Ancient India was well versed with the concept of scents and fragrant substances. Fragrant ointments and oils were considered as accessories of beauty and one can find numerous references in various ancient Sanskrit texts. The earliest Sanskrit text, which documents the scientific approach to perfumery in ancient India, is the Brhat Samhita written by Varahamihira. Different types of perfumed articles, their natural sources and methods of preparation find mention in this text under the heading Gandhayukti – the art and science of cosmetics and fragrances. Gandhayukti is mentioned in various texts such as the Śarngadhara paddhati, Agnipurāna, Mānasollāsa of King Someśvara and Gandhasāra of Gangādhara. Keladi Basavarāja of 17th century AD includes an extensive treatment of this scientific subject in his voluminous treatise Śiva Tattva Ratnākara which is a veritable source of information relating to the knowledge of sciences such as chemistry, metallurgy etc.
Brhat Samhita details the method of preparing fragranced oil. Sesame oil was the preferred oil base that was used for hair massage, bath as well as abhyanga and was rendered fragrant by mixing aromatic ingredients and medicinal herbs. Amongst these aromatic ingredients, Indian flowers find extensive mention in most ointments and oils. Mānasollāsa of King Someśvara details abhyanga with sesame oil infused with popular Indian flowers Ketki (Pandanus odoratissimus) and Campaka Michelia champaca ) flowers. Sesame oil infused with either Jati (Jasminum officinale), Uptala (blue lotus), punnāg (Callophyllum inophyllum ) and Surabhi flowers was also popular.
As per Basavarāja, sesame grains should first be perfumed with fragrant flowers and then crushed on the grinding stone to obtain fragrant oil for anointing. 5 methods were adopted for the treatment of sesame grains:
- Mariana, or rubbing the grains with the juice of Pañcapallava (leaves of the 5 Fig trees – Ficus Racemora, Ficus Indicate, Ficus Lacor, Manjifera Indica and Ficus Religiosa ).
- Svedana, applying vapours of the juice of Sarvagandhā (aromatic herbs).
- Lepana i.e. besmearing with Trijatā (bark of Cinnamomum Zeylanicum, Cardamom & Cinnamomum Tamala) and Triphala.
- Dhūpanam, fumigation with agaru, saffron and sandalwood
- Vāsanam, mixing sesame with the powders of other aromatic substances
Of the many floral infused oils used in ancient India, detailed here is the preparation of two oils that were extensively used. Equal measures of śrigandha (sandalwood), agaru, saffron, abja (lotus), tvak (cinnamon bark), kusta (costus), tagara (Tabernaemontana coronaraia), ghanasāra (camphor), ankola (Alangium salarifolium) and lāksā (lac) were mixed with thrice the measure of rāla and then the oil from this mixture was extracted by a distillation process. The other scented oil blend was prepared by blending sesame oil with the flowers of jasmine, campaka, ketaki, maruvaka and kastūrī.
While the above blends were created centuries ago, you can also create your own infused oil. Indian Rose or the desi gulab, also known as the Rosa Damascena has a delicate fragrance that stays for a long time and is an ideal choice for floral fragranced oil. Place desi gulab petals in a jar and cover with sesame or almond oil. Place this jar in the sun for at least two weeks to allow the oil to be infused with the floral fragrance, keeping in mind to gently shake this concoction everyday. Drain off the oil into a clean jar using a sieve and your infused Indian rose oil is ready!