Flowers, roots, leaves and stems – SK Verma transforms them into scents and essential oils

By Puja Bhattacharya

Imagine growing up in a city where delicious fragrances waft through homes; where every lane tempts you to breathe in deeply the ery scents that seduced Mughal emperors centuries ago. 

Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh, is considered the perfume capital of India. It was here that S K Verma closely observed his uncle, a perfumer, extract oil from flowers, leaves, and barks using hydro-distillation on a base material, like sandalwood oil to make attar (also known as ittar). 

“He [uncle] used to cultivate flowering plants and used them to make attar,” Verma told Slow Bazaar.

Verma took up the centuries old perfume-making tradition, gave it a modern touch and now markets his essential oils and scents across the world from Kannauj, India’s perfume capital. 

After graduation, Verma studied everything he could find on the internet about perfumes. He deduced that essential oils will be a big market and immediately went about setting up an essential oil business. 

That was in 2005. Now Verma is based in Kanpur and runs a moderately successful business exporting essential oils across the world. “The main market is Europe. Our oils are sold to various industries who use it to make products,” he said. Though he is a wholesaler, he seldom turns down personal requests for essential oils.

Verma has rented a factory in Kannauj where 10 workers sort through fresh flowers and extract the oil using expensive steel machines. “Each [machine] costs up to five lakh rupees,” he said. 

Also Read: Honey, honey energy drink, lip balm, soaps and candles: Beekeeper Nitin Singh’s many offerings

Deg bhapka: Traditional attar making process

Before the machines took over, perfumers used the age-old hydro-distillation process, called deg bhapkaa labour-intensive and traditional way of extracting oil from flower petals through steaming and distillation.

In this method, the flowers and their parts are boiled in water. The steam from this concoction is cooled by running it through cold water and placed in direct sunlight. Then they are refined and collected. However, many traditional manufacturers feel it is difficult to continue with the traditional process due to competition from alcohol-based and mass-manufactured perfumes, as well as rising cost of raw materials. 

“The old system of extracting oil was no child’s play. One must know how much heat should be applied among other things. Too much heat spoils the oil,” explained Verma.

Now, with the machines, it’s easy, he said. “Just put in all the ingredients and set it up. Then stand back and watch.”

Also Read: A chance encounter made Chandra Prakash Shukla a successful amla businessman

There are plenty of choices for the consumers. Lotus, marigold, hibiscus, rose, carom seed, carrot seed, pumpkin seed, black pepper, black cumin – are all used to extract and manufacture oils from their flowers, leaves, roots, and stems. 

In 2014, Kannauj perfumes also got a GI (geographical indicator) tag. As per news reports, there are around 350 small, medium and large perfumeries supporting almost 50,000 families in Kannauj, making it a Rs 3,000-crore cottage industry. 

Essential oils are used in beauty products, aromatherapy, Ayurveda, pharmaceuticals, confectionery, and religious products. The aromas from essential oils can stimulate areas of our brains that uplift our moods. Different varieties are used to treat digestive problems, hormonal imbalance, fungal infections and lack of sleep.

Also Read: A rugs to riches story in Sitapur