Perfume is a substance that emits and diffuses an aroma. Commonly used synonyms are fragrance and scent. Whereas, incense is aromatic material like agarbattis which release fragrant smoke when burned.

Essential oils, absolutes, tinctures and attars, in varying strengths, are a part and parcel of the perfume industry. Pure perfume/parfum contains the highest concentration of oils in a fragrance, followed by eau de parfum, and then eau de toilette.


Perfumery oils are extracted by steam distillation, solvent extraction, enfleurage, maceration, expression or phytonic process.

Essential oils
are fragrant materials that have been directly extracted through distillation in the form of an oily liquid. Steam is passed through plant material whereby essential oil forms and turns into gas which is passed through tubes, cooled and liquefied.

Essential oils can also be extracted by boiling plant substances like flower petals in water. There are about 2,000 flowering plants and other materials from which essential oils are derived.

are similar to essential oils, but are more concentrated and highly-aromatic mixtures which are obtained via solvent extraction techniques.

For solvent extraction, flowers are put into large rotating tanks/drums and benzene or petroleum ether is poured over them to extract the oil. The waxy material is then placed in ethyl alcohol and heated to evaporate the alcohol resulting in concentrated perfume oil.

involves spreading and frequently turning over flowers on glass sheets coated with cold grease (usually odourless animal fat) till the grease absorbs the fragrance.

is similar to enfleurage except that warmed fats are used to soak up the scent of the flowers. Then, as for solvent extraction, the fats are dissolved in alcohol to obtain essential oil.

is the oldest method of extraction in which the rinds of citrus fruits are pressed and oil squeezed out. The process does not involve solvents or heat.

or Florasol extraction is one of the newest processes of extracting essential oils but it uses fluoro-hydrocarbons considered potentially harmful for the environment.


Tinctures are the easiest to produce but the perfumer needs great patience because tinctures take months to create.

Dry, fragrant materials (like vanilla, strawberry, even seaweed) are soaked and infused in ethanol or 190-200 proof alcohol and some times glycerine (could be of animal origin) in a jar with a tight fitting lid.

Perfumery tinctures are used as alcohol bases for many botanical perfumes. But tinctures are not replacements for essential oils or absolutes as they only help in creating a subtle base “note” for the perfume. Perfumes have top, middle and base “notes” that are balanced by experts who smell them.

Tinctures in perfumes can act as fixatives because many are made from botanical matter and contain natural sugars and starches which help perfumes last longer. Animal origin fixatives commonly utilised are ambergris, castoreum, musk, civet and operculum; whereas some of the fixatives from plant sources include sage, tobacco, benzoin, labdanum, myrrh, olibanum, storax, tolu balsam.

Blending and Aging

Essential oils are blended into a scent for which as many as 800 different ingredients (plant, animal or mineral in origin) could be used.

The scent is then mixed with alcohol. The lesser the alcohol and water used, the stronger the perfume. Colognes and toilet waters contain very little oil.

Like wine, perfume is aged. Sharp human noses test to ensure that it smells as it should, and if not right, the “notes” are corrected by blending again.

Aroma Compounds/Synthetic Substances

Alcohol, petrochemicals, coal and coal tars are also used in the manufacture of perfumes.

Some plants, such as lily of the valley, do not produce natural oil, so synthetic chemicals are utilised to re-create such scents. Similarly, new original scents are created.

Cheap so fast becoming popular synthetic ones (some call them French ittar) are called iceberg, rose, dove, lavender and sandalwood. Some perfumers make agarbattis and creamy organic soaps to match the perfumes they sell.

The latest perfume trends are “animalic” creations, meaning they contain castoreum, civet, musk or ambergris or their lab-created equivalents. The scents are called names such as beaver, bat and beast, but many say they’d never wear such wild fragrances.


Attar/itr or fragrant oil concentrates are traditionally made pure natural extracts that could be of animal origin, such as musk. They never contain alcohol or chemicals. It is said that people, particularly foreigners, are attracted to organic attar as compared with cheap synthetic perfumes ironically sold by the same people.

Flower petals such as those of jasmine/chameli, screw pine/kewra and rose/gulab are collected at sunrise when they are dewy and fragrant, and transported to a distillery where they are crushed into a paste that is either burnt or boiled. The condensed vapours are what form the essence of any attar, and subsequent distillations and mixtures produce compounds of various scents. The first distillation is prized and the most expensive.

are manufactured by the deg/still and bhapka/receiver system which is a hydro distillation process. When the desired concentration of the attar is attained, it is poured into a kuppi or leather bottle for sedimentation and removal of moisture. It is considered absolutely essential to store the attar in a kuppi because moisture from the attar must be removed and this is effectively achieved due to the semi-permeability of the leather.

Interestingly, there are two kinds of basic attars, floral (rose, bela, etc.) and herbal (sugandh kokila mantra, cardamom, clove, etc) used in this hydro-distillation process that is fired through dung cakes or wood and uses equipment made of copper and bamboo sticks. Sandalwood oil is the base oil. And, the burnt wood is consumed by the agarbatti industry.

One can not think of attars without thinking of the Moghul period and the city of Kannauj which today manufactures about 8,000-10,000 barrels, each containing 200 litres of perfume. This city located near the confluence of the Ganga and Kali rivers in Uttar Pradesh, has been famous for perfumes since the days of Harshavardhana who ruled North India between 606 and 647 BC. To this day, 75 to 80% of attars produced, especially gulab, kewra, mehndi, hina, shamama, mitti and marigold, are mainly used as ingredients in paan masalas, gutka, and to a lesser extent in tobacco. Scented chewing tobacco and betel nut/supari contain scents/bahar which could contain animal substances. Gulab and kewra are also used in traditional mithai to impart fragrance and flavour.

The attar industry was deprived of sufficient and reasonably priced sandalwood oil because of the all-India ban imposed on sandalwood after the notorious dacoit Veerapan decimated sandalwood trees from the forests of South India. (Incidentally, in the mid-1970s BWC had complained to the Karnataka Forest Department about the bandit stealing and smuggling sandalwood, but unfortunately action taken was not strong enough to nip his activities in the bud, as a result of which he and his gang became bolder and expanded their illegal activities to killing elephants for ivory. Kidnapping and killing of forest officials and rivals followed.)

In 2014 pure sandalwood oil (50% is extracted from the roots of the trees) cost Rs 90,000/- a litre. Decades back it had been partially substituted by liquid paraffin in attar manufacture. However, the attar-makers are hopeful that sandalwood cultivation in their region will help them although not in the immediate future… after years of trial and error, sandalwood saplings began growing on the Fragrance & Flavour Development Centre (FFDC) campus, in addition to which hundreds were also nurtured by farmers of the area. Harvest is expected to begin after 2025. In 1991, with support from the United Nations Development Programme and United Nations Industrial Development Organization, the FFDC was set up by the Government of India and the Uttar Pradesh state government under the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises. The FFDC serves as an interface between essential oil, fragrance & flavour industry and research & development institutions in the fields of agro- and chemical-technology. They frequently organise workshops, and with support from the Forest Research Institute, Dehra Dun, the FFDC runs aroma technology courses.

Mohammed Ali Road in Mumbai is also lined with attarwallas. Their businesses began and flourished during the reign of the Mughals, but they continue to do business in Lucknow, Delhi, Hyderabad and parts of Rajasthan.

However, attar that was popular all over the world is no longer so much in demand mainly due to the onslaught of inexpensive alcohol-based fragrances and deodorants. High manufacturing costs and selling prices is responsible, for example in 2015 a 100 ml vial of genuine rose attar cost Rs 1,000/-, whereas a Rs 100/- version is readily available in the market.

To save the industry, the Kannauj-Grasse pact resulted in October 2015. (Grasse is France’s perfume capital.) Sharing expertise and setting up an international perfume museum and aroma park in Kannauj in collaboration with the French government was decided. A course on perfumery at the Kannauj Engineering College was also planned. The medicinal benefits of attar would be scientifically studied. And last but not least, the manufacturers have gone online to market their products globally.

The Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister has helped by ordering 5,000 boxes of 4 perfumes depicting the aroma of four cities – Varanasi, Lucknow, Agra and Kannauj – which will be presented as gifts to to guests.

is used mainly by Muslims for ritual purposes during festivals. For example, a scent called majma or majumua is sold for Idd. Bohras burn bakhur. Sudani Muslims use heavy attar called mahalad and Arabs use nakhla, manufactured from crushed sea-shells, in their ceremonies.

In winter shamaama attar made of wood from Kannauj is sold for combating colds. Hina attar, containing musk/kasturi is illegal (the musk deer is protected under the Wild Life Protection Act) nevertheless, is sold as an aphrodisiac too. However these days, oodh attar made from the bark of an Assamese tree is recommended as an aphrodisiac. It is one of the most expensive and sells for Rs 20,000/- a tola.

Common materials used for making attar are:

The base materials of attars consist of sandalwood oil (obtained from South India), Di-Octyl Phthalate (DOP) and maybe liquid paraffin. Mitti attar is produced by distillation of baked earth over the base material. It supposedly cures tobacco addicts and is an antidote to food cravings.

Flowers such as gulab (from Aligarh, UP and Palampur, HP), kewra (from Ganjam, Orissa), bela, mehndi, kadamb, chameli, maulshri, marigold (all these flowers are locally grown at Kannauj, UP) and saffron (from J & K).

Spices and herbs such as oakmoss, sugandh mantri, laurel berry, juniper berry, cypriol, Indian valerian, jatamansi, hedychium spicatum, daru haldi, sugandha bala, sugandha kokila, kulanjan, javitri/jaiphal, cardamom and clove.

Despite being banned, musk and ambergris are common ingredients of animal origin, used in attars.

Certain attars contain a combination of materials. For example, hina, musk-hina, shamama, shamam-tul-amber and musk-amber.

Ingredients/Sources used in Perfumery

Plant/Veg origin:

Cinnamon, cascarilla and sassafras root bark.

Flowers and blossoms:
rose, jasmine, osmanthus, plumeria, mimosa, tuberose, narcissus, geranium, cassie, ambrette, citrus, ylang-ylang and vanilla.

citrus (oranges, lemons and limes), juniper, vanilla. But apples, strawberries and cherries are synthetically produced.

Leaves, grass, and twigs:
lavender, patchouli, sage, violets, rosemary, citrus, tomato and hay.

Lichens: oak-moss and tree-moss.

labdanum, frankincense, myrrh, balsam and benzoin, amber and copal from conifer fossils. Loban is a chunk of particular resin or gum from a tree. It is traditionally used for its fragrant smoke during religious ceremonies by burning the powder directly on hot ash/coal in an incense censer/container.

Roots, rhizomes and bulbs:
iris, vetiver and ginger.

commonly used seaweed is bladder wrack.

Seeds and spices:
tonka bean, carrot, coriander, caraway, cocoa, nutmeg, mace, cardamom and anise.

sandalwood, rosewood, agarwood, birch, cedar, juniper and pine. Camphor/kapoor is from the camphor tree and is incense.

Animal/Non-veg origin:

Alleuritic acid:
a yellow solid obtained from shellac.

a solid waxy substance produced in the intestines of sperm whales and thrown up by them. It could be black, grey, different shades of brown, or yellow. Squid beaks (smooth and shiny) are always found in ambergris because it is formed to protect the whale from sharp objects which need to be expelled. (Ambergris-laced sugar fetches a high price and is a marketing gimmick.) It is used in aphrodisiacs also.

(In 2020-21 ambergris worth crores of rupees was seized in different parts of India. Officials from coastal Maharashtra, Gujarat, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka felt that the sudden spike in ambergris seizures was because of greater awareness among the coastal fishing community resulting from stories in the media of fishermen whose lives are said to have changed overnight on finding ambergris, as well as a slowdown in international trade due to flight restrictions after Covid-19, however, there were few buyers within India.)

is a yellowish, unctuous substance with a strong, penetrating odour, obtained from beaver’s genitals or castor sacs/scent-glands (located in skin cavities between the pelvis and base of the tail) and termed a by-product of the fur industry. Male beavers spray it together with urine to mark their territory. (It is not only utilised by the perfume industry, but processed into a “natural food flavour” used to enhance flavourings such as raspberry and strawberry used in soda, candy, ice cream, yogurt, jam, jelly, tea, etc.)

civet cats are bred in captivity, imprisoned lifelong in narrow cages, frequently teased and made to undergo hundreds of painful scrapings of their glands to produce the extract.

Almost all civet paste originates on Ethiopian farms from where it is traditionally shipped in horns of zubu cattle to Europe and America. Each dried horn holds about 500 grams of paste, the amount one civet cat (male or female) can produce over a period of about 4 years.

In the 1970s every week as many as 108 civet cats were trapped in Kedappa and killed for the civet to be used in the Tirumala Venkateswara temple poojas at Tirupati.

When in 2011 the temple proposed to breed civet cats in the Sri Venkateswara Zoological Park for extraction of their secretions, BWC wrote to the Central Zoo Authority (CZA) not to grant permission but undertake a drive to stop the prevalent use of gandhamarjara in temples because it was illegal. However, no assurance was received from the CZA who said they’d written to the curator of the zoo who did not reply!

Earlier two unsuccessful animal farms had been set up by the Central Council for Research in Ayurveda & Siddha (CCRAS). One of them, run by The Indian Institute of Panchakarma in Trichur District of Kerala, which experimented breeding civet cats in captivity so that civet could be collected from the animals for use in Ayurvedic medicines. The civets were kept in small cages having rough wooden sticks in the centre on which the animals were made to rub their pouches. Leave alone breeding, the pairs died, and they were on the look out for replacements.

The Asian palm civet or toddy cat in Kerala is marapatti. However, it is called gandhabilav and mushkabilav in Hindi. In Assam it is gendera or johamol, in Marathi jowadi manjur, and in Kannada punagin bek. A variety of fragrant rice in Bengal is known as govindabhog (offered to Lord Krishna) and since the civet cat’s gland has a similar smell, the animal is gandho gokul.

Incidentally, civet cats as well as with other wild life are utilised for street performances in villages of Bihar. And, in Assam they (johamol) are considered a delicacy.

Deer musk/kasturi:
musk obtained from the male has led to the wholesale slaughter and near extinction of the Himalayan Musk deer. Musk deer farming is unsuccessful.

The second animal farm under CCRAS, is the musk deer one at Kufri in Himachal Pradesh where again the animals have not bred successfully in captivity.

The night before the musk is to be extracted the male deer is deprived of food. The next day it is drugged to explore the genital organs and find the musk pod. When located, a cannula is pushed into the area so that the hardened musk granules stick to it when removed.

The other method utilised is to extract of liquid musk for which the deer is caught, forcibly held down, genitals explored and palpated for the musk which is then painfully scraped out with a sharp knife. The animals are traumatised, panic and try to flee. They remain very confused and excited, often jumping high into the air hitting and injuring their heads against the enclosure tops.

Despite this, in 2002 the Union Minister of Health & Family Welfare proposed musk deer faming in Jammu, Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal. BWC immediately sent a detailed protest letter to the Minister, pointing out drawbacks and failings and appealed that they not proceed with such plans.

In May 2014 the Chief Secretary of Odisha wrote to the Government of India informing them of the shortage of kasturi at the Jagannath temple at Puri and seeking their assistance in procuring it for the Navakalebara festival which will be held next in 2015. On knowing this, BWC requested the Secretary of the Ministry of Environment & Forests to investigate the matter on priority and intervene to stop its import and use. Simultaneously, the temple authorities were made aware that kasturi was obtained by killing deer and therefore they should reconsider its use.

Ironically, many Jain temples also utilise kasturi illegally.

Demand from China also results in musk deer (and tigers) being killed by Tibetan hunters along India’s North Eastern border. It is difficult to catch such poachers since it takes ten days of trekking to reach such places.

obtained from the beehive, both beeswax and honey are utilised.

Hyraceum/Africa Stone: excrement of the Rock or Cape Hyrax (a mammal resembling a guinea pig). They live in colonies and defecate and urinate in the same location. After the resulting deposits have petrified (a process that takes hundreds of years!) these “stones” which are brownish and brittle and release dark oil with intense, complex and fermented scent which is said to be a cross between civet and castoreum.

in order to be innovative, an international brand has infused its eau de toilette (a dilute form of perfume) with specks of mother-of-pearl.

Muskrat musk:
the trapping and slaughter of 1,000 muskrats results in 1,000 pelts of fur, but a mere 3 ounces of musk oil.

mussel of marine origin or the gill of fish, or horny shell of mullusk.

shark liver oil.


A 2014 study found that 75% of women suffering from migraines caused due to smells were that of perfumes.

Even essential oils that are the basis of fragrances have toxic effects, e.g. B-damascenone a compound used in rose essential oil.

In this year and age why should ingredients in perfumes remain a secret? It is high time that they be declared. Just like for food articles, ingredients used to make cosmetics and other products should also be listed on packages.

Incense sticks/Agarbattis/Dhoop

Basically, there are two categories of incense: masala agarbattis like durbar and champa are made by blending several solid scented ingredients along with an adhesive into a paste and rolling it on a bamboo stick, whereas dhoop may lack the core stick and contain a higher percentage of sandalwood. Charcoal agarbattis are made by dipping unscented “blank” sticks (smeared with adhesive/binding resin/gum) in a mixture of perfume and essential oils. The adhesive utilised in their making is usually of animal origin. In addition to this, the perfume could also contain a fixative of animal origin. It is not commonly known or easily admitted by manufacturers that a fixative called nakhla/operculum is used by agarbatti and dhoop manufacturers in India. Some manufacturers might utilise casein (obtained from milk using rennin from the stomach of animals or acid) in place of gelatine for sticking during the monsoon like the safety matches manufacturers. Certain varieties of agarbattis contain honey.

Page last updated on 17/09/21