The Story of Salt

Indian slang “Namak Haram”, Dandi march by Gandhi and ‘Achar’ or pickle has one thing in common – Salt. Salt is as essential as water for the survival of human being. Our sweat, urine and blood are mainly composed of salt. In today’s world, salt is present in ample but historically, salt was one of the most sought after commodity and has been the cause of rebellions, revolutions and rise of civilizations.

Salt was treated as important as money before money even existed and it is no surprise when experts state that the word ‘Salary’ is derived from salt. Salt is the greatest commodity ever traded as an essential substance for our survival, as a preservative and as a medicine.

Salt was vital and could be transported to a longer distance through many salt routes. In most of Asia, Europe and the Americas, salt was transported through waterways using ports or river systems while in Africa camel was used to transport salt across Sahara desert from salt beds. In many cases caravan as big as 40,000 camels carrying salt, covered 500 miles journey which took several months.

Salt as preservative

Egyptians used salt for ‘Mummification’ – a sacred ritual to preserve the body of their Pharaohs and members of their nobility. In ancient Egypt, poor people were mummified using sodium chloride while rich were mummified with ‘Natron’ which is a naturally occurring sodium compound like common salt.
Preserving the dead body was deeply rooted in the religious belief of Egyptian civilization as they saw the dead body as home of the soul and hence a nexus between present life and after life.

Egyptians preserved their fish by salting it while Romans salted their vegetables which is the origin of the word ‘Salad’. In India, ‘Achar’ or pickle is prepared using a high concentration of salt and oil. Though today we eat ‘Achar’ as side dish, but until 100 years before the advent of refrigeration technology, pickling various vegetables was essential to survive in the dry years. ‘Achar’ also had great significance in battles. In order to keep the supply of the food lasting for a long time in battles, ‘Achar’ proved vital as it could be preserved for months.

Salt as Medicine

Salt flat beds in Death Valley, California

Salt has a lot of medicinal properties. In India, Gargling is a common remedy to cure sore throat. ‘Kala Namak’ or Black salt is used for curing the problem of flatulence and indigestion. As salt is a natural disinfectant, it is used to cure infections and swelling in gums.

Salt in world culture

In some cultures, salt is believed to bring good luck and it is the first purchase of a new year. In many places in India, a dish of salt is kept at the door step of the house as a part of new home ceremony. In many European cultures, bread and salt is a greeting ceremony to welcome guests. It is believed in Buddhist tradition, salt repels evil spirits and thus it’s a custom that after the funeral, before entering house, salt is thrown over the shoulder. In Japan, before sumo wrestlers enter the ring for a match, salt is thrown into the center of the ring to ward off spirits. In India ‘Namak Haraam’ is a term used for traitor and for faithful, the word is ‘Namak halaal’ which are derived from the Arabic language. All of us remember the famous dialogue from the movie ‘Sholay’ – “Sarkaar maine aapka Namak khaya hai” means ‘I am loyal to you’.

Salt in India

Today India is third largest producer of Salt after China and USA, producing 230 million tons annually. Salt is produced along the coast of Gujarat, Andhra, Tamil Nadu, Orissa and West Bengal and in Sambhar lake in Rajasthan. India has great deposits of Rock Salt in the Himalayan region. Gujarat produces 77% of the country’s production. Salt exports provide great source of revenue to Indian Government but since salt production is labor intensive, it employs around 100,000 laborers daily on an average.

Indian history has interesting stories related to Salt. India always had a rich tradition of salt production, both on the coast of Gujarat in the west and Orissa in the east.  During Industrial revolution, Britain had increased its Liverpool salt production, but failed to withstand Orissa’s salt in terms of quality and price.  In order to create the market for British salt, Government of British India banned all the production and sale of the salt other than their own and this forced Indian people to buy salt from them. In addition, they exerted heavy salt tax on this imported salt. This unjustifiable tax made salt for people, especially poor, unaffordable leading to a number of diseases due to deficiency of Iodine.

Initially it was a far-fetched idea for many to start the national movement for Independence around salt, but Gandhi was certain that it will be a success as salt is eaten by everyone and it will touch every section of the society. On March 12, 1930 along with his 78 followers, Gandhi started Dandi march from his Sabarmati Ashram, with the goal of defying the British law by scraping salt at the coast in Dandi. In this 240-mile march he was joined by thousands of people, creating a national movement. This extraordinary event gained attention in the foreign media as a 60-year-old man with his sheer determination walked against the British Empire. On April 5, 1930 Gandhi reached the sea at Dandi and the next day at first light he made salt by scrapping the crust and thus defying the British law.

Salt Folktales

According to a famous folklore among people of Andes that ‘Pachamama’ who is the Earth’s mother, shed tears on the land while crying when she was separated from her children. These tears became salt lakes or ‘salares’ in Andes.

In popular culture, there was a king who had three daughters. One day he asked all the three daughters how much they loved him. Eldest two said they love him like sugar and honey while the youngest said salt. The king got angry hearing the youngest daughter’s answer and banished her from the Kingdom. While living a hard life in the forest, she met a prince and agreed to marry her. Bride’s father was also invited to the marriage. On Bride’s wish meat was served without salt. Bride’s father found the meat tasteless and said that the meat is without salt but immediately realized his mistake and understood what his daughter meant earlier.

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