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Vintage Attar Distillation Vessel – Copper ‘Bhapka’

Distillation vessel ”Bhapka” with large belly and narrow neck

















Attar is an Indian name for the traditional perfumes made in India by ancient technique of distillation using copper vessels.This beautifully shaped copper vessel called ‘Bhapka’ is used in the traditional method of distillation of attar. The very mention of attar gives a romantic feeling of lingering fragrance that is unique to Indian culture. Mughal emperors, Indian Maharajas, their queens and harems, the noble families of bygone era, all used delicately scented traditional attars for lifting their souls to new levels of ecstasy and make themselves more inviting. Each royalty patronised their own favourite attar and their arrival was significantly felt by the kind of attar associated with them and the gentle perfumed wind heralded their arrival into the royal durbars, courts and to their ladies.

The traditional attars are made with rare and exotic variety of flowers, herbs, roots and spices. The base oil for the attar is Sandalwood oil. It has the inherent quality of absorbing the scents of the other oils by subsiding its own scent.

Collection of rare attars – Display from a shop in Hyderabad

















The Dwindling Effect

The once famous and most adored traditional attars of Hindustan are no more available in their sublime purity. The pervading adulteration has also penetrated into these traditional scents. The reasons could be the rarity and the high cost of sandalwood oil, insensitivity to fine taste and quality and most importantly the greed to make money by dubious methods.

The competition from the poor chemically made scents (called foreign scents) that invaded the Indian markets with their abundant side-effects could be one of the reasons for the lack of buyers for the authentic, pure agro-based and environment friendly (eco-friendly) attars. The so called sprays of foreign scents that produce more gas and side-effects than perfume with their low price have virtually killed the traditional attars that gave the divine and delicate fragrances to the connoisseurs.

A Memory from My Childhood

When I was about 12 or 13, there was an attar vendor whose name was Sayeeb. He used to come to our house often and sell a variety of attars. He was a middle aged Muslim man, dressed in a traditional white kurta and pyjama along with a turban with its tail end hanging till his hips. He sported a pepper-salt beard, had an assorted colored beads necklace hanging around his neck and walked barefoot. He carried a beautiful wooden box with brass trims, lined inside with maroon coloured mukhmal (velvet) cloth containing different bottles of attar. Each bottle was securely placed in the square slots resembling pigeon holes. The box was hung on his shoulder with the help of a thick cotton tape secured to the brass handles of the box.

Whenever he used to visit our house, he used to unlock the box and open it for us to have a glimpse of the beautiful bottles with divine fragrances. He would ask us to stretch our hands and then would dab tiny amount of attar on the back of our palms and ask us to experience the fragrance. Once we were convinced and our selection made, he would dexterously pour the ordered quantity into our tiny glass bottles taken out from our own little attar daan. Attar daan is a small box with brass trims having slots inside to place each attar bottle which has a mini lock. Locking the attar daan was very much required since the costly and rare attars had to be protected from misuse. The attar daan was always kept in a cupboard with other valuable items like silk sarees, gold ornaments, silver items etc.

The Making Of Traditional Attar

The process of making traditional attars takes a minimum of ten days.The flowers are soaked in water and heated in large copper pots . The automatic vapours are then transferred to a receptacle copper vessel through bamboo pipes containing pure Sandalwood oil which is the base oil for attar. Attar is also made from aromatic spices, herbs, roots etc.

Attar distillation process showing brick batti-fire, boiling pot, bamboo pipe connecting receiving pot bhapka, copper bhapka, bhapka immersed in cooling tank













The distillation unit consists of three parts.

Part one is a large copper vessel called ‘Deg’ in which water and fragrant flowers to be distilled are placed.

Part two is a copper vessel with a large belly and narrow long neck called ‘Bhapka’. Bhapka means ‘steam’ in Hindi language and that is why the vessel that captures the fragrance filled steam from the deg is called bhapka.

Part three is a ‘Chonga’, a hallow bamboo pipe that connects the deg and bhapka. The bamboo pipe is wrapped with rope made from local grasses and serves as an insulator to the pipe.

The simple distillation unit extracts the inherent delicate essence of the fragrant flower. The deg is filled with pure water and then the fresh fragrant flowers are placed inside it. Its lid is then sealed by a clay ribbon of approximately three inches and tightly held by a spring called ‘Kamani’ which makes a vapor tight sealing system between the deg and its lid.

There will be a hole on the lid to insert a bamboo pipe to extract the vapors from the deg. The receiving copper vessel i.e. bhapka is filled with pure sandalwood oil. Bamboo pipe is inserted into its mouth and sealed with clay and cotton. The sealed bhapka with the bamboo pipe is lowered and allowed to settle down into the waters of a cooling tank known as ‘gachchi’ that eventually converts the sweet vapors into molecules of fragrant attar.

The other end of the bamboo pipe is inserted into the hole in the lid of the deg and sealed tightly by the combination of cotton and clay. The deg containing flowers in water is heated with wood or cow-dung fire and the fragrant vapors produced rise up from the deg and pass through the bamboo pipes into the bhapka immersed in the cooling tank. The vapors get condensed in the bhapka and after distillation the water and oil get separated and the aromatic oil molecules get absorbed by the sandalwood oil. Then the water is taken off or decanted through the hole in the bhapka and mixed with the water in the deg for the next process of distillation.

The distillation process is repeated several times for 15 days till the sandalwood oil in the bhapka is fully saturated and achieves the desired fragrant perfume of that flower. The sandalwood oil completely gives up its own fragrance and acquires the fragrance of the flower that is used in distillation process.

Attar batti showing big copper boiling pots ‘Deg’ fired by dry cow dung cakes


Bhapka connected to boiling pot with bamboo pipe and lowered into cooling tank































Bhapka immersed in cooling tank for condensing the attar vapors

















A Little Something about the Marvellous Antique Bhapka

This bhapka is handmade with copper metal sheet of thick gauge. You will observe beautiful hammer marks throughout its body. It was initially made into few parts and later joined together to make a perfectly shaped bhapka with a nice big belly and a neat long neck. At a glance, it gives an impression of a huge copper flower vase made perfectly. This is how I looked at it when I first saw it in the warehouse of an antique dealer in Ahmedabad way back in the year 1986. During one of my usual rounds to antique shops in Ahmedabad, I saw this odd looking copper vessel and I inquired about it with the shop owner. He had no idea about it. I liked its shape and the pattern of the hammer marks. I also saw that there were inscriptions on the body and I was confident that I could decode the inscriptions and find out the true nature and purpose for which it was made. I struck a bargain and brought it along with me to Mumbai where I used to stay back then. After cleaning, it was so beautiful and shiny with pinkish brown color. Its flower vase type of shape gave me an idea that it would make an exquisite floor lamp base. I bought a large size lamp shade made out of gold color silk cloth and fixed it on the top of its long neck. It was perfect! Later it became a center of attraction in our drawing room and conversation piece when guests would arrive.

Bhapka hand made with thick gauge copper sheet
Bhapka hand made with thick gauge copper sheet


Bhapka shown in the inclined position


Beautiful jointing of the copper sheet parts to make a perfectly shaped Bhapka


Inscription on the body of Bhapka (I will be grateful if anybody can read and tell me what it means)


Another inscription on the body of Bhapka









































































Rooh Gulab attar is made with roses




















The old classic literature on attars say that the floral variety that are primarily used for making attar are rose, jasmine, bele, molesari, champa and tuberose. Coming to root variety, vetiver and ginger are mainly used for making attar. Barks of trees like cinnamon, sandalwood and aloe bark are also used. Musk, ambergris (a wax-like substance that originates as a secretion in the intestines of the sperm whale, found floating in tropical seas and used in perfume manufacture) and myrrh (a fragrant gum resin obtained from certain trees) are also used.

For all these ingredients, sandalwood oil is used as the base oil since the natural fragrance of the oil vanishes and it imbibes the aroma of the flower.

The Right Way To Apply Attar

It is mentioned in our ancient texts as to which part of the body should be anointed with attar for the maximum benefits in terms of aroma and health to the body and mind. Attars are applied on ‘pulse points’ which emanate the aroma most effectively. The blood vessels are nearest to the skin at the pulse points giving off much heat thus serving as mini pumps of fragrance. The warmth generated from the pulse points diffuses the aroma of the attar into the air. The continuous diffusion function of the body helps the wearer to enjoy the aroma through the day.

The sensitive pulse points are located behind the ears, between the breasts, on the neck and on the ankles, elbows and knees. Attar is to be applied on the heart centre, over the points of wrist pulse, back portion of the ears and on the subtle energetic pathways called marma points known as ajna or sthapani on the middle of forehead area. These points are conducive for the aromatic oils and they can be fully absorbed into the skin and the release of fragrance is gentle and subtle around the body. These aromatic attars regulate the breathing rhythm, stabilize the heartbeat, soothe the nervous system and calm the brain. These gentle aromatic attars lift your spirits to a higher level of consciousness, regulate prana and circulate the vital energy throughout.


A Brief About Sandalwood Oil

Sandalwood oil is distilled from the matured tree heartwood and the roots of the tree. The oil is extracted by water or steam distillation method. A mature sandalwood tree yields up to 60 kilograms of perfumed oil. Most of the oil produced is used by the perfume and toiletries industry. The world famous Sandalwood soap is manufactured from the oil extracted from the trees grown in the forests of Karnataka around Mysore.

The advantage with perfume manufacturing using the distillation process is that the fragrance improves with the age of attar. The sandalwood oil is a fantastic fixative and an excellent preservative. If the attars are carefully preserved,the quality improves with age like in a vintage wine.


An Interesting Anecdote About Mysore Sandal Soap

There is a very interesting story on how the Mysore Sandal Soap came into existence. During the British rule in India, the Maharaja of Mysore used to harvest the sandalwood oil and export the same to England. It so happened that for some reason or the other, one shipment of sandalwood oil was rejected and the Maharaja did not know what to do with such huge precious cargo. One of his advisers advised the Maharaja to use the aromatic oil in his own production of soaps. The Maharaja immediately commissioned a soap-making plant to manufacture high class sandalwood soaps. Thus, the Maharaja stopped all export of sandalwood oil and the produce was used in the production of sandalwood soaps and in other related perfumery and toiletries industry. Till India attained independence, the Maharaja Soap factory was run by the Kingdom of Mysore.


Mysore Sandal soap













You never must have given a thought about how attar is made till now. But behind it is an elaborate process and the vessels used were made for a purpose. With the advent of technology, traditional methods are slowly taking a hit along with all things associated with it. By now I guess you know that every time you apply a drop of attar, thousands of flowers  go into making the perfume along with the hard manual labor of artisans who take it upon themselves to keep alive the tradition of the dwindling craft of making attar. The attar is natural and made from nature’s most delicate creation known as flowers and aromatic produce. It is gentle on the skin and has no side effects. It is absolutely divine!





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Sandalwood Paste Bowl – Gandham Ginni


White metal Gandhamginni

Sandalwood paste is an integral part of Indian culture. Sandalwood paste is called Chandanam or Gandham in India. Indian women from time immemorial used sandalwood paste to beautify their skin. They decorate their face with smearing of sandalwood paste on their face either as a dot in the forehead of a strip on the cheeks. Priests use sandalwood paste to decorate the utensils used for ritual puja. In some temples, Gods are given ceremonial bath in sandalwood paste mixed in water known as chandanaabhishekam. For particular idols of Gods sandalwood paste is given a layer of coating called chandanampoota and the dried chandanam, after scaling it from the deity, is distributed to the devotees as a sacred prasadam.

For marriages or religious functions, guests are traditionally welcomed by smearing sandalwood paste on the either sides of the cheeks, for ladies and on the wrist for gents. There will be a traditional welcome plate in which, silver items like rose water sprinkler called panneer buddy, gandhamginni, scent bottle and few flowers are placed. When guests come to the function few ladies stand at the entrance and first sprinkle rose water, then they smear chandanam paste, apply few drops of perfume and give them flowers.This is a traditional way of welcoming the guests. The Sandalwood paste is stored in a vessel called Gandhamginni in Telugu and Chandanamkinnam in Tamil. These lovely chandanam pots come in different designs, shapes and materials. I happened to collect two such vintage chandanam pots and with great pleasure I introduce them to you.


Gandhamginni in White metal

White metal Sandalwood paste bowl
Gandhamginni– showing detailed vertical embossed lines

This Sandalwood paste bowl is hand made with White metal. It has a beautiful shape with a round base and a conical cup, both connected with a vertical handle. There are vertical ribbed embossed lines with graceful flow on the entire surface of the cup. These vertical lines add to the aesthetics of the body apart from serving as a grip for holding the cup by the middle of the cup. There is also lovely design around the upper portion of the cup. There is a ring like rim on the top of the cup. This strong rim serves the purpose of not only giving sturdiness to the cup but also keeps the cup in shape. The rim also helps in preventing the slippage of the cup when held from the top side.There is also an embossed cute design on the base of the cup.There is a nice vertical grip holder between the base and the cup long enough to allow two fingers to have a tight grip of the holder. I have purchased this cup from an antique shop in Chennai in 1973, approximately 40 years back.The antique dealer told me that it was in their shop for a long time and he could not tell me how old it is. I guess that it must be 50 years old at the time of my purchase thus working out to be around 90 years old. The cup is relatively big in size for a sandalwood paste container indicating that this cup is used in a temple, where the chandanam usage is high compared to domestic usage.

White metal Sandalwood paste bowl
Chandanam pot– Flowing vertical embossed lines that also serve as a grip
White metal Sandalwood paste bowl
Gandhamginni– showing the top view
Sandalwood paste bowl
Gandhamginni– showing the bottom design

GandhamGinni in Silver

Silver Sandalwood paste bowl
Chandanam pot– front view

This silver chandanam pot is having similar shape as that of the white metal Gandhamginni. In fact this is a typical shape of a sandalwood paste container, with a base, a conical shape of cup with wide mouth at the end of the cup to facilitate easy picking up the paste with two fingers usually with the second and the middle finger joined together. The base and the cup are joined by a vertical holder. There are beautiful carvings on the base and on the cup. The rim is wider with a lotus petals design. This silver chandanam pot is used in the homes only for special occasions. This wonderful silver cup is presented to me and my wife by our family friend Shri. Vasireddy Suryanarayana garu in the year 1967, meaning it is 45 years old.

Silver Chandanam pot
Showing design on the base, bowl and top opening
Silver Chandanam pot
Showing top view of lotus petal design
Silver Gandhamginni
Showing the bottom view

What is white metal

White metal is an alloy of metals like tin, cadmium, antimony, lead, zinc and bismuth. It is not necessary that all these metal should be there for formation of white metal. Basing on the purpose and usage the metals can be selectively chosen to get the desired effect. For example the base white metal used for making  jewelry should have good flow characteristics, castable, ability to cast fine details and polish able. One can easily see all the characteristics in the white metal used for making the sandalwood paste bowl.

How Sandalwood paste is made:

The sandalwood paste is  made by rubbing the sandalwood on a  stone. Granite stones are available in market in various sizes and shapes. For making the paste sandalwood piece of handy size is used. First water is sprinkled on the stone and the sandalwood piece is rubbed on the stone with mild pressure. Little drops of water are added to the rubbing process to maintain the consistency of the paste.Once required quantity of paste is obtained it is drained into a bowl called Gandhamginni in Telugu, Chandanamkinnam in Tamil. These vessels are available in decorative designs made with variety of metals like brass, white metal, silver and gold.

Stone to extract paste
Stone used for rubbing sandalwood to extract sandalwood paste
Stone and sandalwood block
Stone and sandalwood block of natural surface
Sandalwood paste
Sandalwood block being rubbed against the stone to prepare the paste
Stone and sandalwood block
Stone and sandalwood block with glazed surface

Benefits of sandalwood paste

There are two types of Sandalwood trees. One type is red sandalwood and the other type is white sandalwood. Red sandalwood is famous for its medicinal properties. The white sandalwood is known for its skin care properties. White sandalwood is enriched with anti-inflammatory, astringent, antiseptic, disinfectant and emollient properties. This sandalwood is used to treat skin rashes, dark spots, blackheads, skin blemishes and to get a spot-less fair complexion. To get the excellent benefits of sandalwood ,one can use pure sandalwood paste or with the combination of  other skin care items like rose water, turmeric, black gram and honey to enhance the skin health and tonal quality.

Sandalwood is also used for incense material like incense sticks and powder cones. Sandalwood has been in use since 4,000 years in India, China and Japan in the temples and houses as incense material. Its oil is used in perfume industry.

Sandalwood tree

Sandalwood tree

The botanical name of the Sandal tree is Santalum Albumand belongs to the family of Santalaceae. It is a medium sized tree that grows to a  height ranging 10 to 15 meters. It will take 60 to 80 years for the tree to reach its maturity. The richest oil content is available from the sandal tree when the center of the slender trunk (the heart wood) reaches the maturity. The essential oil develops in the roots and in the heart wood as the tree grows at least to an age of 20 years. Since the roots are also precious due to availability of oil in them, the sandal tree is not cut but is uprooted to save the roots in the rainy season, when the soil is soft and the oil is at its best in the roots.The sandal trees in the forests of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu produce the best quality of the oil.