With a lasting and unique fragrance
Circa 1900: Due to the unique and natural forest condition prevailing in the Mysore region and adjacent areas, the princely state of Mysore was one of the largest producers of sandalwood (Santalum album) in the world. Sandalwood trees that grow at an elevation of two to three thousand feet above mean sea level (MSL) are said to have the best and most distinctive aroma with the longest lasting scent. By the 19th century, Europe had become the main export destination for sandalwood, and Mysore was the leading exporter of the premium variety of this species.
However, with the onset of World War I, these exports were suddenly halted and the state saw the sudden accumulation of large reserves of sandalwood. Necessity being the mother of invention, the then Maharaja of Mysore, Krishna Raja Wadiyar IV, decided to establish a soap factory in 1916 to utilize the excess stock of sandalwood. The first step in this direction was the establishment of a factory to distill sandalwood oil from the wood. This was followed by an order from an American company to supply machinery and equipment for a modern soap factory. The machines arrived in 1918 and production started from 1919. In 1944 another factory was established in Shimoga to meet the growing market demand for soap which received a boost as it was from an Indian brand, and many Indians made a conscious choice to prefer this swadeshi option over foreign brands, especially since it was also ‘best in class’ in terms of value for money.
Before talking about the soap, let’s talk about sandalwood, the main ingredient of the product. Sandalwood, which reaches a maximum height of 60 to 65 feet, is actually an oilseed hemiparasitic plant. The wood is heavy, yellow and fine-grained, and unlike many other aromatic woods, it can retain its fragrance for decades. As such it is one of the most expensive woods in the world, and both the wood and the oil extract are valuable. Sandalwood from Mysore and peninsular India had been part of the maritime trade with Arab, Malay and Chinese merchants from the 11th to 17th centuries, after which Europe became the main destination. The Mysore region is best suited for the growth of this species, especially in the dry broadleaf belt along the shores of Kaveri from north to south, where the loamy soil receives rainfall in the range of 20 to 25 inches of precipitation per year. .
Unlike most soaps made from animal fat, Mysore Sandal soap is made with pure natural sandalwood oil fragrance along with other natural essential oils like clove, patchouli, geranium, palmarosa, orange and petitgrain oil which, according to Ayurvedic texts, is a natural skin conditioner. From the first soap made in 1919, the product has retained its woody “ochre” color and unique shape.
After the independence of India and the reorganization of Mysore (later Karnataka) in 1956, the managements of government soap factory and government sandalwood oil factories in Mysore and Shimoga were integrated , and the trademark “Mysore Sandal Soap” has been retained. In 1980, Karnataka Soaps and Detergents (KSDL) Ltd. was established as a fully state-owned PSU. He applied for and received the geographical indicator label for Mysore Sandalwood Soap as produced in the geographical space of Mysore and Bengaluru.
Well, like every product on the market, this one has its share of challenges too. The biggest challenge is that the majority of its users fall into the over forty category and are concentrated in the southern states. This means the brand needs to reach young people as well as non-traditional geographies. No wonder then that he chose Mahendra Singh Dhoni as his brand ambassador to connect with youngsters as well as cricket lovers and sports enthusiasts.
The next major and more serious challenge is the shortage of the main ingredient – sandalwood. In fact, the KSDL is only using a third of its installed capacity. Sandalwood reserves in Karnataka are rapidly running out and, ironically, KSDL is now considering importing sandalwood from Malaysia to meet domestic demand. Isn’t it ironic that the state that once set up factories to deplete its excess reserves and “wears GI labels on its sleeve because of its historic association with precious wood” is now looking outside its own geography to meet its own requirements.
This will also pose a challenge to its GI – because if the sandalwood used for GI soaps is sourced from outside the region, will it still be a Mysore Sandal soap?
Opinions expressed are personal