While most of the visitors know about the royal splendour of palaces and opulent hotels in Rajasthan, none have ventured into the hinterland where life continues unchanged for hundreds of years. Here is a sneak peek
Colourful Rajasthan suddenly goes white for miles, so white that it hurts the eyes. As you move closer, your eyes get some relief from the blinding white surface and you start noticing some workers moving around on the salt pans in their colourful attire. They are all busy loading the railway carriage with the salt that is naturally created by the evaporation of water of Sambhar Lake in Rajasthan. Far from the must-visit tourist attractions of Jaipur and Udaipur, Sambhar is a nondescript town about 72 km and 1.5 hours away from Jaipur, the capital city of Rajasthan.
Nobody is sure when the salt was first produced from the saline water of the Sambhar Lake, for it finds mention even in epic Mahabharata. During the British time, a salt processing factory was set up here and now a Salt Train carries salt to the Salt Factory to refine it. This salt train is the only modern feature of Sambhar Lake.
Most of the workers are local Bawaria and Bheel tribals.
The lake is only about half a meter deep in the dry season but spreads over an area of 200 sqkm. The salt-making process has not changed in centuries. The workers make small dams to isolate salt pans and over days, most of the water evaporates leaving salt crystals with a slight pink tinge behind. Then the pans are dried and salt is collected in mounds. To increase the salt content of water, brine is pumped out with diesel pumps as electricity supply over here is erratic. You may wonder, why no solar panels are installed in this sunny landscape, may be the salt will not let them survive for long, you try to justify.
The dry salt is uploaded in the salt train, which carries it to the factory, a few kilometers away, where it is processed and iodized for human consumption. It is believed that the salt from Sambhar lake, due to its unique composition, makes the food taste better and is highly prized.
THE MAGICAL TRAIN
In the terrain, there is nothing around for miles except for salt pans. Nothing grows where land and water are saturated with salt. The salt train is the lifeline that connects the salt pans to the town and factory. The wagons are made of wood as metal will not sustain the erosion caused by salt for long. It is a small train with around 10 wagons attached to it. Once the wagons are filled, the engine whistles at full blast and starts the journey towards the salt factory. The placid waters of the Sambhar lake form a perfect mirror and capture the reflection of the moving train. There is something special about watching a passing train that negotiates the curves like a slithering serpent, it reminds you of your childhood. The Salt Train of Sambhar lake is no exception and you are equally in awe of this little train.
Text & Photos: Prasad NP