“It’s so hard to describe scents in words!” This is one of the most common phrases I’ve encountered in my profession. It’s only rivaled by “smell is the most primitive of all senses.” Perfume marketers are particularly prone to wringing their hands over this issue. Our supposed inability to describe scents is blamed for perfume not being taken seriously and not being recognized as art. And well, the reasoning goes, since the sense of smell is so primitive, no wonder we can’t describe odors. Our brains simply don’t have the capacity for it.
As someone who interacts daily with people who can describe scents perfectly–and this includes not just professional perfumers, but also many of you who visit these pages, I don’t believe in our inherent lack of scent language. If we can’t describe scents, it’s because we don’t often have an opportunity to do so.
Both the idea that scents can’t be described and the primitive nature of the sense of smell would have seemed bizarre to Indians in the first millennium CE. In their society, aromas were a part of daily life, from religious ceremonies to seduction, and even, politics. Blending scents and using fragrant oils was not simply common practice, it was an essential element of culture. The art of perfumery was something performed by anyone wishing to be seen as educated and genteel.