Ittar, the heavenly perfumes – this is something that cannot be written about, it has to be felt, it has to be smelt, it has to be worn and it has to be enjoyed! Unlike many other things that Hyderabad is famous for the world over, be it the biryani or kebabs or laad bangles or haleem and many more, this is one thing that cannot be summed up in a couple of pages.

The age-old ittar is as much a part of Hyderabad as the great Charminar and the nawabi culture it is known for. Made from all natural products that last a lifetime, in this fast-paced age of techno tronics and easy money, the good old ittar still comes across as a refreshing (quite literally too!) feeling. In varied hues and colours and shades and scents, ittar (also known as attar) quite naturally grows on you when you have it on. As one perfume shop owner puts it, ‘one scent for each flower’, so you have aplenty!

I can vouch that there is not a single Hyderabadi who has not been affected by the aromas of the delicious biryani, looked at the Charminar in awe and had a whiff of the exotic ittar, especially at weddings where one is welcomed with a ‘paniir bhowchar’ (sprinkle of scented water) that is sprinkled on you, that our great city is known for. And I happen to be one humble being amongst them.

The sweet smell of Old Hyderabad, ittars from here are famous all over the world. They smell divine and truly symbolise the old-world charm of Hyderabad. Choose from the hundreds of exotic blends or concoct your own.

It is a must-buy for the innumerable tourists, especially the ‘firangis’, vouch the vendors more so for ittar and as much for some of the beautiful and delicate ‘Iran ke containers’ that they come in. While some of the containers are made in our city, some come from Firozabad and some from as far as Iran, as they are called.

The word ‘ittar’ or ‘attar’ is basically an Arabic word which means ‘scent’. The purest form of perfume oil that does not consist of any alcoholic property or chemicals, it is one of the most volatile oils which are very pure and smooth with a deep and strong fragrance.

Ittar, as any other perfume is worn on the neck, wrist, hand and behind the ear; and is used more during the Holy Month of Ramzan. It is also used as a welcome gesture and put on guests when they come to wish. Some like ‘amber’ is also “used in food and unani medicine” says a vendor.
Perfume has always been a vital part of human culture and people have perfumed their hair and bodies with oils, resins, flower and herb extracts and animal scents since earliest history. Wearing scent is pleasurable; an expression of individuality and makes us feel nice to be close to. It’s more for the wearer, since it makes us feel wonderful.

Old texts mention that the floral group primarily used for ittar was rose, bela (type of jasmine), champa (Plumeria – common name Frangipani), molesari and tuberose along with roots like vetiver and ginger. Sandal, cinnamon and aloe bark were also used. Heavy odours like musk, myrrh and ambergris, were also used with khus. Sandalwood oil forms the base as, during distillation, the original smell of sandalwood vanishes and the oil captures the fragrance of the flower. There are evidences in history that perfumery tradition dates back to over 5000 years at the time of Indus Valley civilization as well when distillation practice was reported to be in existence.

Perfumes are made with flowers and chemicals; and between them they have about 300 varieties of scents for the discerning customer. The ittar manufacturers get the raw material from Kannauj in UP and make a sandal base or oil base, depending on their need. Oil-based perfumes sell for anything between Rs. 100/- to Rs. 120/- for 12 gms and natural perfumes sell between Rs. 300/- to Rs. 400/- for 12 gms. There is even an odd one or two that beat the prices of branded perfumes and sell for as much as Rs. 12,000/- for 12 gms in its original form. Different types of flowers are used to give us the wide variety of perfumes. Flowers are dried and then the juice is extracted out and mixed in a sandal base to make the exotic perfumes. Jannat ul Firdaus, Pahadi phool, Fiza, Dilshad, Kabkashan, Mahfil, Muskaan, Manpasand, Kashish, Dilkash, Afreen, Noor Ayen, Anjum, Gulab Jal; the list is vast and endless!

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Ambar ittar, rose ittar, ghulab ke ittar are some of the perfumes that are exported to the Middle East in bulk and the price ranges from Rs. 100/- to Rs. 50,000/- for a thola (equal to 12 gms)!!!

Base materials used in making ittar are sandal wood oil, di-octyl phthalate (DOP) and liquid paraffin; whereas the floral materials are flowers of Gulab, Kewra/Kewda (fragrant screw pine), Bela, Mehndi, Kadam, Chameli, Marigold, Saffron and Maulshri. Herb and spices like oakmoss, sugandh mantri, laurel berry, juniper berry, cypriol, Indian valerian, jatamansi, hedychium spicatum, daru haldi, sugandha bala, sugandha kokila, kulanjan, javitri/jaiphal, cardamom, clove, saffron, ambergris and musk are also used.
The best thing about natural ittar is that they are long-lasting (and I mean really long!) and retain their scent every time you open the bottle, so you don’t have to worry about shelf-life et al! Pure sandal based perfumes are one amongst them. When stored in crystal decanters, the perfumes last for as long as five decades.

Md. Basheerullah Siddiqui, Berket & Son’s, has been in the perfume business for the past 50 years. “Jaanat-ul-Firdauz, a flower-based perfume sells more at our place and the ‘running items’ (popular ones) are rose, sandal and jasmine. People of all age groups buy and use them.” I wondered if their market is affected by the innumerable deodorants splurging the market and he says “our market is unaffected by all these deodorants and other scents that come in. We have our own niche clientele and regular clientele, at that.” Their uniqueness he says is “making and giving the perfume immediately as per the customer’s needs,” and proudly claims that “we can also make custom-made perfumes accordingly by smelling any other perfume sample that a customer gets.” Howzzat?! You could be the creator of your own personalised perfume! You don’t get to do that very often with the other bottled perfumes, right?!

Perfumery is a way of life for some and a legacy that is passed down from generation to generation. Home-made ittars are the most powerful ones, with the recipe being handed down generations. Like Syedi & Sons Perfumers, who are the fourth generation of their family involved in the ‘sweet’ business of perfumes and exporters of perfumes to the Gulf too. Say Syed Zaheeruddin and Syed Najmuddin, “our forefathers have supplied ittar to the Nizam’s family,” and add further that “gil (smells like the first fresh rain) was a personal favourite of the Nizam amongst others like odh, amber, zafraan and mushkh (which is the costliest item).” Specialists in odh and dahanlodh, their perfume ‘Fiza’ is “very popular”. They have over 60 varieties to choose from, most of which have been made already. Ittar-e-gil sells for as much as Rs. 1,200/- for 12 gms. Their shop also has age-old bottles made of camel skin that are used to store natural perfumes. The reason behind storing it in these, says Najmuddin, is that “when perfumes are stored for long, they collect moisture which when kept in a glass container would spoil the scent of the perfume. But here, since it is leather the moisture leaves the container thereby retaining its original scent.”

“Trends are changing,” he says, “Earlier ittar was used as ‘soul food’ but now people want strong and powerful perfumes” and adds “earlier only Muslims used it but now people of all communities use ittar. Unlike other new-age perfumes and deodorants which might be harmful to some, ittar has so side-effects.” Their market remains unaffected, he feels, and sums it up by saying “ittar is more than 1000 years old and our (as in ittar sellers) monopoly will survive in the market.”

The older the ittar, the expensive it is, he says and reveals that his grandfather had kept aside some perfumes around 80 years ago, though he is not sure of how old it really is!

Another family that has been selling perfumes since eons is that of Md. Afsar Ali Khan of Al-Bushra Perfumers Center. An elderly man, Md. Afsar seemed like a man with worldly knowledge and elaborately explained the technical know-how of the journey of a flower and how it becomes the divine and unique ittar. “Hum yahan dada par dada ke zamaane se hain (our forefathers have been here since ages)” he says and explains with a matter of pride that his forefathers who were from Kannauj in UP came and settled in Hyderabad and set up an ittar business around 1925.

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Going back into the history of how ittar evolved into what it is now known for, he quite literally took me back into time with his clear, chaste Urdu and elaborate explanation. Here is an account of what he had to say. According to him: “The first ittar was made of gulab (rose petals) by a man in Kannauj. His relatives suggested he take it and give it to Noor Jahan. So he went to Delhi, met a lot of influential people and gave them samples. Prior to the invention of ittar, Noor Jahan used to bathe in rose water but once she got ittar, she started bathing in ittar water. The man’s (who made the first ittar) relatives got more ideas to make different types of ittar and went out into the jungle to fetch ingredients for them. Sadhus and sants (saints, sages) would burn firewood and sit by the fire to fight the cold weather. These people noticed that the fire had died but the air around it smelt good. They researched and found out what wood it was and made Hina perfume with the jaributi. Word then spread and more scents came forth. Then chameli (jasmine) flowers scent was made.” Explaining the process of how it is made, he says, “for 30 days til (sesame seeds) and chameli flowers are spread individually over each other in layers on thin sheets. At the end of 30 days, the oil from the til seeds (since they are spread together the til seeds adsorb the scent and aroma of the flowers and retain them) and sandal oil are cooked together in a huge bhatti (earthen kiln). The kiln has firewood at the bottom most level, water at the next level and then the material. The lid at the top is closed and the material is steam cooked; the droplets of which are collected to make an exotic perfume.”

However, some are of the view that ittar was first discovered by Noor Jahan herself. The story goes that she went for a morning bath and was delighted with the fragrance of the oily layer on the water which had been left overnight to keep it cool. When distilled, it turned out to be her favourite rose perfume.

Md. Afsar says that “whereas the pure sandal base is used for medical and Unani purposes; sandal and kewda are used by the general public. He stocks most of the ittars available in the market and also khus ka ittar, which sells for Rs. 700/- for 10 gms and oud ka ittar for Rs. 10,000/- for 10gms.

Flowers are required to be processed quickly after plucking. The apparatus and equipments used for manufacture of ittar are light, flexible, easy to repair with a fair degree of efficiency and the traditional ‘deg and bhapka’ system is being used for centuries and even now!

To explain the process in more detail, the ittars are manufactured traditionally by the ‘deg and bhapka’ system, which is a hydro distillation process. The still is heated form below by lighting a fire with the help of wood or cow dung. The temperature and speed of the distillation is controlled by regulating the fire. The distillation is managed by highly skilled, workers called ‘dighaa’. He knows when the correct quantity of vapours has condensed inside the receiver by feeling the round part of the receiver under water. The water in the tank is changed continuously to prevent the temperature rising too high and the operator keeps the boiling in the still at a level that matches the condensation in the receiver, in order to keep the pressure under control. When the desired quantity of vapours has condensed, the dighaa rubs a wet cloth around the body of the still for a temporary pause in distillation and the filled receiver is replaced by another receiver. If necessary, the second may be replaced by a third receiver. The receiver is then allowed to cool and may remain idle for one or two days depending on the pressure of work. The mixture of oil and water is then separated either directly from the receiver through a hole at the bottom or pouring the whole mixture in an open trough. After the oil and water have separated into two layers, the water is removed from an opening in the bottom, and the same is cohobated. The base material remains in the receiver. After desired concentration has been reached, the same is poured into leather bottles for sedimentation and removal of moisture. The mouth of the receiver is sealed by wrapping coarse cloth around the bamboo pipe and pushing it inside the condenser. The receiver may contain up to 5-10 kilos of base materials and is kept in a small water tank.

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Types of Ittars
Ittars may be broadly categorised into the following types on the basis of raw materials used:
Floral: manufactured from single species of flower like gulab, kewda, motia, gulhina, chameli and kadam;
Herbal and Spicy: manufactured from a combination of floral, herbal and spicy materials like hina and its various forms such as Shamama, Shamam-tul-Amber, Musk Amber and Musk Hina.
Others: there are some which are neither floral nor herbal like Mitti which is produced by the distillation of baked earth over base the material.

MD Shamsul Islam of Raihan-E-Taiba says “the market is filled with alcohol-based deodorants and it sells too, but we have our clientele and our market is not affected in any way.” And he promptly takes out a bottle of perfume, dabs a cotton swab in it and puts it on me. It smells just like the men’s deodarant that is rated No. 1 in the Indian market! Can you beat that?! Stocking more than 80 to 90 varieties, the costliest one he has is Dahnul Oud that sells for Rs. 10,000/- for 10 gms. It is made of oud wood (Agarwood) and its major clientele are from Saudi, he says. Unlike the regular perfumes, ittar does not leave a stain on clothes; he adds and in the same vein says “shauk ki cheez hain yein (it is a thing of fanciful good taste).”

Umda Bazar, a little south of the Musi River that runs through the city of Hyderabad, is essentially a residential place and the region falls in what is popularly referred as the Old City. It is replete with age-old shops that have been serving generations and sell pearls and ittar. At Charminar, you will find perfume vendors selling all kinds of perfumes, from Persian to Arabian, and Afghan to Indian in origin.

“The typical Hyderabadi ittars that you get here will last a very long time. They smell strong and nice. You may not believe it but I am still using some perfumes that I had got from this place in 1998,” says Divya.

M M A Baig, a regular customer at Berket & Son’s, says “I’ve been using ittar since I was a kid and I come here since I’ve known them for so long,” and adds “Jaanat-ul-Firdauz is my favourite apart from Majnuma.”

Purandas Ranchhoddas, manufacturers and ‘stockists’ of more than 50 varieties of perfumes have been in the business for more than a century and have “only lifestyle products”. They buy their essential oils from Mumbai and make the perfumes here in Hyderabad. Famous perfumes from their store are Pahadi Phool, Shaharusa, Shah Alam, Hara Gulab, Dhanal Oud, Bakhoor, Amber, Mushk, Misk and many others. Mahender, says “ittar made of natural and essential oils is used in pooja and namaz.” At their current store near Charminar since 1975, he says the craze for ittar amongst other people has gone up since the 80’s. In spite of so many years of experience behind him, he says “this is just the tip of the iceberg and perfumery business is vast. I still have a lot to learn.”

Aptly said! While the range is vast and out of reach, buying one is surely within your reach! So the next time you head to Old City, don’t forget to buy a bottle of ittar for yourself!y#KhabarLive

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A senior journalist having 25 years of experience in national and international publications and media houses across the globe in various positions. A multi-lingual personality with desk multi-tasking skills. He belongs to Hyderabad in India. Ahssanuddin's work is driven by his desire to create clarity, connection, and a shared sense of purpose through the power of the written word. His background as an writer informs his approach to writing. Years of analyzing text and building news means that adapting to a reporting voice, tone, and unique needs comes as second nature.