The study of perfume history is quite a fascinating one. It is said that perfumery existed in some of the oldest civilizations such as the Sumerian civilization in Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq) and among the Indus valley civilization in Indian subcontinent, somewhere around 4000-3000 BCE. There are scores of literature that discusses how perfumery spread from Mesopotamia to Egypt, and from Egypt to Greece and Rome. Further, one can see records of usage of perfumes and perfumery in Arabia in first millenium CE. Later the art and science of perfumes entered Europe and became a culture from 11th century onward. Perfumery and perfumes what we see today, evolved in France, the French mastered it and went on to lead the world in the art and science of perfumery, as we see today. Grasse, a small town in the picturesque French riviera is considered to be the perfume capital of the world and is home to many international perfume brands, perfumeries, perfumers and institutes.
Back in the days when Indus valley civilization flourished, there are accounts of perfumery being practiced, one such evidence is the unearthing of a distillation apparatus being made out of terracotta dating back to 3000 BCE. Terracotta vessels were discovered that had plugged orifices and woven material that could be squeezed out to isolate the fragrant oils. The Vedic period is also a significant period in the history of perfumery, the Vedic texts, which were composed between 1500-1200 BCE and the Samhitas which were composed between 1200-900 BCE, gives insights on the practice of perfumery. The Upanishads, which found its origin around 700 BCE, dwell upon the spiritual heights to be attained by human beings, also mentions perfumery. This time period was the time of spiritual awakening and upheaval in the Indian subcontinent, both Budhism and Jainism came into being around 600 BCE, with Ramayana and Mahabharata being dated around 7th century BCE to 4th century BCE. The time frame of some of the early Upanishads coincide with the Mauryan empire, between 322 and 185 BCE, which was the time of spiritual awakening and progress in the Indian subcontinent, with the greatest ruler Chandragupta Maurya embracing Jainism and King Asoka embracing Buddhism. Chanakya, the trusted advisor of Chandragupta Maurya and one of the greatest Indian teacher, philospher and economist, in his book Arthashastra, discusses ideas on cosmetics and perfumery. Throughout this time period, across the various dynasties that ruled during these times, the Cheras, the Cholas, the Pandyas, the Pallavas, the Vardhana, the Chalukyas, etc we see mentions of Perfumery.
Kannauj, an ancient city in Uttar Pradesh, India has a rich history and is widely known for its perfumes. It is known as the perfume capital of India. It finds its place in history from pre-gupta period, and grew in importance and prosperity, and was made the capital of the Vardhana dynasty. Further, it was subject to foreign invasions, the sultanates which began ruling India, with the Turkish Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni capturing Kanauj in 1018. For centuries, Kannauj has been crafting oil-based botanical perfumes called attar using the world’s oldest known distillation methods. In the Mughal period, perfumes were called ‘Itra’, ‘Ittar’or ‘Attar’. The word ‘Attar’ or ‘Ittar’ comes from an ancient Persian word ‘Attar’, or ‘Ottar’, that means perfume, fragrance or scent. Kannauj’s attar was sought after by both Mughal royals and the common man from ancient India and is still popular today.