How about another spritz of tree fungus?
The inside story of your favourite oudh perfume
If you wake up one morning unable to smell anything, it’a a telltale sign that you have Covid. Loss of smell and subsequently, taste, is one of the most common symptoms. On top of fatigue and brain fog (has your mind turned into scrambled eggs?), being unable to smell and taste adds insult to injury.
Now that most humans no longer need to sniff out food in the jungle, losing your sense of smell does more harm to your emotional state. Olfactory signals travel through regions of the brain which are tied to our emotions and memories. Even a foetus develops their sense of smell in the womb, and we don’t rely on sight as our dominant sense until the age of 10. That’s why the strongest childhood memories trace back to smells: the aroma of freshly made ghee in your grandmother’s kitchen; the embrace of the guava tree you used to climb; the overpowering whiff of garbage baking in the summer heat.
Since our identities are biologically incomplete without smell, the history of manufacturing scents is practically as old as humanity — whether the aim was to track a deer or seduce a king. Flowers from roses to genda phool still mark the scent memory of every life occasion. But no fragrance has transportative powers quite like oudh. Made from the agarwood tree — from where the heady agarbatti gets its name — oudh is so ubiquitous that it’s impossible not to have an emotion associated with it. The romance of Mughal courts, the sensuality of a special Ayurvedic massage, or the smokiness of a mandir.
Although nearly everyone has smelled some version of oudh, most people wouldn’t be able to pick the real Slim Shady out of a lineup. Don’t be fooled by perfumes that advertise this exotic scent — many of them get away without using much, if any, of the expensive star ingredient. As for what oudh actually is, and why it’s such a rare commodity? I had no idea until I visited Hojai in Assam, where the world’s finest oudh is grown.
The warm, spicy scent features in attars and incense burners and has been especially popular in the Middle East for centuries. In India, it’s been used in Ayurveda since antiquity, and homegrown brand Ajmal Perfumes has been cultivating agarwood trees in Assam since the 1960s. Usually, fragrant flowers, herbs, and woods are pressed to extract their essence, but oudh isn’t really wood at all. The ‘black gold’ we’re harvesting and smelling is the agarwood tree’s immune response to an infection.
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When the tree is infested with a certain kind of worm, it begins producing a sticky black resin to push out this interloper. Think of the resin as the woman with the largest handbag in the ladies compartment of a Mumbai local, and the worms as the unfortunate men who have stumbled in and are about to get a whacking. Eventually, the tree begins to heal from this infestation, producing more sticky stuff in the process to make sure the worms are well and truly routed. The perfumers will leave it to marinate for several years and pray that when they finally cut into the trunk, there will be plenty of oudh resin in the wood.
The biology involved is grotesque, yet poetic. Ultimately, the oudh is an agarwood tree’s memory of sickness that we’re surgically removing for our own pleasure. Deep inside the tree, a natural drama is playing out that we can neither see nor predict. If there’s one lesson we can learn from oudh farmers, it’s how to trust the process.
Like with pineapples and pufferfish sushi, you have to wonder about the long-ago ancestor who first decided to harvest oudh. Not only does the resin-blackened wood itself hardly smell of anything, but the process of extracting oudh is fraught with complications. For the Hojai locals, who still follow the same traditional methods of growing and extracting, it comes down to divine intervention.
Even after 70 years in the trade, the Ajmal perfumers have no idea how much oudh their extensive orchards will yield. They don’t know if an infected tree will produce a good amount of resin, and they can’t make predictions based on climate or season. It’s a business that requires nerves of steel, and a superhuman ability to shrug off losses. There are no laws of averages here, only the fickle law of the forest. A few experienced growers can tell with some accuracy if an agarwood tree will have oudh, but it’s an art, not a science.
Rich, mysterious, and divine, the intoxicating scent of oudh mirrors the ingredient itself. No wonder people have taken such extraordinary pains to extract and trade it for thousands of years. The chips of resin-soaked wood are traditionally burned for their smoky aroma, used to scent rooms, clothes, and even hair to create a subtle, lingering cloud around you. A thick golden oil is extracted from the rest of the wood, and a few drops of this concentrated scent lends a deep, unctuous note to perfumes.
For those who really love the smell of oudh oil, a touch on the wrists goes a long way. Be patient, as a unique scent blossoms on each person’s skin. Like the harvesting process, confidently using oudh requires some knowledge and practice.
The wearing of perfume has always been a way for us to communicate a piece of ourselves without exchanging a word. Since scent is more intrinsic to our feelings than language or appearance, it’s the most powerful tool we have to create an impression. The next time you want to feel a little bolder, connect with the arcane secrets of Assam’s agarwood trees and reach for an oudh-based fragrance.