White gold: How salt sweetens our world

Published: November 3, 2013
How salt sweetens our world. PHOTO: REUTERS/ADREES LATIF

How salt sweetens our world. PHOTO: REUTERS/ADREES LATIF

The night was dark and the patrolling sentries on the check post vigilant as ever. The smugglers pushed slowly against the razor-sharp barbs that inflicted great pain, but they kept silent to avoid detection. In their gunny bags, they carried the booty that the guards were supposed to keep from going undetected — a white substance. Cocaine had not been chemically isolated back then but nevertheless, the substance being smuggled was a valuable commodity.

Salt (also known as sodium chloride) — the grainy white substance we lavishly sprinkle over our sunny-side ups every morning has been used as a currency, taxed, created towns, led to wars and even carved trade routes on world maps long before the Silk Route was woven. And the smuggling scene is not drawn out from a jungle in Colombia but what could very well have transpired here in the Indo-Pak subcontinent during the latter half of the nineteenth century.

From ancient times well into the industrial age, this crystalline condiment was much sought after and not easily available. It was only as recently as the twentieth century that modern geology and extraction techniques tapped into the virtually inexhaustible salt sources and made it widely available.

Salt reserves in Pakistan.

A highly valued commodity, salt was even used as currency in some parts of the world. It was standard barter tender in parts of Ethiopia until the 1970s, something the Ethiopian Airlines also marketed as a tourist attraction. Currency or not, its past influence on financial matters survives today in many modern terms. According to some, the terms salary is derived from the word salarium, the allowance Roman soldiers were paid to purchase salt. Another version states that the word is derived from the fact that Roman soldiers protected the salt roads leading to Rome. A theory even states that the word ‘soldier’ itself is derived from salt, meaning ‘the ones who were paid in salt’. The Hebrew Bible refers to acceptance of salt from a person as being in their service. Thus it is no surprise that the influence of salt on financial matters gave rise to phrases such as ‘being worth one’s salt’ in the West and also to our own namak khaya hai (accepted payment for a service) and namak halali (being loyal to one’s master for the payment received) in the subcontinent. The necessity of the substance to sustain life was not lost on imperial rulers and it was taxed from China to Europe during ancient and medieval times. A salt tax existed in India from the time of Chandragupta Murya to the Mughal era, though the rate was low and collection was sporadic and inefficient. Rulers often used it to provided relief to their subjects in times of famine and distress. Later, the British East India Company resurrected the salt tax by increasing land rent and imposing transit charges in 1759. The rate of tax was higher in the Bengal region where they had control over the salt-manufacturing operations.

Roy Moxham, a British historian, writes in his book “The Great Hedge of India” that, “The Salt Tax was born out of British greed: first, out of the individual greed of the servants of the East India Company; later, out of the greed of the Company itself, and its shareholders; finally, out of the greed of the British government, its parliament, and its electors.”

In order to ensure collection of tax on all salt trade, a system of customs houses was established across the subcontinent. This line of customs posts ensured that any salt travelling from the production areas in the south and present-day Pakistan, into the Bengal region would be taxed. In order to curb smuggling through the customs line, a great hedge of thorny bushes was raised. The hedge was so thick and tall that passage through it was not possible without the risk of injury and without inviting attention of the patrolling customs personnel. At its prime, the customs barrier was an astounding 2,300 miles (approx.) in length. It is thus wholly understandable that in 1857, during the War of Independence, segments of this hedge were set on fire.

Gandhi picking salt on the beach at the end of the Salt March, April 5, 1930. PHOTO: ISABEL HOFMEYR

However, as the British Empire engulfed smaller states, a virtual monopoly over salt production was established. This meant that it could be taxed at the point of manufacture and maintaining a costly customs line (or parmat lane, as the locals called it) was not necessary. The line was abandoned on April 1, 1879. However, a new system of salt chowkies was established around the manufacturing areas to ensure an outflow of taxed salt only. Even though a few maps show two such chowkies, located east of Jatihat, which ensured collections on salt coming from Gujrat, none of the locals or travelers know anything about it.

The French might love their pretzels but salt was only starting to taste sweeter to British taste buds. The India Salt Act of 1882 established government monopoly over salt and prohibited anyone from illegally manufacturing or hoarding it. In March 1930, the salt tax was challenged by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi who led a 24-day march to the coastal village of Dandi in Ahmedabad and “illegally” picked up salt from the ground. The movement lasted for a year and triggered other similar uprisings by the masses, bringing the issue into international spotlight, but it failed to result in any major concessions from the British.

Gandhi during the Salt March, March 1930. PHOTOS: ISABEL HOFMEYR

And the British had good reason for wanting to maintain their hegemony over the salt reserves — food security being one of the primary factors. Before the advent of modern preservation techniques and refrigeration, the ability to store food for longer periods often meant the difference between life and death. Salt has been in use for the preservation of food for millennia. Meat and fish are cured with salt and then dried in the sun. Salting extracts excess moisture, thus preventing bacterial growth. In Pakistan as well, the method is widely used by households that cannot afford refrigerators to preserve meat collected on occasions such as Eidul Azha for later use. For the more affluent, meat preservation through the salting and drying technique is often tried as a delicacy. Vegetables fermented in brine (a saturated solution of salt) have been consumed across the globe for ages, commonly referred to as achaar or pickles in the Indo-Pak region.

Inside the Khewra salt mine, Pakistan. PHOTO: FAHEEM AHMAD

Interestingly, salting is also carried out during mummification and Mark Kurlansky writes in his fascinating book “Salt — A world History” that, “In the nineteenth century, when mummies from Saqqara and Thebes were taken from tombs and brought to Cairo, they were taxed as salted fish before being permitted entry to the city.” Perhaps to the customs officials on guard, it was easier to believe in human-shaped salted fish rather than ancient preserved human bodies, which of course was not a good enough basis for tax exemption.

Salt pans in Mumbai are a major cash cow for developers. PHOTO: AFP

A decent level of salt in the system is as important for a living being as it is to preserve a dead one. Found in blood, sweat, tears, urine and other body fluids, it provides the body with vital electrolytes that help transmit impulses. The body has to keep its concentration of salt at a desired level, as a shortage can result in inadequate water retention, leading to a dangerous drop in blood pressure. On the contrary, excess salt in the system can cause high blood pressure, which can lead to heart and kidney diseases, stroke and heart failure in extreme cases.

According to the US Food and Drugs Administration (FDA), nearly all Americans consume more salt than they need. Natural salts in food account for about 10 percent of total intake in an average American diet while salt added at the table or while cooking increases it by another five to ten percent. About 75 percent of total salt intake comes from salt added to processed foods by manufacturers and salt added to food at restaurants and other food service establishments. The prognosis also stands true for most urban Pakistanis as well, for whom processed food items and restaurant food have become an inescapable lifestyle.

Local villagers spread salt over the body of a female elephant for it to decompose during the burial near Panbari railway station. REUTERS/UTPAL BARUAH

According to the FDA, the general population should not consume more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium (about a teaspoon of table salt) a day. However, it should be remembered that some people are more sensitive to the effects of salt than others and medical history, genetics and age should be kept in consideration when determining one’s optimum salt intake.

Perhaps it was because of its indispensability that salt was associated with health, prosperity and by extension, peace in ancient times. The Roman word for these saline crystals (sal) is derived from Salus, the goddess of health. Hence, the greeting ‘salut’ or ‘salute’ in European cultures has literal and conceptual connections to salt and the Hebrew ‘shalom’ and Arabic ‘salaam’, both refer to peace, prosperity and health.

To preserve, sea food is salted and dried in the sun . PHOTO: AYESHA MIR

World over salt is commercially produced from three natural sources: underground deposits, salt lakes and seawater. All three modes of salt production are found in Pakistan. It has reportedly been mined for over two millennia from the Salt Range. According to popular legend, it was the horses from Alexander’s army that discovered the salt there. If there is any truth to that myth, Khewra, often quoted as the second largest mine of the world, appeared on European maps when they licked the Salt Range rocks to fulfill their craving. According to the Pakistan Mineral Development Corporation, production during 2011-12 was a whopping 441,553 tonnes. A beautiful tourist resort is operated inside a portion of the mine where visitors can observe natural formations and manmade attractions. A clinic for asthma relief that boasts having treated patients from Britain to Saudi Arabia was also set up inside the mine in 2007. The antibacterial salt particles in the mine are known to loosen up mucus and clear the lung passages, helping asthma patients breathe better.

Small quantities of high-grade salt are also scraped off from small salt lakes around Khipro in the Thar Desert region in Sindh. Lastly, saltpans around the Indus delta and the backwaters of Karachi’s beaches have fulfilled much of the local requirement for a long time. But the escalating presence of pollutants and metals from industrial discharges in the seawater used for extraction might affect the palatability of sea salt internationally in the near future and also lead to a sharp rise in its prices.

So, the next time you see the seemingly invaluable white substance lying inconspicuously on the dinner table, take a moment to reflect in its glory. Place a pinch of the saline crystal on the tip of your tongue and relish the taste while recapping its glorious history in your head. I assure you, it will taste a whole lot sweeter.

The author can be reached at [email protected]

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, November 3rd, 2013.a

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Reader Comments (9)

  • Daulat K
    Nov 3, 2013 - 8:33PM

    Namkeen… very namkeen for ET… where are the models? the glam? the bling? (do not take it seriously – I am being sarcastic!)Recommend

  • Muhammad Imran
    Nov 4, 2013 - 11:09AM

    It was a pleasure to read over the weekend. An age old tale, masterfully told.


  • Zahid Ali
    Nov 4, 2013 - 2:32PM

    Interesting read. By the time Gandhi started the Satyagrha, was the salt tax really that big a burden?


  • Sal'man
    Nov 4, 2013 - 3:12PM

    Sel’dom do you read something so salty in a sweet way.


  • Zolo
    Nov 4, 2013 - 5:11PM

    Why is Iodine important in salt? Anyone?


  • Dr Killjoy
    Nov 5, 2013 - 9:56AM

    This article reads suspiciously like a summary of Mark Kurlansky’s 2003 book ‘Salt: A World History’.Recommend

  • Deedo
    Nov 5, 2013 - 10:12AM

    Very nicely done.


  • Adil Mulki
    Nov 5, 2013 - 12:11PM

    @ Everyone
    thanks for the feedback.

    @Dr Killjoy
    Thank you for the comment. Mark Kurlansky’s book “Salt – A World History” is a wonderful piece by a master. It has also been quoted in the above piece. It was one of my resources when researching for the piece. As Salt has only one history, no matter who writes on the subject, the result will have similar chords. I tried to link salt’s history with Pakistani territories and the local culture, where possible.

    I also referred to Roy Moxham’s “Great Hedge of India”. The Salt Institute, FDA, Pakistan Mineral Development Corporation and Salt.org.il – Unlike a research paper, all the references can not be quoted in the magazine format.

    Would love to share the referred version if you email me on the address provided above.

    Adil Mulki


  • urban soul
    Nov 6, 2013 - 2:10PM

    I didnot study this at school – why?


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