Friday, February 23, 2024

Tracing The Colonial History of Roses

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It’s Valentine’s week and there’s already a record breaking sale of roses, which are a symbol of love. Fascinated by their fragrance and beauty, I decided to dig deeper into their history. Even though Roses have been part and parcel of our daily lives, surprising as it may be, their history is traced to Mughal emperor Babur. It is said that Babur brought camel loads of roses from Fergana into India around 1438 to 1530. In fact, according to historians, rose water also originates from Persia (Iran). Avicenna or Ibn-Sina, an Arab philosopher and physician from 11th century, receives credit for distilling rose water.

Tracing the History of Rose and Rose Water in India-

In India, roses and attar have a long history dating back over 5000 years. The ancient Indian epics and Granths contain references of Perfumes and attars. Some of these literary evidences are-

Ayurvedic texts-

  • Ancient Ayurvedic medical texts provide substantial evidence that people grew roses in India. The “Susrut Samhita,” “Charak Samhita,” “Astanga Hridaya,” and “Astanga Sangraha,” among other texts, contain some of the earliest records of rose water distillation. In Ayurvedic Rasayana therapy, roses hold a significant position. They are used as medicinal herbs to treat illness as well as in aromatherapy to revitalize.
  • Then the first-century CE, Charak Samhita, describes several varieties of roses including “Satapatri” (a rose with 100 petals), which may be Rosa centifolia. It describes the applications of roses as a skin condition healer, appetizer, laxative, and cure for fever, boils, and stomach aches. Sugandha taila ( essential oils) and Sugandh paniya ( scented waters) were used to alleviate many skin diseases.
  • “Jalyeaya Aaswan” meaning water distillation is mentioned in the Charak Samhita. Overall, Roses have been part of our socio- cultural, medical and religious fabric. We have used them as a moisturizer, eye drops, coolants, toner, and as a flavoring agent in our foods. We have also used them as a welcome spray at all festive occasions, such as weddings.

Vedic texts-

  • The 64th chapter of Vishnu Dharmottara Purana (450-650 A.D) deals with Gandhayukti and describes the various stages of perfume manufacturing. These are – Sodhanam, vaasanam, virenchanam, bhaavanam, paaka, bhodanam, dhupana and vaasana.
  • The word “Sugandhi,” which means well perfumed, finds mention in Rigveda.
  • Then Valmiki Ramayan and Mahabharata makes many references to the use of perfumed water, scented oils, powders etc. In fact Mahabharat gives references to different types of Dhoops.
  • An ancient Sanskrit text called “Arkprakash,” which was written by Ravana makes reference to the distillation of rose water.

Buddhist Texts-

  • During pre Buddhist period, people were trained in sixty four arts. Gandhayukti being one of them. According to Lalitavistara, young bodhisattva excelled in sixty four arts. It also mentions that the monks were prohibited from using pomade (perfume oil). Then another Buddhist text, Brahmajala sutta, gives a list of procedures for dressing and uccaadana that is anointing with perfumes etc.
  • Nagarjuna, a Buddhist monk, metallurgist and a scholar of 1st century A.D. had his laboratory in Shree Parvat in Srisailam. There he experimented on metals and is said to have invented the process of “distillation” and “calcination.” He detailed the process of distilling rose water and wrote a book on scented candles.

Evidence From Different Eras-

  • Indus valley civilisation- However, archaeologists believe that the art of making perfumes began during the Indus valley civilisation. For an archaeological excavation conducted in 1975 discovered a terracotta distillation apparatus, dating back to 3000 BCE. Along with the distillation apparatus many vessels were found (Attar -Dan) which had woven material that could be squeezed to isolate fragrant oils.

  • Gupta period- Then the “Brihat Samhita” also contains one of the earliest known account of perfumery in India. The Ujjain-based philosopher and mathematician Varahamihira wrote it in 6th century. The word “Gandhayukti,” which refers to the blending of perfumes, finds discussion in its 37 verses. In fact 77th chapter of Brihat Samhita deals with production of perfumes (Gandhayukti). It also gives various types of formulations for the production of perfumes. Then “Agni Purana” claims that the kings bathed in more than 150 different kinds of Attars. A large number of people, mostly women, participated in the production of these Attars. People referred to these women as Gandhkarika or Gandhhadika.
  • In the 2-3 rd. century CE, Kautilya wrote Arthashastra which mentions the use of perfumed drugs.

Travellers Account-

  • According to Chinese travellers who visited Buddhist sites, rose garlands were frequently used by Indians. Fa Hien and Hieun Tsang, two Chinese travelers (5th and 7th centuries A.D.) describe stunning gardens with a variety of plants, such as roses, fountains, streams, and clear water tanks in their travel accounts.
  • Rashid-ud-din, a Muslim traveller and chronicler, who visited the Gujrat state in 1300 A.D., states that “the people are very wealthy and happy and grow no less than 70 kinds of roses.”
  • According to Abdur Razzak, a Muslim diplomat from Persia who visited the Vijayanagar  empire in 1443, “Roses are sold everywhere. These people cannot live without roses and they consider them to be just as essential as food.” He also mentioned that the people very well knew the art of producing rose perfume and that they exported the perfumes abroad.
  • Domingi Paes and Fernaz Nunis, two Portuguese travellers who visited the kingdom of Vijayanagar empire around 1537 described seeing rose plantations, bazaars with baskets full of roses for sale, both loose and assembled into garlands, and gardens inhabited by the nobility with an abundance of rose plants. They mentioned that men and women in all walks of life widely used roses as ornaments. They also stated that the king, decked up in a plethora of jewels, golden rose embroidery, and pure white robes, would offer his morning prayers and bestow white roses on his favorite courtiers, elephants, and horses every day. He would garland all of them with roses. This clearly indicates that roses were an integral part of Hindus and Hindu kings.

Final Thoughts-

The popular notion in history that Babur brought roses to India and that Ibn Sina (an Arab-Muslim philosopher and physician, 980 –1037 CE) invented the process of rose water distillation is nothing but a fallacy. All these accounts and written evidences from different eras prove that Indians not only grew roses and were fond of them. Indians knew the distillation process and were not only producing rose water and attars but were also exporting them abroad much before the Muslim invaders like Babur came to India.

Even though Ibn Sina never visited India but Indian sciences were well known and read in Baghdad during his time. His work also reflects Indian sciences like that of his contemporaries. It is an established fact that Arab scholars translated Ayurvedic books like Charak Samhita, Susrut Samhita, and mathematical/astronomical works like Surya Siddhant and Aryabhatiya into Arabic around the 7th century. From there, Greek scholars translated them into Latin. In fact, Ibn Sina himself writes that there were discussions during his time about Indian arithmetic, geometry and philosophy. His father wanted him to learn the Indian maths and science and so had sent him to grocer who knew about Indian sciences. Ibn Sina on several occasions used words like “Hubbul Hind” meaning “Indian Pill” and also “Itrephal” which is “Triphala” of Ayurvedic texts in his work.

Thus, Ibn Sina merely re-discovered the art, while translating “Charak Samhita” into Arabic, which was later on translated into Latin and was titled as “Sharak Indiana.”

Regarding the history of roses and the question of which country they originated from? This can never be known for sure, but to continue believing that roses never existed in India before the Muslim invaders, and that they invented attars and rose water, would be foolishness. Thus, we should make efforts to course correct such centuries-old false narratives. Invaders and crusaders used such narratives to enslave us, so we should correct them in our history books.

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