Been There, Smelled That explores the aromas of places around the world. Travel writer Maggie Downs investigates some of the world’s most potent smells, looks at how odor cultivates a connection to place, and presents how humans engage with smells, from scents that have endured generations to the latest innovations in aroma-making.

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The perfume tour begins in dramatic fashion—with roses fluttering from the sky like delicate confetti. Sunlight streams into the courtyard, casting a golden glow upon the space. The air fills with the heady, floral scent of bruised petals. Within moments, the fallen blooms create an aromatic carpet, and then seemingly everything is flowers, like some kind of dream.

This is Kannauj in northern India, situated along the fertile Ganges River. It’s a village that has captured the scent of rain, puts flowers in bottles, and boasts a perfume heritage older than anything in France. And it’s here where Pranav Kapoor launched Perfume Tourism in 2023 to showcase the region’s fragrance culture and celebrate the artisans who have created fine scents for centuries.

Kapoor is young and handsome, an eighth-generation perfumer who is a self-proclaimed scent obsessive. The family business, M.L. Ramnarain Perfumers, stretches as far back as 1816 according to written records, but Kapoor believes the family’s perfume lineage extends even further. Fragrance is an essential part of who they were and who they are now.

“But I’m the generation that will take this business forward,” he says.

Perfume tours take place at Kapoor’s ancestral haveli, a stately, 120-year-old mansion, beginning with the shower of flowers. There’s a stop at the plush perfume bar, where guests create a signature scent. All of this is followed by a multi-course meal designed by Kapoor, a trained chef who curates a menu in which every course correlates to perfumery.

Visitors are also taken into the nearby fields, where the crops feed the perfume business with roses, jasmine, or marigolds, depending on the season. Here the blooms are harvested the way they always have been—hand-plucked, no machinery involved.

The carefully selected petals are used for crafting attars (also known as ittar), natural fragrances made by steaming botanicals over a base oil. It’s something that has been done in Kannauj for centuries, and it’s the lifeblood of this city. Approximately 80 percent of Kannauj’s residents are involved in the fragrance industry in one way or another, with about 350 distillers supplying both domestic markets and international fragrance houses.

“Perfume here is about patience and time. It’s not something that you put in a machine and it gets done,” Kapoor says. “There is an art to it, and there is history.”

To put Kannauj’s long scent heritage into context, consider this: When Emperor Shah Jahan’s beloved queen died in childbirth, he not only channeled his grief into constructing the awe-inspiring Taj Mahal. He also abstained from wearing fragrances—scented oils sourced from Kannauj—because the smells conjured such vivid memories of his precious wife. That was in 1631.

Over time city buildings have popped up around Kannauj, and the faces have changed, but not much else has. Hefty sacks of flowers continue to be carried to the distillery the same day they are picked. Petals are poured inside massive copper stills, which are sealed with a mash of mud and cotton. Then the vapors are extracted via hydrodistillation. There’s no thermometer. No electricity. Only the hiss of steam and the distillers’ intuition.

“There is a certain vibe to this place, and especially since Kannauj is an ancient place, it has seen so much,” Kapoor says. “It has its own energy, and yeah, there’s just something in the air.”

It’s true there’s something in the air, but there’s also something in the ground. Similar to the concept of terroir with wine—the environmental factors that shape the character of the product—I believe there’s something to be said for how a place informs an aroma.

Nowhere is that more apparent than with mitti attar, the scent of rain captured in a bottle. After the monsoon rains, clay is gathered from the Ganges basin, flattened into discs, and dried. Then the parched clay is placed into copper vats, just like the production of floral attars. As fires crackle beneath the vessels, steam travels through bamboo pipes into a condenser filled with a base oil, a process that can take weeks, even months. The resulting scent is petrichor, the lush and loamy, somewhat vegetal smell released when rain falls upon the dry ground.

This is a true marvel. From mud, fire, and smoke comes the fragrance of rain.

Maybe it’s because I live in a desert, where rain is cherished, but petrichor is the smell I love most. It’s why I fling open the windows on stormy days. There’s something about the tangle of moisture, creosote bushes, and dry land that instantly soothes. It’s the aroma I long for whenever I’m away, the intense herbal scent that signals home.

In Kannauj, the petrichor takes on an added complexity. The attar has a beautiful aroma, sure. But the scent also serves as a tether across time, from the centuries-old method of how it is produced to the earth that is collected from the banks of a holy river. There’s a richness here that can’t be found elsewhere.

“These scents are generational,” Kapoor says. “There’s something to be said for technology, but it has its place. This ancient knowledge has been passed down for a reason, and we want to keep it going.”

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Photos courtesy of Pranav Kapoor