Monday, March 15, 2010

Pure, Natural Perfume: Itr

The Persian word attar is a transliteration of the Arabic itr, meaning "fragrance", "scent" or "essence".  Persian rulers were known to wear attars more than 5000 years ago. 

In the 10th century, the great Persian physician Hakim Ibn Sina used distillation to extract the fragrances from plants and used these for medicinal purposes. Rose water became one of the most famous of his perfumes and continues to be very popular, particularly in the Middle Eastern and Asian countries.

Simply explained, itr is the pure extract of flowers in sandalwood oil. Sandalwood oil forms an ideal base for perfumes and  serves as a good preservative. No chemicals or alcohol bases are used. 

17th century India and Noorjehan, the Mughal empress's discovery - of an oily layer over the water from rose petals kept to cool overnight - was the beginning of the natural itrs in India, which developed and progressed in and around Kannauj, near Kanpur, and is still a centre of itr production to this day.

Although aroma bearing substances like Sandal, Musk, Comphor, Saffron as such were used in India before the advent of the Mughals, the range of such materials and essential oils was further enriched when new plants were brought by them from Central Asia. Abul Fazal in Ain-e-Akbari  mentions flowers like ghulab, bela, chameli, champa, maulshri and rajnigandha along with the roots like adrak or ginger and barks as sandal, cinnamon and aloe. Animal substances like musk, myrrh and ambergris were also used along with khus, a type of grass and a few other spices.

Today the most used varieties of itr in the Indo-Pak subcontinent are rose, jasmine, sandal, henna, nargis, majmua, kevda, khus and mogra. One of the most expensive itrs is oudh, made from the bark of a tree variety found in Assam.