The enormous and ancient Salt Mines of Khewra, said to be found by horse of Alexander the Great
It is perhaps due to the importance of salt that one of the biggest salt mines in the world is associated with one of the greatest conquerors of the ancient world.
Cheap and easily available, salt is one of the many things that we take for granted today. Yet, for many societies of the past, salt was a valuable commodity as it was not commonly available to everyone. By using the precious salt to preserve food, people in the past had a higher chance of surviving through the winter months, and were able to travel long distances using salted foodstuff as sustenance.
According to popular belief, the Khewra Salt Mine, a vast underground cavern spreading over one hundred square kilometers, was discovered by Alexander the Great. The story goes that whilst Alexander and his army were resting in Khewra during their march across modern day Pakistan, some of the troops’ horses were seen licking the stones on the ground. This was observed by Alexander’s men, and when they licked the stones, they found that it was salty, resulting in the discovery of the Khewra Salt Mine. This tale is likely to be anecdotal in nature, perhaps having its roots in the colonial era when there was a craze amongst Western explorers to trace the route taken by Alexander the Great when he journeyed through Pakistan and India.
A small mosque made of salt bricks inside the Khewra salt mine complex. Public Domain
It is unknown when exactly mining begin in the Khewra Salt Mine. According to the Mughals, who came to power in northern India and Pakistan during the 16 th century, salt mining at Khewra was taken over from the local tribal chiefs. These chiefs were from the Janjua-Raja tribe, and may have been mining the Khewra Salt Mine since the 13 th century.
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When the Sikhs overthrew the Mughals in Punjab during the early 19 th century, they in turn began extracting salt from the mine. Additionally, it was the Sikhs who gave the Khewra Salt Mine its present name. Sikh control of the salt mine did not last long, as control of the mine fell into the hands of the British in 1849.
Light pink rock salt from Khewra Salt Mine. Wikimedia Commons
In 1870, the Khewra Salt Mine was renamed as the Mayo Salt Mine, in honor of Lord Mayo, the Viceroy of India who paid a visit to the site. The British continued mining salt, and improved mining techniques. In 1872, Dr. H. Warth, a British mining engineer, developed the main tunnel at ground level. Warth proposed that only 50 percent of the salt should be mined, while the other 50 percent should be left as pillars. This mining method, known as “room and pillar”, helped prevent the mine from collapsing, and is still in use today.
A lighted tunnel of the Khewra Salt Mine, second largest in the world. Manal Khan/ Flickr
The British legacy was not entirely benevolent, however, as forced labor was employed in the mine. It is said that male, female, and child miners were locked up in the mine, and not allowed to leave until they fulfilled their quotas. Moreover, strikes by miners were brutally suppressed. In 1876, 12 miners were shot and killed at the entrance of the Khewra Salt Mine. Their graves can be found at the middle gates of the mine.
Today, the Khewra Salt Mine is still in operation. Apart from the production of salt, reported to be at 387,747.820 metric tons in 2013/14, the Khewra Salt Mine is also a popular tourist attraction.
The chambers and veins of salt are reflected in the perfectly still brine water pools of Khewra Salt Mine. (Above the middle line is salt and below the middle line is water where one can see the reflection.) Wikimedia Commons
In 2002, the main tunnel of the Khewra Salt Mine was converted into a tourist attraction, and it has been claimed that the mine receives thousands of tourists each year. Amongst the attractions in the mine are the Badshahi Mosque, a fully functional postal office (postal code 48530), and miniature versions of the Great Wall of China, the Mall Road of Murree, and the Shimla Hill and the Minar-e-Pakistan of Lahore. As one may rightly guess, these were built entirely of salt bricks.
One interesting feature of the Khewra salt mines is its natural radioactivity. Studies conducted in the mines indicate that the mines and the rock salt may be a source of natural radionuclides. Anyone who enters the mines, workers or tourists, may be exposed to radon and gamma rays. Others, however, visit the Khewra mines for their possible healing powers. It has been claimed that the airborne salt particles have antibacterial properties, which, if inhaled, can help to clear lung passages ad loosen mucus. Individuals with asthma or other respiratory related problems can visit the salt mines to breathe in the healing salt particles.
Bricks of salt arranged to create brightly lit architecture within the mines. Manal Khan/ Flickr
No doubt salt will continue to be an important ingredient in the preparation of food for a long time to come, thus providing a reason for the continuous use of the Khewra Salt Mine. Still, it is noteworthy that the salt mine allegedly discovered by Alexander the Great has adapted to the changing times by first transforming into a tourist attraction, and then by providing salt therapy to asthma patients.
Salt brick construction lit from within. Wikimedia Commons
Featured image: Smoothed chambers and tunnels through salt run deep into the vast Khewra Salt Mines. Manal Khan/ Flickr
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Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-15645121