Khewra: Above the salt


When a friend of mine came up with the idea of visiting the Khewra salt mines, I was game because I had always been fascinated by the famous Salt Range.

The early morning breeze was laden with freshness and had a strange sound of silence. It was a chilly November morning when we set out from Islamabad in our car armed with our lunch packs and other travel paraphernalia stuffed in our rucksacks. Soon our car was surfing the motorway tarmac. Our journey started well despite the ticket generously offered by motorway patrol in recognition to our supersonic manoeuvers.

The traffic on the motorway was thin. Lush green fields with swaying rows of trees on both sides of the road greeted us joyously. Having driven for nearly two hours, we stopped at the motorway rest area to freshen up with strong coffee. In half an hour we were back on the road. Next came our test in driving through suburban traffic which apparently was oblivious to rules and regulations. We enjoyed hurling packs of candy to roadside children and toddlers running around the slow urban traffic.

As we approached the rural landscape, the surrounding village life, smoking brick kilns, mountain table tops and visible traces of salt on the ground hinted that we were not far from our destination. The reception area of the mines was reminiscent of a remote railway station where a train seldom appears. The salt mines’ discovery dates back to 326BC, when the armies of Alexander and Raja Porus fought near river Jhelum. The challenging terrain and vastness of the range testifies to the greatness of Alexander who travelled on horseback from Macedonia to this part of the world which still maintains an air of primitiveness to date. It is said that the sick horses of the army ingested salt from the mines and recovered, and this was when the treasure of the Salt Range was discovered.

A narrow opening near the mountain range leads to train carriages pulled by a 1930 old vintage engine in a dilapidated condition. A Japanese visitor remarked that he was n’t surprised at all at the poor condition of the engine for if it had been all spick and span, it would not be worth coming all the way from Japan to see the salt mines as it was basically history that he was interested in, not modernisation. We probably need time to develop this kind of an evolved aesthetic sense.

The toughest part was yet to come as the narrow opening of mine did not look spacious enough for the train loaded with enthusiastic visitors in the attached trolleys. As the engine entered the mine, the train driver started blowing the whistle which was to caution the passersby to squeeze to one side and allow the train to pass through the narrow opening.

The temperature inside the mine remains between 18-20C both in winter and summer. A glittering 50-year old mosque is constructed at the train disembarkation point. The bricks have various hues with red indicating iron, the pink magnesium and white being salt.

The mines have 17 levels while we were at the ground level. Modern mining techniques were introduced by Dr Warth in 1872 according to which only 50 per cent of the salt is removed and the rest is left to hold the structure and to date the same method is in use.

Abid, our guide who conducts tours for foreign and local visitors, described the significance of various sections with his interesting vocabulary of words and expressions. He showed us a place where interesting crystal accumulation has formed the word ‘Mohammed’ in Urdu and in another part was an artistic expression of Allama Iqbal and Minar-i-Pakistan, while one crystal formation radiated light like diamonds. We were also shown a wooden fossil dating back to the Precambrian Age.

One cannot appreciate the vastness of the mine from inside. After all the Khewra salt mines are the second largest reserves of salt in the world after Poland’s Wielizha mines for amazingly enough, 370,000 tons of salt are drawn from reserves of 220 metric tons of salt treasure every year. The population around Khewra is mostly employed in the mines; though on paltry low wages as whatever hard work it may involve, the net outcome is salt.