The word 'attar', 'ittar' or 'othr' is basically an Arabic word which means 'scent'; this in turn is believed to have been derived from the Persian word Atr, meaning 'fragrance'.
The story of South Asian perfumes is as old as the civilization itself. Archaeological evidence shows the earliest inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent held plants in great reverence. With the passage of time, scented oils were extracted by pressing, pulverizing or distilling aromatic vegetable and animal produce. Early indications of this activity are available from the perfume jars and terracotta containers of the Indus Valley civilization, where archaeological work has revealed round copper stills, used for the distillation process that are at least five-thousand years old (reference req.). These stills are called degs. Following the seasons of the flowers, traditional attar-makers, with their degs, travelled all over South Asia to make their fresh attars on-the-spot. Even now, a few traditional attar-makers still travel with their degs to be close to the harvest. Their equipment has changed little, if at all.
A large number of references to cosmetics and perfumes in Sanskrit literature were found like in the Brhatsamhita is a 6th century Sanskrit encyclopaedia by Varahamihira (505 AD – 587 AD). Cosmetics and perfumes making were mainly practiced for the purpose of worship, sale and sensual enjoyment. Gandhayukti gave recipes for making scents. It gives a list of eight aromatic ingredients used for making scents. They were: Rodhara, Usira, Bignonia, Aguru, Musta, Vana, Priyangu, and Pathya. The Gandhayukti also gave recipes for mouth perfumes, bath powders, incense and talcum powder. The manufacture of rose water began perhaps in the nineteenth century AD. The earliest distillation of attar was mentioned in the Ayurvedic text Charaka Samhita. The Harshacharita, written in 7th century AD in northern India, mentions use of fragrant agarwood oil.
In ancient India, attar was prepared by placing precious flowers and sacred plants into a water or vegetable oil. Slowly the plants and flowers would infuse the water/oil with their delicate fragrance. The plant and flower material would then be removed and a symphony of their aromatic beauty would be held in the attar. These attars were then worn as a sacred perfume or to anoint.
Some of the first lovers of Attars were the Mughal nobles of India. Jasmine attar was the favourite perfume of the Nizams of the Hyderabad state. Attar figures into some of the romantic stories of a bygone era. Its patrons included great poets like the legendary Mirza Ghalib. When Ghalib met his beloved in the winter, he rubbed his hands and face with attar hina. In Ain-e-Akbari, Abul Fazal, has mentioned that Akbar used attar daily and burnt incense sticks (bakhoor) in gold and silver censers. A princess's bath was incomplete without incense and attar. Avery popular attar with the Mughal princes was ood, prepared in Assam.