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A drink made by blending milk, jelly, tapioca balls and pieces of fruit is being topped off with a decorative swirl of Rooh Afza at a popular dessert shop on Burns Road – a famous food street in the heart of Karachi [Khaula Jamil/Al Jazeera]

In 1907, a herbalist in Old Delhi made a cordial to refresh his patients. Little did he know, he was inadvertently launching a scarlet empire that would survive partition.

There is a story told in the lanes of Old Delhi of a building that smells of roses. The building is now abandoned, but if you walk inside you will not see the caved-in roof or the broken walls. You will be distracted by a mehek, a smell, that people who live and work in these lanes say they know well. It lives on, almost as though it has seeped into the very foundations, even after all these years.

In 1907, a hakim (herbalist) had his clinic in this building in the Lal Kuan Bazaar. On a sweltering summer’s day, he decided to try to make a cordial for his patients, to refresh and hydrate them and soothe away the ailments the heat brought them. The smell of the cordial wafted out of his clinic – the Hamdard Dawakhana, “Hamdard” being a companion in times of suffering – and through the bazaar. It was intoxicating. Word spread quickly, and a crowd gathered. By nightfall, the hakim’s first batch was finished.

The people in those lanes did not know what was in the sweet, ruby-red concentrate, but those first customers to try the hakim’s creation passed down stories of its taste and smell. It was unmistakable: roses.

A closeup of the label of a rooh afza bottle, under the image of brightly coloured fruits is the slogan "over 100 years of refreshing the world naturally"
A bottle of Rooh Afza, the soul refresher. Currently, Rooh Afza is manufactured by Hamdard Laboratories, India, Hamdard Laboratories (Waqf) Pakistan and Hamdard Laboratories (WAQF) Bangladesh [Khaula Jamil/Al Jazeera]

Hakim Abdul Majeed named this drink Rooh Afza – the soul refresher. He used distillates of herbs, fruits, flowers and vegetables to make a concentrate that was mixed with water or another liquid and consumed. It is believed to have had up to 21 ingredients known for their cooling properties, including sandalwood, vetiver, purslane, screw pine, mint, spinach, and the heady rose.

He was a practitioner of Unani Tibb – “Yunan” is the Arabic term for Greece, while “Tibb” is medicine, and this system derives its philosophy from Greek physicians but is used to refer to Islamic or Eastern medicine. While Unani Tibb has been formally recognised by the Pakistani government since 1965, this holistic approach to medicine has been studied in the subcontinent since the time of Avicenna.

Hakim Majeed could not have known on that summer day in 1907 that in 40 years, India as he knew it would cease to exist, as the subcontinent was cleaved in two and his own family was split between India and the new country of Pakistan. He could not have guessed that his work would survive the bloodshed of partition. That in the decades to come, Rooh Afza would travel far beyond the lanes of Old Delhi to 37 countries. That in the alchemy of his simple ingredients was the beginnings of a scarlet empire.

‘The King paints the globe red’

In March 2018, the NASDAQ screen in New York’s Time Square lit up with the colours of the Pakistan flag as an advertisement for Rooh Afza played. It was the first time the green and white flag had been displayed in Times Square, part of a campaign launched by Usama Qureshi, the 37-year-old old CEO of what was now Hamdard Laboratories Pakistan.

A hand is seen swirling straight rooh afza onto the top of a cup of milk blended with more rooh afza
A drink made by blending milk and Rooh Afza is topped off with a decorative swirl at juice carts along Burns Road – a popular food street in the heart of Karachi [Khaula Jamil/Al Jazeera]

That moment in Times Square was a bold announcement: Hamdard had global aspirations for Rooh Afza. It had long been sold outside the subcontinent in “ethnic” grocery stores to cater to waves of South Asian immigrants as far as Australia. In 1995, a New York Daily News story about ice cream toppings referred to a “thick milk mix-in known as Rooh Afza” that was sold at a Bangladeshi shop on Lexington Avenue for $4 a bottle. It “looks like cherry juice and tastes like perfume”, the reporter noted, and it can be used to make “the national sundae known as faluda” (a cold dessert of vermicelli, rose syrup, basil seeds and milk topped with ice cream).

More than two decades later, hundreds of passers-by in New York were served Rooh Afza as the advertisement on the Nasdaq screen proclaimed: “The King paints the globe red.” Qureshi was no longer satisfied with the status quo. He wanted Rooh Afza on shelves at major supermarkets. It was an ambitious leap forward for a company that had started from scratch in the new state of Pakistan in 1948.

Partition, identity, and tradition

When Hakim Majeed passed away in 1922, his wife Rabia Begum managed his clinic’s work for a few years until her eldest son, Abdul Hameed, took over. She declared Hamdard a waqf, an Islamic charitable trust, wherein all profits would go towards public welfare.

Rabia Begum’s younger son, Mohammed Said, was inspired by the Muslim League, a political party advocating for the separate Muslim state of Pakistan and freedom from British colonial rule. He wanted to become a journalist, but his older brother Abdul Hameed convinced him to study medicine. In 1940, as the Muslim League was passing a resolution demanding independence, Mohammed Said graduated with a degree in eastern medicine. By 1948, while his brother remained at the helm of the company in India, Said migrated to Pakistan, with the plan to set up Hamdard there too. He brought with him his father’s formula for Rooh Afza.

Two black and white advertisements for Rooh Afza appear, showing the bottle with advertising copy under it. This ran in India
Two advertisements for Rooh Afza from the Illustrated Weekly of India, from 1977 (left) and 1980. Both seem to refer to competitors and stress that there is ‘nothing like’ Rooh Afza [Al Jazeera]

The original recipe has been guarded and remains virtually unchanged, except for small tweaks by Said, explains his daughter Saadia Rashid, now president of Hamdard Pakistan. For instance, as kewra (screw pine) was not available in Pakistan, Hakim Said used the less overpowering gul-e-bahaar (spring rose) instead. The flowers of the turanj (citron) fruit, which grow for only one month or so in the northern areas of Pakistan, were used as distillates too.

At first, Said was making every bottle of the cordial himself at his clinic in Karachi’s Arambagh neighbourhood. On the first day, he sold 12 bottles. Demand steadily grew and by 1953, he opened a manufacturing unit in Nazimabad – a neighbourhood so sparsely populated at the time, Rashid recalls, people joked only mice scurried around there.

A photo of shelves in a superstore with rows and rows of rooh afza bottles in arranged in terms of size, biggest ones at the bottom
Rooh Afza bottles displayed in a large superstore. Such a display only appears during Ramadan when this is the drink of choice at iftar [Khaula Jamil/Al Jazeera]

Hakim Said was an astute marketer. He wrote his own advertising copy and dubbed Rooh Afza “mashroob-e-mashriq” – the summer drink of the East. Advertisements in newspapers, magazines and women’s weeklies promised that it would “replenish vigour in the summer’s heat”, slake thirst and cure fatigue.

Bringing Rooh Afza into the home was important, and advertisements featuring hand-drawn illustrations of wedding invitations and musicians encouraged families to welcome their guests with glasses of Rooh Afza to deepen “friendship and feelings of attachment”. In another, a woman cooking in her overheated kitchen pauses to mop her brow while bold advertising copy advised her to refresh herself with a glass of Rooh Afza.

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Source: In Pakistan, Rooh Afza scents memories and refreshes souls | Food | Al Jazeera