Prabhupada's Palace of Gold
New Vrindaban, West Virginia
Perched on a secluded hilltop in West Virginia, the Palace of Gold has the feel of a great, glittery treasure ship that somehow drifted off the set of a Bollywood production.
The Palace is the jewel of New Vrindaban, a curry-favoring utopia founded in the late 1960s by the followers of Hare Krishna. At first it was to be a simple residence for Krishna's spiritual leader, Srila Prabhupada. But under the guidance of Keith Ham (a.k.a. Kirtanananda Swami) the humble house grew into a Palace fit for a raja, with crystal chandeliers, marble floors, stained glass windows, mirrored ceilings. Gold leaf and semi-precious stones accent its architectural flourishes. Surrounded by fountains, fragrant gardens, and a lily pond, it is utterly out of place on a back road in West Virginia.
Have you ever wondered what the Hare Krishnas did with all that spare change they begged at America's airports? Now you know.
Prabhupada wanted New Vrindaban to become an attraction for pilgrims and the curious, and visitors are always welcome at the Palace of Gold. You can either be guided by one of the Krishnas or just walk around (After removing shoes or slipping on a pair of complimentary booties). You'll certainly enjoy it more than Prabhupada, who died two years before it opened on September 2, 1979. See the bathroom he never used, the couch he never reclined on, the study he never occupied. Prabhupada nonetheless is here, in the form of several lifelike wax dummies that you might understandably confuse for a real, deep-in-thought holy man.
(Another person missing from the Palace of Gold is its visionary, Keith Ham; he was later accused of child abuse and contract murder, kicked out of Krishna, and ended up in prison in North Carolina for racketeering.)
The Krishnas didn't stop with the Palace of Gold. A short drive from the Palace takes you to Swan Lake, where a pair of 30-foot-tall Gaur Nitai statues are frozen in acolyte aerobics near the time-share cottages. A Swan Boat is moored inside a gazebo; an elephant and sacred cow statues offer themselves for novelty photos. Anglo-looking people in saffron robes mingle with tourist families, generally of Indian descent; peacocks hoot somewhere in the deep shadows. During the summer there are lakeside fireworks every Saturday night.
Across the parking lot from the elephant is the Sri Sri Radha Vrindavan Chandra Temple, straight out of the old India of the Bhagavad-Gita. Beyond two multi-armed entrance door guards and a remove-your-shoes room (no booties here) sits another wax Prabhupada, serenely enthroned. At the central altar are the presiding deities of New Vrindaban, their gold and jewels out of reach behind floor-to-ceiling iron bars (decoratively designed). Pilgrims offer prayers; a bulletin board asks visitors to "adopt" a New Vrindaban cow; a poster advertises one of the community's frequent festivals, which often draw curious crowds. The gift shop and vegetarian snack bar were closed during our visit; it was too early in the morning for Krishna commerce.
From a peak population of nearly 1,000 during its counterculture heyday, New Vrindaban is now down to about 200 full-time devotees and roughly 80 cows. Donations from tour-takers help bring in money for maintenance of the Palace, as has a controversial decision to allow fracking beneath the rolling hills of New Vrindaban. Despite being a little frayed at the edges, it remains a tourist attraction on a grand scale. If you don't mind feeling like you're trapped on the cover of Sgt. Pepper, come chant at the Palace of Gold.