The Story Of Rose Sharbat: Cooler With A Cult Following
Image Credit: Instagram @lensluminance Rooh Afza is a fixture on Indian kitchen shelves in the summer and also a mainstay at iftar tables during the Holy month of Ramadan.

Glasses of ruby-coloured water with ice cubes floating in them are served as a welcome drink to guests and also used to keep cool when the sun is blazing. As water is poured into bright red syrup and stirred, swirls of red can be seen through each glass. The other use of this jewel-toned syrup is in barf ka gola or chuski. Crushed ice is shaped into a cone around a stick and drizzled with rose-flavoured syrup, which people enjoy as a kind of popsicle. The primary ingredient in all of these is Rooh Afza, India’s favourite rose-flavoured syrup.

Rooh Afza’s legacy spans over a century. The sweet, concentrated syrup is a fixture on Indian kitchen shelves in the summer and also a mainstay at iftar tables during the Holy month of Ramadan. It may be served mixed into cold water or milk, or used to top lassi and falooda. 

The story of Rooh Afza can be traced back to 1906, when a Unani medicine practitioner named Hakim Hamid Abdul Majeed established a small shop in Old Delhi. The shop was called ‘Hamdard’ and has been credited with the first ever formulation of Rooh Afza in 1910. The drink used fruits, herbs, and rose and was meant to be used to keep the heat at bay. Majeed christened it Rooh Afza, which translates to “soul refresher”.In its early days, Rooh Afza was packaged in used wine bottles and sold. Mirza Noor Ahmad, an artist, designed the labels back then. The colourful labels could not be printed in Delhi and so the Bolton Press of the Parsees of Bombay manufactured them. The drink soared in popularity because of its unique flavour and aroma and, within a decade, began to be produced at a national level. It was even advertised in newspapers. 

During the partition, the older son of Hakim Hamid Abdul Majeed remained in India, while the younger one migrated to Pakistan and established a separate company with the same name (Hamdard) in Karachi. A branch was also established in East Pakistan, which is now Bangladesh.

Post Bangladesh’s independence, the Bangladeshi subsidiary was gifted to a local entrepreneur who continued to run the company under the brand name Hamdard. Since the formula used for making the sharbat is the same in all three countries, it tastes the same wherever it is produced. 

Rooh Afza sells close to 40 million bottles every year in India. The company has 3 bottling plants in Manesar and Ghaziabad. However, Hamdard conducts business differently from most other companies. It is registered as a ‘waqf’, or a non-profit organisation under Islamic law. Only 15% of the profits are reinvested in the business. The remaining 85% is sent to Hamdard National Foundation (HNF), which then transfers the funds to charities. 

Recently, Rooh Afza has seen a resurgence. People have started buying and preparing the drink with great enthusiasm. Some even display their love for it on social media. Food writers have written articles about it and perfumers have drawn inspiration from it. In whichever form it may be consumed, Rooh Afza remains an important part of South Asian identity.