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Sambhar Lake (Gift of the Thar)

by Ashish Chhatwal

Enmeshed in history, unique in beauty and rich in salt, Sambhar Lake remains Mother Natures blessing to arid Rajasthan.

Deserts are supposed to be dead lands. Barren and desolate, an unending vista of blistering heat, wind-blown sand, thorny bushes and an occasional apologetic looking tree. Coveting water in abundance here is analogous with religious blasphemy. Seeing it spread out as far as the horizon is akin to witnessing a miracle. A mirage turned real. Welcome to Sambhar Lake, the ultimate anachronism created by Mother Nature in the Thar Desert.

Located off NH 8(National Highway) towards Ajmer, some 90 km west of Jaipur, the capital city of Rajasthan, this is Indias largest saline lake - 190 sq km in extent at full capacity. It stretches in length for 22.5 km, its width varying between three and 11 km approximately.

At Sambhar, folklore and history coalesce and legends abound around its presence here. According to one version, some 2,500 years ago, the Goddess Shakumbhari bequeathed the lake to the people of the area. In her veneration, a sparkling whitewashed temple stands on a rocky hillock jutting out of the lake bed. A reference in the epic Mahabharata explicates the marriage of Raja Yayati with Devyani, daughter of Shukarcharya (the guru of demons) who lived beside the lake. A temple and a tank near Salt Lake city honour Devyani even today.

The salt of life
The colourfully attired local labourers working in the salt pans, stand in absolute contrast to the
stark white of the salt mounds all around. Sambhar means salt, and it has been extracted from this lake for over a thousand years. Historically, the Rajputs, Marathas, Scindias and the Moguls have all partaken the commercial and utilitarian benefits of salt produced here. In 1870, the rulers of Jaipur and Jodhpur, who then jointly owned the lake, leased the salt pans to the British. It was then that technology and commerce bolstered the basically traditional methods of salt production and disbursement. After independence, the lake was appropriated by the government and is now managed by Sambhar Salts Limited, a joint venture of Hindustan Salts and the government of Rajasthan.
Physically, a five km long stone dam bisects this expansive and roughly ovoid lake. The western half acts as a reservoir supplying water to the eastern side saltpans through a system of sluice gates, canals and pumps. In fact, the two main pumps situated at the dam wall were installed by the British nearly a century ago and are still going strong. Truly remarkable, considering the fact that the saline water they pump is highly corrosive.

Salt is produced mainly on the eastern side, with modern technology just supporting the traditional methods. Water from the reservoir is transferred from one saltpan (colloquially called a kyar) to the next, mainly by gravity, till it reaches a degree of salinity considered optimal for salt extraction. This is acquired from the salts dissolved in the lake bed soil. This salt saturated water (brine), about one foot deep, is left undisturbed in a saltpan. Here, wind and the fierce sunshine in the area crystallise salt out of the brownish algae-rich brine. A wafer-thin crystal layer forms on top, which is broken by stirring the water with long wooden poles, and settles at the bottom. Over a period of weeks, more and more of these crystalline layers settle on top of one another and fuse together to form larger crystals. During the peak of summer, when temperatures soar into the high forties, about an inch of salt gets deposited in two weeks. This deposited salt is scooped out from under the brine and collected in small mounds to dry out, before being loaded into wagons and sent to the factory for further processing.

Infinite horizons
A sharp toot, distinctly reminiscent of a train engine, breaks the silence of a quiet morning at the salt flats. The salt train comes crawling across the horizon, quaint wooden wagons trundling behind a blue mother hen engine. Laid by the British and improved upon by the existing Sambhar Salts Limited, a network of narrow gauge tracks connects the saltpans with the works and is used for transporting salt from the lake to the processing plant. The positively unromantic diesel-powered locomotives have replaced the enchanting mini steam engines of yesteryears, but this ingenious train-trolley system remains as fascinating as ever.

Apart from salt, Sambhar Lake is a veritable eco-system in its own right. Its spirulina algae-rich waters have always attracted flamingoes by the thousands. Pelicans too, apparently love the lake and flock here in large numbers. Sadly, for the past couple of years, the drought conditions prevalent in the region have forced the birds to look for greener pastures further afield. Its two feeder rivers, Mendha and Rupangarh, are gnarled skeletons of their bubbly past even in the middle of monsoons.

Even though Sambhar Lake is a pale shadow of its sea-like proportions, deprived of its personality-endowing water during this drought. The overwhelming vastness of the dry lake bed is an extreme antithesis to the urban crowding and claustrophobia. Its
dusty yielding surface, with sunken lines traced on it, left behind by vehicles and people going across, is like history painted on a huge canvas of time with colours of the past. Sitting atop the hill behind the Shakumbari Devi temple, the sinking sun sets the distant dwindling waters of the lake afire for us. Its oblique light makes tracks in the dry lake bed below, and looks like the handiwork of a childs spontaneous drawing running riot. The inky blackness of a young night fuses the infinitely distant horizon. The darkness diminishes distances, until the rising moon spawns a new midnight blue and silver landscape. The vastness is in no way forsaken, merely comparable now to the velvet black of the sky, replete with its diamond treasure of distant stars and unfathomed mysteries.

Salt of Sambhar Lake.



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