There is a resurging interest in the use of attar – an ancient form of fragrance. ANU PhD scholar and perfumist Giti Datt is looking at how practices from the past can be adapted in the present.

Even the tiniest dab from an aromatic bottle of perfume lifts our spirits. The need to smell good – and therefore feel good – is integral to our psyche.

Now it seems there is a new scent on the scene in our hunt for the perfect perfume. Attar has been featured in Vogue and is touted to become the next big trend. The story of the fragrance has taken one researcher to the marketplaces and perfume distilleries of the centuries-old industry.

In essence, attars are oil-based, alcohol-free fragrances in concentrated form, made by distilling aromatic flowers, herbs or spices.

Giti Datt, from the School of Culture, History and Language at The Australian National University (ANU), is sniffing out the story of attar and its protagonists – including labourers and artisans who are often invisible, despite honing highly specialised sensory and artistic skills.

The work of labourers and artisans in the attar industry often goes unrecognised. Photo: Giti Datt/ANU

A whiff of history

Long before designer bottles of modern perfumes hit retail shelves, people were working magic with fragrances derived from natural materials. Archaeologists in Cyprus discovered the oldest-known perfumes. Ancient Egyptians were the first to formulate scents from plants, mixing them with oils for ritualistic purposes. In Babylon, a tablet dating back more than 3,000 years mentions Tapputi, a woman named as the first recorded perfume maker.

Beyond ritualism, the culture of perfumes grew because of medicinal innovation. Persian physician Ibn Sina is credited with refining the perfume-making process by experimenting with the distillation of roses. It is said he created rosewater and formulated more than 60 medicinal treatments – 40 of which were attar.

Later, India’s Mughal emperors and queens became renowned for their penchant for perfume. They built fountains of fragrance and infused hundreds of aromatic oils in their daily baths. Their fondness for fragrance and luxury reportedly led to the rise of attars in India.

A potpourri of tradition and culture

Attar is unique because of how it is made. As Datt puts it, “attar is not a product; it’s a process”.

Most people think any product labelled as attar is authentic, but many are synthetic approximations or commercial perfumes. The purest attars are distilled using the deg-bhapka method – a precise process requiring specific traditional equipment. Raw aromatics are typically distilled onto a wood base such as sandalwood and aged for up to 10 years.

Crafting attar is as aesthetic as it is scientific. Datt says the Indian town of Kannauj, the country’s attar capital, is a well-oiled yet unique machine with its own eccentric quirks and processes. Returning to the basic connection between soul and scent, artisans here know how to distil emotions and moods better than most.

Datt is also the founder of Guna, a Sydney-based skincare and perfume company specialising in rare essential oils.

“Through Guna, I’ve been able to share attars with so many different people, and by far the most evocative one is attar mitti, which translates to ‘essence of the Earth’. This smell is significant to many people from different places,” she says.

ANU researcher Giti Datt is exploring the history of attar. Photo: supplied

Datt recalls how one of her customers cried when they smelled this attar, which mimics the scent of earth after rainfall. The smell connected them with their ancestors from India, who were taken as indentured labourers five generations ago.

“It’s important to examine the meanings people make from this smell in the context of a changing climate, the evolving qualities of the Earth and migration,” Datt says.

Out of steam or rising from the ashes?

The attar industry, which straddles both tradition and evolving modernity, continues to adapt today.

“A common narrative is that attar production is under threat and a diminishing industry, but I do not see it exactly that way. I would say it is an industry that is constantly evolving, as it always has,” Datt says.

It is not simple for owners of attar distilleries to strike a balance between the “integrity of an artisanal product while competing in the contemporary commercial context”, as Datt puts it.

“By nature, artisanal products are hand-made, varied and slow, making it hard to scale or provide a completely standardised product, which is what much of the commercial perfume industry demands.”

“More knowledge about South Asian perfume history could lead to a different kind of contemporary perfumery that draws on our heritage and aesthetics.”

Giti Datt, ANU PhD scholar

Compounding the struggle is a general lack of knowledge of what attars really are.

“There are so many misconceptions. Some people think they are very strong, they smell old-fashioned, or they’re only used by the Muslim communities in India, or they are of inferior quality,” Datt says.

“This is all untrue, and in part because most people have only ever experienced the synthetic attars.”

Another big, and unexpected, factor in the recent rise of attar has been COVID-19. Once people lost their sense of smell during the pandemic, they developed a renewed appreciation for attar. Datt’s own relationship with smell has also changed over time, and she believes the world is at a precipice of a resurgence of sensory sciences.

There has also been renewed interest in attars due to a growing fascination with natural beauty, wellness, aromatherapy and the recognition of concepts such as sustainability and organic production.

There has been a renewed interest in attar and its production. Photo: PradeepGaurs/

Datt hopes this new trend translates to more awareness and innovation.

“More knowledge about South Asian perfume history could lead to a different kind of contemporary perfumery that draws on our heritage and aesthetics,” she says.

In the meantime, let’s hope the attar industry sees a renewed spritz of freshness. Its entrepreneurial innovation is infusing new life into an ancient art that deserves to be preserved and bottled for centuries to come.

Top image: Roses for attar. Photo: Giti Datt/ANU

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