How this Indian perfumer is working hard to preserve Kannauj's ancient legacy of scents

A journey of senses

By Rashmi Gopal Rao

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Published: Thu 14 Sep 2023, 8:14 PM

It is often said that one of the greatest joys in life is doing what you love. And this is a philosophy eighth generation perfumer Pranav Kapoor follows to the tee. Apart from being an expert perfumer, Pranav is trained in culinary arts and has been passionately working towards preserving and showcasing Kannauj’s ancient legacy of perfumery to the world. Through his niche venture of perfume tourism, he aims to put Kannauj and India on the fragrance map of the world.

Kannauj, the perfume capital of India

An ancient city steeped in history, Kannauj is located just over 120 km from the capital city of Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh. It dates back several centuries and was an integral part of the Gupta empire. It subsequently came under the Vardhana dynasty whose famous emperor Harshavardhana made Kannauj the capital of the whole of North India. “The art of perfumery in the city is several centuries old. Kannauj has played host to the Chinese scholar Hiuen Tsang who, under Harshavardhana’s rule, was invited as a guest. The perfume industry of Kannauj finds mention in the works of Tsang as well as that of Banabhatta who was a 7th century poet in the court of Harshavardhana. Their works record the production of sandalwood and rose in the region and mention how certain areas of the region were lined with sandalwood trees,” says Pranav Kapoor whose family has been into perfumery for over 200 years.


Kannauj, which is situated on the banks of the Ganges, has always been blessed with fertile soil, which is conducive for the cultivation of flowers and herbs. As time progressed, the city came under the Mughal rule whose kings were patrons of the famous Kannauj rose. Further, Kannauj is famous for the ‘mitti attar’, which is the unique fragrance of parched earth after the first rains. “The ‘mitti attar’ in Kannauj is being made for centuries now. Earlier, the artisans used to collect mud from the Ganges basin after the first showers and distill that. Today, however, we use clay pots that have been made using the same mud to capture the scent of the rain,” adds Pranav. Apart from rose and jasmine, the native perfumes of Kannauj include gul heena, kewra, khus (vetiver), nagarmotha (cypriol), sugandhmantri, kapoor kachri and morpankhi.

Disappearing profession

According to Pranav, Kannauj has around 200 registered perfume firms but only about 20–25 of them are into distilling using the traditional technique. The rest usually practise modern techniques or just do trading. He further adds that the market for these perfumes is global as fragrances are used not only in the perfume industry but also by the FMCG sector. While Kannauj perfumes were accorded the Geographical Indication (GI) tag in 2014, competition from alcohol-based perfumes, difficulty in sourcing raw materials like sandalwood, high costs and the depleting number of people practising the traditional method of distillation have caused this ancient profession to slowly fade from the cultural landscape of the city.


Early passion for fragrances and flavours

Given that Pranav’s family has been in the perfumery business since the early 19th century, fragrances have been an integral part of his life. “Some of my fondest childhood memories are of holidays spent with my grandfather testing perfume blends and describing the notes to him,” says the 35-year-old. With a passion for creative arts, Pranav trained as a chef as he felt that there was an intrinsic connection between fragrances and flavours. “Whether it is food or perfume, it is all about perfect formulation and using the ingredients in the right balance and proportion. Both of them go hand in hand in that smelling is the first step in tasting. Even the spices used like clove, ginger, citrus etc are the same, just the output is slightly different. While you are wearing one you are eating the other,” mentions Pranav. Having added a new dimension to the business through food, Pranav started his perfume tourism initiative in March 2023 with an objective to not only promote the city of Kannauj and its perfumes but also to boost the local economy and the income of native farmers and artisans.

Immersive experience

Pranav offers a truly unique experience to his guests wherein they stay at his 120-year-old ancestral haveli and witness the entire process of perfume-making. “The haveli has been refurbished and we offer a courtyard suite accommodation. We also have a fragrance gallery and a perfume bar. The itinerary includes a visit to the farm for the flower plucking process, then a visit to the distillery to watch the process of fragrance-making followed by the perfume bar experience where guests, with my assistance, can create their own unique signature scents,” mentions Pranav. At the distillery, visitors can watch the talented workers aka deghbaz (pot handlers) in action. They are experts in handling the copper stills that hold about 80-90 kg of flowers along with water. The stills are sealed with a mixture of multani mitti and cotton to ensure that no heat escapes. They are then heated over biogas. The steam that rises is collected via bamboo pipes to a cold copper vat where it condenses and forms fragrant water, which is processed further. The tour concludes with a seven-course fragrance and flavour pairing menu, which adopts the local ‘farm-to-table’ approach. With each course in the menu depicting a stage in perfume-making, this degustation menu is a multi-sensorial experience like no other!

Looking ahead

The response to the venture has been overwhelming and to cater to the increasing number of visitors, Pranav plans to construct a seven-villa property centred on fragrance, flavour and the history of Kannauj. A wellness retreat that captures all the senses is also in the offing. Apart from this, Pranav also caters to the B2B segment where he creates signature scents for brands, individuals and five-star hotels through his company Indian Naturals. His brand Pkapo has also started gourmet perfumery for the retail segment, which is essentially food-inspired perfumes (think scents drawn from margarita, sea salt, etc.). With an all-India perfume trail (incorporating jasmine from Madurai, lavender from Jammu and Kashmir, Oud from Assam, etc.) and a book on flavours and fragrances on the way, Pranav Kapoor is the perfect example of allowing your passion to become your purpose and profession!

wknd@khaleejtimes.com



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