– a review of Neela Vermeire Créations Ashoka
Close your eyes and let your imagination run with the wind a while, let yourself fall far back through time and imagine…
Imagine you are the undisputed ruler of all you see, a topic of conversation from West to East. Ptolemy in faraway Egypt knows your name and reputation well, and Antiochus the Seleucid king, and neither can scarcely believe the tales they are told nor the words your peoples and your emissaries spread on the winds that blow from East to West.
Nothing shall ever be denied you, no desire for conquest can ever be anything than a self-evident victory.
And so, it has come to this appalling day the world will know as the last Battle of Kalinga and yet another plume to your glory, yet another place to add to the lists of peoples and lands who now call you Emperor.
It could be this day of triumph when everything changes, or it could be later, when the treaties have been signed, the levies decided, the razor sharp memories of war and sorrow dulled to an ache.
It could be the memory of that fateful day: an old man, mourning the loss of a son, or the endless tears of a woman trying to wash away the pain of her dead children, it could even be you turned a corner and saw a spotted puppy amid the smoking ruins your armies caused, a puppy with no one left to care for him, a puppy who glanced up from the rubble and looked at you, a mighty conqueror and ruler whose praises were sung throughout the lands and plains of a fabled country, looked at you with both hope and apprehension in those liquid brown eyes, looked right through to that innermost, carefully concealed part of you, and something in you shifted, moved and gave way, crumbled like the plastered walls of conquered cities… and was changed forever.
There was another path for you to choose, another way to act and live, another way of life and faith for all creatures under a searing sky. A heart that burned with a warrior’s heat found that way to another path and so you traveled the length and the breadth of your empire and told your peoples of that path you now walked, that way that became known as the dhamma, the path to justice, to compassion, to enlightenment and peace and prosperity. As you traveled and as you spoke to your people in person, you had pillars and stones carved with your words, so they would know and not forget. Down through that swirling axis of time and history, on through other conquests and other eras, your memory was kept alive as both an inspiration and a wonder for hundreds of generations to follow.
Nearly two thousand, three hundred years on, the world has not forgotten neither those memories of the man nor the words he left behind.
I, Piryadasi, beloved of the Gods, speak thus: To do good is difficult. One who does good first does something hard to do.”
Now…open your eyes. You are here, in this moment, in this time, and for just a moment more, indulge me, dear reader. Only here, in the frantic, flashing LED lights of the twenty-first century, imagine all of such an incredible tale from a nearly mythical time had somehow materialized in essence and absolute, in vision and dedication and many, many versions… transformed by alchemy both profound and mundane into… a perfume.
A trio of perfumes was launched by Neela Vermeire last year that were inspired by three different eras of her native India’s history. They were a sensation, partly due to an incredible amount of hard work and promotion on her part, and more importantly because there truly is nothing at all else like them.
All three somehow bridge a gap between heritage and future, simultaneously as sophisticated, as complex, and as intellectually satisfying as any of the great creations of the twentieth century, and at the same time as thoroughly modern and unusual as the very best of niche perfumery today. Neither Trayee, Mohur nor Bombay Bling paid the slightest heed to any fragrant clichés we cynical perfumistas might have supposed, but if three perfumes ever somehow managed to bottle that whirling kaleidoscope of impressions that is an Occidental dream of India in all the very best of novel Oriental ways, they certainly did.
All three, I came to discover myself over the course of this past year when I have worn them very, very often, have an extraordinary effect on my mood in a way few perfumes do. I’m old enough to remember that Seventies relic we teenagers wore then called mood rings, which is precisely what these three are.
The numinous effect of Trayee eddies around sacred smoke and contemplation, the luminous, majestic rose of Mohur winds around oud, cardamom and almond delicacies, the bright, fragrant lights of Bombay Bling elevate endless rainy days with its energetic, solar-powered optimism.
So here the story continues with Ashoka, and this is a story just as extraordinary. In this little vial is yet another theme, not faith and contemplation, not majesty, heritage and opulence, nor even exuberance and optimism, but, in a word… enlightenment.
Don’t believe me? What if I told you it starts its tale with a fierce, almost shocking opening burst? Fig leaves – those bitter, grassy green wonders – paired with a bracing, nearly brutal but reined-in leather, as if to stop those chariot horses before they run away. This is Ashoka as he was, the merciless Emperor who vanquished his enemies without a second thought or a single sign of remorse. For long moments, they play out against each other, but before you crown leather the victor, remember that Buddha himself was enlightened beneath the leafy shade of a fig tree. Sure enough, soon enough, the leather recedes, the bitterness fades, and a far softer and infinitely tender floral heart blooms, so seamlessly blended and satiny it’s hard to parse out the individual notes.
How Neela and Bertrand Duchaufour pulled it off, I can’t imagine, but that’s what it does – it opens up, petal by luminous petal like the lotus blossoms it contains. This is Ashoka’s well-guarded secret, the one you could never, ever guess. A sweet yet never saccharine secret, wrapped with care and cunning both around the sap of fig milk. Ashoka is no gourmand, so I’m guessing it’s the osmanthus exuding its dulcet apricot soprano, in perfect harmony with a golden-hued mimosa and very plush rose, the rose again in perfect counterpoint with that green hyacinth, echoing back to those green, fig-laced beginnings and bridging the evolution to come.
Ashoka takes its own time to tell its story, and compressed in these relatively few words are hours and hours of wear and wonder, of florals soft as peacock feathers and a dark green heartbeat underpinning them all, as touching and as tender. In the base, I sense a common pulse or vision that ties Ashoka to all of its siblings in the Neela Vermeire Creations line, the sandalwood, incense and myrrh made different shades of a dark viridian green with that vetiver and with fir balsam adding its own sense of timelessness.
For if another word could sum up Ashoka, it would be just that – timeless. Like all the very best stories and the superlative best of perfumes it tells that tale of a seismic shift in your consciousness, of that tiny flutter of a butterfly’s wing, a puppy’s liquid eyes, the patience of an elephant in a teeming crowd that touches that secret part of your soul the world has never known and so changes you…forever, and that, too is part of the Dhamma – to manifest what you had never before even dared to dream.
As Ashoka very likely said himself:
One who does good first does something hard to do.
Which is always and forever another path to… enlightenment. Or being… beloved of the gods.
Notes: Fig leaves, leather, pink and white lotus, mimosa, fig milk, osmanthus, rose, water hyacinth, vetiver, styrax, incense, sandalwood, myrrh, tonka bean, fir balsam.
Neela Vermeire Créations Ashoka was created by Neela Vermeire in collaboration with perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour. It will be available worldwide in the autumn of 2013.
Images: The Great Stupa at Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh, commissioned by Emperor Ashoka in the third century BCE, superimposed with the First Rock Inscription at Girnar, ca. 257 B.C.E. Translation of the Fifth Edict by Ven. S. Dhammika, via Buddhanet.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons, Photoshop montage my own.
Disclosure: A sample was provided by Neela Vermeire for review.