The ‘sillage’ as the French call the capacity of a fragrance to spread, spells Bedouin pomp, the earthy sound of Semitic syllables synergising with the scent. Arabs indeed have, for centuries, been obsessed with ‘Oud’ or ‘Agarwood,’ a tree bark extract. It is surprising how oud travelled all the way from Assam and Cambodia to the Gulf, the association dating back probably to the beginning of Islam, or even earlier.
Pure agarwood chips are also burnt as incense called ‘bakhoor’ on ornate charcoal burners called ‘mabkharah.’ ‘Oud,’ the Arabic name for ‘Agarwood’ has thus become synonymous with the Gulf. But a less-explored chapter in the history of oud is its age-old Indian connection. In the south Asian forest belt (Assam, Burma, Cambodia and further South-East), Assam being one of the important agarwood reserves, India stands as a prominent exporter of this endangered wood species. It is said that when the bark of the aquilaria tree gets infected with fungus, it develops a dark, aromatic hardwood. It is distilled by softening the wood to extract the oil. Experts believe that the fungus must develop in a live tree and artificially induced funguses have diluted the quality.
India has an ancient tradition of pure perfume concentrates that dates back centuries. “There are several attar vendors all over India who sell ‘oud,’ nothing but an exorbitant black compound of harmful chemicals, far from original. Old Delhi’s 200 year-old Gulabsingh Johrimal perfumery is one of the few in the country that sells pure ‘Dahn al oud’ (Arabic for ‘fat of the Oud’), or pure agarwood extract. People from the Arab World and even China come down all the way for the authenticity,” explains Mahmoud Imtiyaz, a UAE-based oud collector.
Praful Gundhi, seventh generation torchbearer of the perfumery’s tradition, explains that agarwood actually finds mention in the Vedas. “In the ‘Ashtagandh’ (eight fragrant substances), the name ‘agar’ appears first suggesting that our forefathers must have employed agarwood not only in ritualistic practices but in daily life,” he says. Reciting a rare ‘doha,’ Gundhi explains that in the Vedas, agarwood is listed among nature’s eight sought-after fragrant bounties — Agar, tagar, chandan-yugal, kesar aur kapoor. Gaurochan aur mrigmida, ashtagandh bharpoor.
Gundhi believes that although sandalwood has been a favourite for traditional ‘agnihotra havan’ rituals, oud might have also been offered to the sacred fire in ancient times, the fragrance being universally considered as exhilarating and even spiritually elevating. The word ‘agarbatti’ he believes, comes from ‘agar,’ the word meaning ‘light of agar.’ He says, “in the olden days, agarbattis were made of pure agarwood. Thanks to the Arabs who are willing to pay high prices for oud, the costs have sky-rocketed, resulting in several synthetic materials and aromas in incenses today.”
While pure agarwood oil may smell obnoxious to many, it becomes the unspoken magical element when blended with other ingredients. Oud is also known for its aphrodisiacal properties in India.