Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold

February 2, 2012 — We've got some major frontiers left to explore. The ocean depths, outer space, the mind. I kinda would like to add West Virginia to that list. It's gotten to the point that anytime I’m traveling its roads, I expect to see something insane around every bend, whether it’s bathroom mummies, gigantic burial mounds, or stainless steel monsters with wings. But even with all that, I was still surprised by Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold.

I mean, I was there for the exact purpose of seeing it, but it was still a gigantic jump-out-of-the-closet to be driving along the state’s winding back roads, past derelict houses and dark forests, to suddenly come across this exotic centerpiece of the small community of New Vrindaban.

New Vrindaban is dedicated to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), or Hare Krishna to its friends. It’s named after a city in India and was established in the early 1970s on about 100 acres of West Virginia backcountry. Today, it’s closer to 500 acres.

I’m not even going to pretend to understand much about the Hare Krishna religion, but the more easily graspable facts about it are that it’s a sect of Hinduism, was started in the 1960s in New York, and for some reason was the butt of a lot of airport jokes in the 1970s and 1980s.

Worldwide, the number of Hare Krishna devotees has been estimated at anywhere from a quarter million to a full million, mostly in India and thereabouts. New Vrindaban boasts a mere few hundred or so of them, although thousands visit every year. However, the small community—which is located about 30 minutes southeast of Wheeling (and close to Moundsville State Penitentiary to the west)—also boasts Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold.

Located on the innocuously named McCreary’s Ridge Road, the first thing you see are the ornate black and gold cupolas and spires of the palace pointing above a painted brick wall in a way that would never make sense on a West Virginia license plate.

We pulled into a small parking lot across the street, and entered through a doorway in the wall. Inside, the grounds were a ghost town, but that might have been because it was late November. The palace was set atop a hill and was surrounded by well-tended gardens that looked like they’d be pretty spectacular in the warmer months and, again, made us double-check our GPS coordinates.

We walked up the stairs past a pair of large jade-green lions. A dais of sorts extended all the way around the relatively small building, giving a great view of surrounding Appalachia. Eventually, we summoned the courage to enter and were greeted by a lonely Caucasian woman in a dingy sari.

Picture taking isn’t allowed inside, but our consolation was that we got to wear booties over our shoes to protect the dark marble floors. After paying the small fee, the woman took us around on a short tour of the relatively small interior space. It’s basically a wide outer hallway wrapping around a central square or rectangle (I remember corners) in which are set elaborately decorated rooms and altars. Everything seemed to be made of or covered by marble, gold, and teak in peacock, elephant, and cow motifs.

A lot of her explanation of the religion and the story behind the palace itself was multi-syllabic in that special way that Indian is and, as a result, a bit over my listening comprehension skills. But, basically, construction on it began in 1972, four years after the establishment of New Vrindaban. It was meant to be a residence of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of Hare Krishna, but after his death in 1977 at the age of 81, the purpose changed to be more of a memorial to him.

It took seven years for his adherents to build it and, according to the story, none were skilled in construction. They learned as they went along and eventual got good enough to make something that could rightfully be called a palace. All told, the materials that went into the building cost about $600,000 and included gold and marble and other materials one wouldn’t want trusted in the hands of unskilled labor. Regardless, the effect is striking, with much of that coming from the contrast with its location.

Guy at the bottom for scale.
After touring the palace, we wanted to check out the rest of the community, only about a third of a mile down the same road. The first thing you see on pulling in is a pair of 30-foot-tall yellow and blue statues. They’re located on the far side of a large pond and look to be depicting a pair of women dancing like they knew how big they were. In reality, they actually represent two male Hindu saints, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Nityananda. Nearby were more life-sized statues of cows and an elephant. Not dancing. Gender unknown.

Meanwhile, down at ground level, we pretty much found ourselves surrounded by peacocks strutting around like West Virginia was where their species originated and shaking tail feathers like it was a Ted Nugent free-for-all. There were also a few goats wandering around, but they’re just goats.

We saw perhaps a dozen people, all of Indian ethnicity, but nobody approached us. Might have been my casually held battle axe. There were living quarters, a cafeteria, and the main building, the Radha Vrindabanchandra Temple.

We took off our shoes per printed instructions and entered. Inside was an open, empty space lined with elaborately adorned statues of deities in sizes ranging from doll to human, each one surrounded by offerings. There was also a life-sized figure of Prabhupada himself, sitting cross-legged in a throne-like chair. The statues were made from a variety of materials and were all decorated with clothing, jewelry, and flowers.

All in all, it was an experience that John Denver just hadn’t prepared us for. Eventually, we were able to pull ourselves away from it, though, making the peacocks eat our exhaust as we took off toward whatever insanity was around the next bend.