To reconnect with and unearth more about Cathy’s Indian roots, we traveled to India recently. This also gave us a chance to learn more about where attars come from first hand and really connect to the land and people with our senses and experience how these beautiful attars are woven into the cultural, spiritual and historical web of India.
Rose attar, traditionally called gulab attar, is mentioned in the ancient Vedic medicinal texts, along with several other attars. For our work, the approach we call AromaGnosis, we’re always looking for the most alive and vibrant aromas. We feel honored that these attars, with their ancient healing and spiritual qualities, revealed themselves to us and have become teachers and allies.
During this recent visit, Florian and I were honored to visit Moosa Khan’s distillery in Kannauj, the ‘attar capital’ of India. Kannauj in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, in the middle of the vast Gangetic plain that used to be called Hindustan, has the attar capital of India since time immemorial. We were told of several reasons for this. It’s close to the ancient Mughal capital of Lucknow and the Mughal court and society were connoisseurs and patrons of the art of perfumery. It’s also close to the Ganges, which is the mother river that creates the fertile land and serves as a major trade route. Also, wild vetiver, khus, grows very well there.
The vast fertile lands along the Ganges are ideal for growing sufficient amounts of the fragrant flowers needed for attar making. The river itself facilitated transport and trade to Delhi and Calcutta from where they were traded all over the Asia and the Middle East.
From Calcutta, where we started our journey, we flew to Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh. Discount airlines have made travel across India so much easier than in the past. Gone are the days of endless train and bus rides. Kannauj is 93 miles from Lucknow and for this last leg we needed a driver. It was the day before Holi, the festival of love and colors, as we headed out into the unknown plains. As we passed seemingly never ending fields and villages, we saw Sarus cranes (he largest flying bird in the world) and the rapid modernization that’s happening everywhere and encroaching on nature and the traditional way of life.
Slowly the vast plain disappeared behind more and more houses and the crowds of busily moving people were getting denser and denser along the road leading into Kannauj. We hadn’t really thought about how to find Moosa’s distillery, but as on so many occasions on this trip, we just went for it, with an open mind and trust and synchronicities and good luck continually met us along the way. Now that we were arriving in Kannauj, the question of where we were going became more urgent. Our driver was from Lucknow and didn’t know Kannauj, which is a dense web of layers of old and new roads, thronging with people on all modes of transportation—walking, on bicycles, on scooters, in cars, buses, rikshas. Our driver kept asking people for directions, but while they all had opinions, none of them knew where we had to go. Just as we were getting worried that we might not find Moosa’s distillery, a scooter pulled up besides our car and the rider kept looking in. Suddenly he shouted “Miss Cathy? Miss Cathy?” Moosa had sent his younger brother to find us. How he found us among the vast crowds we couldn’t say. It felt like there was a hive mind in this busy town and as soon as we entered, the hive mind became aware and somehow Moosa’s brother tapped into it and found us.
He told us to follow him and our driver did his best, trying to keep up with him as we squeezed through narrower and narrowed alleys, where at times both sides of the car seemed to be scraping the walls of the houses on either side. These crooked alleys were also bustling with people, cows, scooters, children of all ages, street merchants, dogs, even horses. It felt like th car might get permanently stuck at any moment. Many times a collision seemed inevitable and yet it never happened. Everything just flowed in the deeper harmony of the hive mind of which the dense chaos was just one layer. The buildings got more and more ancient. At last we arrived at the distillery.
As we walked through the doors, both of us were in awe. We had crossed a threshold into another world. A world we had up until then only dreamt of. A world where the past feeds the present. A world where it seemed as if nothing had changed for centuries.
The still room was large and dark. The air was filled with wood smoke and steam. The melodies of subdued human voices and the bubbling of water and a surprising amount of quietness flowed through the darkness. We slowly became aware of the rows of ancient looking, huge, bulbous stills. They rose out of old mud brick ovens and looked like clay themselves, but they turned out to be of the thickest copper we had ever seen in a still. The clay that was used to seal them had over the years covered them, disguising the noble metal with the very earth they were sitting on.
Bamboo pipes led from the stills down into the condensers that were leaning in open water tanks. They looked like large animals, like they were alive and we had entered their den. They seemed to be breathing smoke and steam like dragons in their sacred cavern.
Outside behind the still room, there were even more stills. A cow was sitting nearby with not a care in the world, relaxing among neatly stacked flat loaves of cow dung that had been stuck on one of the walls to dry, to become fuel for the fires. Along another wall lay big piles of cooked clay loaves, waiting to be distilled into mitti attar. Mitti attar is one of the aromas Kannauj is famous for. It is described as the smell of the first rain of the monsoon when it touches the ground that has been dry and dusty for months.
Porters were delivering countless, huge jute bags of rose petals, weighing about one hundred pounds each. They had been collected by the rose farmers that very morning and were being weighed and then filled into the waiting stills. Everyone was moving smoothly and efficiently and with the ease of familiar routine. It was the season for roses and the precious petals had to be processed now. The stills would be going all day, sometimes around the clock. We had never seen this many rose petals. One by one the stills were filled to the brim with rose petals, ready for the alchemical transformation.
We watched the local men in loin clothes standing high up on the brick walls that supported the stills and performing the same actions as their forefathers for generations. We felt very honored to witness this timeless scene with all our senses. Each action had been executed so many times for so many generations unchanged, that the actions were as smooth as the surface of the stills. The men, the fires, the pipes, the steam and the stills moved as in a dance and became one being. Moosa showed us around and graciously explained every step. He told us that his family had been making attars for at least seven generations. Together we smelled some of his beautiful and powerful attars. Between us there was a comfort in the silences between the words, like with old friends. We could tell this could be the beginning of a great friendship. Then it came time to depart and like a dream it ended too quickly and in retrospect seemed almost unreal. We hope to visit Moosa again soon and as often as possible. One day, we may be able to take fellow lovers of sacred oils along.
The deep sense of place, the artisans, their devotion, the sacredness of the process and oils, the elegant precision of each gesture, the fully present ancestral knowledge—all this is what we want to share with you here at Cathy’s Attars.