There’s a village called Kannauj in the state of Utter Pradesh, India, that is famous for perfume distillation. Boasting a tradition that dates back thousands of years, somewhere between 40,000 and 70,000 of Kannauj’s residents are still involved in fragrance manufacturing in one way or another. From steaming rose petals in their homes, to gathering vetiver grasses, to processing scents using ancient tools, capturing fragrance is the life force of the community, as it is in many other parts of India.
But there’s a particular kind of scent collection that distinguishes Kannauj’s perfume industry from any other – the capturing of mitti attar, or ‘Earth’s perfume’, which comes from the rain.
As you’ve no doubt noticed, there’s a certain kind of scent that rises up after a rainfall. Of course, it varies depending on the location – city asphalt might give off a steamy, polluted scent, a freshly rained-on garden can make your head swim with fresh botanical aromas, and there’s nothing like the salty spray of ocean air after a storm on a beach.
In Kannauj, a sudden downpour in monsoon season sweeps up the heady molecules of essential oils, called terpenes, that have developed a particularly potent olfactory intensity in the scorched, dry ground. After a soaking, the earth, now mud, is formed into discs, baked in a kiln, and then sold to perfume manufacturers who put the discs through a painstaking, ancient distillation process to draw out the scent – a deep, heady and yet also remarkably refreshing mix of the soil, grasses and rain of India, electrified by ozone molecules in the turbulent air.