A different Goa story: Exploring the last of Goa's salt pans
This is a Goa we rarely see. Away from the crowds of the beach belt and the lure of the casinos, the real Goa slogs away in its fields struggling to make a living that is not linked to tourism. For us locals, this was an eye-opener, a glimpse into how our cities are irrevocably linked to our fragile ecosystem.
Just on the outskirts of Goa's capital Panjim, the mangroves run parallel to the nearly-500-year-old Ponte de Linhares causeway which connects Panjim to Old Goa. Hidden behind the mangroves are acres of ice-cube-tray shaped salt pans where tiny white hills of this most important ingredient are still being farmed by hand.
It is a Saturday morning in Goa and a small group of us have gathered to explore the salt pans. “Do you know where the Mandovi river begins?” asks Tallulah D’Silva, who is leading the walk. Tallulah is a practicing architect who is fascinated by the “architecture of nature”. Her interest and knowledge of Goa’s birds, insects, and local ecology makes her an animated and interesting host.
“The river begins in the sea!” says one enthusiastic young participant. We smile at him indulgently. Tallulah explains that the Mandovi originates in the hills of the Western Ghats and flows down through North Goa to become this wide expanse of water on which Panjim is built.
We are standing on a culvert, looking down into a sluice gate. “This is a man-made system that is over 3500 years old,” says Tallulah. Peering down into the dark but clear water the simple ingenuity of the sluice gates is clear.The gates are wooden doors which police the water coming in and out of the creek and river. They swivel and open when the pressure of the tide hits them. The water then flows into a channel and is diverted into the salt pans on the other side.
We spot mudskippers enjoying the cool water and tiny crabs scramble into the laterite stones. The soil under our feet is smooth and sticky. It feels like plasticky, stretchable clay. Along the water’s edge, mangroves form a protective border. “With such soft soil any tree will fall,” says Tallulah. “The mangroves anchor themselves and stay steady by spreading their elaborate root system which goes deep and spreads like a raft.”
Mangroves are a protective device for coastal lands. They prevent soil erosion and arrest silting. They act as a vital defence barrier from tidal surges and high waves. Where there are mangroves, fish, shrimp, snails and other creatures thrive.
On the other side of the sluice gates, the water has gathered into a large murky rectangle. It doesn’t look too clean or clear. The surface is dotted with green algae and the occasional chocolate wrapper. “The 40% salinity in the river has to be 100% before salt can be harvested,” says Tallulah. “Solar salt is not pure white; it is full of minerals.”
The annual harvesting of salt covers the winter months in Goa. Every December, any water in the pans is pumped out and the sluice gates are closed so that no water enters in. The existing wooden planks are not enough to block the water so a ‘dam’ of mud and hay blocks even the tiniest trickle.
The shallow, pan-like squares are an engineering marvel. Their symmetry is pleasing and a photographer’s delight. The workers are oblivious to our little group now stepping on to the edge of a salt pan, exclaiming over the delightful bird prints firmly entrenched in the mud.
The pans are interconnected with a central spine linking them together. During our visit, a group of workers are walking around the edges of each rectangle, stamping down the squishy soil until it becomes firm. The soil is raked to form a border by hand, a tiny opening left for the water to be pumped in later. In a few weeks, the water will evaporate and turn saltier and the salt crystals will be harvested. We can already see a fine layer of white at the edge of several pans.
Here, salt is harvested every two weeks or so. The laborious process begins early in the morning and continues until dusk. If you didn’t stop to look, you wouldn’t believe that this happens at the doorstep of a busy city.
The weeks between December and March ironically are peak tourist season in Goa. Thousands of tourists stream past on this historic road on their way to Ribandar and Old Goa or Panjim. Very few stop to remark on the salt pans. Our ‘Salt Walk’ was circulated widely on social media but interestingly, the participants are all local residents, curious to learn more about their own city and its ecology.
India is the world's third largest salt producer, but industrialization is destroying the traditional salt making industry. The mittkaars, as the salt makers are known, are giving up their traditional occupations to work in white collared jobs instead. The salt pans themselves are under threat from the construction industry. The workers in the Ribandar salt pans are often migrants from Karnataka, earning a seasonal living in Goa.
With the introduction of iodised salt, the traditional salt farming industry went into rapid decline. The “white is good” assumption ensures that only hard-core traditionalists still purchase the salt for cooking or as fertiliser for palm trees or their fields.
As the sun rises overhead, we step up from the salt pans. A large pile of salt is already available for sale. Plastic bags filled with salt are neatly lined up, ready for any buyers. At Rs.40/- per kilogram, a bag lasts you a long time. Food sprinkled with solar salt tastes different as well. It is earthier and one uses less salt.
We all leave with bags of salt and promises to use it all up. We make notes of what we have seen this magical morning: fish like Shevto (Mullet) which is the state fish of Goa, Pearl Spot and muthri, a fish (says Tallulah) named for its sharp fin, which if it catches on your skin makes you want to pee. There were sightings of Purple Heron, Black-winged Stilt, Sandpipers and the common Red Shank. Brahminy kites, White Egrets and gleaming Kingfishers showed off for us. We saw the long, bean shaped mangrove seeds waiting to fall into the mud and take root. We bit into an iridescent pink berry that left a tinge of tingling wasabi on your tongue. We admired the oyster nacre that lines the culverts. These pearly shells, once abundant in Goa, are now a threatened species thanks to over harvesting. We’ve been here barely two hours and all these treasures were ours for the viewing.
This is a Goa we rarely see. Away from the crowds of the beach belt and the lure of the casinos, the real Goa slogs away in its fields struggling to make a living that is not linked to tourism. For us locals, this was an eye-opener, a glimpse into how our cities are irrevocably linked to our fragile ecosystem. Without the mangroves and the salt farms, this historic stretch of land would perhaps be another township of ugly concrete buildings. The pressure to convert agricultural land for construction and “development” is immense.
There were once hundreds of salt pans in Goa. Now barely 40 remain. The next time you sprinkle some salt over your Goan seafood, think about the mittkaars. Think about them when you pass by those seemingly unending acres of water-logged pans. And maybe, just maybe, along with the packets of cashews and the plastic bottles of feni and port wine, you might want to stock up on some Goan salt on your way home.