India has a rich history of perfumery and aromatic scents. With a land mass of over 3 million km2, and a plethora of fragrant trees and flowers - from lilies in the north to champa in the south, and jasmine grown almost everywhere, India has always placed social and cultural importance upon scents and smells. Ancient texts from over two thousand years ago record how aromas were extracted from plants (1), and were given as offerings in religious ceremonies. Further texts from over a century ago refer to India's exotic, aromatic abundance, with "frankincense trees anointed with their own resin, and which are perfumed with the fragrance of nalikā forests." (2). Items such as sandalwood, saffron, and camphor were considered, from early medieval times, as a sign of wealth, prestige, and luxury. A successful, cosmopolitan merchant traded, during that long-ago time, in aromatics – their houses were infused by the intoxicating smells of oils and incense, and the significance of aromatics continues in India to this day.
It is true that perfumes ground us. They connect us to place, reminding us of where we smelt them first, or from where they are sourced. The warm smell of sandalwood was linked in ancient writing to the south of India, with sweet saffron linked to the north. They were of those places and of immense value in India's past, seen as treasures and symbols of wealth as well as identifiers of place and culture. Their symbolism was recorded in ancient verses and subhāṣitas, their meaning transmitted down the ages (3).
It is true that perfumes ground us. They connect us to place, reminding us of where we smelt them first, or from where they are sourced.
"Perfume" comes from the Latin "through smoke", and it is scent through smoke – incense – that has been in common use in India for generations. Yes, a sign of wealth and prestige, but also a sign of faith – aromatics and scents have long connected the faithful with their Gods. Take, for example, the camphor flame, symbolising the connection between man and divinity – it is through perfume, through smoke, that links are forged. Fragrances linger and take on meaning, linking people to each other and to memories and the past. Scents become spiritual markers, reminding us of people no longer here. Images are evoked through the snatch of familiar perfume on the air or the use of aromatics, such as agarwood, in funeral ceremonies. The importance of perfumes native to India cannot be understated.
Throughout history, India has been a vibrant site of trade in aromatics. Perfumes, spices, and other valuable goods were traded along the "Silk Road" – a busy network of trade routes which brought the scents of India to the West. Agarwood was moved along this route, and became valued as wood with a long-lasting scent. It has deep religious and historical meaning, in both Hindu and Buddhist writing, and was regarded as a hugely luxurious item – indeed, a gift fit for a king, for a piece of agarwood was sent as a tribute to a Persian king in the fifth century CE (4). Agarwood, sandalwood, musk and other Indian aromatics were traded across the world, from ships taking luxury items to Rome at the height of the Roman Empire, to trade with Europe and the Middle East in the nineteenth century. India was a key player on the international stage, the scents of its huge, expansive land taken into homes across the globe.
A text from the 1470s - Ni'matnama, or the Book Of Delights – records just how important fragrances and sensory pleasure was to India's elite. The author, Ghiyath Shahi, ruled over an area encompassing central India, and he noted down pages of recipes for rosewater essences and a variety of oils. Precious parchment and bark was used to set down how infusions were created, for scents enhanced luxurious living; the Book of Delights described all manner of sensual pleasures, with the ruler's fascination with perfumery a continued theme. His written record eventually made its way along the trade routes to the British Library, London; the very heart of establishment (5).
India was and is a place where fragrances count and are deeply significant, in what they represent, whom they connect, and the emotions they evoke.
(1) "History of Use and Trade of Agarwood", Arlene López-Sampson and Tony Page, Economic Botany, March 2018, Volume 72, Issue 1, pp 107–129|
(2) Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in Indian Religion and Culture, James McHugh, 2012.
(3) "From precious to polluting: tracing the history of camphor in Hinduism", James Mchugh, Material Religion, 01 March 2014, Vol.10(1), pp.30-53
(4) "History of Use and Trade of Agarwood", Arlene López-Sampson and Tony Page, Economic Botany, March 2018, Volume 72, Issue 1, pp 107–129|
(5) "The Perfumed Past", William Dalrymple, LiveMint, 2nd Sept 2017