I am the taste in the water, the light of the sun and the moon, the sound in the ether, the ability in the man, the fragrance of the earth, the life of all that lives, the strength of the strong, the intelligence of the intelligent, and the original seed of all existences.
Bhagavad Gita (circa 400 BC)
These are not terms one hears everyday, in fact these materials are not widely used in mainstream perfumery due to their limited supply and the labour intensive production methods used. Still, for the Natural Perfumer if you are able to source a supplier, they offer an added soulful dimension to your art since many attars are used in devotional and spiritual practices.
‘Choyas‘ refer to particular materials extracted using a special earthenware vessel, called, surprisingly a Choya (pictures supplied by Christoper McMahon of White Lotus Aromatics).
Choyas are created using a process called ‘destructive distillation’, whereby resin is collected from the plant material (such as Frankincense – ‘Choya Loban’ or Seashells – ‘Choya Nakh’). The resin is charged to a clay vessel with a top lid and a goose neck on the other side. Direct heating of the vessel allows the oil to form condensed drops (choya) on the gooseneck side. These drops are then collected and bottled – it is a very labour intensive method and production is therefore quite small scale. Choyas are potent and pungent and require a very small amount to add a leathery note in natural perfumery, the Choya Nakh if used sparingly can provide a beachy/washed seashell effect and a mineral ozone quality…delightful!
Below is another picture, with a different vessel, what I find most interesting is the raw materials in the foreground, Loban (Gum Frankincense – Boswellia Serrata) to the left and Seashells (choya-nakh) to the right.
Attars are fragrant oils made from flower petals distilled in water using low heat and pressure in a vessel called a Deg, a long bamboo pipe leads from the deg downwards to a copper receiving vessel that contains sandalwood oil (some suppliers are now substituting Sandalwood for Vetiver, which is more ethically sustainable, but a very different odour profile).
Water is added to the deg and it is heated over a fire which is constantly monitored; as the steam collects, it condenses and flows into the receiving vessel. The receiving vessel sits in cool water to prevent overheating and is hand turned to keep the oils blended. When the distillation is complete, the oil cools overnight and the water separates. The water is poured off and put back into the still where more fresh flowers are added and the process begins again. The flowers are repeatedly added so that the Sandalwood oil becomes totally saturated with the fragrant oils from the flowers.
This is a traditional, artisan process, and again it’s incredibly labour intensive, that can take over two weeks to produce just a small batch of a single attar. Approximately 25 to 350 pounds of flower petals are collected and placed inside a deg.
Kewda being prepared and sorted
I have not purchased an attar for a few years now, the last one I purchased must have been at least 5 years ago, it was a Mitti attar – baked earth. YES, it sounds crazy but its like a genie in a bottle transporting you, like a virtual aromatic, magic carpet to distant, far lands where heat, dust and cracked earth meet the shimmering haze of the sun. Aha, look what I’ve found – this film on ‘Mitti Attar Making’ on YouTube (life before YouTube – who can imagine!), it is 13 minutes long approximately and a bit grainy – adds to the charm I think, enjoy.
Due to the high materials cost and the labour intensive production, these arts are dying out. However, there are a few genuine suppliers around who I offer attars which honour these traditional processes. I will have to order some samples, but in the meantime here are a few examples of Attars that are produced:
- Mitti : baked earth – so grounding, warming and comforting – I do love this. I shall have to seek some out, as the supplier I used to use does not sell it anymore
- Genda : from Marigold flowers, need to find out more about this one
- Gulab : from Rose Damascena – heavenly!
- Motia : from Jasmin Sambac – I love this deep, animalic, jammy jasmin
- Kewda : as in pictures above, a floral, fresh-fruity note not too sweet (I have not used this though!)
- Rhu khus : Vetiver – my ultimate must have oil – Vetiver is one of my great loves. Smoky, earthy, woody
- Chameli: Jasmine grandiflorium – rich, sweet, creamy and to me less jammy than the Sambac, I feel this is a bit more delicate
Attars can be worn neat on the skin and of course you can blend them, but worn on their own they warm and evolve on the skin, merging with your own body chemistry; unfolding over time to create a unique fragrance individual to the wearer.
I will leave you with this image of one of the industrious rose pickers, selecting ‘Rosa bourbonia’ in Rajasthan (these roses are not used in the Mitti production though – need to get similar pick of the Damascena)