Monday 13 July 2020

I is for Incense

The most notable thing about smells in India is that there are so few of them. Westerners pre-conceptions about third-world countries might lead them to expect a rich melange of noisome smells constantly assaulting the nose, just as the hectic collage of sights and sounds will hit the eyes and ears. But there is no equivalent cacophony of odours.

It is certainly possible to find smells, hunting them out like exotic truffles. But the best smells are those which ambush you in unlikely places, striking your consciousness like the sound of a tiny distant bell.

For instance, there is the incense. Not from the temples, of which there are few in northern India, nor from the mosques which are open to the sky and smell only of the what the wind carries. This incense is from the slow-burning sticks found on stalls in the markets everywhere. Its purpose is purely functional: to ward off the flies from the food. But far more than any smell of cooking it remains as the defining smell of the bazaars. Its cloying richness seems particularly appropriate for the huge, sprawling congregation of shouting people, garish colours and endless, fecund confusion.

More elusive is the smell of the old forts and palaces. A rare conjunction of conditions is needed to catch it, just as if it were some marvellous nocturnal bird, seen only by autumn moonlight in leap years. The rooms where it can be found must be dark and secluded from the sun; they must be high yet draughtless; and their peace must be broken by intrusive visitors only rarely. If these three requirements are met, as at the deserted palaces of Fatehpur Sikri, you can catch a whiff of the rarefied exhalation of old stone. It is cold and dank and a very ancient smell, the smell of history.

The third smell is perhaps the hardest to recognise, because it is at once so subtle and so trivial. It is ubiquitous, but easiest to detect towards twilight. A high vantage point helps to spot it. There you can watch it form over the whole city, and colour the air itself.

It is the smoke from domestic fires. Sitting atop a minaret of the Jami Masjid in Delhi, you can see the city wreathed in its mists and vapours. As dusk falls, the smell seems to concentrate itself as the more workaday odours pack up and go home. It is less a smell than a small sensation at the back of the throat, a slight acidity.

The Kashmir valley offers the experience in its purest form. From the high vantage point of the Shankaracharya Hill behind Srinagar, you can watch the rich woodsmoke curl out of the chimneys on the houseboats and houses. As the lower air thickens, the view turns into some crazy industrial landscape, with tall wiry silver birches for smokestacks. Walking back down into the city you lose sight of the thin pall of smoke in the darkening air, but gain, step by step, its gently choking smell. It smells of the fire which awaits you on your houseboat. It smells of home, as it does for everyone in India.  Which is why it is so hard for the westerner to detect, and so worth detecting.

A Partial India A to Z

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