Chasing the Monsoon
The scents of Old India.
Delhi’s old city smells of many things: fumes, sweat, dung fires and desperation, among them. But those who follow their noses deep inside the city’s centuries-old walled quarters are rewarded with the sweet scents of flowers: jasmine, vetiver and the most-refined rose oil anywhere in Asia. And it has been this way for almost 200 years, as long as iconic perfumer Gulab Singh Johrimal has been manufacturing and selling perfume oils, or attars.
It is a warm day in early winter when I set out to visit this perfume shop, which has been passed down for seven generations. Alighting at Chandni Chowk metro station, I weave past an unending stream of people and the many hawkers dotting the pavement. Off the main street lies a tangle of narrow alleyways thronged by cycle-rickshaws and pedestrians. To an outsider, they’re virtually identical, but each has its own distinct character.
My destination is the street of Dariba Kalan, built in the early 1800s and best known for its many jewelers and goldsmiths. The alley is flanked by two shops dishing out the beloved Indian sweet snack of jalebis, essentially a squiggle of deep-fried batter soaked in sugar syrup. I stop for one at Old and Famous Jalebi Walla and watch the jalebi maker squeeze batter from a cloth bag into a huge dish in wide concentric circles. The batter swells and then turns golden. The cook then takes a giant ladle and dunks the now-crisp piece into the syrup before passing it to me. It is almost a form of street art, evidenced by the crowds gathered around. I decide that Old and Famous Jalebi Walla, established in 1884, has every right to be famous, as the jalebis are sublime.
I reach Gulab Singh Johrimal shortly thereafter and meet owner Ram Singh and his son Atul, who shows me around. Though few foreign travelers venture beyond the chaos and cacophony of Old Delhi’s main street of Chandhi Chowk, the Singhs’ shop is well-known amongst Delhiites, who travel here to seek out old-fashioned attars and perfumes as they remember from their grandparents.
Indeed, Atul says that the shop is virtually unchanged from when it was established in 1816, with its carved wood cabinets stacked full of ornate jars and boxes. The wares have changed little too. There are piles of incense sticks, scented cones, essential oils, soaps and bottles of rosewater.
But it is the attars I have come to seek out. These old-style natural perfumes are based on botanical extracts that have been steam-distilled, added to a base such as sandalwood, and then aged for up to 10 years. Hundreds of years ago, attars were manufactured from Southeast Asia all the way to the Middle East, but they were particularly loved by the Mughals, the former Muslim rulers of India.
These days, most of the country’s traditional attars are made in the northern town of Kannauj, where dozens of attar producers still make the scents via the old, labor-intensive process. But though the town employs thousands of people, it is nonetheless a dying industry, with less than a third of Kannauj’s 650 distilleries that were operational in 1990 still in business.
Attar sellers, or wallahs, are likewise on the wane across India, due to the advent of contemporary branded perfumes coming in from abroad. And yet shops like Gulab Singh Johrimal retain a stubbornly loyal customer base among those who value nostalgia and tradition, and who prefer to wear an oil-based scent in India’s hot and humid climes.
I’ve come here in search of a scent I can describe but not name. Many years ago, I was told of a traditional perfume that captures the first rain of the monsoon: the smell of once-parched earth that has tasted the sweet kiss of raindrops for the first time in many months.
But first, Atul insists I smell my way through the other scents on offer, proffering a bottle or rubbing a drop onto a patch of skin. There is khus, or vetiver root, which has a peculiarly refreshing, cooling aroma. There is mogra, Indian jasmine; kewra, or pandanus, with its fruity, floral scent; and the sublime ruh motia, made entirely from white jasmine flowers, along with various blends.
The indisputable queen of scents, however, is gulab, or rose. The smell is subtle but almost otherworldly: evocative of peacocks dancing across manicured lawns, of sun-warmed rose bushes washed by fountains. It is fresh but headily intoxicating at the same time.
“That one is natural,” Atul points out. “Smell this one.” He rubs a droplet on the back of my hand. I sniff and immediately recoil; the gentleness of the previous scent has been replaced by a giant wallop of scent, technicolor rose rather than watercolor. Atul grins, amused by my reaction. “That’s a synthetic fragrance that you just smelled.”
He goes on to say that synthetic perfumes are now far more popular than natural. They’re far cheaper, too, with natural scents costing as much as 25 times what synthetic ones do, and they pack a far greater olfactory punch. Still, I prefer the natural, and I tell this to Atul.
He smiles. “That’s because you have a refined nose. You need one to distinguish.”
Compliments delivered, Atul turns his attention to my initial request. It doesn’t take him long to dig out a bottle, unscrew the lid and hold it out for me to sniff. I smell . . . well, just dirt. Where was the juicy scent of the first rains?
“That’s exactly right,” says Atul. The scent is essentially made from distilled dirt and sandalwood oil, known as gill or sondhi mitti. ‘Mitti’ is the Hindi word for soil.
“Right now it is winter, so this doesn’t smell as good,” he says, “but you relish it in the summer, waiting for the monsoon and the first rain. You appreciate it then.”
I walk out with a gill and a gulab. I look forward to the days of high summer, when the sun is scorchingly hot and the mitti is parched, and we are all just waiting for the rains to arrive. Then I’ll roll on some gill and, with luck, will manage to sniff out that elusive scent of the first rains — and feel relief.