Forget limestone, we're talking marble here, 200 tons of it. White Italian marble and blue Canadian marble, marble walls and marble floors, inlaid with Iranian onyx. Crystal chandeliers. Teakwood doors. Stained-glass peacocks. And four pounds of 24-karat gold leaf, a mere $60,000 worth. $60,000?
"Look," says His Divine Grace Kirtananda Swami Bhaktipada. "A special stucco job would cost you $60,000."
This is no stucco job. This is Prabhupad's Palace, but first of seven temples to be built on Hare Krishna Ridge, among the trees and twangs of the hills of West Virginia. Ten years and 2,000 acres after Krishna Consciousness met McCreary's Ridge, the Swami and his 200 devotees are going after the press and the public with invitations to visit New Vrindaban, or, as they are calling it for the benefit of the unenlightened, Krishnaland, "a spiritual theme park."
There are a lot of easy outs on this one, and it's hard to know where to begin. But His Divine Grace, once known among the halls of Columbia University as Keith Ham, is ready.
The floors may be marble, but the Swami is granite. An accident that left him with a broken ankle has got him on crutches. The yellow and orange marigolds around his neck look pacific against the saffron-colored robes. But the Swami does not look as if he is chanting "Hare Krishna" to himself. The Swami looks as if he is chanting "lead with your right."
Prabhupad's Palace, which is named after and dedicated to His late Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the Hare Krishna movement, cost over $500,000 to build. The Swami will say only that the money came from "private donations," some of which probably were made in between plane connections. The Swami is offered the old how-come-so-much-opulence-when-people-are-starving routine. He counters with the fact that $500,000 won't buy you a decent-sized cathedral these days in most organized religions. Besides, he says, the total represents about $10 a week per devotee for each year the palace was under construction, an amount that most Americans spend on tobacco and liquor and wild times and hot dates, which are things that Krishna devotees just do not do.
The Swami has had it with the way the Krishnas are still referred to as a cult, plagued by deprogrammers and parents who can't believe their children weren't brainwashed, sneered at in the press accounts and obliged to put out information packets with titles like, "A Request to the Media: Please Don't Lump Us in," or "Documents Pertaining to the Authenticity and Beneficence of the Hare Krishna Movement."
After all, Krishnas have been here with bells on for about 14 years now, and going strong in India for hundreds of years longer.They worship God in the form of the ancient Hindu deity Krishna, "one of the most widely revered and beloved Hindu gods," according the Encyclopedia Britannica.
The Krishnas have about 60 different centers around the country and claim about 10,000 members. What they don't have is acceptability, and in an age that has weathered such phenomena as open marriages and disco rollerskating, they are beginning to pale in the weirdness category. New Vrindaban seems designed to be the denouement in the saga of Krishna coming out of the closet.
But a spiritual theme park?" Americans like to have a good time," says the Swami. "They will not listen if we simply preach to them. They are like a small child who doesn't like to take his medicine if it tastes bad. So you inject the medicine into some jam, so he'll take it. Spiritually we are all children. When people come here, they will begin to understand our movement."
When the Swami starts talking like this, all patient and solemn, the devotees, caked in the dust of the bulldozers, shaved heads glistening in the heat, all smile their corkscrew smiles and take it all in like incense. They wait on every word. "It has been said," says the Swami, "if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door."
In other words, this is it, the big time. Hare Krishna is going for the last testament to popular approval, the imprimatur of the American Tourist. They want the benediction of Bermuda shorts and the Polaroid swinger. When will it end? What does it mean? Gigantic four-armed Vishnu rides swinging thrill seekers through the air? Vindaloo curry burgers? Super Siva rollercoasters?
Oh no. Shy, soft giggles bubble up in the moist air. Kuladri das, the community's president, tries to explain. "We will attempt to create methods of demonstrating our lifestyle," he says. "As we get more established, we hope to lead an even simpler life, in a God-centered society close to the earth, where we can be self-sufficient. Tourists are used to having a good time, and they will. But instead of seeing a swinging nightclub, they will see a temple, instead of material amusements, they will see devotees tilling the earth with oxen, devotees finding higher pleasure in spiritual activity."
Speculation on how all this will compare to the Loch Ness Monster, man-made moats and mechanical pirates ended suddenly. Two pink knees beneath plaid shorts slowly mounted the steps. Soft white hair surrounded dark glasses. No notebooks, no klieg lights, no saris.
"Hare Krishna," said a nearby devotee as he caught sight of William and Millie Morningstar. "The real thing."
"Oh my," said Mr. Morningstar, as he looked at the intricate carving, the inlaid gold, the drainspouts shaped like elephant heads. "Now isn't that something."
The Morninstars, it turned out, were not just passing through. They lived in Moundsville, just down the hill a ways from the view the palace commands with such gaudy self-confidence. "Had to come see what it looked like," said William Morningstar. "They've been working on it so long." Morningstar, a retired steel roller who worked in the mills for 44 years before his retirement ten years ago, allowed as how the neighbors "found it a little hard to get used to the Krishnas. But we're pretty well pleased. There's a lot of radicals anywhere nowadays. At least these ones work hard. It's like Mr. Barry down at Barry Brothers store said, it's nice to see people getting off their rear ends and working hard for a change." The devotees beamed, and the Morningstars kicked off their shoes and headed inside.
Such benevolence has not always characterized community relations between New Vrindaban and Marshall County. This is quick-tempered country, and there have been a few occasions when gunfire was used when shouting matches did not suffice. Down at Eddy's General Store, they say most of that's quieted down now.
"Hasn't been much of that these days," says Marvin Eddy, looking over at his wife, Ethel, from behind the counter. "'Cept that time last year -- some fellows took a few shots at the krishners from their car. But mostly it's settled down."
The Eddys aren't quite sure what to make of the Krishna devotees. "They'll come down off their mountain and steal the flowers right off your yard," Marvin Eddy says. "But they're hard-working people, you got to give 'em that. But it's their sanitation that bothers folks. They don't got none. They got all those cows and they don't feed 'em. And you know, they don't eat no meat and they're always so weak and sickly lookin', it bothers folks."
Still, says Ethel Eddy, "they've got a soul same as I have, and they've got a right to be here. Got a right to their religion, though it's an awful queer one."
Sam Pellem, the man who brings the gas for the Eddys' gasoline station, comes in. "I don't mind 'em one bit," he says. "They've got manners, I'm gonna go down there and see 'em sometime. Watch 'em chant and run around half naked."
"Oh, you are not," says Ethel Eddy, laughting in disbelief at the very idea. "He's just joking," she says.
"I am nog. I am too gonna go down there, you watch me," sayd Pellem. He pauses for the dramatic effect. "Gonna bring my wife, too."
The Swami says New Vrindaban's wrangle with state health authorities is over. Sewage systems have been approved and the quarantine invoked several years ago after some outside visitors allegedly contracted hepatitis at the camp is a thing of the past. It was merely a matter of "over zealous" enforcement of regulations that were not so zealously enforced on their neighbors, he says.
As for his neighbors, the Swami says, "these kind of people are pretty backward. It was their perception that the food and the living conditions were unhealthy, but they are not educated people." The devotees, however, no longer go over to nearby Wheeling to sell their publications and solicit funds. "Too much of a hassle," says the Swami.
By Friday, the devotees were beginning to look a little wilted from the final preparation for the grand opening yesterday. There were 19,000 flowers to be strung into garlands, yellow and orange marigolds air-freighted from Florida. The altar wasn't finished.
Behind them was ten years of work, teaching themselves how to cut marble, pour concrete, make stained glass, wrought iron, crystal chandeliers, carved wooden doors, all under the "loving chastisement" of Kirtanada Swami for "wasting Krishna's time." Ahead lay six more temples, a restaurant, a hotel, formal gardens, greenhouses and a school for the more 90 children who live there.
It's hard work, say the devotees; a lot of people leave. Nityo Dita das, small and browned by the sun, has been at New Vrindaban for nearly five years. He lived on a small commune in Michigan. It broke up from the "usual problems," and he set off to find another one. "I liked living with people, but I didn't know what the goal was," he says. He met up with the Krishnas when they were dishing out some free food in Michigan. He read their literature, he was convinced. He looks tired and dusty as he talks and he is asked why he stayed.
"Everybody likes to be part of a winning team," he says.