“Lahore Lahore hai.” It’s a phrase that one hears often in this ancient city located in the Punjab province of Pakistan. It means “Lahore is Lahore”, but the implication runs deeper – there is no other city like Lahore. Since my visit, I’ve come to agree. Lahore is unique. It’s a place where the crumbling treasures of Mughal-era architecture are scattered among modern overpasses and motorways, where the old shrines are filled with rose petals and the flutter of dove wings, where the alleys of the Walled City smell of dust, cinnamon and tobacco. Lahore is Lahore and nothing I had read prepared me for its vibrancy and energy.
To a newcomer, Lahore can be bewildering and overwhelming, but I was fortunate enough to explore the city in the company of Amina Ali. Born and bred in Lahore, Ali is a woman of many talents. She’s an artist, the CEO of Lahore Children’s Centre, and the creator of elegant cakes for her own pâtisserie line, Delish. She admits that the city has imprinted itself on her, perhaps even more than she realised when she was growing up.
Ali studied art at the National College of Arts, one of the oldest art schools in south Asia and the one that seals Lahore’s reputation as the cultural heart of the subcontinent. Miniature painting was her specialisation and her artworks are rooted in the venerable Mughal tradition, emphasising details, colours and textures. Of equal importance is the rendering of flora, above all roses, to embellish or complement the other elements of the paintings. “The rose is an important leitmotif to my work,” Ali notes. “It’s such a quintessential flower.”
Indeed, anywhere I go in Lahore, I come across roses. Known as desi gulab, the red roses of Lahore are small and unprepossessing, but their scent is so intense that a few blossoms could make a whole street smell of molten honey and warm spice. They bloom profusely in the orchards by the roads, and they spill from the stalls in the markets. People bring them as offerings to shrines and weave them into garlands.
That same day Ali takes me to visit her workshop, where she produces cakes for Delish. A mother of three boys, she started baking to delight the children for whom she threw birthday parties, but she soon realised that it was another creative outlet for her. Her cakes range from playful to breathtaking. I notice a collection of roses she fashions out of sugar and dabs with gold to evoke the play of the sun’s rays. Ali approaches her pâtisserie with the same meticulous attention to detail as she does her paintings. “Yes, the rose again,” she smiles when I admire the flowers. “It’s at the helm of my work and has been a constant for a long time – the colour, the scent, the flavour.”
My creative medium is neither colour nor sugar; it is scent, and when I return home, I want to find a fragrance that captures my idea of Lahore. I search through my collection and wonder if I should select Frédéric Malle’s Une Rose (£235 for 100ml EDP), an earthy and opulent blossom. Or By Kilian’s Rose Oud (£285 for 50ml EDP) with its suggestion of smoke and opulence. Or perhaps Serge Lutens’ Sa Majesté La Rose (£69 for 50ml EDP at fragranceexpert.com), a flower sumptuous enough for a Mughal empress. It seems like an impossible choice.
One evening I’m flipping through photographs of Ali’s paintings and come across one showing a woman in a rose sari standing in a spring orchard. The flowers blossom at her feet and the image is framed by an intricate pink panel embellished with leaves and vines. Looking at it, I can almost feel the softness of petals and smell the fragrance in the air. And then I have an epiphany. The rose that I’m looking for is none other than Guerlain Nahéma (£105 for 100ml EDP). It’s a radiant red flower inlaid with the mosaic of hyacinth, plum and peach. It’s ornate and vivid, and yet it has a dark undercurrent that makes it beguiling. As a rose corresponding to my vision of Lahore, its art and its artists, Nahéma is perfect.
Victoria Frolova has been writing her perfume blog boisdejasmin.com since 2005. Her explorations of fragrance touch upon all elements that make this subject rich and complex: science, art, literature, history and culture. Frolova is a recipient of three prestigious Fragrance Foundation FiFi Awards for Editorial Excellence and, since receiving her professional perfumery training, has also been working as a fragrance consultant and researcher.