Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Story of Salt - Part 1


As a kid growing up in Mumbai, I always wondered why mother took a copper vessel held it up to the sky outside the window and poured water three floors down. I felt pity on whoever stood there underneath getting soaked, probably cursing his way through. The interesting thing was the time of the day my mother did this was never fixed. It varied from 10 AM to Noon when the Sun was high up. It always felt embarrassing strolling across the vicinity especially when you know fully well it is about to come down any minute. On occasions I would ask her about this and she would in a calm voice tell me she is praying to the Sun God and that I should do it too.

I wasn't convinced about this and I used to confide in my friends. Their moms never did this why because they were "Jain" and not "Hindu". I went to a catholic school in the neighborhood and asking my school teacher wouldn't help much either and the scary looking local temple priest was completely ruled out.

Over the years, I got used to it but it still did not answer my question as to why my mother actually did it or why in Hinduism we offer water to the Sun God. Till I reached the 8th Grade or Std in School where I met a physics teacher to whom I posed this question. I did get a very convincing answer.... "You offer water to the Sun God at Sunrise as the Sun is coming out of the horizon, you watch the rays of the sun through water. It is supposed to improve ones eye sight." Eight years later I had a physics undergrad in hand but that's another story.

I figured over the generations my mother probably lost the significance of why one should do it, The importance and the scientific reason probably fell through the cracks sometime in previous generations. Ignorance was bliss!

The same analogy applied to the Dandi March or the Salt Satyagraha. Everyone knows Gandhi did this in revolt of British salt tax. But the more interesting question is why did the British do it? I don't recall having studied this in my history books. Even if it was taught, it was probably in bits and pieces and you have had to make two and two together. None of the websites that talk about the
salt satyagraha actually have tried to present this view point. If you do a search on Google you will probably find a ton of them.

I think Gandhi, being a well educated intellectual probably knew this better than anyone else around him. Over the years people have remembered what Gandhi did at Dandi and the story behind British salt tax just faded out in the background. The purpose of the current weblog is to highlight this so people can remember the why and not just the what.

History of Salt.

Salt's preservative ability was a foundation of civilization. It eliminated dependency on the seasonal availability of food, allowed travel over long distances, and was a vital food additive. However, because salt (NaCl) was difficult to obtain, it became a highly valued trade item throughout history. Until the 1900s, salt was one of the prime movers of national economies and wars. Salt was often taxed; research has discovered this practice to have existed as early as the 20th century BC in China. By the Middle Ages, caravans consisting of as many as forty thousand camels traversed four hundred miles of the Sahara bearing salt, sometimes trading it for slaves.

The first registers of salt use were produced around 4000 B.C. in Egypt, and later in Greece and Rome. Salt was very valuable and used to preserve and flavor foods. In Ancient Rome, salt was used as a currency. The Latin word salarium; meaning a payment made in salt, is the root of the word "salary." Regardless of the exact connection, the salarium paid to Roman soldiers has defined a form of work-for-hire ever since in the Western world, and gave rise to such expressions as "being worth one's salt." It is interesting to note that, payments to Roman workers and soldiers were made in salt. Unfortunately for those paid with salt, it was easily ruined by rain and other weather conditions. Salt was also given to the parents of the groom in marriage until the 8th century.

From the Phoenicians dates the evidence of harvesting solid salt from the sea. They also exported it to other civilizations. As a result of the increased salt supply from the sea, the value of salt depreciated. The harvest method used was flooding plains of land with seawater, then leaving the plains to dry. After the water dried, the salt which was left was collected and sold.

In the Mali Empire, merchants in 12th century Timbuktu—the gateway to the Sahara Desert and the seat of scholars—valued salt (NaCl) enough to buy it for its weight in gold; this trade led to the legends of the incredibly wealthy city of Timbuktu, and fueled inflation in Europe, which was importing the salt.

The Salt Tax in India

Click here for Excerpts from The Great Hedge of India by Roy Moxham, Harper Collins, India 2001

The answer to my own question lies in this book. This is copyrighted material and I do not have permission to use it. However, I will take the liberty to put a few sentences. I would recommend that you check this book out at your local library or purchase one for your reference.

  1. Salt had been taxed in India from time immemorial. The Maurya king, Chandragupta, who ruled India from much of 324 to 301 BC, imposed taxes on salt.
  2. The Salt Tax was born out of British greed: first, out of the individual greed of the servants of the East India Company; later, out of the greed of the Company itself, and its shareholders; finally, out of the greed of the British government, its parliament, and its electors.
  3. In many parts of the country the price rose to 12 rupees a maund for(Maund is an Imperial measure - still in use today in India) adulterated salt.’ At that price, half a maund of salt would have cost half a year’s wages!

What's the Dandi March?

March 12, 1930, to April 6, 1930

Also known as the Salt March to Dandi, was an act of non-violent protest against the British salt tax in colonial India. Mahatma Gandhi along with his followers, walked from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi, Gujarat to make salt, large numbers of Indians following him of their own accord. The British could do nothing because Gandhi did not actually invite others to follow him. The march lasted from March 12, 1930, to April 6, 1930.

Background of “The March”.

At midnight on December 31 1929, the Indian National Congress unfurled the flag of independence on the banks of Ravi at Lahore. The Indian National Congress, led by Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, issued the Declaration of Independence on January 26, 1930.

The Congress placed the responsibility of initiating civil disobedience on the All India Congress Committee. This campaign also had to achieve the secularization of India, uniting Hindus and Muslims.

Beginning in February, Mahatma's thoughts turned towards the British tax on salt, one of many economic means used to generate revenue that supported British colonial rule. Gandhi decided to make the salt tax the focal point of non-violent political protest. The British monopoly on the salt trade in India dictated that the sale or production of salt by anyone but the British government was a criminal offence punishable by law. Salt was readily accessible to coastal area dwellers, but instead of being allowed to collect and use it themselves for free, they were instead forced to purchase it from the colonial government. Gandhi's decision to protest this tax in particular met the important criterion of appealing across regional, class, religious, and ethnic boundaries; the British salt tax had an impact on all of India. Moreover, due to the necessity of the resource and popular sentiment, Gandhi's protest did not alienate Congress moderates, even as he gathered a mass following.

Why the March?

On February 5, newspapers reported that Gandhi would begin civil disobedience by defying the salt laws.

Before he broke the law, however, Gandhi appealed to the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, in an effort to have the salt tax amended.

On March 2, 1930 Gandhi wrote: "If my letter makes no appeal to your heart, on the eleventh day of this month I shall proceed with such co-workers of the Ashram as I can take, to disregard the provisions of the Salt Laws. I regard this tax to be the most iniquitous of all from the poor man's standpoint. As the Independence movement is essentially for the poorest in the land, the beginning will be made with this evil."

On March 12, 1930, Gandhi and 78 male satyagrahis set out, on foot, for the coastal village of Dandi, Gujarat, some 240 miles from their starting point in Sabarmati. The 23 day walk passed through 4 districts and 48 villages, and met with extensive popular support on the route. Thousands of satyagrahis and leaders like Sarojini Naidu joined him.

On 6th April 1930, after a prayer, Gandhi raised a lump of salty mud (with reports varying as to how much) and declared, "With this, I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire." He then boiled it in seawater, illegally producing the controversial commodity. He implored his thousands of followers to likewise begin to make salt along the seashore, wherever "was most convenient and comfortable" to them, not to the British Empire.

This specific photograph has been gloried via postage stamps over and over again by the India, Post and Telegraph Department which I will cover in my next post.


"Salt" has a special meaning in Indian culture. To "eat somebody's salt" is to be servile to him; the "salt eater" should be loyal to his master, the "salt giver;" withholding loyalty is a sin. To the Indian masses, eating the British salt was no longer acceptable, or necessary: everybody could now earn and own their own salt.


  1. Nice story, freedom need to start at a practical point. By the way, now there is no more tax on salt ?
    Congratulations for the nice blog !

  2. Jean-Michel,
    Appreciate you taking the time to read & post a comment for us.

    Most of the edible salt produced today comes from factories. The one made from salt water has become a high end luxury in some parts of the world especially in the United States.


    Other than sales tax and inflated price that comes with buying a luxury item there is nothing much left anymore to make money on.