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HomeFeaturesRose, sandalwood, petrichor—Gulabsingh Johrimal that captured Mughals with 'Indian' scents

Rose, sandalwood, petrichor—Gulabsingh Johrimal that captured Mughals with ‘Indian’ scents

Tucked in the heart of Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, the shop is still full of rare treasured aromas and scents. It had scores of noblemen as its customers.

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Coffee sells by scent and so do pizzas. People nose their whiskeys more than they drink it. New research has found that more hotel keys happen due to happy aromas and so do marriages. The much-neglected fifth sense — smell — may not feature much in research. But it’s an essential catalyst for success in love and life — even work and business.

One of India’s oldest surviving perfumery, Gulabsingh Johrimal, dating back to 1816, is tucked in the heart of Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk and still full of rare treasured aromas and scents. India has always been a pioneer in the art of making perfumes from natural substances. It’s a tradition that goes back nearly 7,000 years. The art and science of making natural perfumed concentrates is mentioned in the Vedas and other scriptures. Ancient scholars knew the power of aromas and scents, and their traditional knowledge is well-documented in our fables and folklore.

“India has a stunning diversity of flowers, fruits, herbs, spices, woods, and natural materials from which our ancestors have been creating [the] world’s most ethereal, exquisite, and rare fragrances. The Indian word ‘attar’ comes from [the] Arabic word ‘attaar’ meaning distiller and was earlier applicable to only floral distillates. But today, it’s a general term for all aromatic floral extracts. The second most important type of Indian fragrance is agar or oud. It is  an exotic base powder that is used to create different types of agarbatti (incense). While the Western perfume world is dependent on synthetic recreations, India has a unique fragrance heritage of organic scents extracted from natural materials,” says Mukul Gundhi, the seventh-generation scion of Gulabsingh Johrimal.

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Chandni Chowk to Mughal court

There is very little documented history about Gulab Singh ji or his son Johrimal ji who moved from what is now Jhajjar in Haryana to the  Vakil Pura area in Chandni Chowk during the early 18th century. The father-and-son duo opened a shop in Dariba, close to their home. The family still has an ancestral house in Jhajjar, but there is no oral or written account of why they shifted base to Purani Dilli and how they began their perfumery business. What is known, however, is that they soon became celebrated names in the city’s perfumery industry and began supplying fragrances to not only the Mughal royalty but also scores of rich noblemen,  international businessmen, military personnel, and travellers who made up the eclectic upper crust of society during those days.

“My forefathers catered to royals, noblemen, seths, sahukars and top angrez officials of those days. Even now we continue to supply to renowned perfume collectors, including many Arab sheikhs, Chinese millionaires, and European scent aficionados. These people are extremely well-informed about scents and their power to heal the body, invigorate the mind, and revitalise the soul,” shares Mukul as he gently touches the tiny antique bottles of various perfumes in his shop.

Among the popular floral scents are those extracted from champa, chameli, motia, harsinghar, kadamba, kewda, night jasmine, lily and of course, rose. In fact, rose has always been a signature scent of India and used in a wide variety of foods like kheer and almond chutney, beverages like thandai and Roohafza, as a paan sweetener or gulkand, and as a welcome shower on guests as ittar. At Rs 36,000 per 10 grams, rooh gulaab remains one of the most expensive and exclusive extract exported from India. Made by steam distilling the Rosa Damascena variety of desi gulab, it is a laborious and time-consuming method that yields 1 kg extract from almost 500 kg of rose flowers. Since the process takes 3-4 weeks, rooh gulaab is never kept ready in stock but only made to order. “The vilayati or Western rose has a deep colour and uniform shape but hardly any scent. If you carefully look at [the] Indian varieties of roses, each is of a different shape and size like wildflowers, but they have a heady scent. In most temples in India, the garland on the deity is made of [the] Rosa centifolia variety, which has a blushing pink colour and lingering fragrance. This is what makes these flowers  a special offering to god,” says Mukul, poring over his book on natural perfumes.

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The ‘Indianness’ of the fragrances

Indian perfume makers were masters at capturing seasonal scents of fruits to create lemony, orangy and apple-like fragrances. In fact, one of the most evocative Indian fragrances is created from fruiting mango trees — its an exuberant and happy aroma that can liven up any room or personal garment. Indian spices such as clove, cinnamon, cardamom, saffron, and bay leaf are popular among Arabic healers. Herbs like basil and mint are widely used as alternative medicines across the world. Among other unique and popular Indian scents extracted from natural materials is camphor and frankincense which are used across Southeast Asia in religious ceremonies. The most popular and well-known wood-extracted scent is sandalwood, besides many others like eucalyptus that is used for medicinal purposes and in religious functions.

Apart from these well-known traditional Indian fragrances, what is unique about Gulabsingh Johrimal is their attempt to capture the very essence of India through customised scents. For instance, their Attar Gil is derived from broken earthen pottery over sandalwood, which recreates petrichor — the scent of moist earth after the first rainfall. This mitti ki khushboo is something that every Indian is nostalgic about. Attar Gil has always been the most exported item from their shop.

The world has started recognising the power of yoga and ayurveda, but it still has to re-discover the calming yet elevating spiritual influence of Indian agar. And when it does, Gulabsingh Johrimal might be its first pitstop for authentic, natural fragrances.

This article is a part of a series called BusinessHistories exploring iconic businesses in India that have endured tough times and changing markets. Read all articles here.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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