The Soul of the Rose

I came across a TV documentary on BBC i-player called the Soul of The Rose which aired several years ago and found it a very moving story. One of my favourite scents is Rose Damask in its essential oil form, the high cost means this is a rare treat for me. Roses have been favoured for hundreds of years particularly in India. Rosewater showers are used in weddings and religious ceremonies.

For 400 hundred years in the Indian city of Kannauj, rose flowers have been distilled to make perfume. However due to the popularity of synthetic perfumes many distilleries have closed or are near to closing due to the decline in this industry. Twenty years ago, there were 700 perfume distilleries reducing to less than 100 in 2017. These distilleries produce oil-based perfumes from rose petals through steam-distillation, a traditional way of extracting fragrance in the perfume industry.

A visitor to Kannauj could easily miss the signs of what was once the city’s main industry. But among the cars, lorries and street vendors, occasionally a cart passes by laden with flower baskets and turns through a large gate into the stone-paved alleyways of the old city. Damask roses have to be picked by hand before sunrise and distilled on the same day. This intense but subtle scent requires 4 tonnes of hand-picked roses to make 1kg of rose alter. The rose petals are tipped into large copper pots called dhegs with a small amount of cold water. Under the pot, a fire is made with wood or dung and the water boiled for four to six hours. The hot steam releases the essential oils of the flower, which condenses and flows down bamboo pipes to a receiver pot. The perfumer’s job is a complex one. If the dheg overheats, the resulting scent will be too smoky. Judging how long to heat the dheg is also critical. The skills of a perfumer are many and have often been passed down through generations from father to son.

However, it has become no longer cost-effective as the skill and intensive labour involved has meant that the cost of the finished article is too expensive. Most people don’t understand this or appreciate the value. One reason for the high price is the increasing scarcity of sandalwood. Sandalwood oil can be used as a perfume by itself, but it is traditionally mixed with the rose oil that emerges from the dheg’s bamboo pipe. The deforestation of the sandalwood trees means the wood has become “practically unaffordable. However, this has prompted the Indian government to ban the felling of sandalwood trees. Many companies now use a cheaper paraffin-based product as the base for its attars, but it alters the scent which is less appealing to customers who knew and loved the authentic sandalwood version.

The purest and most expensive rose oil is called Ruh al Gulab, which is an exclusive product for a limited market like the very wealthy. This is made by distilling the rose oil a number of times, increasing the concentration making a very potent oil. Making this requires double the amount of rose petals. Emperor Jahangr, 1569-1627, said of Ruh al Gulab, there is no other scent of equal excellence, it lifts the soul.

Outside India, one of the biggest markets is in the Middle East, where dheg-produced attars have long been highly valued and there are still plenty of customers who can afford to buy them. In 2014, fragrance sales in Saudi Arabia were valued at $1.4bn; an average Saudi consumer was estimated to spend $700 per month on attars alone. Hussah al-Tamimi, a Kuwaiti woman, describes Ruh al Gulab as smelling like you have walked into a garden of roses or that fresh smell you get when you’ve walked past a bouquet of fresh flowers.  In the Gulf region rose attars increase in value the older they are. As a result, they have historically been offered as presents to brides at their wedding, along with incense and gold. In fact, rose oil has traditionally been considered a masculine scent and has only recently begun to be worn by women too. Today, perfume shops have flooded the Souq. Rose attars from Bulgaria and Turkey are highly esteemed, but the Ruh al Gulab from Kannauj is still recognised as something unique. The more difficult it is to obtain it, the more valuable the perfume is seen to be.

One reason rose attars are valued by Muslims, both in India and the Middle East, is that they are made entirely from natural substances that can be applied directly to the body, without the addition of alcohol. In this respect they differ from modern scents that are mixed with solvents and sprayed through an atomiser.

How long Kannauj will be able to continue supplying traditional attars and ruh al gulab, is unclear. Pushpraj Jain, owner of the Pragmati Aroma Distillery says, demand for dheg-based perfumes is next to nothing, today’s generation is only interested in modern perfumes

Ousman a perfumer at Muna Lal and Sons distillery, has no doubt about the superiority of the product he makes he says, the difference between a synthetic perfume and a natural one is like the difference between food cooked in a microwave and food cooked in a wood-fired oven.  And yet he fears the industry is slowly dying. He persuaded his children to take up a different trade.

Visible evidence of a struggling industry is not hard to find in Kannauj. The distilleries still operating often look starved of investment, one still uses a boiler taken from a Victorian-era paddle steamer. The soul of the rose lingers in these places, but how much longer will you be able to smell it? As the market for synthetic perfumes pushes the distilleries towards closure will these exquisite scents may soon be lost forever. I do hope not.