Kaleidoscope: Palace of Gold just might leave a visitor awestruck

by Ken Lahmers


Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare

This maha (great) mantra is traditionally used in association with India’s Gaudiya Vaishnava theology, more commonly known as Hara Krishna.
But one doesn’t have to go overseas to hear people chanting it; a three-hour trip to the West Virginia hills 10 miles east of Moundsville will suffice.

Believe me, the single-day experience in the 2,000-acre New Vrindaban community is well worth the time, as I discovered on the weekend right before Independence Day.

The centerpiece of the community, which boasts about 200 members — only some of whom live on the grounds — is the Palace of Gold, or sometimes called “America’s Taj Mahal.”

It might not be as impressive as the real Taj Mahal, but it is impressive.
A couple of years ago I visited Moundsville to tour the old West Virginia Penitentiary and the Marx Toy Museum, which I wrote about in this column. At that time, I didn’t know about the Palace of Gold.

When I found out about it on the Internet, I knew I had to return to the area.

The community is about as isolated as a place can be. One has to drive about 6 miles from Moundsville on windy Route 250, then 4 miles on a narrow, roller-coaster like back road.

There’s a hairpin curve on Route 250 at the eastern edge of Moundsville which is a real eye-opener.


The Palace of Gold was begun in 1973 by followers of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, or ISKCON.

In 1968, New Vrindaban was founded to fulfill Prabhupada’s dream of an ideal society based on Krishna consciousness, or love of God. He came to the U.S. from India in 1965.

He wanted it to resemble Vrindaban, India, a town with seven temples.
The community’s original members handcrafted the Palace of Gold as a place for Prabhupada to live. However, he died in 1977 at age 81 before the palace was completed.

Prabhupada actually visited New Vrindaban only a handful of times from 1968-77 since he was busy setting up Krishna consciousness settlements throughout the U.S.

The community was started on a run down farm of about 100 acres, with no electricity or run in the lone building.

After the grounds were developed, they became a huge attraction, drawing hundreds of thousands of Hare Krishna followers and tourists each year.
The palace was to be a simple house where Prabhupada could meditate, study and write books, but the idea steamrolled into something the untrained and unpaid workers never dreamed of.

Prabhupada is entombed in Vrindaban, India, but the Palace of Gold has become his samadhi tomb in the United States. It is under the altar, which visitors can see during a tour.

The palace opened to the public in 1979. Some of the biggest news outlets in America heralded it.

Life magazine called it “a place where tourists can come and be amazed.” CBS’s “PM Magazine” said, “The magnificence of the Palace of Gold would be hard to exaggerate.” The Louisville, Ky. Courier-Journal said, “It’s hard to believe that Prabhupada’s palace is in West Virginia. In fact, it’s hard to believe it’s on this planet.”

The palace is made of gold, marble and teakwood. There are about 30 stained glass windows on the exterior walls, which are magnificent when viewed from inside out.

The original materials reportedly cost $600,000, and a restoration in recent years is estimated to have cost more than $4 million.

Fifty-two varieties of marble and onyx came from Europe, Asia and Africa. The furniture is made of teakwood from India.

Ten elaborately decorated rooms are displayed. In the Grand Hall hangs a large French chandelier more than 150 years old. Murals depicting ancient classics are painted upon the ceiling in the tradition of Renaissance masters.

The guide told me painters laid on their backs on scaffoldings for hours to paint images on ceilings.

Under the 30-ton main dome is a 4,200-piece crystal ceiling. The palace is built on a platform/patio-like structure with domed gazebo-like structures at the four corners.

At the front and back of the palace, four royal peacock windows contain more than 1,500 pieces of handshaped and stained glass. Peacock and lotus motifs pervade the building, etched into windows and carved into doors.

Peacocks are particularly associated with Lord Krishna, who wears their feathers in his hair and imitates their dancing.

Another level down are fountains, an award-winning rose garden and more flower gardens. Two lion statues guard the main stairway to the entrance.
Roses bloom three times a year. Since I visited between two peak periods, the sight was less impressive than I’d have liked.

A lotus-covered pond surrounded by more gardens is down another set of concrete steps in back of the building, while on the opposite side is an overlook where visitors can see the vast expanse of the surrounding hilly terrain.

Down the road a quarter-mile is another pond with decks/gazebos extending into the water, the large Radha Vrindaban Candra Temple, a lodge and cabins for overnight stays and restaurant.

At one end of the pond are two huge statues of 16th century Pancha-Tattva deities Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Nityananda. Their heads are 25 feet above the ground and their outstretched hands are more than 30 feet up.
There were dozens of people milling around enjoying the hot summer day and eating prasadam (organic) cuisine. A storyteller was slated to speak in the temple that evening.


The core beliefs of Krishna consciousness are based on traditional Hindu scriptures such as the Srimad Bhagavatam and Bhagavad-gita, which date back 5,000-plus years.

The appearance of the movement and its culture come from the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, which has had adherents in India since the late 15th century and Western converts since the early 1930s.

Prabhupada prescribed four regulative principles as the basis of the spiritual life: No eating of meat (including fish) or eggs, no illicit sex, no gambling and no intoxication (including alcohol, caffeine, tobacco and recreational drugs).

The Hare Krishna influence appears in several songs by the Beatles, including “My Sweet Lord,” “I Am the Walrus” and “It Don’t Come Easy.” Beatle George Harrison actually was an ISKCON member.

All has not been as peaceful as the religion prescribes at New Vrindaban over the years. The community was involved in a scandal in the 1980s, during which two of its devotees were murdered.

The scandal involved issues dealing with fundraising fraud, child sexual abuse and racketeering.

Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada, the spiritual leader of New Vrindaban from 1968 to 1994, served eight years in prison after pleading guilty to racketeering (mail fraud) in 1996. He died in India last year.

Another devotee was convicted in connection with the two murders.
In 1987, ISKCON ex-communicated  Bhaktipada and New Vrindaban. It was allowed back into the society in 1998, and the community has been much tamer since. But its devo-tees have shrunk from 600-plus to about 200, and fewer tourists go there.

Festivals, seminars and conventions on issues such as organic farming and stress management attract throngs, as do motivational speakers, and the community is slowly recovering from the scandal.

Every so often, 24-hour kirtans take place, where devotees from all over the world descend upon the complex to chant the mantra for as long as they can stay awake. The last one was June 16-17, two weeks before my visit to the sacred hillside.


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