Ningel, a small hamlet in the foothills of Imphal valley, is the only village in Manipur struggling to preserve the art of making circular salt slabs, older than three centuries. Despite the lure of higher-income generating occupations, availability of packaged iodized salt and the disappearance of salt wells in neighbouring villages, people like Maibum Mutum are working tirelessly throughout the day to make the circular salt slabs. Inhabited by less than 1,000 people, Ningel has three salt-wells.
‘Salt is extracted from the nearby salt wells after the presence of salt springs is confirmed when subtle vapours are found hovering from potential sites. A shaft is sunk down to the spring by the locals to extract the water from which salt is made,’ said Mutum, a local from the Ningel village. These salt wells are 45 feet in depth and six feet in diameter.
Only six households of Ningel are engaged in making circular salt slabs and multiple salt wells located at nearby villages of Chandrakhong, Nongbram aren’t functioning now. Unlike packaged salt available in local supermarkets, the salt slabs procured from Ningel are not sold in fancy packets. Circular in shape with a diameter of 12 cm and thickness of less than one inch, Ningel salts are marketed not in powdered form but in unpackaged slabs placed on a palm-sized banana leaf, which is then moulded into the same shape with hands.
Maimu, a local villager claimed that the circular salt slabs are better than packaged iodized salt, and in demand during the Manipuri festival of Cheiraoba or Manipuri New Year. The locals have petitioned the government to help preserve the salt wells.