India had been very close to my heart through my profession as I learnt Ayurvedic marma points and how to identify each personality with doshas in the spa world. Yet India was a far distance, I always knew I had to go there at the right timing in the right condition.
When my girlfriend Kate passed her 4th year living there, and I had grown more eager to experience the real Ayurvedic therapies, and not the spa Ayurveda, that right time and condition had arrived.
7 generation Attar house in Old Delhi
The legend says that the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, who built Taj Mahal in memory of his wife Empress Mumtaz Mahal, mourned his queen so much so that he never again wore perfume. Fragrance oil, called attar, had been one of the couple’s great shared passions.
Attar was believed to arrive in India during the 12th century, and it is very much used everyday life today. Flowers, plants and spices are distilled using ancient techniques, and some oils are of the highest quality one can expect. I was particularly interested in rose, but not just any rose, ruh al gulab or “soul of the rose“, made with double the amount of petals – 8 tonnes to produce 1kg, by distilling a number of times to increase its concentration. The emperor Jahangir (1569-1627) wrote that there is “no other scent of equal excellence… It lifts the spirit and refreshes the soul.”
With the help of my local guide and a friend Sanjit, I wondered around the tumultuous Chandni Chowk, one of the most crowded places in India. There I was drawn into a small shop with crystal glasses displayed – I knew it was the Attar house I was looking for!
The shop has existed for seven generations, the owner tells me, with distillation and production taking place in a city of Kannauj – the perfume capital of India. I asked for ruh al gulab, and he carefully grabbed a large crystal decanter, claimed to have been made in Europe 2 centuries ago and opened the bottle for me to smell. Amid the chaotic markets outside, I was transported to a rose garden with the freshest roses I have ever smelt. It is profoundly complex yet pure and irresistibly pleasing.
I also sampled sandalwood that is known to calm the mind and often used during meditation as it stimulates the seventh chakra. It is subtle yet so fresh, deep and very powerful.
Next was jasmine which I learnt people in India wear during the hot weather to cool the body temperature. I could not believe how deep the colour of the oil was (dark burgundy, like aged wine). It is subtly sweet and unexpectedly narcotic I just could not let go of the bottle!
In recent years, the attar business has declined. To begin with, to produce attar is extremely labour intensive and those natural ingredients especially sandalwood has become increasingly scarce. With cheap synthetic perfume brought into the market, fewer people understand and value such artisanal products as these. But the ancient knowledge and intriguing methods of those distillers, from which time of the day and weather for picking a rose to preserve its scent, to the point in a rose’s life when it smells strongest and the yield of cohobating oil must not be lost and carried over to the next generations.
How attars are made into homemade skincare products
After returning to Singapore, with full of colourful images from India, I carefully unwrapped my treasures from the Attar house. How would I best use these amazing oils that travelled back 4 thousand miles with me?
As in any product of this quality, it is best to enjoy as it is. So my first option was to wear it directly on my skin – not only as perfume, but also mood lifter and spiritual guardian. I do not generally recommend the undiluted application of essential oils (this is a highly controversial topic within the aromatherapy industry), unless for some acute conditions like minor burns and acne as spot treatments. On the other hand though, some oils are generally accepted to wear undiluted (1-2 drops) as follow:
- Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia)
- Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
- Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum mobile)
- Rose (Rosa damascene)
- Sandalwood (Santalum album or Santalum spicatum)
- Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens)
- Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus radiata or globulus)
If you are not comfortable or have sensitive skin, the next best option will be to make solid perfume.
Beeswax Solid Perfume
45ml Jojoba oil
15-25 drops of essential oil mix of your choice
How to Blend:
- Melt the beeswax in a heatproof container played in a shallow saucepan.
- Heat jojoba oil in the same way.
- Once the beeswax is just melted, rest for a few minutes before it gets solid again and warm jojoba oil, mix well.
- Add essential oils
- Carefully pour into containers. Use pill case, candy can or small glass jar with a lid.
How to Use:
Apply around the wrists and behind ears as a gentle perfume. Rub in the palms and inhale the aroma as mood-lifter.