Mitti-The Fragrance of the Earth

Mitti-The Fragrance of the Earth
by Christopher McMahon

Part 1: Monsoon in Rajasthan

"I am the taste in the water, the light of the sun and the moon, the sound in the ether, the ability in the man, the fragrance of the earth, the life of all that lives, the strength of the strong, the intelligence of the intelligent, and the original seed of all existences."
Bhagavad Gita(c. BC 400)

In the Bhagavad Gita, when Lord Krishna reveals his true idenity to Arjuna, he uses the lovely phrase, "the fragrance of the earth", to describe his essential nature. This fragrance is very dear to the Indian people as it is associated with the coming of the monsoon rains which is the life-giver. In many places there is no other water source for irrigating the crops than that which comes from the sky. When the monsoon season approaches the farmers throughout the country search the horizon for signs of the moisture-laden clouds with fervent prayers that this years rains will be sufficient to grow the crops which will feed their families, communities and country. The feelings that get awakened at that time are very intense and one must realize that the entire livelihood of millions of people is tied up with the amount of rain that falls in any given year. When the first drops of rain fall upon the parched earth, it gives off an intoxicating aroma that is inhaled by the country folk in deep satisfying draughts. It is a cause for singing, dancing, and tears of joy because if all goes well in a few short months the fields will be full of nourishing crops.

When I was in my early twenties, I went to live on a small farm in South India that became my home for six months a year from 1971-1976. Living amongst the simple farming people my life underwent a gradual change where I began to sense the powerful effect nature exerts upon those who have lived in close proximity to her for thousands of years. In the hearts of the current generation of rural Indians live the feelings, emotions and experiences of all their ancestors. It is a collective awareness based upon certain commonly shared values that have changed little in the course of the centuries. The coming of the monsoon rates as one of the most important events of the year and the hearts and minds of the people become united with the intense longing to see, taste, hear, smell and feel the benefits of the rain. Indeed it may be said that the identity of the people is so closely linked with the earth that they feel what the earth might feel when finally it is reinvigorated with the the raindrops falling from the sky.

This July, I had the opportunity to visit Rajasthan as the monsoon season approached. It was very exciting to be moving through the countryside sharing in the intense feelings of the farming people once again. As my eye drank in the sublime beauty of that ancient landscape, I became so grateful that my life had become intertwined with a part of India that is little known to people from other parts of the world. I was traveling with my fragrance mentor, Mr. Ramakant Harlalka of Mumbai, and we were exploring another dimension of the great aromatic traditions that are dear to the hearts and minds of the Indian people. The countryside was alive with activity in spite of the tremendous heat which proceeds the rains. The earth had been or was being plowed so that the broken crust could easily receive the precious drops of rain. Plows were being mended, hoes sharpened, shovels made, for the intense work that would follow should nature be kind and the rains abundant. But most of all one could feel the call of the earth and all her creatures for the rains to come.

It was the best possible time to understand the importance of "mitti" attar which is still being made in North India today. An attar is an Indian perfume having a sandalwood base in which one or several essences of botanical origin become absorbed through hydro-distillation. The "mitti" or "earth" attar is that perfume which is actually a distillation of the earth. In some past time, the perfumers of Kannauj put their attention on producing a fragrance that would portray the odor given off by the earth when first touched by the monsoon rains as it was loved so much by the people. I had found mention of this attar in perfumery literature some years before and instantly became interested in finding out more about it. In February 1995 I had the opportunity to visit a distillery in Kannauj where this attar was being produced and since that time with the help of my Indian colleagues had made a good photographic documentation on this perfume.

The real significance of the attar was only revealed to me though when we were in Rajasthan as it had been many years since I was in India during the monsoon season. Seeing the sun baked earth upturned and waiting to receive the rains and feeling the longing of the people for the return of the monsoon connected me once again to the"reason" behind the existence of the attar. This odor was for the people a reminder of one of the most sacred and important events of their lives. Ramakant also explained to me that from the scientific level when the earth becomes depleted of moisture the soil organisms, numbering 10 million to the teaspoon, become inactive but as soon as the soil receives the rain they are activated again and this activity is most likely the cause for the sublime aroma that is dear to those who love the earth. This exquisite rich, deep, mysterious smell created by the activity of the micro-organisms, invisibly charges the air with its positive influence and one can easily imagine that the earth is in turn thanking the clouds and rain for showering their cooling draughts so that life can return to the land and all nature can rejoice.

Part 2: Making Mitti Attar

How then is this fragrance "captured" by the perfumers of Kannauj? The perfumers know that each earth has its own distinct odor. Through experimentation they found that the earth extracted from dried up lakes, ponds or wells was the finest for producing the aroma they wanted. Working with picks and crow bars, local people go to the selected site and take out the caked earth and load waiting bullock carts or tractor trailers for transport to the area of the city where the potters live. The potters work in an open area surrounded by mounds of earth, bricks and brick ovens. The potters assistant sits and pounds the large pieces of dried earth into pieces that can be moistened and formed into a dough which the potter then molds into coarse vessels. Squatting on the ground, they manually set their wheel revolving with a spinning stick, and in quick succession create cups or plates for firing. Nearby are many small ovens having a central concave opening that is meant for holding the vessels. The vessels are stacked in this opening. When all vessels are in place bricks are stacked several tiers high around the perimeter of the oven. Straw is packed above the vessels to the top of the bricks and the whole thing is then sealed with clay. A fire is ignited beneath the vessels and they are gently half-baked at which point they are removed and transported to the distillery.

At the distillery, the half-baked vessels are transported to the large copper "degs"(cauldrons) that are supported above the ground by a brick and earth structure. As many as 10 degs sit in on a row and beneath each one is a small opening that will receive the fuel(cow-dung or wood) when the distilling process begins. At this point the degs contain no water. Once the earthen vessels have been placed inside, workers encircle the lip of the deg with a moist clay snake upon which the "sarpos", a lid is placed. This permits a tight seal to be formed between the lid and the cauldron. There are two wholes in the copper lid. Into the larger of the two holes fits the "chonga" a bamboo pipe covered with a type of grass twine which acts as an insulating material. The pipe is wrapped with cotton cloth at the place where it enters the cauldron so that a tight seal is formed between the two. The other end of the pipe is connected to a "bhapka" a long-necked copper receiver which contains 5 kilos of pure sandalwood oil. A tight seal is formed here also by an interface of cotton between the bamboo and the vessel. The copper receiver sits in a water-filled basin so that it remains cool allowing condensation to occur during the distilling process. Only when all the different parts in securely in place is the water poured into the second whole in the lid. The reason for this is very important and is one of the first known instances of recognizing the importance of "head-space" aromatic molecules.

Part 3: Labor Intensive Industry

"Head-space" aromatic molecules are the most subtle and refined of all the fragrant molecules exhaled by a plant during the course of its life. The heat of even the most refined steam or hydro-distillation invariably destroys the finest of these molecules as they exist only at normal enviromental temperatures and even then at a certain time of day. So in their own unique way the perfumers of Kannauj recognized this basic fact and did their best to insure that the subtle componets of the earth fragrance would be preserved to the greatest extent possible. They knew that once the water touched the earth the micro-organisms would become active without the presence of heat. By placing the water in the chamber sealing it at the last minute, they forced these aromatic molecules to pass into the bamboo pipe and onto the sandalwood oil where traces of the essence could become absorbed. Only then does is heat applied to the cauldron and the rest of the aromatic material extracted.

For two hours the cauldron is subjected to direct heat and then the material gathered in the receiver is allowed to sit till the cool of the following morning. At that time the water and oil have completely separated and the water can be drained off from a small hole in the bottom of the receiver. This process is repeated twenty times over the next several weeks at the end of which time the sandalwood oil becomes charged with the fragrance of the earth. This charged oil is then placed in special leather bottles where the oil matures and takes on its full richness.

Obviously the process of making such an attar is labor intensive. We need to think about all the effort that goes into ints production with great appreciation and gratitude. First nature provides the fragrant earth for us to distill. Then it has to be dug out, fashioned into clay vessels, brought to the distillery and made into the perfume here described. The lives of the people involved in this and other aspects of the industry are very simple. A lot of cottage industry level skills are utilized here. The perfumers possess the knowledge of how to make the attar but for their work they need the copper vessels, the earthen pots, the bamboo pipes, leather bottles, and so many other things. Many people are able to practice traditional crafts in home enviroments due to the existence of the attar industry. I have had the good fortune to see many of these crafts and processes first hand and also to witness the lives of the people envolved in them. By Western standards their work may appear menial, lacking in glamor or unsophisticated but a little closer examination may show us that there is a lot there worth caring for in nurturing. It is truly amazing to see how with simple tools and native ingenuity they are able to fashion out of locally available materials items that play a valuable role in bringing such a delightfully fragrant product into ones hands. They are able to live in their homes in small villages where a lot of care is given to personal relationships and cultivating the family life. It is true that they do not make huge sums of money and cannot afford the modern technological wonders that we take for granted but in many cases they have everyday ties of friendship and love that are certainly valuable in terms of the quality of life.

It is my hope that in some small way I can be instrumental in helping preserve the art and craft of the perfumer and the many cottage industries related to it. The pressures of the modern world are certainly being felt by everyone involved in this work as little value is placed in the modern world on such labor intensive activities. It is now quite easy for traditional Indian perfume houses to procure all the sophisticated aromatic chemicals that are available to perfumers throughout the world and they can, at a much cheaper cost, produce attars through adding these chemicals to sandalwood oil, liquid paraffin or a combination of the both. This in fact has become a major trend and it is estimated that over 85% ov the so-called attars now produced are either wholely are partially adulterated with synthetic chemicals.

Still there are some bright possibilities as the world-wide interest in natural fragrant materials increases amongst perfumers, aromatherapists, aromachologists, and herbalists. Mitti attar is just one of the lovely essences in the Indian perfumers reprotoire. Gulab(Rosa damascensa), Keora(Pandanus odoratissimus), Hina(a combination of many herbs, spices and oils), Champa(Michelia champaca), Bakul(Mimopsus elengi), Parijatak(Nycanthes arbortristis), Chameli(Jasmin graniflorum), Motia(Jasmin sambac), Genda(Tagetes erecta), Ratrani(Cestrum nocturnum), and Kadam(Anthocephalus cadamba) are a some of the other attars that are still being made. An repected Kannauj perfumer also intimated to me that in the old days many other natural perfumes were produced such as lotus(Nelumbo nucifera) but as there was no longer patronage from India's royalty or overseas buyers, especially the Middle East, these were no longer being produced and the knowledge of how to do them properly was gradually disappearing.

It is my hope that an independent facility can be set up where true attars can be produced of the highest quality which can be certified pure and authentic through modern quality control analysis equipment. This would give researchers the opportunity to examine the reputed medicinal properties of the oils as propounded by the Ayurvedic and Unani systems of medicine. In such an enviroment it would also be possible to make those innovative alternations in traditional equipment that would increase yield, improve quality, decrease fuel consumption for firing the stills, etc. Ramakant, as a highly trained engineer and successful owner of a large modern distilling facility outside Bombay, has already noted several very simple, cost effective changes that could be made that would help in these areas. The whole idea would be to improve things in such a way that perfumers and rural craftsmen alike could find a market for their goods so that they could continue living in small villages and towns where they can remain close to the land and their families as opposed to moving to big cities life is much more difficult and uncertain. It is my opinion that a model operation needs to be set up where technologies of both ancient and modern worlds is implemented so that India can emerge is a leader in this fascinating and interesting fragrance domain.