A nosedive into the past: Secrets from the non-fiction book The Perfume Project - Hindustan Times
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A nosedive into the past: Secrets from the non-fiction book The Perfume Project

Oct 20, 2023 10:36 PM IST

Divrina Dhingra's debut work traces India’s affection for certain aromas through millennia. Highlights include intricate myths, links to ancient Greece and Rome

Rose, jasmine, sandalwood, saffron, oud and vetiver. When Divrina Dhingra had to pick six fragrances that exemplified the Indian experience, from ancient times through to the present day, these are the ones she zoomed in on. Her new book, The Perfume Project (September 2023; Westland), seeks to explain why.

(Clockwise) Lady Making A Garland by Raja Ravi Varma, 1895. A Roman fresco of a port city from the 1st century CE. A double-pot distillery used to extract essential oils from flowers, as depicted in the late-15th-century book of recipes Ni’matnama, by the Sultan of Mandu. (Wikimedia Commons; Sahapedia) PREMIUM
(Clockwise) Lady Making A Garland by Raja Ravi Varma, 1895. A Roman fresco of a port city from the 1st century CE. A double-pot distillery used to extract essential oils from flowers, as depicted in the late-15th-century book of recipes Ni’matnama, by the Sultan of Mandu. (Wikimedia Commons; Sahapedia)

Dhingra, 41, a lifestyle journalist, is also a trained perfumier who studied at the Grasse Institute in France, and worked as a fragrance development manager in India.

The idea of researching fragrances first took root during her time as a Master’s student in New York. Certain smells would instantly evoke memories of home so strongly that she began to seek them out, and feel homesick when she couldn’t find them.

How far back do these associations go, she wondered? How have Indians traced this affection for certain aromas, through the millennia? A passion project began to take shape.

Dhingra became obsessed with the book Cultivation and Uses of Aromatic Plants (2009) by Ramesh Kumar Srivastava, Shakti Vinay Shukla and Sanjeet Singh Dagar, which outlines the applications of a staggering 18,500 varieties of aromatic plants.

She began conducting research of her own, on fragments of memory, fondness and association that were preserved across thousands of years, in art and writing, poetry and cultural elements such a costumes and dance. “It came together very slowly,” says the Delhi-based writer. Over six years, in fact.

What were some of her most precious findings? Take a look.

Adulteration was so prevalent that Pliny the Elder complained about it.

In a tussle dating to at least the Roman Empire, adulterants were used to increase weight and improve colour in highly priced aromatics. Substances such as turmeric, other parts of the saffron flower, even minute bits of twig were mixed in with pure saffron, for instance, since any increase in weight by unfair means spelt an immense rise in profits.

“There is nothing so much adulterated as saffron,” Roman philosopher and military commander Pliny the Elder complained, in his book Natural History (c. 77 CE). (It was also he, incidentally, who grumbled that the mania for frankincense was draining Rome’s coffers of its gold.)

Contrary to popular belief, perfumes today are far less adulterated, Dhingra says. “There are simply more tests to verify the purity of the base essential oils today.”

The Greeks had a heady kind of aromatic fever.

Fine fragrances were next to godliness, to the Ancient Greeks. The Greeks believed that the afterlife was spent in a heaven where every person could find a limitless quantity to anoint themselves with. Elysium was, in fact, a realm where rivers of perfume flowed, scenting even the air above them.

This, understandably, boosted the trade in aromatics with India.

“Though the Greeks were known to make their own fragrances using indigenous flora, they also imported vast quantities, which were ferried to them by Phoenician traders who guarded their routes so closely that, for a long time, their customers did not know the exact origins of their resins, oils and gums,” Dhingra says.

Ancient Rome did not equate fragrance with divinity, but was likely a bigger buyer of aromatics, since theirs was a larger, more hedonistic aristocracy. In Ancient Rome, perfumes were used in food, uncorked for ambience at banquets, slipped into the water at bathhouses, and used in temples (as offerings) and homes (as air-freshening status symbols).

To make the most of the high demand, traders told tall tales of the East as a land populated by giant beasts and barbaric men. This helped keep the prices and the sense of mystique high.

Incense was a status symbol in Ancient Indian homes too.

Today, incense is primarily used as an offering to deities, but it was once lit by wealthy households to scent the rooms in which guests were entertained. It was so expensive, even here at hhome, that the fragrance served as a status symbol.

The terms used to judge the quality and provenance of wines can also be applied to perfumes.

“We talk about terroir and vintage for fragrances too,” Dhingra says. “The year in which an oil in a perfume was distilled, or the soil and microclimate in which a component was grown, can be differentiated by a perfumier as they prepare a composition.”

In the final product, it would be hard to tell the difference. But in a lab, the chemical composition could indicate such details. “All this is crucial to the science of perfumery,” Dhingra says.

Agartala in Tripura is said to be named after agarwood.

Tripura is one of only three states in north-east India where its source tree, the Aquilaria, is found in abundance (the other two are Assam and Arunachal Pradesh). The term “tala” is Bengali for “underneath”. So Agartala is “underneath the agarwood tree”. Oud, the oil extracted from this tree, has a warm, woody, leathery, even animalic fragrance. When the wood itself is burnt as incense, the fragrance is much sweeter still.

The Mughal era was likely a time of eye-wateringly strong aromas.

Records from the Mughal era indicate that perfumes — and the Mughals were very keen on their fragrances — contained an unsparing number of precious substances of animal origin, including musk and the even-more-potent civet oil (taken from glands in the musk deer and civet cat, respectively). Mixed with large quantities of floral extracts, these were not fragrances for the faint-hearted.

One composition, said to help keep the skin cool in summer, involved elements of rose, musk, ambergris (extracted from the sperm whale), orange-flower extract, basil and agarwood. It must have been eye-watering, if memorable.

Historians suspect that at least part of the appeal of such a mix lay in the fact that very few could afford it. Some of the ingredients were so rare that there was a whole body of lore dedicated, for instance, just to what it took to get at ambergris. But those are stories for another time.

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