A walk around the streets of Charminar especially in the month of Ramadan is a highly sensorial experience — lights, music, aromas of Biryani and Haleem in the air and people, dressed up, bustling about. But apart from the food, another dense and enchanting fragrance that colours the air of the old city is ittar or attar.
Derived from the Arabic word, 'atr', meaning perfume, ittar's history can be traced back to ancient Moghul times in India. Most Mughal emperors were fond of fragrances. The stories about the origin of ittar vary from a man in Kannauj taking his gulab ittar (rose perfume) to Noor Jahan, to her mother Asmat Begum herself who discovered and developed the scents having fled from Persia.
After the decline of the Mughal dynasty in the 18th century, the Nawabs governed Awadh and became its rulers where fragrance was further developed as a craft. Connecting the legacy of ittar all the way from ancient Mughal India through the Awadh Riyasa to current times, is a small town in Uttar Pradesh called Kannauj known as the perfume capital of India.
The traditional 'deg and bhapka' system of making ittar still thrives in Kannauj and is continued to be preserved and passed down to generations in the town. It's a hydrodistillation process where copper pots (deg) are filled with flower petals and water and sealed with clay and cotton. The deg is then connected by a bamboo pipe (referred as chonga) to a copper receiver (bhapka) and a water tank. The pot is heated and the distillate is further condensed and distilled a second time forming the pure essence.
Ittar came to Hyderabad as all the best things in culture do, through migration. Ittar makers and craftsmen migrated to Hyderabad from Madhya Pradesh, Lucknow and Uttar Pradesh bringing with them the traditional methods of producing ittar and set shops in the city spreading its culture there. Since then Hyderabad itself has become a hub for scented delights. Umda Bazar in South Hyderabad known as the old city is replete with age-old shops selling all kinds of perfumes, from Persian to Arabian, and Afghan to Indian in origin in ornate little ittardans (glass bottles).
If you want to be entranced in the sweet aromas of these ancient, eco-friendly fragrances, we have curated a list of the some of the best and oldest, authentic ittar shops in Hyderabad that you can check out.
Purandas Ranchhoddas & Sons
The owners' forefathers were originally from Gujarat and migrated to Burhanpur, Madhya Pradesh in the 1800s. And their grandfather, Purandas moved to Hyderabad after the demise of his wife who was from the city. The cold shoulder from his in-laws made him start the business and prove to them that he could make it on his own. Purandas was eventually so successful that he went on to become the official ittar supplier of the Nizams in 1920. The brand has since become a iconic name in ittar business and still going strong. Some of the popular picks are Pahadi Phool, Shahjahan, Naushad, Arusa, Hara Gulab and Tohfa.
A little ahead of Purandas Ranchoddas, another neat, small ittar shop is going through its fifth generation in the business. They have been around longer than Nizam's official supplier. "My great grandfather used to sell ittar as a street vendor in front of the Charminar. That's how he survived the Musi flood. He picked his shop up and ran," says Mohammed, who sits with his father Hashim, the current owner of the shop. With the advent of modern deodorants, the crowd for ittar is getting smaller and the younger generations of the families in the business are also losing interest in the craft.
Famous Perfumery Centre
Apart from the distillation process we came across before, new perfumes are also created by blending which is an artform in itself. An ittar shop located close to the first Kamaan at Charminar called Famous perfumery is a pioneer in blending fragrances and can create a replica of any perfume you bring to them. It has been around since 1950s in the old city of Hyderabad. Mohammad Adil, the third-generation owner of the shop says, "My grandfather had migrated from Lucknow to Hyderabad during the Nizam’s rule. It was common during the time to come to the Hyderabad state as it was at its pinnacle of prosperity. Most of our original fragrances still come from Lucknow, Rajasthan, and many are made here in our factory at Charminar.
Don't let the capitalistic trends fool you. The expensive perfumes by Chanel and Dior are great but their merit was orchestrated through some world-class marketing strategies whereas ittars in India hold an inherent cultural and heritage value that cannot be contested. So if you can get your hands on a bottle of ittar somewhere, remember the history that lingers in its buttery base notes of moss and sandalwood.