Saturday, 19 November 2016

How To Compose A Perfume In Sanskrit

A folio from the Sanskrit manuscript add.2329 (Cambridge University Library) containing the Bṛhatsaṃhitā.

As perfumery has grown ever more sophisticated in its aims and execution, so the fragrance houses have invested in the development of algorithmic software to aid perfumers and technicians. But whilst the technology behind this innovation may be new, the basic thinking is not.
Already in the 6th century (CE), perfumers in India were calculating combinatorics using matrices. One of the earliest such examples is attested in the Bṛhatsaṃhitā, or Great Compendium -  a stupendous Sanskrit work attributed to the Indian astronomer and mathematician Varāhamihira.
Within its expansive range, which covers everything from house building to prognostication by the appearance of penises (and the smell of semen) is the Gandhayukti, or section on perfume (ch.77). Here we find formulae for such preparations as hair-waters, flavoured tooth-picks and perfumes carrying evocative names like Smaroddīpana ‘kindler of passions’. Perhaps most interesting though, are the descriptions of a perfume compounding method by means of a kacchapuṭa ‘grid’, realised physically as a board with indentations in which raw materials were placed. In a Sudoku-like mathematical play, formulae are derived by selecting sets of squares that sum a particular value, e.g.18.
To illustrate, I have translated below stanzas 77.23-26 which describe one such method. Note not all of the primary materials can be identified with certainty. Also, as was common in Sanskrit texts, numbers are sometimes indicated by objects with corresponding numerical values, e.g. ‘the senses’ = five (there being five senses), ‘the seasons’ = six (the Indic system counting six seasons) etc.

dvitrīndriyāṣṭabhāgair aguruḥ patraṃ turuṣkaśaileyau /
viṣayāṣṭapakṣadahanāḥ priyaṅgumustārasāḥ keśaḥ // 23

With two, three, the senses [=five] (or) eight parts (of) agarwood, patra, and both olibanum and śaileya,
The (sense) objects [=five], eight, sides [= two] (or) fires [= three] (of) priyaṅgu, mustā, rasā, keśa.

spṛkkātvaktagarāṇāṃ māṃsyāśca kṛtaikasaptaṣaḍbhāgāḥ /
saptaṛttuvedacandrair malayanakha śrīkakundurukāḥ // 24

Of spṛkkā, cinnamon, tagara and of māṃsī, kṛta [name of a particular dice throw = four], one, seven (or) six parts,
With seven, the seasons [=six], the Vedas [=four], the moon [=one] (of) sandalwood, nakha, śrīka, kunduruka.

ṣoḍaśake kacchapuṭe yathā tathā miśrite caturdravye /
ye ’trāṣṭādaśa bhāgāste asmin gandhādayo yogāḥ // 25

In a box with sixteen compartments, when four substances (are put) in a mix, in whichever way (combining vertically, horizontally, diagonally),
there you (get) eighteen parts in (each of) the perfume compounds and so forth.

nakhatagaraturuṣkayutā jātīkarpūramṛgakṛtodbodhāḥ /
guḍanakhadhūpyā gandhāḥ kartavyāḥ sarvatobhadrāḥ // 26

Blended with nakha, tagara, olibanum, freshened up with mace, camphor and deer musk,
(the compound) is to be censed with guḍa and unguis odoratis. The perfumes that are to be made (in this way) are (known as) Sarvatobhadra.

Tabulated this information appears so, with each cell containing a particular material together with its ‘weight’ (i.e. the number of parts thereof to be used in the final formula):

2 Agarwood

3 patra
5 olibanum
8 śaileya
5 priyaṅgu

8 mustā
2 rasa
3 keśa
4 spṛkkā

1 tvak
7 tagara
6 māṃsī
7 Sandalwood

6 nakha (unguis odoratis)
4 śrīka
1 kunduruka

To compound a fragrance using this method, the perfumer would select four items along a vertical or horizontal or diagonal. In each case, the total ‘weight’ is 18.
E.g. aguru (i.e. agarwood) + patra + olibanum + śaileya = 2+3+5+8 = 18.
Or, sandalwood + tvak + rasa + śaileya = 7+1+2 +8 = 18.
Squares of four cells also sum to 18.
Referencing the ludic quality of the method, fragrances derived by way of this particular scheme bore the name Sarvatobhadra which means ‘lovely in every way’.

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