Perfume from Ancient Indian Texts : Brihat-Samhita

My husband has this uncanny talent of ferreting out obscure sources related to many of his interests- the ones he is passionate about, that is. When I mildly commented that he doesn’t take an active interest in perfume, the way I do with his interests, he protested. It seemed like an unfair accusation since he does accompany me to all my sniffathons and is always ready to sniff my wrist or arm. Yet, every action is tinged with a slight tolerance and patience. It seemed that my husband took this to heart, and for my birthday in 2012, gave me a printout of perfume references from an ancient Indian text, written around 500 A.D. Color me Spray me impressed!

perfumeancientfromwiki

The perfume references are part of a larger text called Brihat-Samhita written by Varahamihira, an Indian astronomer, mathematician and astrologer who lived in the historic city of Ujjain. He was one of the ‘nine jewels’ in the court of the Maharaja of Malwa. The perfume portion mainly deals with the manufacture of perfumes to benefit ‘royal personages and inmates of harems’. This of course made me grin but it was interesting information nonetheless.

The text is written as Sanskrit slokas with commentary by a 10th Century Indian commentator Utpala, along with English translations. [In the excerpts below, I have combined the best of two translations that I found. The words in brackets reflect the meaning and often scientific term for the ingredients in Sanskrit].

The text contained recipes for scented hair oil like this one:

” Sloka 6: Hair oil of the scent of Champaca flower is made by mixing together equal quantities of Manjishta (Rubia cordifolia), Vyagranakha (a tree or cuttlefish bone), Nakha (shell perfume), woody cassia, costus and Bola (commiphora myrrha) which being mixed with gingelly (sesame) oil should be heated in the sun’s rays.”

and perfume oils that ‘kindle passion’ like this one:

” Sloka 7: A scent called Smaroddeepana (‘kindler of passion’) is prepared from equal quantities of Patra (Laura cassia), juice of Turuska (Tagates erecta), Vaala (Aporosa Lindleyana) and Tagara (Valeriana Wallichii). The same combined with Vyamaka and fumigated with Katuka (asafetida) yields a perfume called ‘Bakula scent’. The same with costus is termed ‘lotus scent’, and with Chandana (Sandalwood), Champaca scent. With nutmeg, cassia bark and coriander, it goes by the name of ‘Jasmine scent’.”

I don’t know what ‘shell perfume’ means (I do now!- see Updates) and I wouldn’t know where to find cuttlefish bone, but the other ingredients seem easier to trace and use. The suspicious sounding Tagates erecta is in fact the scientific term for Aztec Marigold which is harmless enough. And google reveals that Valeriana Wallichii is not a cursed Indo-Aryan princess but a rhizome herb native to India, Nepal and China. There is also some very interesting commentary about how ‘Turuska’ or Aztec Marigold throws light on the history of incense in India, indicating trade with Western traders even during ancient times.

The author also provides an intriguing recipe for toilet powders to perfume clothes, an indication as the commentator points out, that this was a common practice at the time (atleast among the royals or inmates of harems..;-)):

” Take equal quantities of woody cassia, Useera (Vetiveria Zizanioides) and Patra (Laura cassia) and a half of the above of small cardamoms and pound them together into fine powder; which should be mixed (reinforced) with musk and camphor. This will make an excellent toilet powder (perfume for clothes).”

It also contains amusing perfume-making advice such as:

” Sloka 15 : In no perfume should more than one part of coriander be used, for its smell is too powerful. Camphor should be used in a still lesser proportion. These two ought not to be mixed in two, three or four parts”

If you are thinking like I did, why a mathematician would write a treatise on perfume, he is quick to remind us that he is still a man of numbers by pointing out that:

” Slokas 13-14: The Gandharnaava (Perfume-Ocean) is prepared from the following sixteen substances, if every four of them are permuted variously at will and that in one, two or four parts. The substances are…”
” Sloka 17: The total number of perfumes resulting from the sixteen ingredients being mixed in all possible combinations is 174720″

For those interested, I have linked the text here found via Scribd. I found more detailed commentary on some of the raw materials on Google Books here.

Update : I realized with the help of Sigrun that Nakha or Shell perfume refers to Choya Nakh – an essence distilled from seashells and featured in Mandy Aftel’s Tango perfume

Update 2 : According to Mandy Aftel, the ‘shell perfume’ is similar to choya nakh except that the seashells are roasted to generate the smokiness in choya nakh while in the shell perfume, the seashells are not roasted. She also mentioned that the shell perfume was used in the first incense recipe in the Bible, which I thought was fascinating.

Picture via Wikipedia
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13 comments

  1. This is so unbelievably fascinating! Thank you so much! As a classical Graeco-Roman history nutcase, I can tell you that Indian perfumes were famous throughout the known world for their complexity and quality. I hope you don’t mind if I share this on the TAG Facebook Page? 😉

    • Thank you Sheila! The text has many interesting tidbits- I am glad you enjoyed it. And absolutely- share away!
      Oh and if you have any specific references that you’ve come across in Graeco-Roman history, to Indian perfumes- do let me know- I’d love to read. I am fascinated by the early trade relations that these cross references imply.

    • ohhh- Thanks for the link. This must be similar to choya nakh in that case? I didn’t even think of that. Thanks!

      P.S. I updated the post with the info about Choya Nakh which incidentally is used in Mandy Aftel’s Tango.

  2. Since I’ve never considered mixing my own… not only perfume – anything beauty-related, these texts do nothing for me but I’m impressed by yourhusband 🙂

    • Haha- I’ll let him know that you are impressed. He did his research and even came up with the suggestion of buying Coty La Rose Jacqueminot (unsniffed) on ebay as part of my birthday gift. But I found out I was pregnant so got sidetracked otherwise a bottle might have been mine..lol.

  3. Ditto to what Undina said. And especially after reading your comment that he also wanted to spring for a bottle of Coty La Rose Jacqueminot (unsniffed even!) for you. Well, you might have been pregnant during that birthday, but there’s always the next one. ( I’ll drop the hint here for him, hoping he reads your blog.) 😉

    • Now I’m wondering why I didn’t get any perfume this birthday. hmm-oh yes- I ended up getting some much needed cute shoes (I usually hate shoe shopping- this was the first time I enjoyed it..:))

  4. James Mc

    Hey, nice post, in fact turushka is most probably frankincense, the word means “Turkish” and this indicates a trade with the Middle East from India. These ancient plant names are super tricky though at times, see how the word “corn” in English has changed referent over the centuries for an example of how such words are hard to track. In ancient descriptions of procedures for purifying shell perfume it tends to be heated and undergo a good few processes but would be used as a powder in these perfumes.

  5. I love your post Lavanya – how great to discover that deep aromatic wisdom from the ancient texts, and such a sweet story about your husband’s gift! Thank you for including my notes about the shells – I did find the Choya note very useful in creating a couple of my perfumes.
    xo Mandy

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