Imphal: Ningel, a small hamlet in the foothills of Imphal valley, is the only village left in Manipur which is struggling to preserve the over three- century-old art of making circular salt slabs.
Despite the lure of higher-income generating occupations, availability of packaged iodized salt and the disappearance of salt wells in neighbouring villages, people like Maibum Mutum works tirelessly throughout the day to make the circular salt slabs.
Inhabited by less than 1,000 people, Ningel has three salt-wells of which two were constructed in the not-so- distant past.
“Salt is extracted from nearby salt wells after the presence of salt springs is confirmed when subtle vapours are found hovering from potential sites. A shaft is sunk down to the spring by the locals to extract the water from which salt is made,” Mutum said.
These salt wells are 45 feet in depth and six feet in diameter, said 51-year-old Mutum.
Only six households of Ningel are engaged in making circular salt slabs and multiple salt wells located at nearby villages of Chandrakhong, Nongbram have become obsolete.
Explaining the reasons for the declining popularity of making the circular salt slabs, village chief Naomi said, the younger generation, particularly women, was now preferring to opt for weaving, as it yields higher income.
Unlike packaged salt available in local supermarkets, the salt slabs procured from Ningel, located 28 km from the state capital, are not sold in fancy packets.
Circular in shape with a diameter of 12 cm and thickness of less than one inch, Ningel salts are marketed not in powdered form but in unpackaged slabs placed on a palm- sized banana leaf, which is then moulded into the same shape with one’s hands.
Salt making at Ningel is a relatively simple process. Salt water is taken out from the wells in bronze containers and heated in medium or small sized vessels, resembling wok or rectangular-shaped pans.
After an hour or more of continuous heating by firewood, the salt water evaporates leaving behind brightly coloured salt in the form of paste. The paste is transferred to another large bowl and allowed to cool down.
The salt-maker then collects the paste in a locally made simple tool known as “chilel” and puts it in a palm sized banana leaf, which is then moulded into its familiar circular shape.
The circular salt slabs are later taken to the busy salt-section of the Ima Market in Imphal and sold at the rate of Rupees 10 per slab.
She says she would like to make more of such salt slabs but the amount of firewood required for heating the salt-water is huge, which is hindering the process.
At present, wood worth Rs 300 is needed, which is a burden for the poor villagers.
However, Maimu claimed that the circular salt slabs are better than packaged iodized salt and are in demand during the Manipuri festival of Cheiraoba or Manipuri New Year, as well as in the months of “Lamta” and “Fairen” (February/ March).
Former pradhan M Ingocha told PTI, “The locals have petitioned the government to preserve the salt wells but to no avail.”
Still, the villagers have made voluntary efforts to preserve them by cleaning the areas around the salt wells, said Ingocha.
Noting that 40 to 50 tourists visit this site every year, the former pradhan said, the possibility of total disappearance of the salt wells is “very high” because of the alleged negligence and low income generated from selling the salt slabs. (PTI)