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What Do Indian Cities Smell Like?

Known as the Proustian moment, it's an integral part of literature - where a smell triggers a rush of memories that's sometimes long past or almost forgotten. It's because of the anatomy of the brain that smell and memory seem so closely linked.

A recent Vice article explored the smells of Indian cities. According to the article, artists and researchers sniffed, smelt, and inhaled their way through India's biggest cities [1]. I couldn't stop reading it - it was like smelling the cities, sitting at my desk.

Let's explore what our Indian cities smell like...

What Do Indian Cities Smell Like?

Bengaluru aka Bangalore smells like....

Mysore Sandal soap, sambar, open garbage dumps, cigarettes stubbed in water.

Chennai smells like....

Filter coffee, jasmine flowers, detergent, vadas and vibhuti.

*Vibhuti: In Agamic rituals, vibrhuti is made from burnt dried wood, burnt cow dung, and/or cremated bodies.

Delhi smells like....

Saptaparni flowers, slow-burning plastic, incense, rotis, rotting corpses.

*Saptaparni flowers: In Sanskrit, sapta signifies seven and parni means leaves. As the name indicates, the leaves are usually found in bunches of seven on a stem.

Mumbai smells like....

Salt, sea, sweat and fish.

Kolkata smells like....

Phuchkas, chhatim flowers, and fried fish.

*Phuchka is a spicy variation of pani puri, golgappa, or gupchups.

*Chhatim flowers is the Bengali name for Saptaparni flowers.

There's a different smell for every city-every neighbourhood. These smells connect us to the cities, the lives we've had in these space-forgettable, yet easily rekindled.

The Connection Between Smell And Our Brain

From the scientific perspective: In your brain, the thalamus relays sensory information from your eyes, ears, touch, and taste. The thalamus then sends that information to the relevant brain areas, like the hippocampus, which is involved with memory, and the amygdala, which is involved with emotions [2].

It is different with smells. Scents bypass the thalamus and are sent directly to the olfactory bulb in the brain. As the olfactory bulb is directly connected to the amygdala and hippocampus, it is possible to understand why the smell of something can trigger such vivid memories and intense emotions so immediately [3].

We have been shown by research that odours serve as a memory trigger, making it easier to recall or recognise information [4]. In essence, the stronger emotional memory connection with odor than with other sensory experiences appears to be due to the privileged access of the central brain structures of the olfactory system to the limbic system structures-the amygdala and hippocampus, which are involved in regulating emotion and emotional memories.

Story first published: Monday, November 28, 2022, 11:35 [IST]
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