Lavana: An Ayurvedic View of salt

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 Today, we are going to discuss the Ayurvedic approach to salt. What are the five kinds of salt used in medicinally and for seasoning in Ayurvedic tradition? This can sometimes be a confusing topic because many types of salt we have today were not available in ancient India, and vice versa.

As we know, the salty taste is one of the six tastes. Everyone needs a small amount of the salty taste in each meal; yet an excess of the salty taste can prove harmful to those of pitta and kapha constitutions.

Today we speak of table salt, iodized salt and kosher salt. Neither table salt nor iodized salt were used prior to the modern industrial era. Table salt is essentially a refined salt containing mainly sodium chloride. It also contains an anti-caking agent such as sodium aluminosilicate. Most table salts also contain added iodine, making them iodized salt.  Iodine was first added to salt in the US in 1924 in an effort to combat goitre—enlarged thyroid due to iodine deficiency. Soils in the so-called goitre belt, which includes the Great Lakes and the Northwest, are iodine deficient; so iodized salt was introduced in an effort to remedy this situation. (Note that iodine deficiency in food is really a matter of where your food was grown rather than where you live).  Kosher salt is a coarse-grained salt; it may or may not contain iodine and may or may not contain an anti-caking agent. Such coarse-grained salt is used in the process of koshering meat; hence it should really be called koshering salt rather than kosher salt.

Moving on to consider the Ayurvedic approach to salt; there are several types of salt with distinctive properties. These salts are arranged in a specific order, from the least heating to the most heating; from the one that provokes doshas the least to the one that provokes them the most.

Saindhava Lavana: This salt is variously known as rock salt, natural mineral salt, and Himalayan salt. This is rock salt or Halite that comes from salt mines, traditionally in the Punjab region of Pakistan. Some of the veins of halite are white and some pink, so authentic saidhava lavana may be white, pink or a combination.  Here in the US we may also obtain a similar product from salt mines in Utah. When reading Ayurvedic literature, you may notice that saindhava lavana sometimes goes by the synonym Sindhuja, because it comes from the province of Sindh.

Saindhava lavana is the most suitable salt for pitta to use in moderation. It is has a cooling energy, unlike other types of salt, and can help balance all three doshas when used judiciously. It is beneficial to the eyes, improves the sense of taste, has an aphrodisiac effect, calms hiccups and benefits the heart. It is among the substances recommended in Charak Samhita for daily use. (Charaka Samhita Sutrasthana 5/12).

Samudra Lavana: This is sea salt. Although sea salt is not cooling like saindhva salt, it is not excessively heating either, so used in moderation, it does not provoke pitta too much. It is purgative and slightly demulcent and helpful in alleviating colic. It improves the taste of food, aids digestion and is beneficial for the heart.

Vida Lavana: This is an artificially prepared salt with a slight alkalinity to its taste.  There is controversy about the identity of this salt. A 20th century text, Rasa Tarangini, indicates that it is made by incinerating the mixture of romaka lavana (see below) and powder of amalaki in a closed chamber in an intense heat for six hours. On the other hand, the texts Rasendra Chudmani and Ayurveda Prakasha suggest that vida lavana is made by burning the wood of karira (Capparis decidua) and peelu (Salvadora persica).  it seems that in ancient times it was also made from burning either mud or the dung of domestic animals, although in other places it may have been made from the residue from brick kilns. Whatever the method of manufacture, the end product is mostly sodium chloride.  

Sauvarchala Lavana: Often known by its Hindi name, kala namak, this is also called black salt and sochal salt. It has a slightly sulphurous taste and smell. It is harvested from halite ore, from the mines in Pakistan. So far then, it is essentially the same thing as saindhava lavan. But then it is sealed in a ceramic jar together with triphala bark of babul (the akacia gum tree).  The contents of the jar are incinerated in a furnace for twenty-four hours before being cooled and collected. It is heating, light to digest and has a pungent taste. The other method of preparing kala namak uses washing soda, sodium carbonate, known in Sanskrit as shudddha swarjika kshara. The sodium carbonate is dissolved in water, after which the rock salt is added and stirred until it dissolves. This mixture is heated in an intense fire until the water content evaporates and crystals of black salt form. Sauvarchala lavana clears the channels of the body, improves digestion and is beneficial for colic and constipation. It is good for the heart and helps clear the throat.

Romaka Lavana: Also known as Sambar salt, it is harvested from salt flats on the shores of Sambhar Lake in Rajasthan, India;s largest salt lake.  Sushrut considers this to be an intensely heating and sharp salt.  It is vyavayi--that is, it spreads rapidly throughout the body. Pungent and light, it calms vata, coats the inner channels and is purgative and diuretic.

Audbhida Lavana: This is earthern salt, prepared from salty, alkaline soil. It is even more heating and sharp than romaka, and can have a burning and corrosive action. It penetrates the minutes channels of the body. Altthough it is somewhat alkaline and must be used with care, it has a vata-soothing action and is used in certain Ayurvedic medicines such as chitkrakadi vati, used for indigenstion and āma.

Later texts do not differentiate between romaka and audbhida lavana, considering them to be synonymous.

Sandhava, samudra, vida, sauvarchala and romaka are collectively known as panchalavana, or the five salts.

Alakananda Ma M.B., B.S. (Lond.) is a Certified Ayurvedic Doctor (NAMA) and graduate of a top London medical school. She is co-founder of Alandi Ayurveda Clinic and Alandi Ayurveda Gurukula in Boulder Colorado, as well as a spiritual mother, teacher, flower essence maker and storyteller. Alakananda is a well known and highly respected practitioner in the Ayurveda community both nationally and internationally.

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