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LOST SCENTS OF THE SILK ROAD

Trade routes wafted spikenard, myrrh, ambergris and cassia across the ancient worlds. Only aloeswood, or oudh, harvested in Assam and distilled in Kannauj, remains a contender in modern perfumery.

Words by:

Vikram Doctor

Photos by:

Ritesh Shukla

The backbone of India’s incense industry lies in the town of Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh. Hundreds of factories here are also engaged in incense stick or agarbatti manufacturing.

January 1, 2024

In 2016, the Samajwadi Party launched an unusual initiative in its bid to retain power in Uttar Pradesh. The then chief minister Akhilesh Yadav released Samajwadi Sugandh, a limited edition of four perfumes inspired by four famous locations in the state: incense and marigolds from Varanasi’s ghats; roses from the Taj Mahal; jasmine and oudh of old Lucknow; and kewra, the screwpine aroma extracted by the attar-makers of Kannauj.

The making of attar in India’s perfume capital follows an age-old process. The incense is extracted by slowly distilling the aromatic base materials and then infusing the scented vapours in oil. The fragrances are drawn from various natural ingredients, ranging from flowers such as rose, lavender, marigold and kewra to herbs and spices like juniper, saffron and vetiver. Here, workers boil rose petals with water.

Kannauj was key to this perfumed promotion. The town’s attar industry is famous for extracting incense through an ancient method of slow distillation of aromatic base materials and infusion of the scented vapours in oil. It is also a stronghold of Yadav’s family. He used to represent its Lok Sabha seat and when he shifted to state politics, his place was taken by his wife Dimple in an infamously uncontested election. 

After generating headlines, Samajwadi Sugandh seems to have dissipated into the ether, a metaphor of sorts for traditional Indian perfumery. India’s hoary perfume-makers might boast of the quality of their naturally extracted products, but there are few takers for them compared to the mass-marketed products of the global perfume business. 

Many people now purchase their perfume from airport duty-free outlets during foreign trips. Perfume is ideally suited for such sales. The bottles are small and easy to carry onboard, usually expensive, but not extravagantly so, and can serve as a last-minute gift. These duty-free perfumes are backed by formidable international ad campaigns. Pull-off testers were introduced in glossy magazines in the 1970s and have revolutionised perfume sales. Earlier, a visit to a perfumer was the only way to try the product before buying.

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These global brands now sell online in India as well, further marginalising Indian perfumers, whether traditional attarwallas or the few modern artisanal perfumers, who simply cannot compete on their scale. Perfumes have also become extensions of the couture business—though the fashion designers usually have little input into what is sold under their name. Even the few that appear independent, from old names like Guerlain to new ones like Jo Malone, are now owned by giant luxury conglomerates like LVMH.

The actual perfumes are created by different conglomerates—giant fragrance companies who work with the luxury brands to decide which ‘juice’, as the perfume industry calls its products, will be bottled and sold by which brand. Just four companies, the US-based International Fragrances & Flavours, the Swiss-based Firmenich and Givaudan, and Germany’s Symrise, dominate the market to such an extent that just this year the European Commission launched anti-trust investigations. 

This is an inversion of history. In past centuries, perfumes came from places like India or the Arabian peninsula, traded through the Silk Road, which, from around the second century BCE, was a route to exchange products between Asia and Europe. The Silk Road was arguably built on an earlier Incense Road established by Pharaonic Egypt as part of its religious imperative of preparing bodies for their afterlife. Embalming required the essential oils of several plants, particularly a thorny desert shrub called myrrh. Its aroma concealed the smell of decay and the oil has anti-microbial properties. 

The Pharaoh Sahure (circa 2465-2325 BCE) sent expeditions to Punt (a region in modern-day Somalia), partly to obtain the myrrh that grew there. His ships also sailed to modern-day Lebanon to establish trade links that would connect further within Asia. By the time of Ramesses the Great, a thousand years later, these links had reached India (as is proven by the Kerala peppercorns stuck in the nostrils of his embalmed corpse). 

Close to Somalia, the southern coast of Arabia was also known for aromatic resins, particularly frankincense, which produced billowing clouds of perfumed smoke for the drama of religious rituals. The island of Socotra, off the coast of Yemen, is one of the few places in the world where ambergris, the mysterious aromatic fat produced by whales and processed by seawater, washes up with some frequency. 

These, and similar aromatic substances sourced from further east, became the basis for the trade route. Celia Lyttelton, in her book The Scent Trail, describes the route as starting from Shabwa in Yemen “from where it trailed through the vast desert wastes to Petra in Jordan and on to Palmyra, in Syria. From there it continued on to the Levant and then on to Europe.” This merged over time with the Silk Road, providing the central parts of the network with valuable products to add to the trade. 

Arabian incense went East as well as West. In his book The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, Peter Frankopan explains that “highly desirable frankincense and myrrh… were known in China as Po-ssu—that is, Persian goods”, showing how Persia became the fulcrum of the Spice Road. In Sandalwood and Carrion, James McHugh’s book on smells in Indian culture, the author notes how texts refer to the exotic origin of aromatics like frankincense, ambergris or aloeswood, which were acquired through trade or tribute from vassal states.

Making incense sticks is labour-intensive and the working conditions are difficult. The sticks are made by refining coal ash and then coating it over bamboo sticks.
Without protective gear, the workers are exposed to dust, smoke and vapours from the oils, and they must bear the heat generated by the furnace.
Generations of families have been making agarbattis, or incense sticks, in Kannauj. The making of each stick is a roughly ten-minute process. Often, the leftover distillate from the attar-making process is used to add fragrance to the sticks. Kannauj’s factories deal in wholesale businesses. Companies buy in bulk, add fragrances and package the agarbattis with their own branding.

Aloeswood, which came from the area that is Assam today, was one of the most valued products on the Silk Road. Also called agarwood or gharuwood, it was an anomaly in several ways. Such prized products usually came from restricted locations, like nutmeg from the Banda Islands in modern-day Indonesia, and keeping their origin secret was an essential element of their trade. Aloeswood, on the other hand, comes from Aquilaria trees, which grow across Asian rainforests. Hong Kong is said to get its name, meaning ‘Fragrant Harbour’, from aloeswood. What makes it valuable is the chancy nature of its origin—the tree produces an aromatic resin in reaction to a fungus infection.

In the sixth century CE, a log of aloeswood reached Japan at the farthest eastern end of the maritime Silk Road. It coincided with the arrival of Buddhism—the log may have come with supplies for a Buddhist shrine—and fascinated the Japanese aristocracy. The wood instigated the development of kodo, a ritual of appreciating incense, on the lines of the tea ceremony. Throughout Japan’s centuries of isolation from the wider world, trade in aromatics like aloeswood, sandalwood and spices was a rare case where outside contact was allowed. 

Aloeswood is mentioned in the Bible in Psalm 45: “All thy garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia…” Cassia is a cousin of cinnamon, which would have come from the Indian link to the Spice Road. Myrrh was one of the gifts of the Magi for the baby Christ, along with gold and frankincense, which they brought to Bethlehem at the Levantine end of the Silk Road. Theologians explained that the use of frankincense in religious rituals confirmed Christ’s divinity, while the use of myrrh in rituals of death was a grim prefiguring of Christ’s end.

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Another Biblical perfume is spikenard, which is infused in the oil that one woman uses to anoint Christ’s head and another to massage his feet. Spikenard is identified as jatamansi, derived from a plant that grows in the Himalayas in Nepal and India. It also travelled the trade routes as herbal medicine and to flavour wine. A memory of such oil continues in the use of chrism—oil infused with aromatics—by the Church. (King Charles III was anointed with chrism at the holiest moment of his coronation.) 

Historical uses of aromatics broadly fall into four categories— ritual use, cooking (including flavouring of drinks), medicine and perfumery, in the modern sense of scents for the body or to diffuse in rooms. But these uses overlapped. Food and fragrances were particularly closely linked, with spices being used for both. This makes sense, since much of what we perceive as taste really derives from the olfactory nerves in our palates. But the idea that using expensive spices signified status, and also had medicinal value, caused substances we know mainly as aromatics, like camphor and civet (secretion from the anal glands of civet cats), to be used as flavourings for food. 

Over time, the different uses of aromatics started to drift apart, though some linkages persist. Aromatherapy obviously links wellness with fragrances, and when we light agarbattis for ritual use, it’s also with the knowledge that they help the ambient aroma of a room, practically keeping mosquitoes at bay. Edible camphor is used in some South  Indian sweets, while nearly all spices have been used in perfumes (the most surprising use is of asafoetida, whose sulphurous aroma is one note in certain classic fragrances like Cabochard).

The biggest change in our use of perfumes came with the development of organic chemistry in the nineteenth century. Vanilla was a prized aromatic in its original home in Mexico, and then in Europe after it was brought over by Hernan Cortes in the 1520s. It came from orchids whose propagation was notoriously complex until, in 1841, a young enslaved man named Edmond Albius on the island of Reunion figured out how to pollinate the flowers by hand. This increased supply, but vanilla was still an expensive commodity.

The Silk Road was arguably built on an earlier Incense Road established by Pharaonic Egypt as part of its religious imperative of preparing bodies for their afterlife.

Generations of families have been making agarbattis, or incense sticks, in Kannauj. The making of each stick is a roughly ten-minute process. Often, the leftover distillate from the attar-making process is used to add fragrance to the sticks. Kannauj’s factories deal in wholesale businesses. Companies buy in bulk, add fragrances and package the agarbattis with their own branding.
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In 1858, a French chemist, Nicolas-Theodore Gobley, isolated vanillin, the key component in vanilla’s fragrance, and by 1874 its chemical structure was deciphered. This resulted in synthetic production of vanillin and made the once-exclusive fragrance easily available. Natural vanilla has a more complex aroma, and is still prized and used, but synthetic vanillin opened up a much wider use of the basic aroma. Anyone who baked a cake could buy a bottle of warm-smelling synthetic vanilla to add in. 

This process was followed for most fragrances, and organic chemists soon found new molecules that could be used in perfumery. A major breakthrough was the discovery and synthesisation of aldehydes in the early nineteenth century. Chanel No 5, perhaps the most iconic mid-twentieth century perfume, was created with a mix of natural extracts of materials such as orris root combined with new synthetic florals, like a version of jasmine, and aldehydes which gave a clean, ‘modern’ aroma. 

The advances of organic chemistry made perfumery a more precise art but also an industrial one. Control of the industry shifted away from bespoke perfumers, who were like ancient alchemists creating small quantities of expensive fragrances. Today, the real profits made by the four giant fragrance corporations come from fragrances in soaps, detergents and similar products. 

Modern perfumery has sidelined the centuries-old perfume extractors and blenders like the attarwallas of Kannauj. There are some benefits to this. Many natural ingredients like sandalwood have been over-harvested till near-extinction. Animal ingredients like civet, musk (from a species of deer) or castoreum (from beavers) are seen as unacceptably cruel. Some ingredients might even be carcinogenic. Synthetic molecules provide relatively problem-free alternatives. 

And yet, there is value in the real ingredients, the old products of the Silk Road. If you visit traditional attarwallas, you can still find fine perfumes—though the chances are that they are also using synthetics these days. The problem is that too few people know the value of the real thing, or how to find it, so perfumers end up using synthetics to bring down the price. That makes people even more suspicious of the claims of attarwallas. Yet, there is one corner of the market that is seemingly escaping this cheapening cycle. And that is aloeswood, now more commonly known as oudh.

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The word ‘oudh’ is derived from an Arabic term for wood, and in the Arab world there is no more prized perfume. Customers in the Gulf or Saudi Arabia have the money to pay for the real thing, and the complexity of oudh still seems to escape the ability of organic chemists to reproduce it. The Emperor of Scent, Chandler Burr’s book on Luca Turin, the maverick perfume expert who delights in challenging the fragrance world, ends with a trip in which Burr—who was famously the New York Times’ first perfume critic—accompanies Turin to India and visits the perfume shops of Mohammed Ali Road in Mumbai. The two look for natural oudh in shops that still source from Kannauj. 

When they finally track some down, the scent, Burr writes, is unbelievable. “Its vast dimension is what astonishes: a huge smell, spatially immense and incredibly complex, a buttery layer as deep as a quarry, entirely animalic in its impact, and yet the oudh itself is actually not an animalic, spicy without being a spice.” 

The trip was made in 1998 when Turin was quoted a price of 309 dollars, just over 25,000 rupees for one dohla, a measure equivalent to eleven grams. I recently heard of well over 100,000 rupees being paid for a similar amount, also bought in Mohammad Ali Road by an Indian businessman as a gesture of thanks to a businessman from the Emirates for the conclusion of a deal. 

The oudh trade in India remains the one perfume which can command not just profits but political power as well. Badruddin Ajmal, the leader of the All-India United Democratic Front, the spokesperson of Assam’s Muslims, is said to have built his fortunes from trade in oudh, harvested from the forests of North-East India, extracted in Kannauj and sold at huge profits at his Ajmal chain of perfume shops across the Middle East and India. 

Oudh’s price is linked to its rarity, which has also raised fears of it being over-exploited to extinction. Yet, scientists are now figuring out how the aromatic infestation happens, and trying to create plantations where this can be done on a large scale. If that happens, then oudh might be the one ancient aromatic product that will continue to have a life in the modern world, perfuming the souks of the Middle East, the bazaars of Bombay and the attar-stills of Kannauj, just as it did for centuries across the Silk Road.

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Vikram Doctor

Vikram Doctor is a journalist currently based in Goa. He writes primarily on food and its role in Indian society and history. He also writes features on material culture in India—on the objects that we use in our daily lives, where they came from and what their future might be.

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