Scent Adventure: India – Mumbai to Madurai
The first time I came to India was in 1999. It was my second major trip abroad and after spending a year in South America I naively thought I was a sufficiently experienced traveller to navigate my way through the country alone. Outside Arrivals at Delhi’s international airport, India did to me what India often does to young travellers. It turned me upside down, swallowed me whole and spat me out. Despite the Lonely Planet warnings, a rogue taxi driver scammed me and in the small hours of the morning I spent my first night barricaded in a hotel room of the taxi driver’s choosing. These were the days before smart phones and Google Earth so once the sun came up, my first task was to find out where the taxi driver had offloaded me and I steered myself back on course. My travels took me north of Delhi; I visited Amritsar’s Golden Temple, spent nights in a houseboat on Kashmir’s picturesque Dal Lake and by pure chance I had an audience with the Dalai Lama in McLeod Ganj, where the Tibetan leader and his countrymen and women were living in exile. It was a trip that gave me unforgettable experiences, both good and bad and I left India deciding that if I were going to return, it would be with friends. You need someone to laugh off all the small occurrences that locals know to avoid and the many cultural differences that baffle Westerners. It took me fourteen years to come back to India. This time I was travelling with my partner and over the Christmas and New Year holidays, we explored South India together. We planned our entry and exit through Mumbai going as far south as Madurai, an alternative itinerary to the ‘golden triangle’ tourists often visit.
For me Mumbai felt like an accurate barometer of where India is today, a nation facing inevitable change as the West increasingly influences it. India is no stranger to outsider influence, the Mogul Empire and last century’s era of the British Raj is proof of this and this is a key reason why India is already so culturally diverse. On top of layers of older architecture, a modern India was slowly emerging. During the day Mumbai was the beating heart of the nation and at night, workers emerged from the shadows to continue construction of the new city. Mumbai never sleeps. I came looking for new perfume stories and my first adventure led me to the well-known Crawford Market. An online business directory listed a number of attar sellers with businesses nearby. Attars are concentrated perfume oils produced by distillation methods that have been handed down over centuries and they are used across the Middle East and South East Asia. During its Mogul rule, India developed a reputation for creating rich and complex attars made from flowers such as rose and jasmine. These perfume blends were typically based in fragrant oil distilled from sandalwood and other exotic woods. Although these traditional attars exist, most of the modern attars I smelled on this trip were made from modern natural and synthetic raw materials, based in a low-scented oil carrier such as almond oil or dipropylene glycol. In India, street signs can be non-existent or if they do exist, they are written in Hindi or local dialect and finding an address can be difficult. “Does this unpaved alley way count as a street on my Google Map or have I walked too far?” An elderly man approached me to offer his help. Usually when this happened the unspoken rule was to offer a tip in exchange for the impromptu guide’s help. I didn’t mind as it gave me the chance to glean local knowledge and often these men appeared to be without regular employment so for the cost of less than a coffee back home, I could help pay for their next meal. We set off on foot, making our way through the crowded market streets to a line of attar sellers trading along Mohammed Ali Road. Inside one of the small stores, we were seated on cushions along the floor and offered tea. After brief introductions and some questions about what I was looking for, the owner’s assistant began bringing large apothecary glass jars filled with oils for me to smell, first on tissue and then on skin. I was also interested in smelling Indian oud. India is one of the few countries in the world that grows Aquilaria and Gyrinops trees, the most expensive wood used in perfumery. After some initial price enquiries I quickly realised that even if many Indian commodities are much less expensive than in Australia; Indian oud oil is still rare and natural oils of a good quality still fetch upwards of AU$200-$300 per 10 grams. I smelled two oud oils that had subtle differences. The first oil had a sweet vegetal-animalic note reminiscent of labdanum absolute. The second oil smelled smoother, woodier and less diffuse but experience taught me to give these oils time to bloom on skin before making a conclusive judgement. During my Scent Adventure in Bangkok I initially thought the oud oils I sampled lacked diffusion until 30 minutes after applying them to my skin, their power became apparent. I felt the need to apologize to passengers on the train I had taken back to my hotel as the characteristic scent of oud filled the entire cabin. The storeowner also showed me oud in the form of bakhoor chips, which are burnt as incense. When we discussed the growth and stability of the market he told me that this year his large box of bakhoor sold for 60000 rupees (AU$1100), 20000 rupees more than the previous year. For this trip, finding Indian sandalwood was a priority and with Mysore yet to come, I decided this wasn’t the day for buying oud. Instead I sampled attars, many of which had a touch of oud in their composition. I settled on the purchase of a traditional mukhalat, a mixed perfume oil of rose, saffron, honey, oud and sandalwood. I asked the storeowner if he sold pure sandalwood oil and he smiled and shook his head. He told me a government license was needed to sell pure sandalwood oil and supply was still scarce. He also warned me to be careful, saying many sandalwood oils purported to be pure, were cut with synthetics and other oils. As a final gift he invited me to burn some bakhoor with him. He guided me to put the burner under my shirt so the smoke would perfume my clothes with the scent of smoky oud.
Mumbai had many second hand bookstores but unlike Western stores, which sell recycled books at bargain prices, I noticed Indian stores resell books a small percentage below their original prices. I came to realise knowledge was highly revered in Indian culture and I guessed this could be some of the reason why India had so many of these carefully curated second hand bookstores. Even though it was hard to find a second-hand book bargain, it was possible to find interesting out-of-print books and I could have easily lost an afternoon browsing through the many stores Mumbai had to offer. A few years back I purchased some perfumery textbooks from an Indian online bookstore and I decided to look for a Mumbai seller specialised in perfumery. My idea led me to find Dattani Book Agency, which had an office near my hotel. Dattani Book Agency import and sell books about flavours, perfumery and cosmetic science. These types of books are always impossible to find in Australia and although the prices here were comparable with Amazon and other US-based sites, it was good to have the ability to browse through the pages of each book before committing to a purchase. I left with three books; one was the second edition of An Introduction to Perfumery by Dr Tony Curtis, Director of Studies at England’s International Centre for Aroma Trade Studies (ICATS). This is an excellent book and I would recommend it to anyone interested in beginning a career in perfumery. I also purchased the second edition of Perfumery: Techniques in Evolution by Perfume and Flavorist Magazine writer, Arcadi Boix Camps and Masterpieces of the Perfume Industry by Christie Mayer Lefkowith, which tracks perfumery milestones back as far as the 1800’s.
For me, the beauty of India is often found in the streets, the colourfully dressed women, the sound of life and the drone of honking traffic, the smell of wood-fired ovens and the taste of street fare. From a cultural perspective, the colourful markets and bazaars were more interesting to my Western senses but sometimes peace and air-conditioned order was needed to recuperate from India’s sensory overload. For this, Palladium Mall was a good place to visit. As India’s answer to the Asian mega-mall, the shopping centre spread over numerous floors with a number of international brands. Chanel had a stand-alone beauty boutique and Parcos had a Guerlain counter along with fragrances from the usual department stores brands. A new discovery for me was Forest Essentials, an upmarket skincare and fragrance brand based on India’s Ayurvedic medicine. Forest Essentials supply some of India’s five star hotels and in a sense they are India’s equivalent to L’Occitane. In their Palladium Mall boutique I purchased a bottle of Mysore sandalwood and vetiver body mist. It is a water-based fragrance using natural emulsifiers to dissolve the perfume oil in a vetiver hydrosol (40%). The refreshing mist was a good travel companion, particularly in the warmer climate of India’s south.
Another recommended retreat away from Mumbai’s busy streets was the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, overlooking the Gateway of India. Even though a suite at the hotel was over the average travellers budget, the hotels shops and restaurants were a good way to experience Mumbai in luxury. The hotel’s Sea Lounge was a popular place for hotel guests and drop-ins to enjoy high tea and it was worth the effort to wander the hotel’s rose-scented marble hallways. The hotel has played host to maharajas, dignitaries and celebrities for more than a century and in each corridor I found old portraits and interesting stories about past guests. Most of Mumbai’s luxury hotels had boutique shops inside and at the Trident in Nariman Point I found a number of upmarket attar boutiques that sold perfume oils and hand blown glass perfume bottles.
After some days relaxing in Goa we flew south to Madurai, South India’s oldest city. Here there was a noticeable absence of tourists and most visitors to Madurai were pilgrims visiting the city’s Meenakshi Temple; a 7th century structure dedicated to the celestial couple Sri Meenakshi (Parvati) and Lord Shiva. The temple’s colossal gopurnams or intricately sculptured towers not only marked the temple’s entrances but also the centre of Madurai, as its devoted residents built the city around the ancient temple. Foreheads of the Madurai people were marked with tilak and vermillon as a symbol of devotion and deities of the godly couple and their son Ganesh were worshipped on every street corner. Around the Meenakshi temple, the streets were lined with flower vendors who spent their mornings weaving strands of intricate garlands, which could be purchased as temple offerings and for local women, flowers were worn in the hair like a piece of jewellery. Jasmine sambac was the flower most commonly used and Madurai’s love for this special flower dates back as far as 300BC. In Western perfumery, jasmine sambac is found in perfumes such as Christian Dior’s bestseller J’Adore. In 2012 the French fashion house released a short documentary about the creation of J’Adore. It followed Dior’s perfumer Francois Demachy to Tamil Nadu, where the house sources its jasmine sambac. The film showed Madurai’s flower market and the perfumer talked about the colours of India and how flowers are central to all of India’s celebrations. The film was one of my key inspirations for going to Madurai. In 2012 I visited the jasmine fields of Grasse and I wanted to know more about India’s native jasmine. Here in Madurai I learned there were 23 different species of jasmine growing in Tamil Nadu and the South Indian state grows three varieties for commerce. Jathimalligai is the jasminum grandiflorum flower I experienced in Grasse, Mullai is jasminum auriculatum and the last is Madurai malligai, jasminum sambac. It is befitting for the sambac flower to be affectionately described as Madurai malligai since it is almost impossible to walk through the city without seeing the flowers. My daily ritual became the purchase of a muzham of Madurai malligai, or an elbow length of flowers tied in a traditional garland. I would hang the tightly closed buds above my hotel bed. Even closed their scent was waxy, green and indolic. The flowers would open as the day progressed and their scent would become even more intoxicating and sweet. Unlike other flowers that begin to smell of decay as they age, jasmine sambac loses all odour, good or bad, within 36 hours.
The fertile land that surrounds Madurai make it one of the best places to grow flowers and there seems to be no shortage to fuel the city’s appetite for scented blooms. Each day before the sun came up, a ton of freshly picked flowers were transported to the city’s flower market where brokers would sell on behalf of the farmers. By sunrise, the city was refilled with fresh blooms. On the edge of the city I visited Madurai’s flower market where flower heads were heaped in piles and sold by weight using old analogue scales. I saw various species of jasmine, roses, pink and white lotuses and tuberoses. It was not a tourist place and only Tamil and Hindi were spoken but this added to the fun of negotiating my orders by sign language. I left the market with a kilo of tuberoses, half a kilo of fragrant roses (rosa centifolia) and lotus flowers. Smelling fresh lotus was an interesting experience, very different from the perfumes that purport to contain lotus notes. In reality the odour of the real flower was very soft with powdery heliotrope-like notes.
Because Madurai was so rich with natural resources, the 2500-year-old city flourished when India began trading with Europe. It is said that once upon a time Rome’s imperial accountants began complaining because Madurai’s silks, spices and pearls were draining the imperial coffers. To this day the city is a hive of mercantile activity and it is known as one of the best places to buy quality cotton and spices. I bought locally made textiles and I made the most of the fresh spices by enjoying the local cuisine. During my three weeks in India, Madurai cuisine was, by far, South India’s best. At home I eat a light breakfast and each morning in Madurai I enjoyed a feast of dosas, vadas and idli dipped in sambar with various chutneys. Cooked with chilli, peppercorns, cardamom and coconut; the food was as fragrant as it was tasty.
Munnar and Marayoor
From Madurai we hired a driver to take us inland, up into Kerala’s Western Ghat mountain range. Munnar is a small hill station, which was once a popular vacation destination for the British during India’s colonial days. The higher altitude and picturesque hills made it a perfect escape from South India’s warmer months. The British also discovered the land was ideal for growing tea and today the hills that surround Munnar are covered in lush green tea plants, which gave the area a feeling of serenity, especially when low hanging clouds filled the valleys with mist. The small town had a tea museum that showed the history of tea and how it is produced in Munnar. At the museum, they were serving the best cup of chai, loaded with sugar and cardamom.
A book I read in preparation for this trip to India was Sandalwood and Carrion by James McHugh. It is about smell in Indian religion and culture. Literature from the Vedic era was often poetic as well as descriptive and I was curious about a section of this book, which referenced the Matangalila, a 16th century text from Kerala, that classified different types of elephants based on their odour. The author wrote, “A particularly esteemed type of elephant is called the scent-elephant (gandhahastin). This type of elephant is called this because of the effect is has on other elephants. According to various sources they are frightened, calmed, or excited by its odour… This would, of course, be viewed as helpful when the elephant was used in warfare.” On the outskirts of Munnar we spent Christmas Day with elephants. At the elephant park visitors could bath, feed and ride these majestic animals, In my case, I wanted to smell them as well. I am not sure my elephant was a gandhahastin; perhaps my sense of smell was not heightened enough to perceive any scent left on her freshly washed body so I had to be content with a short walk and our date ended with me hand feeding her pineapples.
One of the reasons for me coming to Munnar was a sandalwood forest in Marayoor, 40km north of Munnar. I didn’t know what to expect since very little information existed online about the area, so it was a case of me arriving in Munnar and then trying to figure out how to get to the forest. With Indian sandalwood being at risk of extinction, the government has created a number of conservation plans. In Marayoor, this state-owned conservation forest stretches over 93 square kilometres of land and is said to contain more than 60 000 naturally growing sandalwood trees. The government distills oil from the heartwood of dead or wind-fallen trees and I was on a mission to return to Australia with some of this prized oil. At the Munnar tourism office, we arranged a day-tour, which included a visit to the sandalwood forest. Most of the forest was fenced off to the public to protect the sandalwood trees from poachers but our guide knew an area that was unfenced. Because the tree’s odour is inside the heartwood, a sandalwood forest doesn’t smell different to any other forest. Here, each sandalwood tree was individually marked with a serial number and the trees were under constant guard by forest rangers. Our guide led us to a fallen tree, where we could smell the fragrant wood by rubbing the broken trunk with a rock. After smelling this I was even more determined to find the oil that came from this forest. The Kerala Forest Department Corporation website gave a list of retailers selling the oil but strangely there was no stockist near Marayoor or Munnar. By chance I spotted a road side billboard advertising sandalwood products for sale in Marayoor and when our tour group stopped in the village for lunch, I deserted the group to find the shop. With no time to lose, I attracted a bit of attention as I ran around the slow-paced village looking for the shop I had seen advertised on the billboard. Finally I found it, and my prize was 5ml of the liquid gold from Kerala.
With its hilly geography, getting in and out of Munnar is possible only by car or bus. To move on to Mysore we hired a taxi driver to travel the 350km distance. In India using cabs to travel long distances is affordable even when you double the price because you need to pay for the driver to return to his point of origin. The road from Munnar to Mysore took us through a tiger reserve, where we were told it was extremely rare to see tigers during the day. I wanted to see a Bengal tiger, preferably in the wild but my wish had to be fulfilled at the Mysore Zoo. And although they are one of my favourite animals, I was quite happy to have a fence and moat separating us. In the news that day, I read of a farmer from a village not far from the tiger reserve we had driven through, who had been taken by a tiger while he was herding his livestock.
For nearly six centuries the Kingdom of Mysore flourished under the Wodeyar dynasty. The rulers were great patrons of the arts and the effect of this can be seen in the variety of quality crafts that are sold in Mysore today. From embroidered silks to intricately inlaid rosewood, Mysore craftsman are some of India’s best. Like most Indian cities, where tourists frequently visit, tourists have to practice patience with local auto-rickshaw drivers, adamant they take you on a tour of their city before taking you to where you initially wanted to go. One morning, when we did not have a full day planned, we decided to take the driver’s offer of a detour, which turned out to be a good adventure. The driver took us to the Muslim area of the city and we visited the fresh produce market, which also sold flowers and spices. After this we went silk shopping and we visited a woodwork studio, which sold carved items made from sandalwood and rosewood. To see these crafts in their regal prime, a trip to the Mysore Palace was a must. Here I saw different artifacts created by the kingdom’s best craftsmen for generations of the royal family. One of the more interesting places we visited was a private residence where incense was being hand rolled. Here we were shown the different steps to make incense, the mixing of charcoal, honey and wood powder used to coat the sticks and the perfume oils used to infuse the finished product with scent. The incense maker was also selling perfumed oils and we were told they were natural and contained medicinal properties. Unfortunately after smelling them, this was clearly not the case and most of them were entirely synthetic. Overall the experience was a lighthearted one and I never expected to uncover rare and precious oils in a place like this. But heed my warning if you are not confident to tell the difference between natural oils and synthetic ones; if you visit one of these stores aimed at tourists, more often than not, their oils are not natural as they proclaim to be.
Aside from palaces and yoga, Mysore is famous for its sandalwood. Its fame is such that even in western perfumery, adding Mysore as a prefix to sandalwood in perfume titles gives the fragrance an elevated quality of authenticity and mysticism. One of my favourite sandalwood perfumes is simply called Santal de Mysore by Serge Lutens. Rumour has it the reclusive perfumer stockpiled oil a decade before Mysore sandalwood oil became scarce and most western perfumes using it needed to be reformulated with a substitute. Although the precious oil is still scarce, sandalwood products were relatively easy to find in Mysore. I was told the best place to go to ensure what I bought was authentic, was the State Government owned handicraft shop called Cauvery Arts & Crafts Emporium. I was told to go to this specific address since there was a number of handicraft shops in Mysore, which deliberately named their businesses something similar but they were not associated with the government and their products were inferior. The Cauvery Arts & Crafts Emporium were selling everything sandalwood including pure Mysore sandalwood oil, sandalwood powder, incense, soaps and perfumes. The shop also sold sandalwood carvings and off cuts of heart wood by the gram. I was curious about a sandalwood soap made by the government owned, Karnataka Soaps & Detergents Limited, said to be the most expensive soap ever produced in India. It was called Millennium Soap and retailed for around AU$10 per 150g bar; not much when you compare the cost to that of a Chanel or Diptyque soap but considering the cost of other soaps produced by the company, this was quite a luxury. Along with a variety of soaps and sandalwood incense, I also left with 10ml of Mysore sandalwood oil, sandalwood beads, a carved box and 57 grams of heartwood.
And although my mind was set on experiencing sandalwood in India, it was the smell of jasmine in Madurai that won my heart during this trip. I was fortunate to leave India with a book about Madurai’s jasmine, written by Dr Uma Kannan. In her book she explains the cultural significance of Madurai malligai, how it is grown and sold and how to string a garland the Madurai way. The book deserves its own post and a review of it will be my next post.
Of course, not everyone I met will read this post but I wanted to thank all the amazing people I met on this Scent Adventure, who made my time in India so fun and so enriching.