The Fragrant History of the World of Ancient Indian Perfumes

A brief history of the magnificent world of ancient Indian perfumes and cosmetics lost in time. India was the world leader in the perfume industry for more than five hundred years.
The Fragrant History of the World of Ancient Indian Perfumes

A 17th or 18th century manuscript of two Sanskrit treatises with a Marathi commentary on one of them opens a whole fragrant world diffused with a stunning wealth of details about the Himalayan summits that the art, craft and science of ancient and medieval Indian perfumery had scaled. The details in these two manuscripts are just an appetizer to a thousand-course meal whose ingredients and method of preparation we have perhaps irretrievably lost. In no particular order, here is a partial list of aromatic ingredients that the manuscripts provide in order to prepare an infinite variety of perfumes. The names of the ingredients are a mix of Sanskrit and Marathi. Hold your breath.

Srikhanda, Agaru, Jaayapatri, Sailaja, Taalisapatra, Vaala, Bhola, Paachii, Yelaa, Lavanga, Koshta, Toopa, Phulancaa, Vaasu, Srigandha, Sevanti, Makhaa, Davana, Brahmii, Champakali, Punaave, Haldi, Jayiphal, Geroo, Karpura, Tagara, Taalii, Punaava, Gahulaa, Kaalaavaalaa, Champaka, Choonaa, Ketaki, Javaadi, Satapatra, Dalchini, Hingul, Vyaghranakhii, Tamaalapatra, Guguloo, Kesari, Kachoor, Devadaroo, Surabhi, Kumkuma, Padmaka, Damana….

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However, the 17th century is fairly recent given the fact that the art, craft, skill, and the industry of perfumery and cosmetics dates back to at least three thousand years. Scores of scholars and researchers during the period of the modern Indian Renaissance invested countless hours to reconstruct this scented history, a great endeavour that was halted after Independence. A forgotten classic in this regard is the two-volume History of Hindu Chemistry by the scientist Sri P.C. Ray. Then we have the justly famous, two encyclopaedic traditional works that deal with cosmetics and perfumery, among other topics: Varahamihira’s Brihatsamhita and Someshwara’s Manasollasa.

Our eternal gratitude should also deservedly go to the prolific scholar, Dr. P.K. Gode who tirelessly scoured through thousands of such traditional treatises and heavy volumes and wrote a series of papers on this most significant facet of the Sanatana Civilisation. A thriving perfume market is one of the greatest indicators of national prosperity, and in our own times, the US is the world’s largest perfume market worth over $40 billion. India had not only occupied this premier position for unbroken centuries but was regarded as one of the great cradles of perfumery and cosmetics. Of course, times have vastly changed and it is not proper to compare traditional Indian perfume-making with the contemporary methods of using inorganic chemistry to make perfumes.

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Gandhasastra

The Indian term for the science and technology of cosmetics and perfumery is Gandhasastra. The practical art and application of preparing cosmetics and perfumery is known as Gandhayukti. Two important treatises dedicated to this subject include the Gandhasara of Gangadhara and Gandhavada, whose authorship is unknown. Gandhavada has an elaborate commentary in Marathi. Gandhasara was published around 1200 CE and the latter, sometime in 1600 CE. Both texts in turn are based on earlier texts dating back to around 500 CE. This is how Gangadhara defines the ultimate purpose of cosmetics and perfumery.

This science of cosmetics and perfumery is helpful in the worship of Gods, which requires the use of auspicious perfumes and incense; it contributes to the pleasures of men; it leads to the attainment of Three Ends of human life (Dharma, Artha and Kama); it removes one's own poverty; it contributes to the pleasure of the king, and it gives the highest delight to the minds of accomplished ladies.

As we notice, some things are both universal and eternal. Till this date, women are the most prolific consumers of cosmetics and perfumery, and across the globe, individuals have become eponymous with the perfumes they create. Likewise, from the ancient times up to the late medieval period, perfumers were in huge demand throughout India. As I have narrated in an earlier essay, Sri Krishnadevaraya had created a separate government department for cosmetics and perfumes.

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Equally, there are hundreds of verses in Indian literature in all languages waxing rapturously about the benefits and delights and pleasures that perfumes, scents, and incenses give to the body, mind, and soul. Even Vishnu Sharma, the author of a text like Panchatantra can’t resist the temptation of perfumes. He calls it the best of all trades, prizing it above gold.

The other obvious and interesting fact is that cosmetics and perfumes were manufactured entirely from organic sources: plants, leaves, minerals, barks, shrubs, musk, ambergris, and so on. As Sri Gode notes, a study of the art and science of making perfumes in this manner is also closely linked with the study of Ayurveda because hundreds of organic aromatic ingredients also have therapeutic value. He concludes brilliantly that

The study of the Indian Gandhasastra is only one line on the spectrum of Indian Civilization, so rich with variegated streaks of culture of the different periods of Indian history from the Vedic times to the advent of the Indian Independence.

A Few Highlights 

Within the constraints of this essay, I can offer only a few highlights of this magnificently perfumed world that thrived in India. It must be said that whatever subject our ancestors touched, they made sure to dive deep in and touch the very floor of the ocean, extracted the pearls, came up ashore and then like Agastya, swallowed the ocean itself. An important element in the traditional medical literature of India are the Nighantus or glossaries that provide elaborate lists of medical and botanical terms along with the names and properties of each item. These glossaries would then be updated with new findings in the subsequent generations. The same applies to glossaries in Gandhasastra, giving a list of each aromatic ingredient and its properties. However, owing to the vagaries of time and large-scale destructions of entire empires, only a few of these have survived. Unfortunately, there is no single glossary—akin to the dictionary of language—that lists all these aromatic ingredients.

The third chapter of the aforementioned Gandhasara contains a partial aromatic glossary. The meticulous structure and the extraordinary attention to detail that Gangadhara has paid while constructing this glossary is truly astounding. We can look at a sample. Gangadhara provides an eightfold classification of aromatic ingredients as Vargas (categories).

(1) Leaves: Tulsi (Basil), etc.

(2) Flowers: Saffron, jasmine, Sugandhapushpa, etc

(3) Fruits: Pepper, nutmeg, cardamom, etc

(4) Barks: (Barks of the) Camphor tree, clove tree, etc

(5) Woods: Sandalwood, Fir, etc

(6) Roots: Nutgrass, Pavonia Odorata (Balarakshi in Kannada, Thingai Pillai in Tamil and Sugandhabala in Hindi), etc

(7) Discharge of odour from plants: Camphor, etc

(8) Organic ingredients: Musk, honey, butter, ghee, etc

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Gangadhara then gives elaborate details on technical processes and recipes for manufacturing perfumes and various types of perfumed products such as scented waters, perfumed oils, incense sticks, and powders. Overall, he classifies the actual preparation of perfumed products into six processes (Bhavana, Pachana, Bodha, Vedha, Dhupana and Vaasana) to be performed in the same order that he lists them. Happily, traditional perfumers in India even today use many of these methods and techniques to manufacture their perfumed products.

Gangadhara, like every Hindu scholar of the yore writing on different subjects, assigns a Dharmic and divine goal to the making and use of perfumes. He invokes four deities before beginning his treatise: Shiva, Ganapati, Saraswati and a Gandha Yaksha (a demigod) who is a servant of Shiva. Needless, this Gandha Yaksha is the presiding deity of the art, science and technology of cosmetics and perfumes. In Gangadhara’s words, the final goal of perfumery is to “infuse semi-divinity within us and elevate our mind by freeing it from the mundane worries of the world.”

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