The Lowly Thing Called Salt

Manoj Pandey*

Reading the title, you may take the article with a pinch of salt, but by the end of it, I will try to prove that I am worth my salt

Salt, the only mineral that humans eat, has been part of human life since pre-historic ages. Its recorded history is full of pain and gain, and obeisance and resistance. Today, it is used widely for enhancing taste, and fifteen times of what humans consume is used in industries. In giving birth to lofty expressions and idioms, this lowly thing called salt is neck and neck with diamond, gold and silver.

Let’s see how many of these interesting facts and fables you know about salt:

The long history of salt

Salt was known to humans from pre-historic times. Proof are available that it was in use at least eight thousand years back.

In ancient times, salt was widely traded between Mediterranean countries, and it went far south into the Saharan Africa. Egyptians would not have been able to preserve mummies so well had they not used salt. Julius Caesar used to have salinators in his contingents, who provided salt to the troops.

In medieval times, salt was used widely for healing wounds. Thousands of Napoleon’s troops are believed to have died on retreat from Moscow as there was not sufficient salt to treat war injuries.  

Records show that in China, salt was known in forty different forms, and was also being used as medicine, nearly five thousand years ago.

The early European settlers in America snatched salt production and trade from the natives and monopolised it, as a strategy to weaken the native resistance against them. Capturing of salt works was also used as a war tactic in the American Civil War. 

In many countries and regions, the salt trade was so prevalent that salt routes were carved to carry salt. Such routes were among prominent road and sea links in Italy, Germany, Britain, Austria and many other countries. These routes were also found in Japan, and between Nepal and Tibet. The salt route Via Salaria in Italy was nearly 250 km long.

Even cities were built near the source of salt, and small port cities grew in prominence just because of salt trade. 

Salt has been as expensive as gold, also a currency!

It is believed that during the Roman Empire, part of the remuneration paid to Roman soldiers was in the form of salt (that gave birth to the word salary). 

In mediaeval Europe, salt production was a big industry in many countries. Venice’s riches are attributed to its monopoly on salt trade. No wonder, salt was also called white gold

After returning from Tibet, Marco Polo described how salt coins were in circulation there, with the seal of Kublai Khan. It is also known that in the first millennium, salt coins were in use in many parts of central Africa. 

In the sixth century AD, salt was traded for an equal weight of gold in sub-Saharan Africa. At times, its value went up to twice that of gold!

Salt was widely used for barter with foodgrains and other commodities in ancient and medieval times, but in Ethiopia, this continued even in the late nineteenth century.

Salt in religion and culture

Salt was considered pure, bringing good luck or portending evil in different cultures over time.

Salt finds nearly thirty references in the Bible, including the well-known expression, ‘the salt of the earth’. In many cultures, it was taken as a symbol of purity. In ‘The Last Supper’, Judas is supposed to have spilled a bowl of salt, and it portended bad luck. 

Salt also found a place in rituals of the Egyptians, Greek and Jews. In some Buddhist rituals, salt was sprinkled to repel evil spirits. A similar belief about salt and evil spirits was found in Shintoism. 

In the seventeenth-eighteenth century Europe, salt was also used for signifying the social status of guests invited to social gatherings. At banquet, salt would be placed on a silver container, and distinguished guests would be seated ‘above the salt’ on the table while others sat on the other side.

Rulers loved salt, and so did criminals

Being a commodity of common use, salt found favour with rulers: they taxed it as much as they could, sometimes even monopolized its production and trade.

In China, salt was taxed as early as 2200 BC. In many European countries – especially France and Britain – it was heavily taxed. In some parts, people were forced to buy salt from government depots only.

Heavy taxation gave rise to illicit trade, and crime related to salt. There are records of black marketing and smuggling of salt, and riots happening when salt was in short supply in European countries. Illegal salt trade is supposed to be so high in England in the eighteenth century that about ten thousand people were imprisoned in a year for salt smuggling. 

When salt shook the rulers!

Salt played a major role in the Dutch Revolt in the 16th century. The Dutch weakened the Spanish rule by blocking their salt works, and that is believed to have badly hurt the Spanish economy.

One of the main reasons for the French Revolution was the salt tax, which at one time was 140 times the cost of production!

In British India, Mahatma Gandhi used salt as a non-violent weapon against the rulers. In 1930, Gandhi ji undertook a march from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi, 385 km away, to symbolically break the British salt law (which heavily taxed salt production so as to facilitate imports and earn revenue). He actually made a pinch of salt by boiling salty water from the sea-shore. He then planned to raid Dharasana salt works located, 40 km away from there, but was imprisoned. His followers did march towards the salt factory and were beaten up by the police. These events – the Dandi March and Dharasana Satyagraha – led to global criticism of the British, and spread of civil disobedience throughout British India. 

But why has salt been so much in demand?

It is a universal fact that salt makes food tasty. Salt supplies sodium – a mineral that regulates water metabolism in animals – and is therefore naturally required by humans and animals. Salt has preservative properties, and that helps in not only healing wounds but also preserving foods. Since salt consumption leads to water retention in the body, it is fed to animals for gaining weight. Salt is also an excellent food preservative. What made salt especially important for rulers and traders is that salt resources are not found in many parts of the globe, and it is a commodity consumed by everybody and is therefore needed in big quantities.

Salt in many tongues!

Salt not only gratifies the tongue, it has given rise to many salty and not-so-salty expressions in English and many other languages. 

Some of the English words that have originated from salt are salad, salary, sauce, sausage, salami and saline. The European cities with sulz and wich ending are supposed to have a link with salt production and trade. 

Common English idioms related to salt include being worth one’s salt (came in circulation because Greeks and Romans bought slaves with salt, and they were called not worth their salt if they were found deficient). You take something with a grain (or pinch) of salt when you are not sure of its genuineness; you rub (or pour) salt into someone’s wound by reminding them of a painful memory; you are above the salt, when you are in a high position or rank; and you throw salt on one’s game, when you spoil or foil their plan. When you eat salt with someone (or eat his salt), you are his guest.

Salt must have given rise to many expressions in Indian languages. I can recall some from Hindi, my mother tongue: तूने मेरा नमक खाया है (you have been dependent on me); नमक हराम (ungrateful); घाव/ जले पर नमक छिड़कना (to pour salt into wound); नमक मिर्च लगाना (to highly exaggerate); and आटे में नमक (an insignificant amount).

The Indian salt

Indians seem to be fond of salt all along. Salt was a regular food additive since time immemorial. Indians also learnt to preserve food items with salt. Salts of different kind were used in medicine.

Among the major traditional sources of salt in India, sea coasts of Gujarat and Odisha need special mention. Some salt also came from rocks in Rajasthan and some came from Tibet. 

The making of salt from sea water flourished as an industry before the British forcibly took over Odisha (then Orissa) salt production. Salt was monopolised and heavily taxed by the British. Munshi Premchand was prompted to write a story Namak ka Daroga in the context of wide-spread corruption in salt taxation during the British period.  Mahatma Gandhi chose to use salt as the symbol of exploitation of the Indians by the British rulers.

Indians have a special liking for black salt, and so, I will end the article with this pungent salt made only in the Indian subcontinent. 

Do you know that black salt, which adds that special taste to your chutney or pani puri (gol gappa) or chat, is not a natural salt? It is traditionally made by stuffing salt with tree barks and dried bitter-tasting wild fruits (amla, harad and baheda) in mud pots, sealing them and firing overnight in a kiln. The charcoal and gases produced during burning of plant material give the black salt its distinct colour and aroma.  

So, ladies and gentlemen, how about inviting me to eat salt with you?

Interesting read:


Manoj Pandey is a former civil servant. He does not like to call himself a rationalist, but insists on scrutiny of apparent myths as well as what are supposed to be immutable scientific facts. He maintains a personal blog, Th_ink

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal opinion of the author and do not reflect the views of which does not assume any responsibility for the same.


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