With a mine of salt

Recommended. Omar Mukhtar Khan is guided from pillars to chambers,
from one storey to another in Khewra, where he absorbs all he is told
about the salt excavation method

Khewra is the largest salt excavation site of the Salt Range. After
driving along the scenic fields and orchards on the Motorway for
approximately three hours, the traveller exits at Lilla interchange to
reach this small mining town. As he moves on, he appreciates the
magnificent straight cliff (700m) of the Range rising from the plains
of Jhelum.

When Alexander the great passed through Salt Range in 326 BC to fight
Porus on the banks of Jhelum River, he may not have thought that one
day it will be the second largest salt excavation site of the world.
Although first mentioned by historians, Arrian and Ptolemy, we also
find the discussion on the Salt Range and its salt in the writings of
Alexander era.

Today, the mines of Khewra have 17 stories and each storey has five
parallel mines. Total length of the mines is about 140 km (87 miles).
The mining here is done using the ‘Pillar and Chamber’ method. In
simple terms, it means that each pillar underlines another pillar in
the upper storey and each chamber underlies another chamber in the
upper storey. This technique ensures the strength of mine structure.
The strength is also ensured by excavation of only 50 per cent of the
available salt.

Although salt excavation started in Mughal era by crude methods, it
were the British who understood the importance of the site, named it
Mayo mines, and laid a rail road into the mines in 1840.

To understand the operation better, it is advised to hire an official
guide. Personal torches will be an added advantage.

As a visitor is guided through the mine, he cannot but appreciate the
humour of the guides who have named different parts of the mine after
famous places in Pakistan. The mine divides into two after a short
walk. This crossing, called ‘Chandni Chowk’, leads to a beautiful
mosque built by transparent red and white salt rock with concealed
light in the rocks — providing an excellent view of the structure.
The mosque is known as the ‘Badshahi Mosque’.

As if this is not enough, guides now lead the crowd to the Minar-i-
Pakistan, which is salty stalactites hanging from ceiling and clinging
to a wall in the shape of a minar. Some of the chambers along the way
are full of crystal clear water, so clear that even a small stone
sinking down to bottom can be seen with a powerful torch. Don’t be
afraid; the water will not let the tourist sink as it is actually
saturated Sodium Chloride — Bryan water. Bryan water is used by the
ICI plant to produce soda ash for soap and washing power.

The tour wouldn’t be complete if a visit to the Assembly Hall is not
made, no not in Lahore but in the mines. It is the oldest part of the
mine where the floors of chambers in successive storeys have been
removed to show the height of the combined excavation. The guides
usually light a flame to highlight the height of about 80 feet. The
remains of excavation by chizzel method of the Mughal era is evident
here. This method is now replaced by blast method. It will be of
interest to know that the original colour of salt is white. Red and
pink colours are due to iron and magnesium pigments while black salt
is prepared synthetically from white salt.

The cordial guides never forget to take visitors to one of the largest
water chambers, ‘Lake Saif-ul-Maluk’. On the way, a long bridge
humorously named ‘Pul-I-Sirat’ has to be crossed.

Guides here are usually talkative and well-versed in English. On way
to the mine’s ‘Sheesh Mahal’, they provide their guests with a list of
Urdu and Punjabi movies shot on the site. This place has smooth
transparent walls of red salt. Again walls are lit by torches and
concealed light to provide an astounding view. Just besides the Sheesh
Mahal, a small tunnel leads to a fossil scientifically proved to be
billions of years old. However, there are conflicts about its real
age.

Khewra mines are definitely recommended for a one-day excursion trip,
especially in winter either from Lahore or Islamabad. Pakistan Mineral
Development Corporation’s rest house can be booked through its
manager. If not, then one of the government rest houses in Choa Saidan
Shah can be booked through respective assistant commissioner.

Perhaps, carrying along a picnic will be a good idea as there is no
proper eat-out around the area.

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