New Vrindaban is a Hare Krishna community and unincorporated village nestled in the Appalachian Mountains, near Wheeling West Virginia. It is known in equal parts for its bizarre splendor and its seedy history.
Started in 1968 by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. ISKCON New Vrindaban serves as community for Hare Krishna followers. Devotees adhere to the teachings of Sri Krishna, including the preservation and advocacy for cows as holy beings; a special Cow Protection section was established in the community. At its peak in the mid-1980s, New Vrindaban was home to almost 400 permanent community members of all ages, though current population estimates measure only 100 residents.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the untrained and unpaid devotees constructed the Palace of Gold, sometimes referred to as “America’s Taj Mahal.” Though they hardly knew how to lay stones when they started, an estimated $600,000 worth of materials ranging from marble, onyx, teak, and 22-karat gold leaf were formed into the Palace as it appears today, complete with terraces, turrets, manicured lawns, and exquisite stained glass work. The structure stands as a memorial to the founder of ISKCON and opens its doors year round to visitors interested basking in its mirrored ceilings, polished mosaic floors, and beautiful vistas.
So where does a self-sustaining mountainous community find the capital for such undertakings? There’s the rub. In 1987, Kirtanananda Swami was indicted on charges of racketeering and fraud. Moreover, the swami has as been accused of murdering a pair of mutinous community members, as well as permitting child abuse and facilitating drug trafficking. Ultimately, the swami pleaded guilty to racketeering charges in 1996 and was sentenced to 20 years in a North Carolina prison. Subsequently, the swami was barred from life from ISKCON and prohibited from returning to his mountain commune upon release.
Despite this episode, the remaining residents of New Vrindaban continue to persevere in attempts to rebuild their public image. Starting in 2011, a large four and a half million dollar restoration effort has been underway to restore and renew the magnificent palace.