owner of the 44-year-old Puja Perfumery. “Sandalwood base oil costs a lot more than liquid paraffin, for instance.”
Sales, according to Pathak, have been growing lately with orders coming from across the country and abroad, including countries such as the US, UK, Europe and Japan.
“We created a website a year ago to cater to growing demand from outside India, and two months ago we added a payment gateway so we could execute orders online,” Pathak adds. “We now get about 20 online orders per month for mitti attar and are tying up with foreign brands to market our fragrances better abroad. Most foreign orders still come from the Middle-East, traditionally the largest market for most attars.”
The mitti attar is also now available on Flipkart, Amazon and Snapdeal, among other e-commerce sites. Which comes as a relief to people like Bolar. “My 100 ml should last a while. Kept airtight it retains its fragrance for a long time,” she says. “But after my first bottle finished, I went without one for years. Most people don’t even know it exists.”