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Ittar, also known as attar, is an essential oil derived from botanical sources. Most commonly these oils are extracted via hydro or steam distillation. Ibn Sina, the Persian physician was first to derive the attar of flowers from distillation. Attar can also be expressed by chemical means but generally natural perfumes which qualify as ittars are distilled with water. The oils are generally distilled into a wood base such as sandalwood and then aged. The aging period can last from one to ten years depending on the botanicals used and the results desired. Technically ittars are distillates of flowers, herbs, spices and other natural materials such as baked soil over sandalwood oil/liquid paraffins using hydro distillation technique with deg and bhapka. These techniques are still in use today at Kannauj in India.
Attar is quite ancient in India; We find mentions of fragrance and perfume in the olden Indian epics and Granths. The kings would begin their day with fragrance. According to ‘Agni Purana’, they would take bath with over 150 varieties of fragrances. The consumption of fragrances was enormous in the harems of kings. As a large number of men and women were engaged in preparing fragrances amongst whom the woman numbered the most. These women were called Gandhkarika or Gandhhadika. These fragrances were known as Itra.
The record of perfume-making in India can be found in the ‘Bri- hat Samhita’, an encyclopaedia authored by the philosopher Varahamihi- ra – a 6th-century Indian astronomer, mathematician, and an astrologer who lived in Ujjain.
The earliest recorded mention of the techniques and methods used to produce essential oils is believed to be that of Ibn al-Baitar (1188–1248), an Al-Andalusian (Muslim-controlled Spain) physician, pharmacist and chemist.
The Egyptians were famous for producing perfumes throughout the ancient world. They were formulated from plants and flowers before they could be added to other oils. It was later refined and developed by al-Shaykh al-Raisa renowned physician who made a distinctive type of aromatic product. He was referred to as Abi Ali al Sina. He was among the first people to come with the technique of distillation of roses and other plant fragrances. Liquid perfumes used to be a mixture of oil and crushed herbs until his discovery where he first experimented with roses.
Abul Fazal Faizee gives another verdict of how Attar was used to making the Mabkhara-incense-burner. The barks that were used in Akbar's time according to Faizee were Aloe, Sandal, and Cinnamon. Animal substances such as Myrrh, Musk, and Anbar were used along with roots of special trees and a few other spices. The ruler of Awadh, Ghazi-ud-Din Haidar Shah used to prepare fountains of Attar around his bedroom. These fountains would create a very pleasant fragrant and romantic atmosphere by functioning continuously.
Uses and types
Ittars are generally classified based on their perceived effect on the body. 'Warm' ittars such as musk, amber and kesar (saffron) are used in winter, as they are believed to increase body temperature. Likewise, 'cool' ittars such as rose, jasmine, khus, kewda and mogra are used in summers for their perceived cooling effect on the body.
Musk is a class of aromatic compound produced by "Moschus moschiferus", a rare species of the male deer found in the Himalaya. The substance used in creating Musk can only be produced by a mature male Moschus, and the process of acquiring it involves killing the deer. As such, its demand has led to the endangerment of most musk deer species, which in turn has aided the rise of synthetic musk, known as 'white musk'.
Ambergris, also known as Anbar, is a waxy substance excreted by the sperm whale and retrieved from beaches and the sea. It is thought to have been used by humans for at least 1,000 years, and has a musky aroma. Ambrein, an alcohol used as a scent preservative, is extracted from ambergris.
Spirituality & Religion
For thousands of years, ittars were considered in some societies to be something that attracted angels and warded off evil spirits. Saints and spiritual aspirants would adorn themselves with these scents to assist them in their journey towards enlightenment.
The different sects of Hinduism worship deities through household and temple offerings. Ittars are commonly used within the incense and food used as offerings.
- Attar of roses
- Bṛhat Saṃhitā
- Charaka Samhita
- Essential oil
- Kannauj Perfume
- List of essential oils
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