Ramzan, a month of fragrances

Attar Shop in Mohammed Ali Road. Pic by Yoshita Sengupta

Pooja Bhula

The image of Mohammed Ali Road during Ramzan has become synonymous to its Iftaar offerings of meats and sweets, mountains of dates, and other dry fruits. But Mohammed Ali Road is also one of the biggest attar markets in India and sale of attar sees a steep rise during this period of penance and fasting.

“This is one month during which maximum number of people go to the mosque to offer prayers—the congregation consist of 50 -100 people or even more, therefore people apply attar, to keep the shrines from smelling of body odour. During this period we do two to three times the business done in the rest of the year,” says Ismail Attarwala of Nemat Fragrances and Essential Oils at Mohammed Ali Road, whose family started this business over 150 years ago in Udaipur and brought it to Mumbai in 1940.

Attarwala is among the few who keeps only natural and nature identical attar. He has a rose cultivation in Haldighati in Udaipur and not only sells fragrances, but also blends them. “Natural attar is extremely expensive, but people still buy it because while western world uses fragrances mainly to attract people of the opposite sex, in our culture it also has spiritual significance. People buy attar from us even during Diwali, Navratri and other religious occasions.”

Certain natural attars that used to cost around Rs.10, 000 for 10 grams have been banned, to prevent poaching of endangered species that lent ingredients to some natural fragrances.

According to traders, traditional fragrances, such as Gulab, Majmua, Firdaus, Kewra are the best selling. But in past few years Oud, which has a woody fragrance, is also doing very well.

Vice President of Fragrances and Flavours Association of India (FAFAI), a private association with 750 members across the country, established in 1949, Nivedita Assar, says, “Mohammed Ali Road and Princess Street in Mumbai, Tilak Street in Delhi and Ezra Street in Kolkata are the biggest attar markets in India, and sale of attar is highest during Ramzan.”

Explaining the importance of attar for Muslims Hozefa Godhrawala of Hamidi Oud and Perfumes, a Dubai brand that has a store in Mohammed Ali Road, says, “Alcohol is prohibited in Islam and all perfumes have some percentage of it. That’s why Muslims in general prefer attars to perfumes, especially during Ramzan. 80% of our stock is attar and only 20% is perfumes.” Hamidi Oud and Perfumes, keeps both synthetic and natural attars in the price-range of Rs. 600 to Rs.4000 for 10ml bottles.

No need to buy a bottle

Small shops and attar stalls on Mohammed Ali Road, especially ones around the mosques, give people an option of applying attar without purchasing bottles. They make a faya (a long metallic stick covered with cotton that looks like a ear bud), dip it in attar and apply it to customers. The used cotton is thrown and a new one is taken for each new customer.

“It is good smell good when you’re going for namaz. We apply attar with the faya on people’s ears, if they don’t want to buy an entire bottle. The distance between the ear and nose is less, so the person will keep getting the smell, and also people who passes them or pray besides them. Some people also apply it to their beard, lower portion of the hair and forehead,” says Ahmed Ali who works for a small street shop on the Mohammed Ali Road. He charges Rs. 5 for regular attar and Rs. 10 for a slightly better variant. His customers are not regulars but are passersby who purchase on impulse.

According to Ali, who is from a small village in UP use of attar before going to mosques has urban roots. He says, “Attar is something that people buy over and above basic necessities like food; villagers will think twice before spending on it. But unlike villages, not everyone in the city has good access to water— sometimes slum dwellers don’t get to bathe for days at a stretch. This is also one of the reasons it sells so well in cities.”