Inside Khewra’s salt mines

The mines, believed to be the oldest in the history of the subcontinent, are the second largest deposit of salt in the world and the largest in Asia

Photo by the author

Located at a drive of around three hours (160 kilometres) from Islamabad – near Pind Dadan Khan, part of Jhelum district – the Khewra Salt Mines have a lot more to offer than just the briny surrounds of the mine. The reserve is the second largest deposit of salt in the world and the largest in Asia. According to some estimates, the Khewra Mines have more than 6.5 billion tons of salt which, at the current rate of excavation, is sufficient for thousands of years.

The active mine is around 750 feet deep. The local guide say there are 17 levels of the mine, five above the ground floor and 11 beneath it. It is claimed that lengthwise the mine extends from River Jhelum to Mianwali district (300 kilometres). Its breadth varies from 8 to 30 kilometres. The excavation is currently limited to three kilometres, of which two kilometres is the ‘working area.’ The mining method in vogue in Khewra is called the ‘room and pillar mining.’ When salt is excavated the ‘rooms’ are taken out. The excavated material constitutes only 50 percent by volume. This creates ‘pillars’ which are left behind to support and ensure the stability of the mountain. The temperature of the Khewra Salt Mine remains stable at 18 degrees centigrade which makes it cooler than the surroundings on hot days and warmer in winters.

Entrance and exit point of the mine. — Photo by the author

The information board at the entrance says, the salt mines were first discovered incidentally in 326 BC when Alexander the Great was fighting against Raja Porus. The salt deposit was indeed discovered by his horses licking the crop salt. It is said that seeing the horses licking the stones, a soldier bravely followed them out of curiosity. Recorded mining was initiated in Khewra during the rule of the Mughal emperor Akbar in 1500 AD. By the year 1890, the annual salt production had crossed the 50,000 metric tonnes mark. Currently, 1,000 to 1,500 metric tonnes of salt is excavated on a working day.

Prominent spots and monuments within the mine, both handmade and naturally developed, have been named after famous tourist spots and destinations across Pakistan. The names include Chaghi Hills, Chandni Chowk, Sheesh Mahal, Minar-i-Pakistan, Ayubia and Nathiagali. Most of these are illuminated with lights placed within salt walls. There is a beautiful mosque where people can offer prayers. Like other monuments, it is also made up entirely of salt bricks.

One of the ponds accessible to tourists for viewing is 40 feet deep. According to the guide, half of this pond is made up of mine water while the rest is rainwater that accumulates on the sixth level or the ground floor. Most of this water is used as washing soda. There are around one hundred such ponds in the mountain. These are 10 to 100 feet deep. There is also a canon placed inside the mine that was once used to shoot salt pieces off the mine.

A mosque inside the mines. — Photo by the author

...the salt deposit was discovered incidentally in 326 BC when Alexander the Great fought against Raja Porus. It was, indeed, discovered by his horses licking the crop salt. Some believe that the horses licked the stones on the ground and then one soldier bravely followed them out of curiosity.

Salt, here, is found in three distinct shades of white, pink and red. The colour speaks of presence impurities: iron and magnesium. Rock salt has been used historically for seasoning and as a preservative for meat, in refrigeration industry and in dyeing. It is also used in the manufacture of soaps and glass.

It is believed that the salt laden air is good for those suffering from asthma. There is an Asthma Hospital just outside the mine. There is a dispensary built with a salt brick wall within the mine as well. It is believed that the salt content purifies the air and results in people bringing back chunks of salt and keeping them in their homes to detoxify air.

One of the salt water ponds. — Photo by the author

Khewra mines are sheer delight for tourists. Four to five hundred thousand tourists visit the mines annually. The ticket is priced at Rs 400 for those who want to walk the entire mine and Rs 600 for those who want to take the local train instead. Children under 3 years get to tour the mine for free. The advantage in opting for the train ride is that a local guide explains the significance of various parts of the mine.

Camel riding and horse riding activities are also available just outside the mine along with washroom facilities, praying areas, parking and resting areas. Many souvenir shops line the road leading to the Khewra Mines where one can purchase salt blocks and decorative items like lamps and show pieces made entirely of salt, in various shades of pink, white and red.

A buzzing tea shop and cafeteria at the mine’s entrance, opposite the reception and tickets counter, serves dozens of tourists families. There used to be a souvenir and snacks shop at the farthest end of the mine. It is now closed on account of the pandemic.

Replica of Minar-e-Pakistan. — Photo by the author

Those opting to approach the mines from Kallar Kahar can also visit another tourist destination, the historical Katas Raj temples which lie close by and are recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The only downside to visiting the salt mines can be the roads that are in poor shape no matter what route you take. However, visiting the Khewra Salt Mines is definitely worth all the effort.

The writer is a   physician, healthcare leader, traveller and a YouTuber host for the   DocTree Team promoting Organic Gardening in   Pakistan   He tweets @Ali_Shahid8  

Inside Khewra’s salt mines