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