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Calicut Salt fields of Yore

Posted by Maddy Labels: ,

Kozhikodinte Uppupadangal

Not many today would be aware that once upon a time, there existed a number of salt pans or salt fields around Calicut. Historians past and present have alluded to it and stressed on their importance while Prof Raghava Varier had penned an article around the topic. It was interestingly a major trade as well as an important source of income to the people of Calicut at one time. Later during the last stages of the British reign over India, when Gandhiji started his salt satyagraha, a similar one was conducted in Calicut.

But let us see what the salty history of Calicut has to narrate from ancient times to the days when the people of Calicut had to shell out large taxes to the British for consuming a natural produce!

As CHF told us some years ago, Calicut, it was claimed, was a marshy expanse with only salt pans and a rugged sea coast before it suddenly developed in the 12th Century into a bustling sea port which traders from many nationalities frequented and acclaimed as 'the City of Truth'. So what was part did salt have to play before the advent of sea trade and all the politics and wars which followed, culminating in colonization?

Prof Raghava Varier, our esteemed historian provides an insight in his excellent article analyzing the place names around Calicut. Following a Toponymical approach, Varier provides a detailed analysis which I will attempt to summarize below. He starts with a basic explanation as to why salt found its way into human diet. In the earliest of times, salt in the meat itself satisfied the salt requirements of the eater but as diet moved to a grain based one, this had to added externally (as we see, it went from trace amounts to dollops these days!!) and then again it was a good preservative agent. Other uses were in glazing earthen pots, worship and for use in burials of a certain caste.

As one can imagine, salt produced in the salt fields on the coastal belt was carried inwards to the larger user base laden in carts and sold in exchange for paddy, sometimes costing as much as the latter. We also note that the saltpan owners lived close to their production pits. These locations, many of them around Calicut, are identified by their old place names (not current or applicable today). ‘Kali’ was salt, ‘uppalam’ is salty area, uppupattanam was saltpan, ‘uppukootam’ is a salt warehouse, ‘uppuchungam’ was salt tax and each of these terms were used together with the locale providing basic identification. According to Varier’s study, these 52 or so production and storage areas were located all around Calicut, in the midst of which grew up the town as we know today. One of the two salt tolls named Palaya Gunkam was located in Velapuram. The second toll was situated 2-3 miles North, at Kurumbrakattucheri.

We also note from this study that these locations depict a strong Buddhist presence, that they were the purveyors of the salt trade or the ‘Umanar’ and the trade routes went across to Waynad, Mysore and Kongu Nadu (around Coimbatore). Varier concludes that the Zamorin’s attack on the Porlathiris to take over Calicut was actually for control over the lucrative salt production and trading network that would help him also control the spice traffic from the eastern production centers which were beyond his domains, but terminating at the coast. Eventually as the acquisition of Calicut was completed, a bureaucracy was set up to control all aspects of salt production. So we can conclude that the ancient salt pans of Calicut now came under the Zamorin’s control.

We get a picture of Calicut under the Zamorin from the accounts of F Buchanan (1800) who recorded that Calicut had salt pans in abundance and that Calicut was a large manufacturer and exporter of salt using high tide sea water. He calls the salt makers ‘vaytuvans’ from the Punchuma tribe (Thurston defines them as the Patunna group in the Kannakkan caste) and explains the 92 day process starting between February - June. These tribes also carried on with stone work, coir rope, built mud walls and so on, when not working on salt fields. Buchnan also explains with a summary of costs that the business is quite lucrative, but required access to a large square footages of land (the soil had to be hard and smooth, sort of clayish). These lands were leased out by the local Jenmis on short and long terms. We also note that they were a different lot where it was taboo to touch a Vaytuvan woman, as she could be killed for adultery by her husband and that the caste buried their dead.

Even though salt production at Calicut largely ceased by 1807, the salt business did well in Malabar for another century, and the British were soon to monopolize the business in 1807. The monopolization Regulation AD 1807 II extract shows how it was done …

A Regulation for extending the Salt Monopoly to the Provinces of Canara and Malabar: Passed by the Governor in Council of Fort St. George, July 1807
Whereas it has been resolved that the salt monopoly, which by section XXIII Regulation I, A.D. 1805, is temporarily exempted from operation in Canara and Malabar, should be now extended to those provinces, wherefore the following rules are hereby enacted for that purpose.
II First -The landholders, proprietors, and inhabitants of Canara and Malabar shall be at liberty to carry on the manufacture of salt as heretofore.

Second - The salt so manufactured shall be sold by the landholders, proprietors, or inhabitants to the officers of Government alone, at a price to be determined with the consent of the respective parties, and with reference to the average sale price of several years preceding the establishment of the monopoly.

III All salt which may be sold by a proprietor, landholder, inhabitant, or manufacturer, to any other than the officers of Government, or others authorized by Government to purchase it, shall be confiscated and, on a repetition of the offence, the party shall be liable to be fined, at the discretion of the judge, in a sum not exceeding one thousand pagodas.

But we also see that lighter Bombay salt is preferred over the heavier Calicut coarse salt and that it was exported to Wynad, Coonoor etc from Calicut. So Calicut indeed continued it ways as a warehouse for spices, salt and other items of value.

Thomas Warden was cross examined by House of Lords in 1830, The Q&A is interesting and lends perspective

Do you know whether the salt tax was introduced for any particular object? It was introduced, as far as I can understand, to cover the expenses incident upon the judicial establishments. The salt monopoly of Malabar was introduced under my administration.

The government have a monopoly there, no salt can be sold but by the government?Just so.

And that at a fixed price? Yes. The salt warehouses are open to all purchasers at a fixed price. They are established in different parts of the country, so as to give a facility to the inhabitants to purchase salt at the government price. Stipendiary servants are attached to them, who retail the salt.

No salt can be sold by the manufacturer but to the government? Just so; but a great proportion of the salt consumed in Malabar is foreign salt, which on importation is purchased by the government. It comes from Bombay and the Red Sea, and is preferable to that manufactured in the country.

The government equally derive a profit from it? Yes.

And those profits are appropriated to the support of the judicial establishment? That object originated the salt monopoly under the Madras Presidency.

Let us see what Thomas Baber had to add in his testimony to the House of Lords in 1830

Were you in Malabar before the Introduction of the Monopoly of Salt?

I was; and for years both before and afterwards.

Can you state whether any Salt was manufactured, and in what manner previous to the Monopoly?

There are what they call Ooppadam, Salt Pans, all along and in a parallel line with the Coast. The lands are overflowed by the sea; some of them are dammed up, into which the Salt Water is admitted, which, by the heat of the sun, being evaporated, leaves the salt Residue.

Was that a source of Income to the Proprietors previously?

Very considerable; the Diminution of which is a Source of great Grievance to the Inhabitants.

Was any Compensation made to the Proprietors of Salt?


To what Extent?

Not by any means equal to what they enjoyed before the Monopoly.

Was more Salt manufactured in the Aggregate before the Introduction of that Monopoly than has been since?

Considerably. One Reason is, that a great deal of Foreign Salt, from being more profitable to the Government, has been imported from Goa, Bombay, Cutch, Mocha and the Gulf.

Has the Price of Salt been enhanced in consequence of the Monopoly?

From Three hundred to Four hundred per Cent in some parts of the Country. I have known it stand the Consumer perhaps as high as Six hundred or Seven hundred per Cent; but this and other Grievances of the People I noticed in a Memorial to the Honorable the Court of Directors in August last, which, if it is the pleasure of your Lordships, I can produce.

We also find that the business was becoming a corrupt one as the officials colluded with the proprietors. In a letter written by T Baber to Sir Thomas Munro in 1817, several of these criticisms are aired. He believed that most of the officials running the salt and tobacco monopolies in Calicut were corrupt, and that the monopolies should be stopped. He says in the letter, amongst other issues………..

 I am not at all surprised at you not having found amongst the Malabar Cutcherry, records what Europeans are employed in the Salt and tobacco department because I never can suppose Government would lose sight of what was due to the Company and their subjects as to give their sanction to such a wanton enhancement of the monopoly price (which in all conscience is high enough) of those commodities – The arrangements, I believe, to be entirely Mr Warden’s and so far from any advantage to the company from it, I know quite sufficient, of these excise agents to pronounce that they would not hesitate to avail themselves of any opening to enrich themselves at the public expense .

How was it done? It was done with a play of the measures at Bombay & Calicut. Alfred Delisle explains - Of these measures the Malabar ‘para’ approaches nearest to that of Bombay in shape, and will consequently admit of fair comparison. From their respective cubic contents, it appears that a shipper, having taken 1000 maunds at the salt pans, need only send 812 to Calicut to get his certificate for the full quantity; so that he can smuggle, or otherwise dispose of the difference, viz. 188 measures; of course in this calculation I suppose no loss to have occurred from waste.

We also note that the Calicut inspector was quite important as there was no salt work near Mahe, Bombay, so its salt was locally purchased and supplied to Mahe by the Salt Inspector stationed at Calicut. Salt was also diverted to Conoor, Wynad etc. As one can imagine, the salt pans started their slow death as imported salt from Bombay came into Malabar, and this as we saw above, soon became a conduit for corruption. This salt was thence termed Sircar salt.

As time went by, a salt department was formed. Prior to 1889, the Salt Abkari and Customs department were together. However by the Madras Salt Act 1889, Salt and Abkari were organized under the Madras Salt department and it functioned from the Customs House at Madras. In more ways than one, in the Salt and Abkari department which stood separated from the Customs but functioned from the Customs House, Madras the initial Excise administration in Madras was initiated.

The Salt department, under the Collector of Salt Revenue, Madras had three divisions- Northern, Central and Southern. Northern division consisted of Cocanada, Nellore, Massulipattinam and Chicacole. Central Division consisted of Chengleput, Bellary, Arcot and Cuddalore. Southern division consisted of sub-divisions like Nagapattinam, Tirunelvelli, Trichinapally, and Calicut. Besides Salt and Abkari revenue, the Salt department also administered all the Customs out ports in the coastal areas and land customs stations.

The effect of the monopoly is explained in the Memorandum on the Progress of the Madras Presidency by SS Raghavaiyengar.

Before the Government monopoly came into force, the price of salt at Calicut in 1800 was, according to Buchanan, 4 annas a maund. In Mangalore, Bombay salt was sold for less than 4 annas and Goa salt less than 3 annas a maund. At Taikulam (near Bangalore) the price of earth salt was 10 annas 8 pies per maund, and of Madras sea salt 2 rupees or three times as much. After the creation of the Government monopoly the price at the Government factories was fixed at 9 annas at first, and it has been continually enhanced till it amounts now to 2 rupees 11 annas. Till 1882, the manufacture of salt except on Government account was prohibited. Between 1882 and 1886, the system of manufacture and sale of salt by private individuals on payment of an excise duty was substituted for the Government monopoly system throughout the Presidency, with the exception of half a dozen places where the old system is still maintained.

There can, however, be little doubt that the salt tax presses with severity on the poorer classes, especially on the sea coast, where the duty has been enhanced in recent years, and large preventive establishments have at the same time been employed to put down illicit manufacture and smuggling. There has been much discussion as regards the soundness of the policy of taxing a necessary of life like salt.

The Duke of Argyle, the Secretary of State for India, said in 1869: "On all grounds of general principle, salt is a perfectly legitimate subject of taxation. It is impossible to reach the masses of the people by direct taxes; if they are to contribute at all to the expenditure of the State, it must be through taxes levied upon some articles of universal consumption. If such taxes are fairly adjusted, a large revenue can thus be raised, not only with less consciousness on the part of the people, but with less real hardship on them than in any other…

Ah! How easy it is to make such fancy explanations!

And so after many years of oppression, like in Gujarat, the people of Calicut also rose up against the authorities and protested. In 1930 we too had a Salt Satyagraha in Malabar.

Removal of the Salt Tax was one of the 11 demands of the Indian National Congress, and observing Poorna Swaraj (Complete Freedom) on January 26, 1930. Following Gandhiji, salt marches were held by freedom fighters in different parts of the country, in Vedaranyam, led by Rajaji in Tamil Nadu, and K.Kelappan at Payyanur in Kerala.

It was on April 21, 1930, that the volunteers under the leadership of K. Kelappan, the ‘Kerala Gandhi', collected salty sand with coconut shells in gunny bags and distilled it and sold small packets in the evening. Ninety-five year-old Madhavan recollects that packets with a pinch of salt were sold then at the incredible price of Rs. 25 per piece and the demand could not be fully met. That was the fervor with which people of the area heralded mass participation in the Satyagraha movement.

Gandhi chose salt as the very basis of the mass civil disobedience for a greater reason. Salt invariably formed part of the food of every Indian, rich or poor, Hindu or Muslim. Leaders like TR Krishna Swamy, Muhammad Abdul Rehiman Saheb, Moidu Moulavi, Moyyarath Sankaran also participated in this agitation.

So many volunteers were arrested and brutally tortured by the Police. PC Kunhiraman Adiyodi and Andra Kanna Poduval, who were students, were arrested and put in Kannur Jail. Later they were shifted to Madhura and then to Bellary Jail. In Bellary, Kunhiraman Adiyodi started hunger strike against the cruel and brutal torture. After 43 days of his 'upavasa' Adiyodi breathed his last in the Jail itself and was cremated in the Jail compound itself by the authorities.

In Calicut crowds were large for the salt march but notwithstanding the presence of some younger militants the overall tenor was Gandhian. The agitation however did not elicit much enthusiasm among peasants & laborers.

The Town Hall building in Calicut was originally constructed (1891) by the salt merchants and called the Salt Abkari Townhall. It is a strange coincidence of history that the appeal for salt satyagraha was launched from this place. In May 1930 was when the coastal town of Calicut saw a determined group of Congress volunteers getting beaten and booted by the police for their efforts to make salt from seawater as part of the salt satyagraha launched by Mahatma Gandhi.

 Well, the indigenous production of salt in Calicut, the very reason for its importance and rise, fizzled out and was eventually replaced by Bombay salt, just like its famed Calico cloth had declined in popularity. The town hall stands a mute testimony to the power salt had over the masses and the rapacious tax policy of the British. Today the importance of  salt has not abated at all, in fact readymade food suppliers increase salt in their produce ever so gradually, people become over salted and end up with high sodium levels and high blood pressure, and drug companies mint money…That’s life..
A passing note – Do you know the British were even considering taxing betel leaves in Malabar???


A Journey from Madras through the Countries of Mysore, Canara and Malabar – Francis Buchnan
Some place names in and around Calicut suggesting Salt industry – M R Raghava Varier



  1. Premnath.T.Murkoth

    Was the British Prgamtic

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Premnath
    an interesting lot, the first to make their lives so far away from home, whatever said..

  1. Rajith Nair

    A very informative piece Maddy, thank you. Before the Salt Satyagraha in 1930 were there any organized protests against the monopoly in Calicut, or for that matter across India?

  1. Maddy

    Hi Rajit
    Thanks, that was a tricky question to find an answer to. The answer is yes - In 1844, 29th to 31st august, 30,000 people took to protesting increased salt duty (8 annas to Rs 1 per maund). The officials finally yielded, but the Bombay govt did not and sent artillery compant with a battery and a wing of the 5th regiment native infantry to quell any further'dissatisfaction'...

    So readers - the next time you toss in some salt in your curry - spare a thought for these people!!! Life was not so easy then.

  1. Maddy

    The location which I forgot to add, was Surat