Petaled lake

An ancient queen’s discovery.


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I’ve often read about the famous attar of roses, but since it is almost as expensive as gold, I’ve never actually bought any. Attar of rose is the essence, the actual oil from the rose. I learned of its legendary beginning while traveling in India this year. My friend and guide, Puneet, told me the enchanting story of attar of roses.

In the early 1600s, Princess Nur Mahal was being courted by the great Moughal Emperor Jahangir. He would do anything to please her. One day, probably to test him, she asked that a small lake be covered over with the weight of an elephant in rose petals.

So with great flourish and fanfare, Emperor Jahangir commanded his servants to bring him the weight of an elephant in fragrant roses and spread the petals over the lake. Once the roses had been cast upon the waters, the Emperor would row a boat with the princess, demonstrating his devotion to her.

Every day when the powerful Emperor asked what would please the Princess that day, her request was the same.

After several days, Princess Nur Mahal noticed an oily film on top of the water. Dipping her finger into the lake, the Princess found that the oil had the highly concentrated fragrance of the roses. She commanded her servants to soak up the oil with cotton wool and wring it out into bottles for storage. Legend has it that this was the first attar of roses.

In short succession, the Emperor’s other five wives each died mysteriously and the Princess became the Empress, the only wife to the Great Moughal. She came to be known by her new name, Nur Jahan, and was the most powerful queen of the Moughal dynasty because of her sharp management skills and her great beauty. Nur Jahan was the first Queen in Indian history to have her name used on money, even though her religion prohibited women from showing their faces or displaying their names publicly.

Soon after becoming Empress, Nur Jahan arranged for her niece, Mumatz Mahal, to be married to the Moughal’s son, Shaw Jehan, who would later become the heir to the Moughal’s empire. The Empress passed along her knowledge for making attar of rose to Mumatz Mahal, who reportedly always wore the rose oil.

Many years later, when Mumatz Mahal—by then herself the queen—died, Shaw Jehan built the Taj Mahal, said to be the world’s most beautiful tomb, in her honor. Even now, 400 years later, you see the images of roses inlaid in the building’s pure white marble with semi-precious stones including malachite and lapis lazuli.

You can make your own attar of roses using Princess Nur Mahal’s original method. If you don’t have the weight of an elephant in roses and an entire lake, use what you have.

• Pick fragrant roses in mid-morning, after the dew has dried but before the sun hits the roses. Use only roses that have not been sprayed or treated with pesticides in the soil.

• Pluck the petals from the green part and stem, saving only the petals. You should have at least 4 cups of petals to start.

• Put the petals in a large glass jar and add about 8 cups of distilled or bottled (not tap) water. Cover with plastic wrap and set the jar in a sunny area. The heat of the sun will draw the oils out of the roses.

• At the end of the day, there should be a very thin film on top of the water. Take a piece of cotton and soak up the oil. Don’t worry if you get water too, it will drip out or evaporate. Place the cotton in a small, clean glass jar with a lid. After one day, remove the spent rose petals, saving the water, and repeat with another batch of petals.

After a few days you will have accumulated several cotton balls with the rose essence on them, and some rose scent to add to whatever project you have in mind. You can also use the cotton balls, one at a time, to smooth the essence on like a perfume.

The delightful fragrance of roses added to the charm and beauty of two Moughal queens. One is said to have discovered the method for making attar of roses. The other was so loved that for her, they built the Taj Mahal.