Ruh Khus (Wild Vetiver Oil)/Oil of Tranquility
By Christopher McMahon
Vetiver blinds, that lend
To burning summer noons
The scented chill
Of winter nights.
In Quest of Wild Vetiver
In February of 1995 I had the opportunity to travel with my fragrance mentor, Ramakant Harlalka and his good friend Dr. Maheshwari to the north Indian town of Kannauj in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The purpose of our visit was to explore the traditional perfume industry which still thrives in that region. One of the main plants distilled at that time of year was the wild vetiver root and during the course of the few days I spent in their company, I was to gain a better understanding of the importance of this root and the vital role it has played in the lives of the Indian people throughout the countries long history.
Habitat of Wild Vetiver
This interesting grass whose underground structure is composed of a system of fine spongy fibrous roots can be found growing wild throughout North India especially in the states of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Harayana and Madhya Pradesh. Botanists describe it as the "seedy" vetiver because it can spread its population through seeds as opposed to the cultivated variety of vetiver which must be propagated by division. Perfumiers, aromatherapists, and students of fragrance in most parts of the world are familiar with the oil of the cultivated variety of vetiver or Vetiveria ziazaniodes as it is technically called. This plant is grown extensively in countries like Haiti, the Reunion Islands, Java, and South India and is extensively used in various essences where the deep, mysterious, rich and earthy notes which the oil displays are required. The wild vetiver of North India, on the other hand, seldom finds its way into the international commercial channels for it is almost entirely consumed within India where it enjoys a great popularity. The Indian affection for the particular fragrance of wild vetiver or Khus as it is normally called is such that it fetches a price four times that of the cultivated variety. A casual olfactory analysis of the cultivated and wild oils would lead one to believe that they are quite similar in nature but to the Indian nose it does not at all seem the case, hence their attachment to Khus oil even at its sharply higher price.
After an overnight journey from Delhi to Kanpur, we traveled by hired car to Kannauj which was a couple hours away. As the gentle rays of the sun illuminated the landscape in the early morning hours, I rejoiced to see the outlines of the rural India come to life. The simple country ways depicted in small farms, bullock drawn carts, isolated temples and mosques, rustic villages and countless other natural scenes never fail to refresh my spirit and remind me that, though we are living in a highly advanced technological age, there are still millions of people tending the land in time-honored ways. It is, no doubt, a challenging affair to earn ones daily bread by working the land by hand, with farm animals, or in rare cases with tractors, but there is a certain nobility which etches itself on the features of the people which seems to me to be very beautiful and worth respecting. In those dawn hours there is also an essence which pervades the land which greatly moves the heart and naturally puts one in a mood of reverence and awe at the wonder and mystery of life.
Dr. Maheshwari's Effort in Vetiver Research
As we journeyed along the way, my traveling companions pointed out to me natural stands of vetiver growing near canals and in open areas. It appeared as a tall, tough wiry grass which seemed to be adaptable to a variety of environmental conditions. Ideally vetiver likes a rich marshy soil coupled with a warm and damp climate, but it certainly can it grow in areas where less ideal conditions prevail. Visually there was certainly nothing to mark it off as being a plant whose roots possess one of the most exotic aromas imaginable; a scent which has captured the imagination of people for thousands of years. I was delighted to be in the company of two such knowledgeable people who could help me appreciate that from the most common appearing plant could come the most uncommon fragrance. Dr. Maheshwari, in fact, devoted a significant portion of his research career to studying this plant both in field and laboratory. He traveled to many of the areas in the north where the plant was to be found growing in its natural habitat and collected specimens which he later distilled and analyzed by modern scientific techniques. In his examination of this unique plant he discovered that there was no way to pigeonhole into a stable set of characteristics because it had the capacity to display aromatic characteristics that were widely varied. He told us that while collecting specimens along the same lake in Rajasthan he found some of their oils to possess polar negative characteristics and other polar positive.(One test down to determine the basic characteristics of an essential oil is with a refractometer to determine the oils optical rotation. A good description of this process can be found in David Williams book, The Chemistry of Essential Oils) This was quite an unusual occurrence. He was also able to locate wild specimens possessing a wide range of distinct olfactory characteristics which naturally displayed considerable differences in chemical composition. He mentioned to us that an effort was being made at an experimental agricultural station to grow some of these distinct varieties so that they could be propagated to take advantage of their unique characteristics.
On a technical front I was able to garner a few other interesting facts about Khus oil from the section on Vetiveria ziazaniodes in the multi-volume encyclopedic work on India's natural resources called Wealth of India.
Ramakant also explained to me that aside from the unique characteristics of Khus, the Vetiver ziazaniodes in general presented research scientists in general with a real challenge because it is one of the most complex oils known. Modern science has been able to isolate out more than 150 aromatic molecules from vetiver but still there are ones that cannot be identified. He informed us that on the international ISO board for essential oils upon which he sits along with some of the finest essential oil researchers in the world, the subject of vetiver is always one that creates intense interest because it is such an unusual oil with many mysteries yet to be discovered. Ramakant suggested to us that perhaps its wonderful complexity is due to the fact that it has many hundreds of fine rootlets that are in direct contact with the earth in which it grows and that it is able to extract from this earth subtle and rare molecules are absorbed into its vascular system which in turns transforms them into a galaxy of molecules within the plant. When we stop and consider how plants distill from the earth such a rich abundance of exquisite aromatic molecules in an infinite variety of combinations, we can only acknowledge that we are participating in a miracle of life which is full of mystery and wonder.
Distillation Techniques of Kannaju-Attar Production
Upon reaching Kannuaj we began a series of visits to old and new perfume houses where we were able to see a wide gamut of distilling techniques from ancient to modern. Kannauj, sits near the banks of the Ganges river and in the 7th century was the capitol of India. Later, during the rule of the Moghul emperors it became the seat of perfume making and it has maintained this position up to this time. It is difficult to exactly know when its perfume making tradition began but it may started in a time even prior to its exalted position as the capitol. The rich and fertile land sitting along the banks of the Ganges river, was without a doubt a wonderful place to cultivate the numerous aromatic plants that captured the hearts of the Indian people in the beginning of their civilization. The Ganges river, in bygone times, was also wide and deep allowing ships to easily ply its course which would have allowed the import and export of the regions natural botanical treasures. We can only speculate about such things until more concrete evidence is unearthed but we can say for sure that Kannauj has had an unbroken tradition of perfumery since the 16th century.
When we first entered a traditional distillery, I realized that I had stepped into a world that I thought could not exist in these modern times. Rows of copper stills or "degs" were perched on earthen ovens beneath which burned wood fueled fires. The stills held about 100 lbs. of marigold flowers (Etageres erect) which were submerged in water. Angling out from the top of the "degs" were bamboo pipes wrapped in a twine made of local grasses. These pipes or "chongas" connected the "degs" to another long-necked copper vessel called a "bhapka" which sat in a water-bath below the bigger vessel. This smaller vessel held precious sandalwood oil into which the aromatic vapors produced in the "deg" condensed. This unique process of hydro-distillation of flower vapors into sandalwood was used to produce what is traditionally known as "attar". The feeling surrounding this process was really extraordinary. Fires were being tended by people who had to monitor the production of heat by observation and experience. There were no modern temperature gauges to tell one such things. This important task was entrusted to people with many years experience in "attar" making because if the heat would go to high it water in the deg to evaporate to swiftly causing the flowers to "burn" which would ruin the odor in the sandalwood. A slight mistake could cost thousands of dollars. Other people were involved in regularly checking the heat in the receiver by feeling its outer perimeter. The water bath in which the receiver sat needed to be kept at a certain temperature so that proper condensation of the aromatic vapors would occur. As soon as the surrounding water became to warm, fresh cool water was added. These and many other details were being taken care of in a quiet orderly fashion.
Distillation Techniques of Kannauj-Production of Ruh Khus (pure hydrodistilled oil of wild Vetiver)
The very same equipment was being used to produce what is called a "ruh". The only difference in the procedure was that the receiving vessel held no sandalwood oil. The bamboo pipe connecting the "deg" to the "bhapka" was also longer. It is in this way that pure khus oil was being made. Before placing the roots in the "deg", they were first chopped in a hand operated machine. They were then pre-soaked for 10-12 hours before placing in the "deg". The long, slow process was then initiated by which the oil sacks in the roots would get opened by low pressure and low heat generated within the still. The traditional "deg" cannot operate under high heat and high pressure as can the more modern steam distillation units. The seal between the main body of the "deg" and the lid is made with a clay snake which completely surrounds the lip. The lid is then forced down upon this clay snake by slipping a simple hooked piece of mettle under the rim of the main body of the still and over the lid and then driving a wooden wedge in the open space over the lid to force in down. The bamboo pipe which comes out of the lid is held in place only by strong twine. The place where it enters the lid and the seal is made is with cotton and clay. Although it is a little difficult to visualize one can readily understand that high pressure distillation would not work in this case. Some people feel that this low pressure distillation is also able to preserve more of the delicate aromatic molecules which can get destroyed with higher pressure and heat. A typical distillation of this sort goes on for 12-24 hours or until all the essence is extracted from the vetiver roots. When the process is completed the liquid in the receiver is saturated with the fragrance of khus and after proper cooling the oil separates from the water at which time it is collected by moving special brushes over the surface of the water to absorb the oil. The oil is then squeezed out into bottles which house the precious "ruh".
Wild Vetiver Harvest
As I am sitting here at my desk writing this article I have in my hand a bottle of this exquisite essence. This particular sample is prepared by a close friend of ours, Mr. Manoj Avasthi who has lived in Kannauj all his life and is a professional perfumier himself. We have engaged him to personally supervise the preparation of the finest ruh khus that can be made. His work begins during the month of October when the harvest of the roots begins in earnest. This can only be done when the monsoon season is over, as the roots need to dry in the ground before they are harvested. In order to understand the whole process from start to finish we requested him to actually visit one of the places where the work of digging the roots was going on. He journeyed deep into the heart of Uttar Pradesh and far off the main road to photograph this interesting part of the story. It is hard for many Westerners to imagine that there is much of India which is still uncultivated, but it is so. In such open lands wild vetiver can be found growing in vast areas many acres in extent. The people who do the harvest are what Indians called the Advasi or tribal people, the original inhabitants of India.
They come to these areas and basically camp out for several months while the harvest is going on. They build small huts out of readily available materials, including the overground of the vetiver grass which they use as thatch. In the ground they dig out small fireplaces where they place their vessels for cooking their simple meals. When the day begins they get out their hand made tools for prying the vetiver out from the ground. Before root removal takes place the above ground portion is removed so that only 15-20 centimeters remains. The stalks of the aerial portions are also collected and used for a variety of purposes including the building of elaborate structures for religious ceremonies. The main implement for this is a stout long-handled pry bar which they plunge into the ground and then lift to bring the roots to the surface. Sometimes a heavy steel pronged fork is also employed for root removal. When removing the clumps only about 60% of the roots come loose and many times the harvesters will redig the area to recover as many loose rootlets as possible. The soil is then knocked away from the roots against heavy stones or wooden locks. Women sit and remove the remaining aerial parts of the grass with a machete leaving just enough so that the ball of roots will remain intact. They then neatly tie each section of roots into a neat bundle. It is a real work of art to see how deftly they do this and how beautiful each bundle looks. Smaller bundles are then collected into larger bundles and affixed to both ends of a carrying pole, which men then transport to a central collection area.
After several weeks of digging and bundling by which time a significant stock of vetiver bundles has been collected, buyers for the roots come to the remote location where the Advasi's are working and purchase the roots. They are carefully counted, weighed and loaded into bullock carts which then transport them to the nearest paved road where transport trucks await their arrival. From here the roots are transported to Kannauj where they are brought to the various distilleries which prepare either Ruh Khus by traditional means or by the modern steam distillation technique. The buying of roots is a very important part of the years calendar for the distillers of Kannauj. Some of the distillers who use the "deg" are very particular about the roots they purchase as there units are small enough to use one type of root from a particular area. It is known to the cities perfumiers which districts have roots with specific aromatic characteristics. Those who are true connoisseurs of vetiver can also select roots which have been harvested at the proper time. Ones that are 18-24 months old are considered the finest from the quality of oil they contain. The finer nuances of the art of selection are well known to those who produce oils for select buyers. Often oil is produced on contract for a specific high-end market and when this is the case, the "deg" method is almost always preferred. If a more generic oil is acceptable, the steam distillation technique can produce a nice oil. In this case from 500 lbs to 1000 lbs of material are charged into each still which means that they often have to mix roots from different areas as well as ones in different states of maturity. Perhaps the lines of difference are very fine between the "deg" khus oil, produced in small batches, and that produced by larger steam distillation units, but there is little doubt that there is a real old-world charm that comes from the former technique. I do not know how much that adds to the quality of the oil in terms of its scientific analysis but I think that one can "sense" the difference in that it is a labor intensive art and craft which I hope we can preserve.
Olfactory Characteristics of the Oil
Now as to the olfactory evalution of the oil which is in my hand. It is dark, thick and brown almost of a syrupy consistency. A well distilled oil gets thicker with the passage of time and its aroma ever more deep and intense as it matures. The immediate impression is one of a powerful earthy diffusiveness. It is a heavy oil which if not to be used as a fragrance in its own right, needs to be properly diluted so that it does not totally dominate any other fragrance with which it is blended. Images of earth, roots, damp forest floors all come readily to mind when evaluating this oil. It also contains within its multidimensional profile, a quiet sweetness which somehow perfectly interweaves amongst its more earthy tones. As one goes deeper and deeper into its complex character one discovers what may be termed as the precious woods notes which one also finds in oils like sandalwood and agarwood.
The tenacity of the oil is renowned. It is a fixative par excellence as it can unite every part of a composition from the ethereal top notes to the deep base ones. In the hands of a skilled perfumier it can produce outstanding effects in fougere, chypre and oriental type compositions. When using this oil in creative perfumery one must definitely consider that it would like to be a front seat driver. It is quite different than sandalwood which can quietly move to the background and only modestly appear as an actual contributor to a fragrance. It is, in effect, a rather dominant note and should be used with great care if one wishes for other notes to appear clear and not muddled. Some of the oils with which it blends nicely are patchouli, cinnamon bark, linaloe berry, sandalwood, oakmoss, opopanax and mimosa. This oil offers ample creative opportunities for people who wish to adventure into the world of blending their own perfume and essences.
Indigenous Uses of Vetiver
The oil is not restricted to perfumery use. It has played an important part in indigenous medicine since antiquity. Perhaps its most renowned use is as a refrigerant. During the hot summer months the oil is added to bath water or directly applied to the skin to reduce the effects of the external heat.. The oil is also used to treat flatulence, colic and obstinate vomiting. It is said to be useful when applied locally for sprain, rheumatism and lumbago. The hydrosol is widely used in preparing a delicious sherbet which is a favorite summer time drink which quenches thirst and cools the body temperature. This hydrosol also finds its way into a great variety of regional dishes, especially sweets.
The dried roots themselves are widely used to make a number of useful household items. Indian housewives like to layer them in amongst their clothes both to repel insects and to impart their sublime fragrance to the material with which they come in contact. In South India, they are woven into mats which impart a cooling effect when slept upon. The most renowned use to which the roots are put is for making screens which, since ancient times have been hung over windows during the hot months. During the day these "khuschiks" are periodically sprinkled with water so that when any chance breeze blows through them a cooling fragrance is imparted to the air. It is one of the most unique forms of "air conditioning" I have ever heard of. This cottage industry is still very much alive in North India. In the sacred city of Nathdwara, Rajasthan where the ancient temple of Shri Nath Ji is to be found, the tradition of using the Khus mats to cool the temple compound is practiced in all its varied dimensions. On the lovely web site created by Bhagwat Shah(http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Acropolis/2425/summer.htm) a fine description is given of the important role Khus mats play in worshipping the deity.
"Khas reeds are a natural coolant and have been used in India to cool the interiors of houses for centuries. Mats of the khas reeds are often used to cover the roof, doors and windows to keep out the sun and cool the air. It also adds a touch of the "exotic" by scenting the cool air with its special natural perfume. As in the ancient royal palaces, Shri Nathji's palace is well sealed with thick mats of the fragrant reed. This blocks out the scorching sun and helps to keep the dust out of the inner sanctum. To assure it's potency in keeping the interior cool, an army of servants are constantly engaged in sprinkling the mats with ample amounts of water. When drenched with water, the khas emits cool sweet fragrance, carried around the various chambers by the summer breeze. Large manually operated ceiling fans stir the fragrant air, as a servant pulls the cord back and forth from outside the inner sanctum. Hand held fans are also regularly used to cool the immediate surroundings of the Lord. Some of the fans in the inner sanctum are also made of khas, and are doused with copious amounts of cool fragrant waters from silver fountains.
Imitation pavilions of coloured khas are set up in the inner sanctum to delight and cool Shri-Ghanshyam. Fragrance of this most ancient of Indian air-conditioning unit also lends it self to the culinary delights of summer, for khas sherbets are per-annually popular with India's masses and their Gods."
When we visited Nathdwara in July 1995 I was able to see exquisite miniature examples of the Khus Pavilions created for the worship of Shri Nath Ji. These were sold to pilgrims so they could create place them upon their home alters and recreate the experience which they gained while in the actual precincts of the temple. We were also shown clay water pots wrapped with khus roots. As the water cools in the pots and slowly evaporates from the tiny pores contained in the clay, the roots absorb the moisture and perfume the homes in which they are kept with their fine fragrance.
The rich, mysterious vetiver fragrance, known as the "aroma of tranquility" in the East is a wonderful gift to mankind from the botanical kingdom. Its aesthetic and therapeutic value has been appreciated for thousands of years and hopefully will continue to provide enjoyment and healing virtues for future generations. Its story is intimately interwoven with the lives of many people; collectors, distillers, and users. When we contemplate the exquisite beauty of any such oil, we can greatly deepen our level of appreciation if we endeavor to connect ourselves with all the hard work that went into producing each precious drop. When our thoughts dwell on how the plant has been brought into being by a long evolutionary process in nature's alchemical laboratory, we can further refine our awareness of the oils unique qualities. When such sensitive thoughts appear in our heart and mind we will undoubtedly contact those wonderful feelings of joy, and purity which the world of fragrance produces in the heart and mind.
"The day when, in the chain of events from the flower to the perfume, the flower is no longer picked, perfume will have lost its power. Capturing the flower, taking possession of its soul in order to transform it, is a way of uniting ourselves with the earth and of giving perfume its place in a mysterious and unique process... when perfume is worn by men and women, they take an essential role in the process."
Jacques Pogel/Chanel perfume creator