A village worth its salt

The food in the homestay near Kumta tastes heavenly, even the ubiquitous upma. I ask the cook the secret of his culinary prowess. To my surprise, he says, “Everything tastes good here because of the salt we use.” I probe further and learn that he uses the brownish salt called ‘Sanikatta salt’, which is produced locally. As we talk, more amazing facts came out: the salt’s hoary past, its medicinal properties, its connection with the freedom struggle, particularly the Salt Satyagraha. This salt produced from the waters of River Aghanashini just before she enters the ocean is commonly used by the people of the district, while it is in great demand by Ayurveda and Naturopathy practitioners and chefs. Fisherfolk prefers it for drying fish. Farmers use this natural salt in their farms as it keeps pests at bay. Intrigued, I head for Sanikatta the next day to see the salt pans for myself.

Aghanashini is one of the few rivers that still flow in their natural course without any hindrance. After originating in Sirsi, the river makes her way through dense rainforests and plunges down the precipices before flowing down into the coastal plains. During her journey through the forests, the river’s waters are imbued with the salts of the mountains and juices of innumerable flora. No big cities or factories pollute her with effluents. It is in the river’s estuary near Gokarna that this natural salt is made, hence it is also known as Gokarna salt.

As we near the temple town of Gokarna, we see the salt pans on our left. Kumar, our cab driver, takes a left turn into a mud road which soon brings us to the famous Sanikatta salt pans. In the neatly made pans, I can see men standing in the ankle deep water stirring the water using long poles. Kumar stops at a warehouse so that I can take some pictures.

I interact with them to understand the process. Salt manufacturing at Sanikatta starts as soon as the monsoon rains stop, which is usually in September.

The river water is made to flow into a large reservoir where it is stored for some days. Here the water is allowed to evaporate naturally until its density reaches around 2.5 degrees. During September, salt pans measuring 100 x20 feet are made in over 400 acres. The pans are cleaned of scum and rubble and in the last week of September water from the reservoir is made to flow into them. It takes around 20 days for this water to evaporate and the density to reach 20 degrees. This water is then released into condensers to form crystals. This process involves a lot of skill, which only experts can do. The salt we consume should have a density of 27 degrees.

The harvest

Salt harvesting takes place from the end of January until the end of May. The harvested salt is stored in the storehouses. Since the whole process makes use of natural energy, the brown salt has a unique natural taste, unlike the white salt which is processed using chemicals and bleaching agents. 

Members of the local Agera community have been traditionally engaged in salt production, for centuries now. They live around Mirjan and nearby villages. Both men and women of this community work in the salt pans of Sanikatta and other villages surrounding the estuary. They stir the water in the pans as well as make the saline water flow from condenser to condenser. I get down into the pans and walk gingerly on the narrow ridge to talk to a person at work. “This is what my great–grandfather was good at, too,” Shiva says with a smile. He lives in Yalavalli and his only daughter goes to school. His wife works in the pans when more people are required. Around 300 people are engaged in this livelihood activity. He says ‘the society’ looks after them well, even during the lean period of salt making.

Records say that salt making started here in the 18th century, but the Agera people were processing salt in small pans in the villages around the estuary even before that. In 1952, Nagarbail Salt Owners Cooperative Society, Sanikatta, a cooperative society of salt producers was formed. This cooperative society produces 12 to 30 thousand tonnes of natural brown salt every year. Since the salt producing area is only around 500 acres, the amount of salt which can be produced is limited. Moreover, climate also plays an important part in salt production.

The society pays a regular salary to its members throughout the year. They are also covered by insurance, and their children are given free bicycles and books. Scholarships are awarded to the children for education. 

Tryst with freedom 

Kumar proudly says that people of the region took part in the Salt Satyagraha led by Mahatma Gandhi. My research reveals that he is justly proud. On April 13, 1930, around 40,000 people took part in the Satyagraha at Ankola under the leadership of freedom fighter R R Diwakar, where another leader M P Nadkarni auctioned a packet of Sanikatta salt. Revu Honnappa Nayak bought the salt packet for Rs 30, thereby breaking the law. The police arrested the leaders of the Satyagraha — R R Diwakar, Karnad Sadashiva Rao, Dr N S Hardikar and Umabai Kundapur. The salt march continued unabated for 45 days when people from all over coastal Karnataka took part in the movement. Volunteers broke into the salt godown at Sanikatta and distributed packets of salt to people in the villages around Kumta. Thus Sanikatta played a role in the Salt Satyagraha.

Besides Sanikatta salt, another natural coloured salt produced in India is the kala namak, which is produced from the waters of the Sambhar lake in Rajasthan. Of late, synthetically produced kala namak has become popular. The trendy pink Himalayan sea salt is mostly produced in the Punjab province of Pakistan. When one feels a craving for salt, it may be the body’s indication that the body urgently needs other micronutrients, not necessarily sodium. Natural Sanikatta salt has most of the nutrients that a body needs as well as invaluable herbal medicines. As Shanti Nayak, a well-known folklore compiler and food researcher in Uttara Kannada, says, “Even the mongoose eats a special leaf to alleviate the poison when bitten by a snake. So, it is necessary that everyone consumes healthy food.” 

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A village worth its salt

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