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Art And Science Of Making Cosmetics in Ancient Hindu World – Gandhashastra

Gadhashastra is the art and science of making cosmetics in ancient Hindu world. Preparation of perfumes then as now is an intricate process. In the classical age of India, only specially trained persons were employed for this purpose and they were not allowed to take up any other work. The perfume-makers were patronized by royal families and temples.

Atharva Veda, Sankhayana as well as Asvalayana Grihya Sutra and the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata refer to the use of scents. Arthashastra of Kautilya presents a vivid account of the elaborate perfumery used especially in the royal court.

Perfumery in ancient Hindu world was both an art and a science – art in the sense of blending several aromatic substances for the production of enchanting perfumes; and science as the preparation of perfumes demanded a thorough knowledge of a wide variety of aromatic plants and animals, of their parts which would yield the desired scents and the method of extracting them.

The naturally occurring aromatic substances were classified into eight categories – leaves, flowers, fruits, bark, wood, roots, exudations and organic materials (kasturi, madhu, nakhi, etc.). This categorization is quite scientific and reveals the empirically gained knowledge of traditional perfume makers about the characteristics of fragrant substances and their blending potential, leading to the preparation of a wide variety of perfumes.

The versatile encyclopedist, Varahamihira (6th century CE),in the 77th chapter of his Brihat Samhita entitled Gandhaukti, speaks of the “ocean of perfumes”. He lists over forty aromatic materials for obtaining 1,820 perfumes through permutations and combinations. He gives an interesting description of scents under sarvatobhadra, or the perfume which is good for all purposes. His account of varying the proportions of sixteen fragrant substances and blending them reveals the advanced state-of-the-art perfumery, both natural and artificial, during his time. Likewise, a royal perfume for mitigating anger (kopachada); toilet powders for perfuming clothes; fragrant tooth-sticks and brushes; scented hair-water and oil for use by the royal family; fresheners for the mouth having the smell of parijata flower; hair-oil of the fragrance of champaka flower and hair –dyeing into black color – all these amply demonstrate the important position enjoyed by the art of perfumery. It was also associated with the art of erotics.

Gandasara of Gangadhara (12th century CE) is the only text in Sanskrit exclusively devoted to perfumery. Its contents are much more than that of Varahamihira’s Brihat Samhita or of Vishnudharmottara Purana, which preceded Gandasara perhaps by six centuries. Gandasara has elaborate descriptions of the methods for preparing perfumes of high quality, including the artificial ones, infusion of fragrant powders into the desired medium; digestion of aromatic materials for curing purposes; tempering or revitalizing perfumes; further intensification of scents to the required degree; and fumigation with aromatic incenses, vapors and the like. Several types of paka (digestion and intensification) have been dealt with succinctly in this text. There are seven tables of permutations and combinations of listed fragrant materials for obtaining as many as 53,130 and even much larger number of types of blended perfumes. These were more in the nature of theoretical exercises than their actuality. Yet, they bespeak the enormous attention bestowed on perfumery and its possible boundless varieties.

Royal families were indeed connoisseurs of cosmetics and perfumery, King Someshwara (12th century CE) with the title Bhuloka Malladeva of Karnataka, was extremely fond of perfumes. In this work Manasollasa or Abhilasitarthacintamani he speaks of several bhogas (enjoyments), including dhupa bhoga and tambula bhoga (chewing fragranced betel leaves and areca nuts). Shiva Tattva Ratnakara, a later text by another king Keladi Basavaraja, has several details of the preparation of perfumes, scented wicks and sticks, artificial perfumes and some others “liked by women for their royal fragrance.”