Tucked among the hills of the rural northern panhandle at the end of a crumbling, unlined paved road, you would have a hard time stumbling across this hidden treasure. You have to be going there on purpose. Otherwise, you would never notice the 22-karat gold-leaf roof of Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold perched atop a hill, peeking through the trees. With teasing views of the building as you round the road’s final bend, suddenly, there it is—the elaborately designed and decorated palace you’d expect to find in the Far East, but not in the Mountain State.
Written by Rachel Henderson
Photographed by Rebecca Kiger Fotografia
Coined “America’s Taj Mahal,” this sight to behold has kept its majestic post amid the Appalachian Mountains since devotees of A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (pronounced: Prob-oo-pod-uh), founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), began building the palace for their teacher in 1968. Prabhupada, who was born in 1896 in Calcutta, India, came to America in 1965 at nearly 70 years old and began his missionary work in New York City, spreading the message of the Krishna consciousness. When one of his disciples acquired a piece of land near Moundsville, Prabhupada began traveling to West Virginia, but all that sat on the 133 acres of land was an old, run-down farmhouse. So his followers decided to build him a home in the Appalachian countryside, and Prabhupada established New Vrindaban, the first ISKCON community. The original plan was simple, consisting of a cinder block foundation, but as members continued building, they kept coming up with ideas to expand and make the building more elaborate. When Prabhupada died in 1977, the palace still had not been completed, and he never had the fortune of living in the extravagant home. In honor of their teacher, the members decided to make the Palace of Gold a monument to him. In 1979, the first grand opening was held.
Today, 30-minute tours of Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold are given to tens of thousands of visitors each year, from curious tourists to those who pilgrimage from all around the world to honor the author, teacher, and saint who spread Krishna consciousness across the globe. The grounds consist of the palace, a pond featuring a magnificent fountain and lotus flowers that are at peak bloom in early July, a lake with an ornate boathouse housing a large swan boat and 30-foot-tall statues of deities, and a temple with intricately carved teakwood throughout, where New Vrindaban community members can worship. In the summer (usually around the second week of June), the award-winning rose gardens are bursting with nature’s glory, as more than 1,000 bushes featuring nearly 100 kinds of roses flourish and bloom. “The devotees living there are always working to make the land beautiful,” says photographer and Wheeling resident Rebecca Kiger. “The community members there are really wanting to make the palace a little piece of paradise. It really is a magical place.”
The palace was built by members of the ISKCON community—at the time, a bunch of kids in their 20s who had very little architectural experience and taught themselves by reading books. “Some were Americans, some were Canadians, there were a few West Virginians, and they learned to do all the cutting and polishing of the marble,” says palace manager Tom Lorence. The palace consists of 52 kinds of marble from 17 countries, including the United States. The chandeliers were designed and created by a community woman who matched the colors of the Austrian and Czechoslovakian crystals to the colors of the stained glass windows, also made by New Vrindaban community members. Every inch of square space in the western gallery and throughout is ornate and colorful, with the reds, greens, blues, purples, and oranges of the stained glass windows reflected in the ceiling of mirrors and in the dark green marble. Royal peacock windows grace the palace walls with more than 1,500 pieces of hand-shaped, stained glass.Originally intended as a home for their leader, Prabhupada, community members designed the palace to include a bedroom and bath, a study where Prabhupada could do his writings and translations, and most importantly, a temple where he could practice his religious traditions and perform chants and meditations.
In the study, one of the palace’s most elaborately designed rooms, sits a life-sized replica of Prabhupada translating Sanskrit writings into English. Around him, the walls are inlaid with several types of marble and adorned with gold baseboards and cornices and silk peacock brocades sewn with real, gold thread from India. Antique, carved teakwood furniture fills the room, and two antique vases from China are purportedly donated gifts from Henry Ford’s great-grandson, a member of the greater ISKCON culture. In Prabhupada’s bedroom, the walls consist of nearly 2,000 pieces of rare Persian onyx and Italian marble, and the gold-leaf ceiling featuring nearly 1,000 hand-painted flowers was designed and completed by a community woman who spent six months prone on her back, painting the ceiling. The bathroom mirror is an 18th century piece imported from Spain, and the 300-pound sink of grey-orange marble features rose quartz faucet handles embellished with 22-karat gold.
Finally, at the center of the palace lies Prabhupada’s temple, intended as the main room of the building, where he would have gathered with his devotees every morning and evening to perform kirtan, a devotional tradition of call-and-response chanting. A rare, antique chandelier from France hangs from the ceiling adorned with murals, and the floors, walls, and ceilings are inlaid with 35,000 feet of 50 varieties of marble and onyx imported from France, Italy, Canada, and the Middle East and cut into 2,000 hand-polished pieces. After Prabhupada’s death, members incorporated an ornate, gold-leaf throne for him, the focal point of the temple, with a dome ceiling boasting more than 4,000 pieces of crystal.
Despite a history clouded with controversy after a federal investigation in the 1980s put investigators on the trail of the then-leader of the New Vrindaban community, the Palace of Gold remains a majestic monument to Prabhupada and his community of followers, leading quiet lives of devotion in West Virginia’s hill country. “In this culture, teachers are respected persons and students are always trying to do things to please him,” says Tom. “Everyone is always trying to bend over backwards to please the teacher, and that is why we have the Palace of Gold today. Prabhupada’s devotees just kept making the monument nicer and nicer to please him and honor him.”
As you leave the palace, the soft whisper of the wind in the trees accompanies recordings of Prabhupada performing the Krishna mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama Hare Hare,” calling God’s name and reminding visitors that this place, born of Hindu philosophies, is a place of love and devotion.
For information on tours and festivals at the palace, visit palaceofgold.com. The palace is open April through August, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and September through March, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tours are $8 for adults, $6 for children 6 to 18.
Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold, RD 1 NBU# 23, Moundsville, WV 26041; 304.843.1812
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