A Hare Krishna temple in the hills of West Virginia?
When people see Moundsville (which you can here), the Palace of Gold at New Vrindaban always surprises. Last week it was named to the National Register of Historic Places.
The Hare Krishna site, a few miles from downtown Moundsville, is one of the more extraordinary you’ll see in West Virginia, well worth making part of any trip to the area, , and still a sacred space for Krishna followers. Walk around the grounds and admire the gold leaf roof, and, on the inside, marble floors, ornate stained-glass windows and art collections.
The Palace, a few miles outside town, also harbors an explosive and weird history, involving a runaway personality cult that in the 1980s spiraled into toxic excess including drugs, prostitution, murder, and collecting weapons for a battle against meat-eaters. (We didn’t have time in the film to tell this part of the story, but it’s nutty and fascinating, and worth digging into.)
In 1970s hippie America, Krishna devotees embraced the religion’s principles of abstinence from worldly pleasures, community and vegetarianism. Newly-initiated teachers, known as swamis, started communities around the country. (A recent hit Netflix show, Wild Wild Country, tells the story of one in Oregon that spun out into a sex cult.)
Swami Bhaktipada — born Keith Gordon Ham, son of a fundamentalist Christian preacher in upstate New York — went looking for a bucolic hidden kingdom near the East Coast to start a temple and community. He found available land in West Virginia, raised money, some of it fraudulently, and ordered that his followers build a temple for the movement.
Devotees flocked to this pristine retreat on top of a hill in this quiet corner of Appalachia. By the 1980s, New Vrindaban had over 500 followers– and an elephant. Tourism boomed. It was working. Heaven on earth.
Things fell apart.
According to former members, Bhaktipada slowly built a personality cult, funded by illegal activities including alleged drug running and prostitution, and enforced by violence. Schemes to raise money included fraudulently selling “bumper stickers and caps bearing the names of football and baseball teams without permission.”
The wider Krishna community blacklisted New Vrindaban. Things were getting crazy. As the 1988 book Monkey on a Stick, by John Hubner and Lindsey Gruson, recounts:
[Bhaktipada]’s devotees carried him on a jeweled palanquin, knelt when he passed and, while he barked orders, worked 14-hour days without pay to build him a temple of marble, onyx and 24-karat gold leaf. They also built an arsenal of illegal weapons to defend the community from attack by karmis (meat-eating barbarians – i.e., anyone who was not a member of the movement).
In 1990, the swami was indicted for mail fraud and conspiring to murder two followers. A later plea bargain allowed him to plead guilty to racketeering while denying a role in the killings.
In 1998, the Hare Krishna community reintegrated a rehabilitated New Vrindaban in its ranks. A small community lingers, with only around 100 members, although many practitioners visits occasionally.
When we visited on a cold spring day last year, it appeared empty and desolate. Members declined a request for an interview.
Its dark history aside, it’s a lovely, peaceful place, which has inspired generations of pilgrims.
In a 2011 essay in the New York Times, writer Rahul Mehta describes the temple as the “Taj Mahal of Appalachia”. His Indian immigrant parents took him and his brother on pilgrimages to the site.
At the commune, we saw white women wearing the very saris I begged my mother not to wear to my school functions. We saw Americans chanting ecstatically in the same Sanskrit I deliberately garbled and mumbled under my breath during my family’s weekly pujas at home. When my parents tried to send my brother and me to summer camp there, we refused. When they considered renting a cabin by the commune’s lake, we protested. Our classmates spent summers inner tubing on the river. Why couldn’t we do that? Why couldn’t we be more like them?
Although they hated it — they wanted to become more American, not wax nostalgic about India — Mehta describes softening his views about those family visits.
It makes me smile now to remember how miserable my brother and I were at New Vrindaban. We might not have even gotten out of the car were it not for one thing: the gold leaf that covered the palace. We’d heard it was real gold. So we would walk around staring at the marble floors, hoping we’d glimpse a glimmer, a flake forgotten somewhere in a corner, something precious we could secret into our pockets and take back home. We weren’t so different from our parents, then, after all. What the temple gave them wasn’t much, a day trip, now and then. But at a time when there was so much about America to make them feel lonely and insignificant, New Vrindaban made them feel rich.
Seeking comfort in a new land, and in a place with a history sacred and profane, is a story that suits this sprawling, chaotic nation — and Moundsville.
John W. Miller