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Ningel Villagers still safeguarding traditional Salt Well

by IT Web Admin
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By: Laishram Ranbir
Imphal, Sept 30: “Many private and government department officials have come and go giving promising words to help in preserving the production of Manipuri local Salt but those promises never turn into reality which made me give up to seek help from the State Government” said Khujam Ongbi Maipakpi.
Khumujam Ongbi Maipakpi, residence of Ningel Mayai Leikai of Yairipok under who is now 66 years old, has been working for than 40 years producing the only local salt of Manipur known as “NINGEL THUM” and it is the only work she had been working on till now.
In the village of Ningel, there were more than 30 salt producers but now only 6/7 local salt manufacturers are left, struggling to preserve the very old tradition of salt production which has been going on since ancient history of Manipur as most of the villagers have now shifted their occupation on agricultural work as their primary occupation while manufacturing salt as their secondary occupation.
“Demands of Meitei Thum (Salt) are high mostly during ritual and wedding seasons. During these seasons, they struggle to meet the needs of the customers. Sometimes they had to travel through nearby hills to get firewood’s, even if they had to go through bad weather, they cannot stop manufacturing salt” said Khujam Ongbi Maipakpi.
Meitei Salt
In olden days in Manipur, indigenous salt was considered as an item of reward given by the Maharaja to the brave persons for their heroic deeds.
The word thum (salt) in itself is powerful to indicate the name of place, area, status of a person, economy etc. It has been divinely placed to reckon the name of the presiding goddess of Salt well or Thum Lairembi and Thumrungba represents the person appointed by the Maharaja to look after the salt wells (thumkhong). The combination of thum (salt) and Khong (well) indicates the place of salt well. Thus, the word thum had been a cultural element that projects the socio-religious and economic strength of the people of Manipur.  

“After working for such a long years, I had been able to employ few locals of Ningel in manufacturing the local salt (Ningel Thum) and also helping them to maintain their family. In terms of wages of the employers, it has been given according to number of salt they made per day. Though required more workers, there are few workers at her shed (Thumshung) manufacturing salt known as Eeshing Kabi (one who fetch salt water from the well), Mei thabi (one who control over the firing of hearth) and Thum shabi (those who make salt) “, said Khujam Ongbi Maipakpi.
Ningel Village has three salt-wells where two of which are cemented and the remaining oldest one is a wooden structure known as Ching-Yenjin. The villagers mainly used the oldest well as it carries larger volume of salt water that remained filled all the time and never over flow. There is a Shrine of the guardian god Nongpok Ningthou and Panthoibi in its northern extremity of the village which is very near to the site of salt well.
There are also three aother salt well near Ningel namely Chundrakhong, Seekhong (Chi= salt, Khong= well) and Waikong but they don’t produce salt anymore due to none maintenance and among three one of them has been totally destroyed due to excavation of hill areas.
Types of Salt
The locally manufactured salt cakes found in the state are looks like the shape of a plate and there are five types of Salt (Thum) namely (1) Thumjao, the biggest size of salt cake ever produced in Manipur, (2) Thum Talak, little smaller than the Thumjao, (3) Thum Samer, characterised by the presence of a small ring of depression at the central surface and a thin edge, (4) Thum Koiga, a plain form of salt cake that bears no central depression or inner ring, (5) Thum macha, the smallest form of salt cakes produced by the Meitei salt makers.
Method for Preparation
Fresh salt waters collected from the well are brought to the shed (thumshung) and stored in a large earthen pitcher then the required quantities of fresh salt waters stored in the pitcher are uniformly poured over the pans that are placed on the larger holes in successive rows than allowed to boil till a preliminary concentration of the salt water is noticed. The concentrated waters are then transferred from one pan to another with the help of dry gourd spoon, where maximum heat is available.
The precipitate form of salt with larger concentration produces white bubbles arising inside the pan. It shows that the boiling of salt water in an appropriate temperature is attained. These crystalline forms of concentrated salts are collected in an earthen plate and transferred to the salt makers for giving shape of the salt cake. Salt is given shape on the circular iron trays called Tei that are place upon the smaller holes of the hearth. By placing plantain leaves on the surface of the tray salts are given shape in a low temperature. To get a complete form of round structure it is finally given finishing touch by rubbing the edges with the help of a potsherds or Chegai (a piece of pot used for scrapping the rim of salt cake to give a finishing touch).
“Despite preserving the tradition of salt production and manufacturing the indigenous salt, the earning is not quite sufficient. During off season they had to struggle to maintain their livelihood compare to season’s time where they travel everyday to Imphal Market far from their village to supply the prepared salt to the brokers where they made quite good earnings.”
“Few years back, the villagers had sought for help from the concern authority and government for the preservation of the NINGEL THUMKHONG from being extinct but none have turned their eye on them. The villagers were left with no option to preserve it by their own”, said Khujam Ongbi Maipakpi.
Khujam Ongbi Maipakpi disappointly said that she would also like to renovate her salt shed (thumshung) for proper production of salt. Even her house is in bad shape but had no option to continue with the daily situation.
If the government and concern authority show interest in preserving the Ningel Thumkhong and the remaining salt manufacturer of the Ningel Village, it will bring some changes in the Ningel Villages, said Khumujam Ongbi Maipakpi.
The villagers of Ningel are still waiting for support and different policies from the government side.
They also shows interest for festival of Salt (Local made Thum) in their village like the festival of Morok, Orange, Pinapple, etc. so that the whole world will know that their still exist the indigenous salt of Manipur.

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