Sunday, February 3, 2008

What is the price of SALT ???

We -the present generation of Taniis- are lucky enough to be living in this 21st century. Among today's basic commodities accessible to all is common salt, probably the only cheapest ever edible that everybody can afford. It sounds unbelievable but yet it seems to be true, just prior to the Second World War common salt was one of the costliest among all edible items available in Ziro plateau... And in those days when there were no road links from our plateau towards the plains, some among our Taniis forefathers (grandparents ?) used to travel down regularly by foot to the Brahmaputra valley in search of salt.

As our place is located at higher altitude, rock salt deposits do not often occur naturally. However, salt consumption is an indispensable necessity for all humans as the iodine it contains helps preventing a dysfunctioning of the thyroid gland known as goitre or goiter. A deficiency in iodine produces a swelling inside the neck just below Adam's Apple caused by hypertrophied thyroid glands. This phenomena, which is called Lanchu alin in Tanii, was widespread in the Himalayan region till the 50's, partly because the traditional diet of the populations did not incorporate other good sources of iodine such as sea-food or plants grown on iodine-rich soil, and was heavily dependent of traded salt.

Though our Tanii forefathers were probably unaware of the existence of the link between salt consumption and goiter, they were eagerly looking for salt for its taste alone, and were ready to spare their last penny for an ounce of it. I guess, scarcity of salt in the region must have also enhanced their taste for that substance. Some Taniis were in the habit of going every year to the Assamese plains near North Lakhimpur. There they bought salt cheaply, not only for their own use but also for resale to their neighbours further in the interior, especially Nyishis and Miris by making some profit. It really sounds unbelievable when a handful of salt used to be sold at the cost of one full grown mithun... In the absence of roads a commercial journey to the plains was usually a matter of 5-6 day trek through precipitous hill country. This was done in winter, mostly by men and boys. Interestingly, it seems that not all Taniis were involved in these barter deals. Anthropologist F├╝rer-Haimendorf has noted that prior to 1940 people who ventured to the plain were typically poor people attempting to better their social position by trade in goods : "Men of wealth and good status never went to the plains and when I first arrived in the Apa Tani country [1944] I found that none of the clan-headmen have ever left the hills" (1980 : 63). Interestingly also, Haimendorf reports that salt was bartered in exchange for chillies of a particular large variety which were sought-after in the plains.

The traditional importance of salt among Taniis can be seen even today from the custom of gifting a handful of salt to buniin ajin during Myoko ajin gyonii ceremony. This practice reminds us that, untill a few decades ago, a handful of common salt was among the most precious items to be gifted to near and dear ones.

Despite the scarcity of natural salt in the surroundings of Ziro -or maybe because of it, Tanii people were gifted with the knowledge of producing a salt substitute in the form of a salty substance from the ash of leafy plants. This man-made salt cake is locally known as TAPYO. Various sources disagree on the composition of this substance. According to my knowledge it is obtained from the filtered water of millet plant ash. The process involves long preparations : one first has to dry the left over of millet plants after harvesting, reduce it to ashes and then filter it with water; this filtered ash juice is then condensed into solid form by heating it thoroughly on the frying fan at high temperature. This way it takes a long time to make one full cake of TAPYO. According to some authors TAPYO is made out of the ash juice of three wild plants mixed together. Whatever it may be, it is likely that this locally-made salt is an effective agent against goiter, and apparently people consuming it on a regular basis have never been found suffering from it.

The manufacture of TAPYO is an age-old tradition of Taniis, and over time the substance has also become one of their favourite delicacies. TAPYO is most popularly used during important occasions such as MURUN, MYOKO and MIDA. It is a well established Tanii custom to welcome a guest with a piece of TAPYO during such said occasions, and TAPYO is also used as an apetizer at drinking parties. Depending on the process of its making it can taste differently. The best TAPYO taste can bring tremendous pleasure within guests which directly enhances the happiness of celebrations. This way TAPYO constitutes one of the most important items found in a typical Tanii household. Salt cakes are generally made by women folks.

Well made TAPYO cakes can last for quite a long time, stored for smoking on the rack located above the fireplace in Tanii interiors. Usually the salty substance is kept wrapped into a particular kind of leaf available in wild forested areas.
(Photo from Tanii Aju -by Gyati kobing)

Thinking about those days of our forefathers, when the price of salt was highest ever, I feel lucky to be living in present time. At least we can avail ourselves with common edible salt at cheaper rate. Bygone days were harder... but the scarcity of common salt in our place has also given birth to a very unique technique for producing a vegetable salt substitute.


prava said...

whats the price of salt....good post.

ampi said...

it will cost around 200 or 250 baks