A waft of attar in the holy month

Stalls, kiosks pop up as demand for traditional fragrance surges

Kashif Hussain March 27, 2023


The cramped and narrow lanes that lead to the aptly-named Botal Gali (Bottle lane) in Karachi's downtown is home to a variety of smells, from perplexing to downright noxious, unless you enter one of the shops selling attar.

Attar is an oily perfume, therefore without alcohol, which has its origin in India and the Middle East, and known as the oldest perfume in the world. Of Arabic etymology, the term attar (also written atr, ittar or othr) could be translated by "scent". It is known to elevate the mood and have a therapeutic effect, with its first known concoctions used for medicinal purposes.

It is immensely popular among Muslims, particularly in the holy month of Ramazan. There are nighttime congregational prayers (Taraveeh), communal meals as well as other activities. Muslims prefer to put on new clothes and wear attar, a natural perfume extracted from flowers.

Pure attar, a fragrant essential oil extracted from flowers, is very expensive and hence a luxury for most. But now low-cost fragrances made by mixing various essential oils with chemical ingredients are within the reach of everyone.

Temporary kiosks and stalls selling perfumes pop up near attar shops in different markets of the metropolitan city as the sales shoot up in the holy month. Such stalls are also set up outside mosques to grab the attention of worshipers. The sales are particularly high after Zuhr and Asar as well as Taraweeh prayers.

Karachi has seen a rapid increase in the demand for alcohol-free perfumes over the past few years. The most popular among these attars are gulab, motia, henna, khas, shamama, oud, saffron, musk, and amber. Common alcohol-free perfumes are easily available in the range of Rs400 and Rs800, while top international attar brands are much more expensive.

Botal Galli, or Bottle Street, situated at Lighthouse, has become the biggest perfume and attar market not just in Karachi but in Pakistan. A huge variety of local and international fragrances, including attar and alcoholic perfumes, are manufactured using chemicals imported from China and India, and sold in retail and wholesale markets on the street.

Shopkeepers in this market, the most popular fragrances among customers include CK One, Havoc, One Man Show, Clement, Blue Lady, Marjan, Black X, Ambassador, Royal Marriage, Romance Super, Fantasy, Safari, Brute, etc. Most of these names are similar to popular international brands.

Other major perfume sales centres in Karachi are located in Bolton Market, Jama Cloth Market, and on MA Jinnah Road. Interestingly, some of these business pre-date Pakistan.

Among these are shops on the main road adjacent to Maulvi passenger station near Jama Cloth Market. "Heads of state from other countries, including the king of Saudi Arabia, and important government and political figures of Pakistan used to be our customers," recalls the owner of Kanauj Attar House located in Jama Cloth Market.

Experts say that alcohol-free perfumes often contain dangerous chemicals, such as placebo oil, carbon monoxide, acetone, linalool, and benzene, which could cause diseases such as cough, cold, flu, allergy, headache, sore throat, and eye irritation.

However, those who practice Greek medicine (Tibb-e-Unani) say that natural fragrances, attar in particular, have been used for their remedial properties since ancient times. Gulab and kewra attar can relieve conditions such as heart palpitation, nervousness, and mental fatigue.

The price of attar, distilled from pure ingredients, has gone up exponentially and has become unaffordable for the average citizen. Therefore, chemical perfumes became widely popular due to their affordability. The price of 100ml pure attar is in the thousands, while chemical perfumes are available for a few hundred rupees. The recent inflation has made pure attar even more expensive while the prices of chemical fragrances have also registered an increase.


Published in The Express Tribune, March 27th, 2023.


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