Salt daze

Dazzling white and sparkling in the sun; salt deserts, salt pans and salt fields are eerily beautiful places. India is the world’s third largest producer of salt, churning out around 27 million tonnes of the mineral every year and as we journeyed through the country we felt drawn towards these strange, briny landscapes and the life that inhabits and surrounds them.

Men on a tractor in the salt harvesting area of Bap, Rajasthan.
Salt deserts often cling to the fringes of places, they are harsh and desolate. India’s largest salt desert is the Rann of Kutch, in Gujarat; it’s enveloped by thorny scrubland and the close proximity to the Pakistani border means a heavy police presence in the area. It is, for many reasons, a hostile place.
A herd of goats cross a path in a village in Kutch, Gujarat.
Tucked behind remote villages, invisible from the road, lie hidden pockets of salt. Sandy desert gives way to salty deposits that crunch underfoot and shimmering blue salt lakes merge with the horizon. Visitors to these parts are rare, and curious locals peek out to see who the strangers are that have disrupted the usual village calm.
A salt desert in a sand desert in Kutch, Gujarat.
The Great Rann of Kutch, Gujarat.

Rajasthan is perhaps most synonymous with sandy deserts and grand forts, but it’s also a salt production hub. The salt is harvested manually from salterns, shallow pools with raised borders, to which water is added and evaporated to form salt crystals.

Salterns in Rajasthan, where salt is harvested.
A hand holds salt crystals in Rajasthan.

The salterns are a patchwork of colours and textures, from pure white crystals to dusty rose slush to inky green swirls caused by the dye added to the pans. Mounds of snow-like salt dot the area to form an abstract landscape.

Salt crust with an orange tinge at a salt pan in Rajasthan.
Salt water in a salt pan in Rajasthan.
Green dye added to a salt pan in Rajasthan.
A supervisor at a salt pan in Rajasthan stands outside a small white hut.
A salt worker in Rajasthan.
Salt harvesters in Bap, Rajasthan.
Salt workers' clothes and spades in Rajasthan.
Asmall bag of salt hand from a white wall in Rajasthan.
A salt worker in Rajasthan harvest salt.
The workers tasked with collecting the salt are called Agariyas. They toil away in soaring temperatures, while their hours spent in the salterns often causes damage to their feet and legs. Eye problems too are a common ailment, due to the Agariyas’ constant exposure to UV rays, reflected off the brilliant white salt. This work is not for the faint hearted and most Agariyas live in dire poverty.
A wheelbarrow for transporting harvested salt in a salt pan in Rajasthan.
A bearded salt pan worker in Rajasthan.

The workers we meet shovel spade after spade of white gold, stopping only once in a while to gulp down some liquid refreshment from a bucket of well water.

A salt harvester shovels spades full of salt crystals.
A salt worker washes salt off his legs in Rajasthan.
Salt workers in Rajasthan eat a simple lunch of vegetable curry and chapatis.
Salt workers in Rajasthan eat a simple lunch of vegetables and chapatis.

Lunch time means a rest in the cool of their small hut. Respite from the burning heat. It’s a simple affair of vegetable curry and chapatis. Meagre rations for such heavy labour.

Children fly a kite over a salt pan in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu.
A child stands in a salt pan in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu.
Salt pans in Tuticorin filled with rubbish during the rainy season.

When the seasonal rains come the work stops. The salterns and salt deserts flood and no salt can be collected. In Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu, the salt landscape looks grey and dead. During rainy season there are no workers here, just children flying kites, goats grazing and rubbish, an alarming amount of rubbish. The eerie beauty of the pans has been washed away with the rains.

Salt pans in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu filled with water at the end of the rainy season.