SALT CAKES INDIGENOUS FOOD
These mouth- watering cakes are neither sweet nor soft like all others cakes but hard and salty. These are also not made from wheat or breads nor have soft attractive manicured coatings. It is made from salty waters found only in a few wells in a village in Manipur in Eastern Himalayas. These cakes were so precious that royals of erstwhile Manipur princely state used these salt cakes as gifts. It was in such a demand that nobles and others used to bribe the palace officials with such exclusive cakes for getting their work done!
The salt cakes made in Ningel and a few other villages were most famous and liked by many. But now few families of the villages are tenuously holding on to the dying art for a meagre living. The salt cakes, which are circular discs of salt manufactured by boiling saline water from wells, have yielded their pride of place to the ubiquitous modern day packaged products. The use of the traditional salt cakes is now confined to religious functions related to mainly births and weddings. With the dwindling use of the salt caken by the people, mout of the families of Ningel and other village are moving to other professions. Ningel is one of the few villages where the salt cakes are made and the number of wells, from where the saline water is drawn, is now just three from six earlier. The condition of the famous salt wells-Chandrkhong, Seekhonng and Waikhong in the village during the rule of the kings have deteriorated due to lack of maintenance and excavation in the nearby hills. Officers of both private companies and the government had visited Ningel and other villages many times in the past and expressed their eagerness to preserve the dying art in view of its historic importance. But no assistance was provided to the people till date. As making salt cakes is one no longer profitable, many families which earlier made the salt cakes have shifted to agricultural work for their sustenance. The Rs 10-Rs 15 per slab, which does not fetch enough to meet even the cost of production.
The villagers normally make around 200 salt cakes per day. During the wedding season the production increases by more than three times. If this work becomes obsolete with time, they will become jobless and the state will lose this ancient traditional art forever. Major difficulty lay in procuring wood to boil the saline water as it is very costly. With the profit margin almost negligible, only a few families are currently involved in salt production mostly for the sake of keeping alive the traditional practice, one villager said.
In Ningel the salt wells are almost 45 feet in depth with a diameter 6 feet. Of the three that salt cakes are sold for, two are cemented. While the oldest one is made of wood. In the past, salt was called ‘Thum’ in local parlance and occupied a major place in the state’s economy. The kings of Manipur used to reward those who distinguished themselves in the battlefields with traditional salt cakes. In the oral Manipuri folklore, there are stories of ordinary people bribing palace guards with salt for appointment with the kings. Soon it may remain in folklore only.
Dr Rajkumar Ranjan Singh, Union Minister for External Affairs and Education who belongs to Manipur said that geographically there are places in the state specially in bordering areas having salty water. These precious cakes are made from such rare water, Dr Singh himself a geologist said.