October 16 – November 1, 2004
By Indradyumna Swami
I returned to Warsaw from my month-long preaching tour in Russia and immediately set out for another tour in Poland. After a night’s rest, Sri Prahald das, Jayatam das, and I headed south, stopping on the way for a house program in Kelice attended by 15 devotees.
I was so exhausted I could hardly keep my eyes open, and I fell asleep during Sri Prahlad’s opening bhajan. I woke up after a few moments, and I caught Sri Prahlad’s eye. We both laughed.
Despite the austerities of being constantly on the road, we enjoy our service. We often get to bed after midnight, we have to tolerate the heat and the cold, and we sleep sometimes in a palace, sometimes on the floor, but we would not have it any other way. When one constantly feels the bliss of sharing Krsna consciousness with others, it is easy to tolerate the austerities encountered in traveling. And if one perseveres, then by the wmercy of guru and Gauranga, one has a chance of attaining perfection.
tad evam kalau nama kirtana pracara
prabhave-naiva bagavata parayanta siddir darsita
“On the strength of preaching Nama Samkirtan in Kali Yuga, one becomes seen as a siddha paramahamsa.” [Jiva Goswami, Tattva Sandarbha 274]
On the last leg of our journey we had some time to spare, and at one point, while we were driving, Jayatam turned to me with a question. “Srila Gurudeva,” he said, “would you like to visit a famous salt mine near the town of Wieliczka?”
“An unusual proposal,” I thought.
“Not really,” I said. “What does it have to do with Krsna consciousness?”
“It’s one of Poland’s most historic sites,” Jayatam replied. “Rock salt has been extracted there from as far back as the 13th Century. Because of the hazardous work the miners were always more religious than other social groups. They had a custom of putting up a cross at the spot where a miner died. There are also many chapels built by the miners throughout the 300 kilometers of tunnels in the mine.”
“Underground chapels?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, “and unique too. In 1697, when a chapel was destroyed by fire, a royal commission forbade the construction of any more with inflammable items. This prohibition resulted in developing a special style of rock-salt chapels, carved from the very walls of the mine. Some of them are centuries old.”
I started to listen more carefully.
“Some people visit the mine out of curiosity,” Jayatam said, “but many go as a sort of pilgrimage.”
“That sounds interesting,” I said. “A pilgrimage in Poland.”
My thoughts went back thirty years, to the time when I was distributing books in France. I would sometimes take my sankirtan party to the famous pilgrimage site at Lourdes, in the south of the country. The distribution was good there because the pilgrims were always in a pious frame of mind. I was often inspired by the spiritual atmosphere and the humble prayers of the pilgrims.
“Maybe we too can find inspiration in visiting the underground chapels in the mine,” I thought, “and what’s more, we’ll be seeing another unique feature of Krsna’s creation.”
I thought of Srila Prabhupada’s words: “It is the duty of a mendicant to experience all varieties of God’s creation by traveling alone through all forests, hills, towns, villages, etc., to gain faith in God and strength of mind as well as to enlighten the inhabitants with the message of God.” [Srimad Bhagavatam 1.6.13 purport]
“Okay,” I said to Jayatam. “Maybe this will help prepare me for my pilgrimage to Vrindavan next week.”
We bought our tickets and entered the principal mine shaft. “We won’t be able to see it all,” Jayatam said. “There are nine floors, all underground. The first one is 64 meters down, and the last is 327 meters.”
As we walked through the mine shafts, I saw signs warning tourists to keep to the designated path and not wander off. “Every year some tourists get lost,” Jayatam said, “and they are never seen again.”
We passed some of the first diggings, begun 700 years ago. In those days miners worked with pickaxes and carried the salt up to the surface in big sacks. Further down, we walked through shafts where horses were used to haul the salt out. More sophisticated ways were later used to extract and haul the salt to the surface, including elevators.
“Unlike now, salt was considered an opulence in olden days,” Jayatam said. “In the 1300s, one third of the Polish kings’ income came from this one mine.”
We walked further and further into the earth. I was amazed at the beauty within. In one cavern we saw hundreds of shining stalactites and stalagmites made of hard salt. They had developed over thousands of years from water slowly dripping down through the earth. A huge cavern nearby was made up entirely of enormous crystals, creating a fantasyland of opulence.
Further into the mine we discovered a huge underground lake. A small sign posted on the bank said that the water was 30 percent salt, making it more dense than the Dead Sea in Israel. One could easily float on the surface of the lake, without going under. “Although it is difficult to drown in such a lake,” the sign concluded, “swimming is forbidden.”
At exactly 100 meters below the surface of the earth, we came across a wonder created by man – the beautiful chapel of Saint Kinga, the patroness of the miners. When we entered, pilgrims were kneeling before a beautiful intricate altar carved entirely from rock salt. The history of Saint Kinga was depicted in detailed carvings in the rock-salt walls of the chapel.
St. Kinga was the daughter of King Bela IV of Hungary, and it was she who discovered the rock-salt deposit at Wieliczka. On her marriage to the Polish duke Boleslaw the Chaste, she received a salt mine at Marmaros, Hungary, as her dowry, and she cast her engagement ring into the shaft of the mine.
On her way to Poland, she stopped with her retinue near Wieliczka, and she ordered that a well be dug. But instead of water, they found salt, and to everyone’s amazement, Kinga’s engagement ring was found in the first lump of salt extracted.
We walked further into the labyrinth. “As I mentioned,” Jayatam said, “salt was a rare and much-desired commodity in ancient times. They used to call it gray gold. On an average, they used to dig out 100 tons of salt a day here. It’s estimated that in the course of 700 years, enough salt was extracted to fill a train measuring one fifth the length of the earth’s equator.”
“As time went on,” he continued, “and the digging went deeper, the risks increased. It is estimated that over ten thousand miners died here over the centuries.”
“That may explain why there are over 40 chapels,” Sri Prahald said.
“Yes,” said Jayatam. “Eight years ago, the mining stopped here, but people still come every day to pray in the chapels.”
We continued to explore the tunnels and caverns for several hours, appreciating the unusual beauty of this hidden part of God’s creation. “Okay,” I said finally, “that’s enough. Let’s get back to world of light.”
On our way back up to the surface, we passed St. Anthony’s Chapel, which like the other chapels was carved completely out of the rock-salt formation.
There we found more people kneeling and praying.
“Since 1698 mass has been said here daily,” whispered Jayatam.
I was impressed that such a tradition could exist uninterrupted for so many centuries. I thought about one of Srila Prabhupada’s instructions to us before his departure: “At least maintain what I have given you.”
“Not an easy task,” I thought, appreciating even more the humble souls kneeling before God in the chapel.
We came out of the mine, and our eyes adjusted to the bright sun.
Jayatam turned to me. “Srila Gurudeva,” he said, “was our little pilgrimage worth your time?”
I thought for a moment. “Yes,” I said, “certainly. The rock salt chapels reflected the devotion of faithful and the hidden wonders of the earth, the glories of the Lord. Who wouldn’t be impressed?”
“Know that all opulent, beautiful and glorious creations spring from but a spark of My splendor.”
[Bhagavad Gita, 10.41]