The Tamils of the past regarded salt as a symbol of taste and wealth. Read this short excerpt from ‘The Sweet Salt of Tamil’ in which chronicler Tho Paramisavan writes on salt, feeling, and the symbolism of salt in Tamil culture.
With a history of three millennia and spoken by 90 million people today, Tamil is once ancient and modern. It is the oldest surviving language of the world. How is this Dravidian tongue different from other languages that look towards Sanskrit? What does Tamil taste like? How does ‘curry’ trace its roots to the Tamil kari? When was the first idli made?
Written by Tho Paramasivan, and translated by V. Ramanarayan, The Sweet Salt of Tamil: Things We Do Not Know About Tamil Country has been translated from the original in Tamil, Ariyappadatha Tamizhagam (published in 1997). It covers a wide range of themes, from faith and funerals, to the clothes that the Tamils wore. But of course, the bits that drew us in were about food.
The Locavore also loved the note from the publisher, S. Anand of Navayana, in which he writes: “Tho Paramasivan’s work on the unknown, untold, uncharted aspects of the Tamil country reads like notes and entries in a ledger. It has a Borgesian flair, giving off the mixed scent of logic and lunacy.”
Read an excerpt from a section, titled Feeling and Salt:
A useless action or thing is described as not being worth its salt—uppu in Tamil. A person without feeling is asked if they add salt to their food or not. Salt has a niche of its own in the history of humanity. Learning to use salt was as important a milestone in civilisational evolution as the discovery of fire. It also marked the beginning of the science of chemistry.
Taste is the first meaning of the Tamil word uppu. The different tastes of sweetness, bitterness and sourness all have their basis in the word salt. Cooking salt is known as velluppu, white salt. Salt occupied a prime place in ancient Tamil economy and culture. The Tamils of the past regarded salt as a symbol of taste and wealth. Mixed with other substances, white salt dissolves without a trace but makes the cooked food palatable.
The word sambalam for wages was born of a combination of samba (paddy) and alam (salt pan) as the worker was paid in paddy and salt. It is said that the word salary1 in English also originated from salt. Even today, among most castes in Tamilnadu, a new bride enters her husband’s house carrying salt in a coconut-frond basket. Guests at house-warming ceremonies bring rice and salt as gifts.
In a section of the kallar community of Madurai district, the bridegroom’s family takes salt and rice to the engagement ceremony. The custom of offering salt-free food to departed souls on the eighth or tenth day of death still prevails in many communities. This is done to sever all ties with the dead, as salt is a marker of the continuance of a relationship. Salt is also regarded as a metaphor for gratitude. Ingratitude or betrayal of trust is a proverbial act of disloyalty to the salt one has eaten at another’s home. The poet Bharati2 lambasts Vidura thus in his Panchali Sapatam.3
Utterly shameless Vidura!
You betrayed the salt you ate, Vidura!
Salt is known to have been a product with a huge market in ancient Tamil country. Sangam literature refers to the community of umanars who carted away the salt farmed on the seashore for trade. A pre-Christian stone inscription found in Azhagarmalai refers to a salt merchant.
A salt pan or field was known as alam. Large salt fields were named after kings, along with the suffixes peralam (the big pan) and kovalam (the king’s pan). The Chola and Pandya kings4 controlled the salt trade. The anthropologist Natana Kasinathan5 writes in one of his essays: ‘When salt was sold during the reign of Jatavarman Tribhuvanachakravarti [emperor of the three worlds] Sundara Pandian [1268 CE],6 we find mention of salt fields like the Jananatha or Adumboor peralam, the Chellur or Anabhaya Chozha peralam, the Idaiyankuzhi or Rajendra Chola peralam, the Gudalur or Rajanarayana peralam, Tirunallur or Kidaram Konda Chozha peralam, the Vennarigan Suzhi or Aezhisai Mohan peralam, and the Sooraikkamu or Aalappiranthan peralam. One uzhakku, a small unit of measurement, was collected as tax for every uri measure of salt. This was donated to Thiruvadigai Thiruvatteeswarar temple towards renovation, and used for distribution of prasadam (grace offerings) to devotees.’
The price of salt remained high in the days before transportation facilities became more accessible. We come across a woman who barters white crystal salt for paddy in Sangam literature. We know from stone inscriptions that the prices of salt and paddy ran a close race during the Chola reign (between the ninth and thirteenth centuries) too. Because salt eroded metal, it was stored in homes in wooden caskets called maravai and maakkal or clay pots. These containers have survived as cultural relics.
Salt has also been an indicator of Tamilnadu’s social hierarchy. It is customary to eat cooked rice after adding salt to it. When caste oppression was at its fiercest, oppressed castes were in the habit of mixing salt with rice even as it was being cooked on the stove. It was considered a symbol of elitism to be served salt along with your food on your leaf.
There are also mandates like ‘Don’t utter the word “salt” or give sour curd to anyone after dusk.’ In unavoidable circumstances, curd or buttermilk can be given after accepting some salt in exchange. Salt is considered to be a marker of affluence and kinship. Hence, people of certain castes refrain from adding salt to the offerings made to the deceased.
Gandhi undertook the salt satyagraha because he knew that salt affected all—beyond caste, creed and class. The nationalist movement questioned the legitimacy of the British government by raising the question, ‘Is a reign that taxes salt really a government?’—thus stressing the cultural importance of salt and its significance in terms of identity.
Gandhi’s salt satyagraha and Dandi yatra were among the most important moments in Indian history. More recently, the Indian government granted the foreign company Cargill the licence to manufacture salt in the state of Gujarat where the Dandi march took place. The protests against the licence by the people of Gujarat led by George Fernandes and the eventual withdrawal by Cargill are among the charged pages of Indian history.7
1. The OED says: ‘From Anglo-Norman French salarie, from Latin salarium, originally denoting a Roman soldier’s allowance to buy salt; from sal “salt”.’
2. Journalist, nationalist and independence activist, Bharati, or Mahakavi (The Great Poet) Bharati, is Subramania Bharatiyar’s (1882–1921) pseudonym. Born into a brahmin family, he is considered one of the greatest Tamil figures.
3. Panchali Sapatam or Panchali’s Vow is an epic poem of 412 verses that retells the story of Draupadi as an ode to Bharat Mata, where the Pandavas are the Indians, the Kauravas the British, and the Kurukshetra war of the Mahabharata is the freedom struggle.
4. The reference here is to the later Pandya dynasty of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Like the Cholas, the Pandyas also trace back their lineage to the pre-Christian Sangam era.
5. He was the director of the state archaeology department in the 1990s. He unearthed several early Tamil inscriptions and published widely.
6. A thirteenth-century Pandian king known for his territorial conquests and patronage of the arts and temples. The Pandians rose after displacing the Cholas in the mid-thirteenth century.
7. The reference is to the $15-million salt manufacturing unit that was to be established near the Kandla port in Gujarat by the American multinational company Cargill Inc. in the 1990s. There were widespread protests from the locals and the then Janata Dal leader George Fernandes joined the fray and threatened a satyagraha against the plant. The plan was abandoned in 1993. Subsequently, Gautam Adani, Cargill’s India partner, stayed on, and built his ports and business empire.
This is an excerpt from The Sweet Salt of Tamil: Things We Do Not Know About Tamil Country published in 2023 (Navayana).