Palace of Gold
Hidden in West Virginia’s hills is one of the state’s most magnificent treasures—a monument that rivals the majestic palaces of India.
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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.
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.