Inside Khewra

Khewra Salt Mine, Pakistan

The Khewra Salt Mines, seated in the Salt Range in Jhelum district, are the oldest in the subcontinent. These also hold the distinction of being Pakistan’s largest and the world’s second largest salt mines, second only to the Sifto Salt Mine in Goderich, Ontario. Operated by the Pakistan Mineral Development Corporation (PMDC), the production of this mine stands at an impressive 387,747 tonnes per annum – and only fifty percent of the whole salt is excavated, so as to prevent the mine from collapsing. However, it’s none of these facts that engage you as you enter the mine – it’s the temperature. Despite visiting during the inexorable Punjabi heat, the mine was as if from another continent. The temperature is maintained at about 18-20 degrees centigrade around the year, as we later learnt, and we couldn’t be happier.

There are eighteen floors at the mine at Khewra and the tunnels there are spread well about forty kilometres. One among these was opened for the public in 2003, when the Khewra tourist resort was formally inaugurated. There are about 250,000 tourists to the venue annually – making Khewra one of Pakistan’s most popular tourist spots. And with the interesting vistas it has to offer, along with the witty guards to keep you company, it certainly deserves that acclaim.

Khewra’s discovery is a fable unto itself. It was around 320BC when the spot was first discovered. The story goes that Alexander the Great was fighting a battle with Raja Porus, and it was here in the Salt Range that the camps of his army were established. Horses did the trick then. As the army’s horses were seen licking the rocks of the place, the abundance of salt here was eventually discovered. But it was only during the Mughal times that work, and trade, in the mine was properly started. And then, much like everything else in the subcontinent, the mine went to the control of the Sikhs before falling into the hands of the British – who, like always, added a lot of infrastructure to the mine. And much of which, we are still putting to use, good or otherwise.

There’s an electric train that takes you to the inside of the mine, it was originally used for the transport of salt – but now carries tourists; though you can always skip the option and walk the way. Once inside, you’re directed to follow a certain path – and absorb all the peculiarities of the mine as you go by. There are a number of salt-water ponds inside the mine, some of these are said to be as old as the days of the Mughal. Everything is salt inside, so you definitely cannot survive without taking everything with (more than) a pinch of salt. Khewra offers some of the most interesting tourist attractions there. Notable among these are the various structures made of salt here. Just as you enter the main chamber (affectionately named ‘Chandni Chowk’), there’s a mosque made of salt bricks, which the workers refer to as “Badshahi Mosque”. There’s also a replica of the Minar-e-Pakistan, constructed in a similar manner.

There’s a dispensary present within the mine; in 2007, an asthma clinic was also set up, where asthma and other respiratory illnesses are treated through “salt therapy”. A cafe has also been set up inside the mine – and souvenir shops, both inside as well as outside the mine, offer many deals on salt- based sculptures that you cannot help but buy. These include lamps, bowls and models of architectural wonders.

The most amazing thing to see at the mine is arguably the salt bridge, which has been standing for ages, without any support whatsoever. No one really knows much about how the bridge formed, but it’s definitely something to marvel. Walking on the bridge is as exciting as it is frightening (there’s a huge salt-water pond below, only God knows your fate if the bridge decides to rest for a while), but it takes you to another chamber, which has Allama Iqbal’s face and some religious verses carved into the ceiling. Also, the water in the ponds is so clear that you can practically see the light making its way to the very bottom. And I say this only because we were given a demonstration of this very phenomenon.

The crystal gallery is another very famous spot inside the mine, but it had been closed due to unfavourable weather conditions by the time we went. Talking of which, the 2010 floods are also said to have adversely affected the mine.

So the next time you’re planning a one-day trip and think you’ve run out of options, never let Khewra slip out of your mind. For its grandeur, climate and aesthetics, the location provides an unprecedented experience.

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