Next time you visit ISKCON New Vrindaban, it might not be the New Vrindaban you’ve been used to.
During the winter of 2012 to 2013, as the pilgrimage season quietened down and a blanket of snow fell across the rural West Virgnia community, professional devotee foremen, carpenters and electricians flung themselves into five months of hard work to transform the guest facilities.
There was a lot to do.
“There had only been minimal renovations on our Palace Lodge since it was constructed thirty years ago,” says president Jaya Krishna Das. “There was old-fashioned wood paneling on the walls. The carpets had never been changed. The bunk beds were the same ones they had built thirty years ago, with thin foam mattresses. The lighting was very bad.”
Devotees changed the carpets in the hallway, sheetrocked the walls, painted them in bright, modern colors, and put in brand new environmentally-friendly wood flooring. They installed new doors, better insulated windows, and all-new electrical fittings, air-conditioning, and lights.
They even put stylish modern chairs, tables and bedside tables in every room. And of course, hotel-style beds with headboards and brand new colorful linens. Now, each of the lodge’s fifty-one rooms is bright and welcoming, and rather than the previous eight bunk beds to a room, there’s just one queen bed in some and two in others. But that’s because the Palace Lodge managers are going for quality, not quantity.
Meanwhile, Govinda’s Restaurant also received a complete overhaul. Devotees transformed it from a snack bar where customers waited in line to be served into an inviting family restaurant. They raised the height of the ceiling to give it a more airy, spacious feel, added comfortable booths and ornate Rajasthani style furniture, and created a VIP extension with special lighting and an executive dining table.
They also closed the half wall that revealed the kitchen for a more formal restaurant look, and invested in new kitchen equipment, including a storage cooler and stainless steel buffet warmers. Lotuses painted on the walls, warm lighting and a buffet bar completed the effect.
The menu itself has a certain homecooked charm and is appealing to both Indian and Western palates, which is essential for New Vrindaban’s varied visitors. It combines hot sandwiches, veggie burgers, pizzas and French fries with more exotic Indian fare such as idli and sambhar, dosas, and paratha with subji. There are also samosas and pakoras for snacks, and of course a full thali plate.
“We want to not only feed pilgrims well, but also provide tourists with a vegetarian option, as you do not find any vegetarian restaurants in this part of West Virginia,” says Jaya Krishna. “Last year two or three buses tested it out, and they were really happy.”
ISKCON New Vrindaban also has a new lodge and restaurant manager, Vasudeva Das. Originally from Argentina, he joined ISKCON in England and moved to New Vrindaban last year, attracted by the project and by what Srila Prabhupada had said about it.
Managing along with his 23-year-old son Gaura Bhakta, Vasudeva ups the pedigree of the renovated lodge and restaurant even more. He holds a degree in hotel and catering, and worked at hotels like the Hyatt and Sheraton before running the Govinda’s Restaurant in Soho, London.
“When we serve visitors, we are representing Srila Prabhupada,” he says. “We treat the restaurant and lodge as an embassy to Srila Prabhupada’s ISKCON. So for us it’s very important that visitors are well treated and get a nice impression of the temple. And of course, we aim to have a high standard of quality in terms of accommodation and prasadam.”
It’s important to have the best facilities at New Vrindaban, because unlike city temples, which congregation members can visit for the day before retiring to their homes for the night, New Vrindaban pilgrims come long distances looking for an immersive spiritual experience. Around 25,000 to 35,000 visitors from all over North America and even around the world make the journey to New Vrindaban every year.
“We want to make pilgrims’ stay as comfortable and concern-free as possible, so that their bodily needs are taken care of and they can take darshan of the Lord, offer prayers, and participate in lectures and kirtans with an open heart,” says Jaya Krishna.
It seems that these goals are being reached. While previously, conditions were getting so sub-par that many pilgrims stopped coming, ISKCON New Vrindaban’s 300 beds – spread out across the lodge, 12 cabins by the lake, and several rooms in the temple – are sold out most summer weekends.
Moreover, pilgrims are regularly expressing their appreciation and gratitude for the improved lodgings and restaurant.
Other recent additions to the New Vrindaban experience include BlueHome Artworks, a gift shop for devotee hand crafted art which assists local devotees in marketing their considerable talents, a healthfood store, and a second-hand clothing store.
There are also gift shops at the temple and at Prabhupada’s Palace. All these, along with the restaurant, will encourage tourists who come to see the Palace to spend more time in New Vrindaban, and to see Sri Sri Radha-Vrindabanchandra in their temple and talk more with the devotees.
“To draw people we are now doing TV commercials, distributing flyers through a promotional company, and working with the Marshall County Tourism Board,” says Jaya Krishna. “Our goal is to make New Vrindaban a lively place where we can show people many aspects of our culture and day to day practice.”
Other future plans include renovating the cabins by the lake, and this year, switching to using only environmentally-friendly cleaning materials, soaps and laundry detergents at the lodge. In addition, as soon as this summer, Govinda’s will begin using vegetables grown by local devotees and only milk produced by New Vrindaban’s own cows.
“Our main goal is to fulfill the original wish that Srila Prabhupada had for New Vrindaban—to present ourselves as a real alternative to modern society,” says Vasudeva Das. “So by treating people well, and offering them nice accommodation and Prasad, they’ll say, “Yes, this is an alternative that I would like to experience and recommend to my family and friends.’”
“That was what Srila Prabhupada had in mind,” he concludes. “So our humble attempt is to try to achieve that for him.”[ govindas ] [ new ] [ restaurant ] [ vrindavana ]