The allure of Indian fragrances

Indian fragrances

INDIAN MYTHOLOGY AND FRAGRANCE

Fragrance, culture and history

Those of you who follow our blog already know how we like to connect mythology with the products we sell. It is so much fun to learn about how cultures have used natural product through history than to deal with something that was made in a lab recently and is devoid of cultural significance.

The recent launch of the PATCH solid fragrance gave us an opportunity to explore the history of fragrance in India. And how rich and fascinating that history turned out to be!

After a lot of reading, we selected these myths and stories that we found particularly captivating.

The Sad and Beautiful Legend of the Parijata Flower

The Parijata flower is a form of Jasmine that flowers only at night. By day the fragrance is gone, so if the flower is to be offered to the Gods it must be picked at night and offered immediately. Legend has it that Parijata was a mortal princess that fell in love with Surya, the Sun God. Against her father’s advice, Parijata got together with Surya on Earth. Predictably, Surya quickly got tired of Earth and abandoned her, going back to the Sun. Brokenhearted, Parijata tried to follow Surya, but was burned to death by his heat. The Gods felt sorry for her, so they decided to reincarnate Parijata as a tree that would only flower at night to avoid the heat of the sun. Today, Parijata extracts of flowers collected at night are used extensively in perfumery and incense sticks.

The legend of Kamadeva

Kamadeva is the Hindu god of love and desire. Like Cupid, he carries a bow and arrow, but his bow is made of sugar cane, the string a line of honeybees, and his arrows are tipped by five kinds of flowers: mango, jasmine, white lotus, blue lotus, and ashoka.  It was the fragrance of these flowers that made Kamadeva’s arrows so irresistible at capturing hearts.

Gardening Accords

Sophisticated gardens in ancient India combined flowering plants on the basis of the compatibility of their aromas and the timing of flowering. This is in contrast with gardening in the West, where visual integration is generally the norm. In perfumery an accord is a combination of notes that result in a unified single aroma. The gardening practices in India made us think of a “gardening accord”. In fact, the concept of skillfully combined natural aromas was a key part of South Asian cultures: “A good perfume should be like a well-run kingdom, with the correct balance of allies (mild components), neutrals, and enemies (pungent materials).  A good perfume should also be harmonious with incense and garlands, the season and the humoral character of the person wearing it. The skilled use of perfumes delighted the gods, appeased kings, and excited lovers” (4).

Gardens were the center of a plush life that also included poetry readings, music, and multiple day and night aromas from flowers, candles and burning woods. The Sultan’s bedchambers would open directly to the garden, and he would enjoy baths in violet and rose water.

The Book of Delights

In 1469 Ghiyath Shahi assumed the throne of Malwa in central India. In his inauguration speech he was very clear about his plans: he would dedicate his sultanate to his enjoyment of life. At least he was honest, and he shared his expertise of life’s pleasures in a book he wrote called the Book of Delights.

The Book of Delights covers both cooking recipes and the making and enjoyment of perfumes. A true gentleman at that time was expected to have an encyclopedic knowledge of both cooking and perfumery, together with poetry, gardening, and seduction. Much of the book is dedicated to perfumes for the House of Pleasure, which was his harem, and includes detailed descriptions of how to scent a woman’s body.

Perfumes and Life

The history of fragrances in ancient India is a lesson on integrating perfumes with art, spiritually, religion and seduction.  Whereas in the West we tend to think of perfumes as part of fashion and celebrity marketing, extensions such as aromatherapy, candles and room diffusers bring similar connections to loftier aspects of life. Indian perfumery has been in decline because of the dominance of Western, primarily French, fragrances and the extinction of unique sources such as sandalwood and karmawood.  We like to think that with PATCH we are bringing some of that magic back.

Articles we enjoyed reading for this post:

  1. Alexis Karl, Royalty and Fragrance
  2. William Dalrymple, The perfumed past
  3. TanyaDutt, The fragrant myth of Parijat
  4. James McHugh, Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in Indian Religion and Culture