I’ve come to Varanasi after 3 years and shopping for Itra is top on my to-do list.
Standing tall and strong against the western perfumes, the Itra from India has stood on its own for centuries. Unlike the complex notes or layers of fragrance, the Itra is uninote in nature but which only matures after a couple of hours of its application.
My fascination for the Itra is decades old, and it found its expression in Kashi and Old Delhi. The streets of Rajadarwaja have a few itra shops where I used to regularly visit for the precious aromatic itra, and in Delhi there are the shops in Dariba and Chandni Chowk.
Yesterday, after having the Darshan of Kashi Vishwanath I visited Rajadarwaja and once again stood at the shop of Sunderlal Shyamlal Khatri. Not much has changed..same humbleness, same excellent quality, same courtesy and honesty.
I checked the various qualities of Itra with them. To test the Itra one must first see the consistency or the viscosity. Thick viscosity is a general indication of no mixing with cheap additives, but one must also remember that during summers the viscosity can go down. The next step is to dab the itra on the hand, rub it gently and smell it. A sharp nose should be able to locate the presence of an additive like the mineral oil which some cheap perfumers use. The final step is to rub the dab vigorously till the skin turns hot, wait for some time and smell it again. This process excites the cheap additive and its smell surfaces up.
I bought khus, a very popular itra which is known for its soothing effect in summers. The renowned photographer Santosh-da in Pondicherry, when he had once smelled Khus on me, had said in Bengali,” Benarash Benarash jemon laagche”, meaning it smells like Benaras. Such is the association of Khus with Varanasi.
I also bought Hina, an itra which has a very warm effect and is therefore popular during the winters. It is a good idea to buy Hina at least one season prior to using it, because it matures with time, and the older Hina, the better it is.
Next on the list was Sandalwood oil, whose aroma is known to disintegrate negativity in the body and the atmosphere. No other perfume in the world can match its divine aroma. With Sandalwood oil I bought Saffron, which I found of very high quality and very reasonably priced. Unlike the packed saffron which I find in the Delhi markets, this saffron was sold loose and I could smell it and touch it. Wow..what an aroma.
My eye caught the row of bottles of Rosewater and Kewrawater in the display cupboard. I enquired with the gentleman at the counter how their waters were different from the other well known brands, he asked me a counter-question. He said,” Have you tried using their Rosewater for your eyes?” I got my answer and picked up a few bottles of these waters.
Finally, I picked up a bottle each of Mogra and Mitti ka Itra. Mitti ka itra resembles the aroma of the ground after the first few drops of the first rain of the monsoon. This itra has a very niche appeal.
Itra and saffron do not come cheap. They sold the Itra at Rs. 180 per gramme, which is a whopping Rs. 1,80,000 a Kilogram. But what the heck, who wants a Kilo of such exotic stuff!