Himalayan pink salt is not simply a furnishing or culinary addition that has appeared on the scene in the last few years. It is a commodity with an extraordinary history, with centuries old traditions and communities that have sprung up around it. If you have a salt lamp in your home, or are looking to get a Himalayan salt product, it is worth knowing the wonderful history behind it, from how it got its minerals, to how long it has actually been around.
Image by AFP
How was Himalayan Salt Formed?
In a corner of Pakistan, hundreds of millions of years ago, pink salt began its slow formation, beginning as a mineral rich expanse of water. The sea evaporated and dried, leaving in its wake a wide area of mineral sea salt, the base of the salt range. This salt was likely protected initially by a layer of lava, and then layers of snow, leaving the eventual Himalayan salt, pollution and dust free. Tectonic activity sealed this in, creating extreme pressure within. As the mineral salt dehydrated even more, the buried layers formed deposits of sea salt and minerals. Away from most organisms, what we now know as Himalayan pink salt formed under lots of pressure, and in lots of time. The tectonic activity didn’t cease, and instead forced the seabed up, forming the salt ranges where the Himalayan salt mines now are.
How was Pink Salt Discovered?
The fascinating story of how Himalayan salt was discovered begins in 326 BC, with Alexander the Great! It is thought that he and his soldiers had stopped to rest in the region, after a long period of travel. Their tired and hungry horses had gathered around, and a curious soldier noticed that they were licking at the pink rocks. They soon realised that they had found salt, and the startling colours of the pink salt made them certain they had found something special. So, it was a horse who is said to have first discovered Himalayan salt.
The Early Years of Himalayan Salt
In the early stages, pink mineral salt was mined only in small amounts by the local community, to be used for flavourings, meat preservation, and on occasion, medical purposes. The earliest records of the pink salt being mined stem from the 1200s, but it was certainly being locally mined before this. A few centuries later, under emperor Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar, pink salt mining became a much larger operation, and the Himalayan salt became a traded commodity. This transformed the formerly limited operation into an industrial mining operation.
The Pakistani Pink Salt Community
Once it had become a traded commodity, communities began to spring up around the pink salt mines, usually workers and their families, joining the long-established locals. These communities still remain, even after all this time. Himalayan salt is, and has been, one of the region’s most valuable and traditional products. The traditions and culture that have been created around Himalayan salt products remain an important part of Pakistan’s history and agriculture. The list of benefits that Himalayan salt is said to produce stem from the experimentation of locals, across the past few centuries.
Image by Fazal Khaliq
Where in Pakistan does Himalayan Salt come from?
The Himalayan salt range of Pakistan is vast, coming in at around 200 miles across the North East. There are 6 different mineral salt mines in the area, each producing a different kind of salt, with the colour of the pink salt varying across the different mines, and even their different rooms. Each of the pink salt mines ranges from 5 miles to 20 miles, with peaks that can reach thousands of feet. The largest of the six, and also the oldest, is the Khewra salt mine. Established in the 1820s, the Khewra salt mine, to the north of Punjab, is the main source of Himalayan salt. This single pink salt mine holds 6.7 billion tons of Himalayan salt, and based on the current tunnelling structure, around 220 million tons are currently accessible via this mine. The Khewra mine harvests around 400,000 tons of Himalayan salt rock per year, meaning it could continue at this rate for over 500 years. If the tunnelling system was furthered, this could continue for even more years. The current system is built across 25 miles of tunnels, with 18 different levels. The Himalayan salt mine is also a major tourist attraction for the area, and almost 300,000 visitors come to see its pink salt block bridges across salt brine ponds, and the glistening Himalayan glow in various configurations.
How is Himalayan Salt Mined?
In the early years, only the surface level of rock salt was used, which was perfectly fine for consumption rates at the time; it was only used by locals, for culinary and medicinal purposes. Once demand increased, this was no longer enough. Early procedures in the pink salt mines were fraught with danger and still had a fairly low yield. This changed in 1827, when British engineer Dr Warth began the ‘room and pillar’ method, giving rise to increased yields and producing modern mining techniques. Using this method, only 50% of the mineral salt rooms are harvested, and the other 50% is left to support the Himalayan salt range and the rooms themselves. Even now, this same, age-old technique is used by skilled workers, who have extended the tunnels deep into the mountains.
How is Pink Salt Organised for Use?
Himalayan pink salt is usually cut from the mines by the slab. These enormous bulks of pink stone are exported, and processed in other countries for use in the market. It is taken to these countries, and shaved down for culinary sea salt or roughly cut for use in salt lamps, which have been a feature of Himalayan salt since the 1980s.
Image by Fazal Khaliq
Is Himalayan Salt Mining Environmentally Friendly and Conscientious?
Himalayan salt is still hand mined by skilled local workers, using traditional methods. Best of all, it leaves little to no pollution or waste in the process. Whilst pink salt is finite, there are huge amounts of resources left unmined, which could last up to another century at the current rate, and enormous pillars of pink salt which will remain unmined. Once cut, usually nothing is applied to the Himalayan pink salt, leaving it a very natural product, especially when compared to other salts. Mining is overseen by a corporation that ensures the Himalayan salt mines function without child or slave labour, and that the miners are provided with fair wages, medical care, and education. It is this same corporation that ensures mining remains within the limits of the room, sticking to the 50% rules of the mines. Explosives are only used in the initial opening of the pink salt entrance, and are not used within to protect the structure of the Himalayan salt rock. Rock salt mining also has no impact on known wildlife or plant life in the area, though Yaks are occasionally used to carry salt across the mountains as transportation; this is often by locals, however, who have been breeding the animal and using it in that way for decades.
From the origins of the sea salt, to its discovery, all the way through to how it is mined today, Himalayan salt is an incredibly natural and conscientious product. If you want a Himalayan salt product or already have one, it is great to look at its layers and see the history within, from the pressure on primordial sea salt, to the hunger of a horse, through to the impact that unassuming pink salt has had on a corner of Pakistan.