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  • Odorbet

Installation 39: South Asian words for stimulating the nose, brain and palate.

Thank you to the global collaborative pair Bharti Lalwani (Pune India) and Nicolas Roth (Cambridge, Massachusets) for entries to the Odorbet! These two South Asian words create a powerful understanding that flowers and scent are never mere decoration but a directive capable of opening minds and hearts.


As co-curators of Bagh-e Hind: Scent Translations of Mughal and Rajput Garden Paintings, we have explored a whole range of paintings that visually exude fragrance. For instance, we have presented in our “Rose” chapter, one fascinating subgenre of painting produced at the Udaipur court during the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century that illustrates the mahārāṇās in a rose garden, surrounded by fields of pink damask roses and sometimes jasmine bushes. The rose water fragrance of those roses and the scent of jasmine were apparently intended to pervade those settings.

However, for Odorbet, we chose to avoid the obvious and contribute two intertwined words instead: Dimāgh and Mufarriḥ

Dimāgh is an originally Persian word, borrowed into South Asian languages like Urdu and Hindi. In contemporary usage in those languages it usually just means “brain,” but its historical semantic range was much broader, including also “nose” and “palate.” The connecting element between these seemingly disparate meanings is the sense of smell, and the effect of smells and tastes on the mind. Not surprisingly, then, John T. Platts’ 1884 A Dictionary of Urdu, Classical Hindi, and English - still one of the most widely used dictionaries in the academic study of Urdu and Urdu literature - also gives “intoxication; high spirits (produced by stimulants, esp. by drinking bhang, &c.)” as additional meanings of dimāgh.

Mufarriḥ describes a class of precisely such stimulants that are believed to alter the mind as well as the physical well-being of the body through smell and taste. Derived from Arabic, the word translates as “exhilarant” or, more broadly, “tonic,” and is a technical term of the Unani or Graeco-Persian tradition of humoral medicine historically followed by many in South Asia and still very much extant today. Typically, a mufarriḥ is a concoction of various strongly aromatic ingredients believed to “open up” nose, heart, and mind, thus strengthening respiration and cardiac function as well as mental health. More prosaically, some varieties of mufarriḥ could essentially be conceived of as antidepressants and/or aphrodisiacs.

Left: A Prince Having Audience, 17th century Opaque watercolor and gold on paper; Height x width: 28.5 × 20.8 cm (11 1/4 × 8 3/16 in.); India, Credit Line: Denman Waldo Ross Collection, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Accession Number: 22.685 Right: Narcissus tazetta, grown and photographed by Nicolas Roth in his garden in Cambridge, Spring 2023

To illustrate these concepts in action, as it were, here is a 17th-century Mughal painting that shows two aristocratic young men meeting on a terrace, each holding a single sprig of nargis or tazetta narcissus. Presumably, they would have periodically sniffed the flowers in such an instance, and the sweet and spicy narcissus fragrance would have marked the encounter.

There is not a lot of theorization of these sorts of scenes, even though they are fairly numerous in the eighteenth century. The narcissi are a complex cultural reference; they are likened to eyes (so allude to vision and allure) but also specifically intoxicated eyes (thus intoxication, passion).

At the same time, being held like this and given their sharp fragrance, the narcissi are also implicitly presented here as a mufarriḥ, meant to stimulate or “open” the dimāgh - the noses, palates, and minds - and, through them, the hearts of the two young men. In other words, the narcissi, as a mufarriḥ acting on and through the dimāgh, are thought to aid the social encounter and its enjoyment, rendering the participants more perceptive as well as receptive. Thus the fragrant flowers, which might appear to the uninitiated viewer as a minor detail, become central to the sophistication and erotic potential captured in the painted scene.

Readers can explore more of our discussion on the perfume translation of these paintings here:

Bharti Lalwani is an art critic and perfumer based in Pune, India.

Nicolas Roth is a gardener-scholar of early modern South Asia, and the Visual Resources Librarian for Islamic Art and Architecture at the Harvard Fine Arts Library, based in Cambridge Massachusetts, USA.

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