LAHORE: If you were a young woman from an affluent family in early 20th Century Lahore, chances are that you would get a special gift from your father at your wedding.
“It was a must for any rich family residing in the Walled City 50 to 100 years ago to gift a box containing six scents to the bride,” says Tahir Yizdani Malik, who collects antique perfume bottles and boxes.
“Unmarried girls did not wear perfume. But at weddings, it was customary for the father or a senior family member to gift a traditional perfume box to the daughter,” he says.
The most common scents were rose, aloe wood, sandal, jasmine, amber and mustard, but varied according to one’s means. “Richer families tended to buy more amber scents than jasmine. Amber is pricier as it’s harder to extract, whereas jasmine is abundant across Lahore,” he says.
Malik holds up a floral pattern wooden box containing six dusty bottles. He has collected seven boxes and around twenty bottles in 18 years, rummaging through for-sale goods inside Bhati and Lohari gates and in handicrafts and antique shops on The Mall. “These are part of our heritage, a lost and forgotten part,” he says.
Malik says he has picked up some of the history of perfumery in Lahore from the families he buys old boxes and bottles from.
“Gifting an itr box was a city tradition. Some itr-making families moved from Lucknow and Jaipur to Lahore in the early 19th Century. They set up shops near the old Anarkali Market and inside Shah Alam gate,” he says.
Buying perfume wasn’t limited to fathers marrying off their daughters, he says. A gift of perfume from a man to a woman was a courtship ritual. “A gift of perfume from a man to a woman was usually a small bottle inside a cardboard box.
It had a black thread tied around the cap, with an odd number of knots tied in the thread,” he says.
Unlike in Europe, where cork remained the favoured lid on perfume bottles, glass caps began making an appearance in Lahore in the late 18th Century. Glass caps were first used in perfume bottles manufactured in Sanaa, Yemen, and Damascus, Syria.
Perfume cases also ranged from the ornate to the practical. One box in Malik’s collection includes spaces for the bottle caps and a mirror. This, he says, was to prevent the caps from coming off during travel. One box, over a century old, still smells of perfume, he says, probably for this reason. Another is made of metal, “suitable for travelling,” he says.
Malik says that the tradition of gifting six-bottle perfume boxes began to fade in the 1960s. He holds up a box and a bottle with a black thread knot from Do Bhaeyun Kee Dokan, an itr shop founded in 1813. “They closed down in the early 2000s due to poor business. They relocated to Bahrain,” he says.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 20th, 2012.
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