Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Clean and Tidy Sydney

After 4 months in India, I finally left this mind-boggling country at the beginning of February. In the car to the airport, as we were driving one last time through the streets of Delhi, I felt weird. I had gotten used to the noise, to the pungent smell in the streets, to the constant flow of people, to the cows chewing on plastic bags, to rikshaw drivers harassing me, the tchai vendors, the sound of the women’s bangles or anklets... And so my arrival in clean and tidy Sydney was a bit anti-climatic.

As soon as I got out of the airport, I was pressed by the heavy heat- February, in the southern hemisphere, it was the middle of summer. All the girls went about wearing their tank-tops, mini skirts or shorts- their Abercrombie type of attire. It’s weird to say, but it shocked me. I should have been more comfortable in this culture, which is much more like mine, I should have been relieved to finally be able to wear a tank-top without having all the men stare at me; but after 4 months in India, where I did not dare to wear a tight shirt without a scarf on top of it to cover my breasts, I felt out of place.

Famous Bondi Beach

The Opera House and Harbor Bridge

It took me a good deal of time to get re-used to our Western culture. For a few days, so many details surprised me: people kissing in the streets, large cars and their tame driving, the presence of toilet paper in all public bathrooms, the lack of buzzing life in the streets, the smell of nothingness in those same lifeless streets, the drunk girls at night... There was both relief and nostalgia, as people no longer came up to me to ask my name and the place I come from or even asked me to tell them about my culture. So my first impression of Sydney was not great- I found the atmosphere to be snob and superficial. Though, I have to say, it is a beautiful city where the quality of life is probably the highest of all the places I have been to.

Sydney's Skyline

The Royal Botanical Garden bordering the amazing harbour, is just a few steps away from the city center. And so, at noon, it is flooded with businessmen and women jogging just a few strolls from the famous Opera House. I enjoyed people-watching on the famous surfers’ beaches of Bondi and Manly, admired aboriginal art at the New South Wales Art Gallery, got enchanted by a modern staging of Mozart’s "Magic Flute" at the Opera, and indulged myself on the city’s delicious sushis- because at that time, I was completely fed up

The Opera House

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Still in Delhi: Water Democracy and His Holiness the Dalai Lama

The highlight of my stay in Delhi was a lecture I attended that was given by the Dalai Lama! Many Tibetan Buddhist along with a few foreigners like me came to attend this teaching on the “Twelve Links of Dependent Origination,” which is a theory that is common to all schools of Buddhism. “Dependent Origination” is the belief that all happenings arise in a mutually interdependent way. For example that without effect there is no cause, or that without Evil there is no Good, and vice versa. In addition, His Holiness stressed the fact that Buddhism is not only about faith and prayer, but also about “using one’s intelligence to the maximum” especially when establishing what is reality. He underlined that all problems are usually caused by ignorance. I have to admit that I did not think his talk was mind-awakening. I did find him extremely humorous and of an inspiring humbleness. And there definitely was this special atmosphere that comes about when a large crowd sharing the same belief gets together. It was extremely powerful when the Dalai Lama arrived and we all stood at once, most Tibetans bowing repeatedly.

I also attended a conference organized by the environmental activist group, Navdanya entitled, “Building Water Democracy, Resisting Water Privatization”. Most of the speakers at the conference Navdanya was founded by Dr. Vandana Shiva who is a character! She studied nuclear physics and holds a doctorate in theoretical physics that she obtained in Canada. After completing her doctorate, she took a break to go back to India to learn more about the interaction between science and policy. Thinking she would go back to physics and become a professor, she first wanted to understand how it could be possible that India, although it has “the third biggest scientific community in the world” is still one of the poorest countries. She never went back to physics and is now one of the leading environmental activists in India. As she says in an article I found online, she doesn’t “want to live in a world where five giant companies control our health and our food.” And so she is devoted to fighting for “seed sovereignty” (against the patented GMO that force the farmers to buy new seeds for every new harvest and render them completely dependent on big corporate companies), “food sovereignty” (food security and sustainable agriculture, ie. organic farming on small scale) and “water sovereignty,” which was the focus of the conference I attended.

Big dam projects as well as river linking projects (in India, but also in China, and other countries as well,) divert the water from rural areas to bring it to the cities where it is lacking. In the big Tehri dam project, located in Uttaranchal (which is by the way an earthquake-prone area, so definitely not the best area to construct a dam of such a size!) approximately 42 villages will be completely submerged and 72 partially, a total of 13,000 families may have to be displaced (about the Tehri dam)!!! Hence such projects mean more water for the cities, for the more wealthy, but it also means the loss of not only land but also livelihood for many farmers- so the water is being stolen from the poor and given to the richer. The argument put forth is that behind all this stand the large multinational corporations like Suez, hence the need to resist water privatization... So what’s the solution? Better water management through extensive action at the local community level, through rainwater harvesting, watershed management (recharging aquifers for example, by building reservoirs) and better waste water management. One speaker was underlining the fact that all water eventually becomes waste-water so in a way, by increasing the supply of water one will inevitably increase the volume of waste water as well. And so a better management of waste water is desirable. He also pointed out that in some communities (for example in the Calcutta wetlands) waste water is not considered as a pollutant but as a resource. Nutrients present in waste water are used in fisheries and agriculture. Fish feed on the algae that pick up these nutrients. Some info on the Calcutta wet land integrated waste-water recovery.

Somehow I feel that this might work in a small community, but not necessarily in a larger one. I feel that if people do not need to pay for the water, they will waste it- at least that’s what happens in Western societies. Maybe there is the need for both- privatization to some extent combined with local action. No?

After all this water talk, I am completing my stay in Delhi by visiting the Toilet museum!! Definitely the only one of its kind in the World! ... and then I will head to Australia for a short visit of 2 weeks!!

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Small World!

After I left Kannauj, I came back to Delhi, where I was supposed to stay for one day, before heading north, once again, to Dehra Dun. In Dehra Dun, I was in touch with an institute that had agreed to let me their laboratory, so that I could analyze some of the essential oil samples I had collected during my voyage in India. To make a long story short, I wish they had told me from the beginning that it was actually not possible given my timing, because I ended up waiting in Delhi, calling them over and over again, waiting for their authorization, which after a week, ended up being no. So I stayed in Delhi a lot longer than what I had initially planned. But it allowed me to type up my report on India, which took quite a while, because a LOT happened in 4 months here!

In Delhi, I stayed with Jai and Siri, a young couple working at the US embassy. I randomly met them in an internet cafe in early November when I was still in Kerala. they had come to the internet place to call one of Jai’s family close friend- Xan’s (a close friend from Wellesley who is from Kerala) father!!! That was the first (insane!) coincidence, the second being that Siri also graduated from Wellesley, 6 years ago! Small world!! It was a lot of fun staying with them, in their comfy apartment after having stayed in so many filthy and lonely guesthouses all over India, and to eat some non-spicy Western-type food (my stomach was happy). They also have a very cute dog. Mmmh... actually Cassie (the dog) is a crazy handicapped dog – she still manages to be cute though, at times. They found her just after she had been hit by a car, she could not move at all as she only had one good leg (2 were broken from the accident, and the 3rd one is too short by birth defect) That’s why they called her Cassie (from the French “Cassé”, which means broken). Although she has this shorter leg, she is so muscular and can jump around just like a cat!!! At times, who know what goes through her head, but she starts running back and forth on the couch, putting all the cushions on the floor, then when the phone rings, she howls like a wolf until someone picks it up... I’m not sure if she loves me or if she is really afraid of me- every time I come in she starts jumping on me wanting me to pet her... but then, when I’m alone in the house with her and I approach her, she lowers her ears, as if she were submitting, then she starts backing up, wiggling her tail from left to right more and more rapidly, and when I start petting her, she urinates... So I’m not sure what dog psychologist have to say about this- I’d be curious to know!

Here are some other pictures from Delhi:

The Qutb Minar, a red-sandstone muezzin completed in the 13th century is about 72 meters high and ornated with Arabic inscriptions. Like Humayun's tomb, it is also on UNESCO's World Heritage list. It was built to celebrate the victory of Mohammed Ghori over the Rajputs in 1192.

Details of the Qutb Minar

In the Qutb Minar complex, there is also the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque, which is the earliest extant mosque in North India. The pillars have actually been taken from 27 Hindu and Jain temples that had been destroyed by Qutbu'd-Din Aibak.

Also in the complex, Ala ‘i- Darwaza was built in the 14th century as a gateway to the Mosque.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Kannauj: Perfume capital of India

Shri Munshi, a poet and former governor of Uttar Pradesh once wrote:

“If you want to visit a pefumery town, visit Kannauj. It is art, it is culture and it is heritage”- This is exactly how I felt when I visited Kannauj at the end of January.

Traditional distillation units in Kannauj.

Kannauj is to India what Grasse is to France: the country’s perfume capital!!! Grasse has been the center of the perfumery industry in France ever since the 17th century and is now considered the birthplace of modern perfumery, where natural extracts are blended with a myriad of synthetic odoriferous chemical compounds. But in Grasse, the traditional techniques for extracting floral oils, such as enfleurage have been abandoned. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the perfumery industry in Grasse has never ceased to be modernized as fine perfumery was getting more and more popular throughout the World. I visited Grasse two years ago, like thousands of tourists do each year, on a day trip from the beach on the Côte d’Azur, eager to embark on a voyage through odors and maybe to a place where the daily routine of the people would be in unison with the flower picking and the various practices used to harvest the odorant substance from these flowers... But it seemed that the only remnants of this traditional livelihood (an old distillation apparatus and some chassis for the enfleurage technique) had been relegated to a display in the Musée International de la Parfumerie.

And so, when I arrived in Kannauj, famous for its sandalwood-based attar-making industry, it felt like I had undertaken a trip back in time- I had finally found what I had been looking for when going to Grasse!!! There, the attars are still made exactly like they were a few centuries ago, with the same equipment!

A worker is squeezing vetiver oil (Khus Ruh) out of a mop.

At every street corner, it seemed, there was a sandalwood oil distillery, and so as I was walking through the city, my sense of smelling was awakened by the sweet and woody odor of sandalwood. Every morning, I was amazed to see a group of few men bathing in the water, still charged with fragrant molecules, that the distillery disposed of in the streets. Indeed, in Kannauj it is well known that sandalwood oil is an excellent antiseptic, and so bathing in this water ensures to keep away from skin diseases!!!

Kannauj, located near the confluence of the Ganges and Kali river is thought to be right on the routes that brought perfumes, spices, metals, silks and gems from India and China to the Middle East. It reached the climax of its glory during the 7th century AD when it was the capital of the empire led by Harsha Vardhan. It is during this period that Kannauj started to play an important role in Indian perfumery. Later, the perfumers of Kannauj provided the Mogul emperors with scented oils.

Perfumers in Kannauj are famous for making sandalwood-based attars. An attar is the essence of a flower (of a root, or even earth) that is captured in 100% sandalwood oil. Sandalwood oil is used as a base material because it has a strong fixative property and can keep the floral essence over a long period of time. Attar making is a type of hydrodistillation, where the plant material is placed in water in a copper still (Deeg). The still is covered by a copper lid (Sarpos) which is sealed to the Deeg with a mixture of cotton and clay. A bamboo pipe (Chonga) insulated with twine connects the still to a receiver which is placed in a cold water bath.

A few Deegs with the bamboo pipe leading to the receiver placed in a cold water bath.

In one of the factories, a worker is preparing for the next distillation, putting the bamboo pipe in the receiver

The plant material is placed in water in the Deeg. The still sits on a fire and upon heating, the odoriferous molecules from the plant material vaporize along with the water. The fragrant oil and the water condense in the receiver where the oil is trapped in the sandalwood oil as the condensed water sinks to the bottom of the receiver as it is denser than the sandalwood and the floral oil.

Under the Deeg, firewood is used to heat the water and the plant material.

Once the distillation is over, the odoriferous oil trapped in the sandalwood oil is placed in the sun in a leather bottle. The bottles used to be made out of camel skin, now they are made out of buffalo skin. And so the water is being evaporated through the buffalo skin.

One of the leather bottles where residual water is dried from the final product.

I visited many attar and sandalwood oil factories. The smell of these attars is very strong and can be associated to a heavy oriental perfume. But it is subtle at the same time, as behind the rose or the jasmine odor, one can sense the sweet and woody note from the sandalwood. A very special attar is Attar Mitti. Instead of distilling plant material such as vetiver roots, rose or jasmine flowers, half-baked clay is being distilled. The clay is first collected in neighboring villages, where little clay cakes are made, they are then dried then baked and placed in the Deeg. The odor is a very sweet mixture where the woody and oriental note of the sandalwood is complemented by an earthly smell. Many inhabitants of Kannauj like this smell because it reminds them of the smell of wet earth after the monsoon.

Cakes of clay are dried in a neighboring village.

Originally, attars were used as such on the skin. The Moghuls were especially fan of the Gulab attar (Rose attar). Nowadays, however, since sandalwood oil is edible, they are mostly used in the flavouring of chewing tobacco. To be honest I thought it was quite a pitty that such fine perfumes are used for the chewing tobacco industry. But let's face it, anyone who's been to India has realized that this is a HUGE industry (all the shop stands in the streets have garlands of small alu packs of chewing tobacco) and that people are more willing to spend their income on these small packs than on a perfume.
With the shortage of sandalwood trees in South India, the attar industry in Kannauj is seriously being threatened. The perfumers of Kannauj have sought to find alternatives to sandalwood oil as their base material. Many have found that liquid paraffin may also be used successfully as a base material- unfortunately, the attars now lack this full and round woody/sweet and milky note given by the sandalwood.

Some References:
Dr. Agnihotri, G.K. Perfume history.
Gode, P.K. (1961) Studies in Indian Cultural History, Vol. I, Hoshiarpur.
Kapoor, J. N. (1991) Attars of India- A Unique Aroma Perfumer and Flavorist, 21-24