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Petrichor in a bottle

Published : Aug 3, 2016, 10:21 pm IST
Updated : Aug 3, 2016, 10:21 pm IST

One of the attar makers in the city has been selling the smell of wet earth, better known as ‘petrichor’. We visited their store in Mohammad Ali road, to learn more about this unique scent

A customer sniffing his choices. (Photo: Debashish Dey)
 A customer sniffing his choices. (Photo: Debashish Dey)

One of the attar makers in the city has been selling the smell of wet earth, better known as ‘petrichor’. We visited their store in Mohammad Ali road, to learn more about this unique scent

If you take a regular stroll on Mohammad Ali road, chances are the miasma of Mumbai will be veiled by the loud smell emitted by the slew of attar shops. From the outside, S. Md Ayub Md Yaqub might look like any other attar shops around — glass doors, coloured bottles labelled in English and sometimes Urdu stacked in shelves. As you enter, the burst of fragrances nearly shakes up your olfactory senses. While most scents might seem familiar, a stand-out is an fragrance called gili mitti or wet earth. This petrichor (specific term) is made from a secret formula that has been handed over to a select few through generations. “Usually we use scrap earthen pots to extract the smell,” says Saad Akhir, who handles the family business along with his brother Sarmad in Mumbai. In 1896, bothers Ayub and Yaqub opened the perfume factory in Kannauj, UP, and in 1986 their heirs brought it to Mumbai. “Our factories are still in Kannauj,” Saad adds.

“There is a range of natural fragrances that we sell, apart from gili mitti — khus, zaffran, heena, keora and oudh. All have different methods of preparation. Although all of them require skill and precision, making khus is the most difficult,” says Ataullah Khan, who has been working in the shop for the past three years.

By definition, attar, also known as ittar, is an “essential oil derived from botanical sources”. But keeping with the demands, they have a range of synthetic scents as well. “Now we also have to keep up with the French perfumes. These days youngsters do not want to use attar, they prefer spray perfumes instead,” says Tausif Ansari lamenting the current consumers’ preference for deodorants and perfumes.

Speaking about the process of manufacturing, Saad says, “Although it may seem like a simple process, it requires a special technique to make attar. One has to monitor a constant temperature, since too much heat might burn the flowers (raw material),” says Saad adding that the factories still use the age-old method of labour intensive distilleries, without any kind of automation involved.

The formula for the fragrances are trade secrets, confidential information only known to select family members. “I don’t know the formula myself. Even the factory workers don’t know it. They just follow instructions,” Saad adds with a smile.

The price ranges from Rs 300 per tola (10 gm approximately) to Rs 60,000 per tola. Besides gili mitti, this shop is also known for Mohsin Shamama — another special fragrance oil. “Most of these fragrance oils have ayurvedic properties as well,” says Tausif. Khus (vetiver) is mainly used in the summers and it keeps the body from dehydrating, he says, adding, “Zaffran on the other hand is used in the winters.”

“Among all the fragrances, oudh is the most popular among our customers,” says Saad. Extracted from the bark of Agarwood, a tree grown in Assam, it is believed to have been a favourite among Mughal princes.

We leave the store with one precious tip. Storing attar in leather bottles help retain the fragrance and improve it with time. That’s because leather absorbs impurities, leaving the oil in its purest form.