The word ‘perfume’ comes from the Latin per fume, which means ‘through the smoke.’ How the modern world uses fragrances, in a bottle, off-the-shelves is a far cry away from how it was used initially. The history of perfume which goes back thousands of years is fascinating as it gives deep insights into various cultures and traditions. It is believed that the ancient Egyptians were the first to include fragrant rituals into their culture, as oldest perfumes have been unearthed by archaeologists in Cyprus. The possibility of fragrant potions and fumes being used before that by Hindus and Romans obviously exists.
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All ancient cultures held perfumes in high esteem and were used ceremonially by nobility and the royals. To have your spaces perfumed was a sign of indulgence and of course was also associated with hygiene which only the high classes in the society could afford. With time, some rituals have evolved, but some still exist. Let’s different cultural rituals where perfume plays the lead role:
1. Mummification: A fragrant send-off
It’s believed that ancient Egyptian leaders like Queen Cleopatra used fragrances to scent their bodies, palaces, baths and even took perfume with them to the grave. The process of mummification needs no introduction. We have learnt in school textbooks how Egyptians had developed a method of preserving dead bodies so that they remain lifelike. Essentials oils of thyme, lavender, peppermint and rose, among many others were used to embalm the body and then wrap them in strips of linen. Though the process of mummification is redundant now, it’s modern derivation ‘embalming’ is still practised at funeral homes.
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2. Bakhoor: A perfumed welcome
Bakhoor is a beautifully scented ritual, where chips of Oudh are soaked in fragrant oils and mixed with other natural ingredients (resin, ambergris, musk, sandalwood, essential oils and others) and then are burned in charcoal or incense burners to perfume the house and clothing with its earthy and energising thick smoke. In formal gatherings, especially involving the royal family, it is a traditional gesture to pass Bakhoor among the guests as it is viewed as a sign of hospitality. Bakhoor is also used during traditional weddings, spiritual and religious ceremonies as the smoke besides its addictive fragrance are also said to dismiss evil spirits. In the middle east, this feel-good scent is also used in commercial shops to attract customers.
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3. Dhoop/Loban: A purifying ritual
Scientific research backs the Indian tradition of burning loban or dhoop at home. Loban’s anti-inflammatory benefits heal while its antiseptic properties act as a natural germicide. It is said that if we daily burn Loban and consciously inhale the fumes, it helps to enhance the memory power. Loban/Benzoin or Frankincense is extracted from the resin of the Boswellia tree, which is further churned into creating oils and incense. The simple daily practice of burning dhoop, still followed in many homes and shops, purifies the air and also has an anxiolytic or anxiety-reducing effect. In some cases, loban powders are sprinkled on over hot coal embers for a similar perfumed effect.
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4. Cedar/Sage Smudging – A shamanic cleanse
In Native American tradition, smudging, which involves the burning of sacred herbs or resins, is considered a way to bring in good spirits and dispel the negative ones. It is done before a special ceremony, before moving into a new home and even after a spat as a way of clearing the air. Locally found sage or cedar is bundled up, and then burnt, almost like how in India, we do it with agarbattis. But, it’s a bit more elaborate as prayers of gratitude are said aloud as the smoke is directed over a person or throughout a living space to wash away the grief, sadness, dark thoughts and unwanted energies.
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5. Kodo – An art of appreciating the fragrance
Meaning the ‘way of fragrance’, Kodo is a Japanese practice of appreciating incense. It is regarded as one of the three classical Japanese arts of refinement, the other two being, the art of flower arrangement, and the famous tea ceremony. It involves a quiet room and a special etiquette for inhaling fragrances. The process of sniffing incense is a ritual in itself. You start by firmly placing an incense burner on your left hand, and keep it horizontal placing your right thumb and little finger on the burner. Then bring the burner up to your nose while keeping it horizontal, then take in the fragrance through the space between your right thumb and forefinger. The premise of this lies in the fact that certain scented fumes when directly absorbed by the nose and transported to the brain can promote a sense of well-being.