By Satyaraja Dasa
In the 1970s a dedicated group of devotees cooperated to build it; now a new group is determined to restore it to its former glory.
(Archival research by Chaitanya Mangala Dasa)
In the summer of 1965 His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada left India with a specific mission: his teacher, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, had bestowed upon him the loving task of bringing the profound spiritual wisdom of Krishna consciousness to the Western world.
Arriving in New York City that fall, Srila Prabhupada naturally felt deep separation from Vrindavan, the sacred land of Lord Krishna where he had lived for many years. There he contemplated his mission and the methods he would employ to transplant ancient Vedic wisdom in Occidental soil. While on his way to America by sea, Prabhupada particularly felt separation from the major deities of Vrindavan, “My Lords, Govindaji, Gopinath, and Radha Damodar,” as he noted in his diary.
He soon opened his first temple on the Lower East Side of New York, and then temples in San Francisco, Montreal, Los Angeles, and London. In all these temples, deities of Krishna would grace lavish altars, assuaging his feelings of separation.
It is no wonder, then, that in 1968 when two early disciples, Kirtanananda Swami and Hayagriva Dasa, bought a farm in West Virginia – a peaceful, rustic environment that Prabhupada would name “New Vrindaban” – he quickly asked them to establish seven Krishna temples, reminiscent of Vrindavan’s seven major temples. Prabhupada wanted New Vrindaban to be a place of pilgrimage in the West.
“New Vrindaban should be taken up very seriously,” he wrote to Hayagriva, “because actually I want to develop a replica of Old Vrindaban. I have got ambition to construct there 7 temples as follows: 1. Radha Madan Mohan, 2. Radha Govinda, 3. Radha Gopinatha, 4. Radha Damodara, 5. Radha Raman, 6. Radha Gokulananda, 7. Radha Syamasundara.”
After visiting New Vrindaban, Prabhupada said he wanted to make it his new home. He felt comfortable there and saw it as a genuine holy place, a manifestation of the eternal Vrindavana, the spiritual world. In June 1969 he wrote to his disciple Dayananda Dasa, “I have decided that I shall spend four months in New Vrindaban and eight months in Los Angeles. That will be my regular program.”
In numerous letters, lectures, and public conversations, Prabhupada outlined the basic concept for New Vrindaban: “simple living and high thinking,” an agrarian, close-to-the-earth, Krishna conscious way of life. New Vrindaban would be a place for cow protection and for training ideal bra hmanas.
Soon after his enthusiastic disciples started conceiving the first temple complex, Bhagavatananda Dasa, a sculptor who would eventually develop the talents of a structural engineer, suggested they first build a house for Srila Prabhupada. After all, the core of devotional life is service to the spiritual master. The proposed structure would be a place where Prabhupada could translate India’s sacred texts while appreciating the country atmosphere and the association of his dedicated disciples.
The Building Blocks of Devotion
The original plans for Prabhupada’s New Vrindaban dwelling took shape on a napkin, casually drawn by Kirtanananda Swami in 1972. But as construction proceeded, the design became more and more ambitious. It was as if Krishna Himself took over the project. The devotees were inexperienced and unpaid, since they saw their work as devotional service to Lord Krishna, and they had to face the harsh Appalachian winters. But Prabhupada’s home began to exceed their wildest expectations. While “on the job,” the devotees learned to make and use cement, cut marble and crystal, work with semi-precious stones, carve teakwood, fabricate stained glass, and apply gold leaf. Driven by an intense desire to please Srila Prabhupada, they evolved the concept of a simple home into one for an ornate palace.
Much to the surprise of experts in architecture, construction, and related fields, the New Vrindaban novices gradually created an abiding monument that would be the envy of professionals. The devotees made prodigious use of marble, teak, onyx, and 22-karat gold leaf. With its mirrored ceilings, impeccable stained-glass artwork, and polished mosaic floors, the palace looked like a modern spaceship from ancient India that somehow landed in West Virginia. As if the central structure was not enough, the devotees surrounded it with exquisitely crafted terraces, turrets, manicured lawns, and, compliments of Lord Krishna, incomparable vistas.
Remembering the Builders
Though many devotees labored incessantly, whether working onsite or raising funds, the following dedicated souls were particularly instrumental.
Varshana Swami (then Kashyapa Dasa) sculpted the terraces, walkways, roadways, rose garden, pond, and causeway out of a rugged and raw Appalachian ridge. He supervised blasting crews and operated heavy equipment for over eighteen hours a day. His dedication was indispensable in setting the groundwork for the efforts to come.
Sanatha Devi Dasi conducted much of the initial research and supervised the early design and construction. She had studied structural engineering at Pratt Institute in New York City, but had no idea she would be using her skills in Krishna’s service. She created blueprints and coordinated the efforts of marble layers, stained-glass fitters, plumbers, electricians, casters, and cement layers, all crucial to the early stages of construction.
Kuladri Dasa, New Vrindaban’s temple president at the time, was a significant part of the original team. He oversaw the design, coordinated the various departments, and put the final touches of gold leaf on the main structure.
Nityodita Dasa rose to the challenge not only by mixing and laying cement by hand, a time-consuming chore that was new to him, but by learning how to cut marble and polish the end results like a pro.
Bhagavatananda Dasa was the structural engineer and sculptor. He supervised the construction of the 300-ton dome and sculpted the mood-inducing peacocks, elephants, and ornaments, as well as the embellished walls and columns.
Sudhanu Dasa went to India to learn carving, a talent he brought back to the Palace and taught to others.
Several devotees contributed their skills in the beaux arts, adding to the palace’s elegance: Narendra Dasa, assisted by apprentices, did a good portion of the glass work, including cutting and fashioning thousands of scraps of fine glass into intricately framed windows and novel stained-glass showpieces. Ishani Devi Dasi designed and hand crafted the magnificent chandeliers peppering the Palace, along with the jewelry decorating the deities and the Palace icons of Srila Prabhupada. Muralidhara Dasa and Vishnu Dasa created beautiful oil paintings of Krishna’s pastimes. From the vaulted ceiling of the temple room to the large portrait of Srila Prabhupada on the temple wall, all are masterworks that artfully enhance an already extraordinary visage.
Others, like Soma Dasa, offered numerous talents to the mix: brick and marble laying, concrete work and woodwork, mold making, casting, and so on. Soma was present when Prabhupada came to visit New Vrindaban in the summer of 1974, partly to see how his “home” was coming along. When one devotee asked if the structure should be illuminated with embedded jewels, like Lord Krishna’s palace, Srila Prabhupada pointed his cane at the men and women who had been working so hard on the Palace: “These devotees are my jewels.” Endearingly, he also thanked Soma, leaving his disciple with a treasured memory.
For roughly seven years, the New Vrindaban devotees worked through grueling winters and scorching summers, spending hour after hour on scaffolds, in dry fields, in inhospitable work areas – without caring for bodily comforts. Indeed, they gave everything they had so they could offer a great tribute to their spiritual master. The Palace is an ultimate gift of love to Srila Prabhupada.
Much to the devotees’ dismay, Prabhupada passed away in November of 1977, and was thus unable to see the completion of his Palace. But because his dedicated disciples viewed their endeavor as a spiritual offering to their teacher, his physical departure did not dissuade or discourage them from completing it. In fact, they became even more determined to create an enduring monument – a memorial.
From Home to Memorial
A month before he passed away, Prabhupada reiterated how important the Palace was to him. He several times expressed his desire to get his strength back so he could visit his home away from home.
“If I survive,” he told some disciples as he lay in bed, “I have a strong desire to go and live there. It will be a great pleasure.” Then, perhaps dismissing the likelihood of recovery, he said, “Let us see to which palace I am going.”
The Palace is Srila Prabhupada’s most significant smriti samadhi (memorial shrine) in the West. His first samadhi is in Vrindavan, where his bodily remains are interred. In Mayapur is his pushpa (flower) samadhi, containing flower garlands he wore on his last day. In the New Vrindaban Palace some of his personal items are preserved.
In 2006 ISKCON’s Governing Body Commission (GBC) resolved to formally recognize Prabhupada’s Palace as a “Shrine and Memorial” on a par with those in Vrindavan and Mayapur. “Srila Prabhupada’s Palace, New Vrindaban, West Virginia, USA,” the resolution states, “[is hereby] given official recognition as a Shrine and Memorial and included in the Law Book 2.3.2 Shrines and Memorials.” By housing worshipable memorabilia belonging to Srila Prabhupada, the Palace functions as a smriti samadhi in the truest sense of the phrase – anyone who visits will be naturally compelled to remember and appreciate Srila Prabhupada. His presence can be deeply felt there.
This fact gives additional meaning to Prabhupada’s poignant words spoken in 1976, while visiting the Palace a year before his passing: “I’m already living here and always will be.”
From Memorial to Palace
Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold officially opened on Sunday, September 2, 1979. The Palace lent credibility and gravitas to New Vrindaban, especially for tourists, most of whom had not previously taken the devotee community seriously. While the people and the philosophy behind the Palace might have remained somewhat inscrutable for most, many could now see that the Hare Krishna movement was something to be reckoned with. Here was a phenomenon that people could understand – a magnificent structure unique in its styling and formidable in its opulence. A sight to behold. Something to tell their children about. “Who could have created this great wonder?”
The Palace was clearly exceptional. Yogeshvara Dasa expressed this well in a July 1981 Back to Godhead article:
In its design the Palace is unique. While most churches and cathedrals reflect orthodox motifs of their culture, the Palace is a blending of Eastern and Western styles, as if to say that service to God is the universal principle of all religions. While the Eastern roots of the Krishna consciousness movement can be seen in the intricate latticework, peacock windows, and traditional marble patterns, the movement’s presence in the West is reflected in castlelike railings, cathedral-inspired arches, and bright color combinations.
In the end, the Palace was everything the devotees had hoped it would be. A commentator for The Today Show said, “You won’t believe your eyes.” Prabhupada would have been proud: Visitors came from all over the world to see what the New York Times dubbed “The Taj Mahal of the West.” At its height in the 1980s, the Palace welcomed hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. These were glory days for New Vrindaban.
The Palace Today
But during the 1980s and early 1990s a series of crimes and spiritual deviations plagued the community. The Palace fell into disrepair. Today, large pieces of the outer wall have deteriorated, sections of wrought iron have rusted irreparably, and parts of the concrete structure are crumbling away. Over the years, devotees repaired and re-painted, but there were limits to what they could do.
Today, Palace manager Vrajadhama Dasa works closely with the Marshall County Tourist Board, and the Palace still receives fifteen to twenty thousand tourists annually. But this is a far cry from the Palace in its heyday. The devotees realize that something needs to be done.
An ambitious multi-year and multi-million dollar renewal effort is in the works, with an enthusiasm that rivals the Palace’s initial construction. The Palace Restoration Committee, established in 2010, is focusing first on the outside Palace wall, and then will move on to the Palace and the grounds.
Gopisha Dasa, project manager for Palace restoration, says, “I was absolutely overwhelmed when I first saw the Palace. It was so beautiful. But what was most exciting to me was the spirit of cooperation, to see so many devotees working together for the pleasure of Srila Prabhupada. That same spirit is alive again, and it will facilitate, even mandate, the Palace’s new incarnation. In fact, it is now a priority to improve the entrance way and front steps by 2016 as an offering to Srila Prabhupada for the fiftieth anniversary of ISKCON.”
In 2012, CNN selected the Palace as one of the eight must-see religious sites in America.* This is no doubt a portent of things to come.