Ningel struggles to keep afloat a dying culture

Phanjoubam Chingkheinganba *

The three traditional salt-wells at Ningel which provided Manipuri salts over the years.
The three traditional salt-wells at Ningel which provided Manipuri salts over the years. (Photo credit: Soibam Phillip)

Far from Imphal town, at the eastern foothills of Manipur valley, is located a small hamlet of less than a thousand souls but nevertheless has assumed a significant place for it hosts the site of once-popular custom and heritage of this ancient land. Ningel, despite the onslaughts of packaged iodized salt in the last couple of decades, has fairly managed to preserve the practice of salt-making in all its traditional fervour.

In the past, salt springs were discovered when subtle vapours are found hovering at potential sites. Upon establishing of such findings, a shaft is sunk down to the spring and cylindrical hollowed trunks made from trees are lowered down. It was then followed by settlements to indulge in salt making.

The salt-wells

Ningel has three salt-wells of which two were constructed in the not-so-distant past. The oldest of them all is made of wood though its exact date of origin is uncertain. A local speculates the well might be some four hundred years old, and has been in existence ever since the first settlement was established in the remote hill side village in the late seventeenth century.

The salt-wells are believed to be more than 45 feet in depth with a cylindrical diameter of around 6 feet. Maimu Mutum who works tirelessly all day making circular-shaped salt slab informs the depth of salt wells to be of "9 lams" which is equivalent of nine times the length of both the arms stretched in right angle to the standing body.

Another distinctive feature of the sites is the occasional bubbles that come out from the wells. The moderately backward and religiously oriented villagers believed this happens when the guardian of the salt-wells locally referred to as "lairembi" which dwells in the deep depth of the well emerges. A shrine dedicated to the guardian deity of Nongpok Ningthou and Panthoibi stands near the site too.

An existing tradition of Ningel is to avoid the wells every Friday between eight in the morning till noon. Perhaps in the remote past, there could have occurred periodic fatal incidents which created the tradition of avoiding the wells during that particular moment of time.

Interestingly, a son of Maimu informs of a spectacular natural phenomenon associated with the salt-wells at times of earthquakes. He explained that whenever the earth moves, bubbles at the salt wells would increase to such pace and intensity that it resembles a boiling water pot, and attracts villagers to the spot for the view that could be witnessed is magnificent. The account however seems to be bit of exaggeration often witnessed in over enthusiastic villagers while narrating their experience to a stranger, though a certain ounce of truth cannot be ignored.

Apart from Ningel, three salt-wells exist in three other nearby villages which are separated by a distance of two and three kilometres. However, each one of them at the village of Chandrakhong, Seekhong and Nongbram have become obsolete and no families in the villages produces salts in their respective villages, thereby making Ningel the one only in the whole state to have preserved this ancient custom.

Maimu remarks that one of the basic causes for the slowly disappearing art of salt-making at Ningel and other salt-wells was the lack of financial prospect in the field as well as the younger generation preferring to go for weaving and education as the main occupation. With the coming of the iodized salts, the general population also prefers to use them rather than the ones made in

Doctors, on their part, have rebuked the salts of Ningel for they find it to be lacking in adequate quantities of iodine. Still, she proudly says all of Ningel uses their locally made salts in their dishes and do not import iodized salts. Even then, there have been no cases when goitre, the disease that occurs due to lack of iodine in the human body, occurs. The 51-year-old woman on the contrary acknowledged that iodine is actually present in the salt-water however it is lost during the heating phase of the salt-making process.

The salts procured from Ningel are not sold in fancy packets unlike its counterparts available in local supermarkets. Still, it retains a unique characteristic. 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 leafs which too is moulded into the same geometrical shape with hand.

Women workers heating up water extracted from the salt wells to produce traditional spherical shaped salts.
Women workers heating up water extracted from the salt wells to produce traditional spherical shaped salts. (Photo credit: Soibam Phillip)

The process of salt making

Salt making at Ningel is a relatively simple process and managed in the most of the simplest manner. Salt waters are taken from the wells in containers made from bronze, and then heated in medium or small sized vessels resembling wok or rectangular-shaped pans. The salt-water after an hour or more of continuous heating by firewood evaporates leaving behind brightly colored salts in paste forms. The paste are transferred in another large bowl and allowed to cool down. For heating the fire, a longitudinal hearth is used.

The maker then collects the paste in a locally made simple tool known as "chilel" and put in a palm sized banana leaves, which then is moulded into its familiar circular shaped form. The salts are later taken to the busy salt-section of the Ima Market in Imphal and sold at the rate of 10 INR per slab.

Maimu explains she earns a monthly income of around 4000 INR from her daily schedule. She says she would like to make more of the salts but the amount of firewood required for heating the salt-water is huge and is the main cause of hindering the process and her ambition. At present, Rs. 300 worth of wood is needed to feed the woods which are too much for the poor villagers. However, Maimu claimed the Ningel salts are better than the packaged iodized salts are in much demand during the Manipuri festival of Cheiraoba or Manipuri New Year, as well as in the month of "Lamta" and "Fairen" (February/ March).

Sadly, with just six families currently involved in the traditional profession throughout the whole of Ningel, the future of making salts is rather bleak, and on the brink of reaching the same fate that had befallen the salt wells in the once-popular Chandrakhong, and the other two wells.

The heritage of salt-making is reminiscent of the past when the once-sovereign Manipur kingdom relied on its own labor to meet daily requirements.

* Phanjoubam Chingkheinganba wrote this article for
The writer is with People's Chronicle, and also work as Special Correspondent of Assamese newspaper Asomiya Pratidin and can be contacted at phanjching(at)gmail(dot)com
This article was posted on January 10, 2015.

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