It’s just another afternoon in the holy town of Rishikesh in Uttarakhand. Tourists jostle on the almost swinging Ram Jhula – one of the two famous suspension bridges across the cascading Ganga. Many stop for photo ops on the narrow pedestrian bridge, 20-somethings take selfies, motorcyclists honk for way, a couple of cows moo.
Once everybody has crossed over, they automatically set off in one direction: towards the many ashrams and temples along the ghaat. We, however, ask around for one particular ashram off the tourist trail.
A dusty, deserted lane leads us to the dry rocky bed of a mountain stream. We walk across it, and around a bend, find what we’re looking for. The rusted main gate is locked from the inside, its arch taken over by wild creepers.
Vipul Saini, the gatekeeper, gets up lazily from his charpai when we approach and asks matter-of-factly, “Where from?” “Delhi.” “Give me your ID cards and go in. You have half an hour only. The ashram shuts at 5pm. And don’t get lost!”
With that warning we set off to explore what remains of what was once the ashram where Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr – collectively known as the legendary English rock band The Beatles – had stayed, learnt meditation and written 48 songs in the spring of ’68.
In the Swinging Sixties, Rishikesh was an obscure little place, quite unknown to most of the world outside. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of Transcendental Meditation or TM technique that was rapidly becoming a worldwide movement, had built an ashram here, in 1961, on a wooded hillock along the bank of the Ganga.
He had also started to gather a devoted string of celebrity followers on his many world tours to teach TM. During one such tour in London, in August of 1967, seated amongst the Maharishi’s audience were the four Beatles. They had just released their eighth studio album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Harrison had already made a voyage to India to learn the sitar and had become interested in Indian culture and mysticism. And the Beatles were all still going strong on LSD to “tap into the cosmic subconscious, or eternity, or whatever,” as a 2008
New York Times
article puts it. The piece adds: “The maharishi’s transcendental meditation techniques promised to get them there without the chemicals.”
And so in February 1968, brimming with that expectation, the Beatles, along with their wives and girlfriends, arrived in Rishikesh for a three month-long course on TM.
As soon as we start climbing the many steps from the main gate towards the heart of the ashram, a swarm of tiny insects starts buzzing over our heads. Some of the stairs, we notice, are covered by big mounds of poop. “Wild elephants,” Saini says from behind us. He has followed us inside, “I’ll show you around,” he offers and says, “Many wild animals come in. Deer, monkeys, snakes, elephants. Tigers too!”
There are 84 meditation caves at the ashram which were meant for the residents to practise meditation in. Like the rest of the ashram, they’ve been overrun by the jungle now. (Photo: Saumya Khandelwal)
The ashram, known amongst fans as the ‘Beatles ashram’, and amongst the locals as ‘Mahesh Yogi’s ashram’, is part of the Rajaji National Park that extends from Haridwar to Dehradun and beyond.
“In 1961, the Maharishi had got 15 acres of land for the ashram on a lease of 20 years,” says Dehradun-based journalist Raju Gusain who has done extensive research on the ashram and its Beatles connection. “When the lease expired in 1981, the ashram kept running for two more decades without a new lease. Then in 2000, a Supreme Court ruling ordered all staff members to vacate the premises, and in 2003, the ashram was formally shut forever.”
Ever since, weeds have sprouted across the paths, trees have grown wildly from inside many of the buildings, creepers have sneakily crawled up the walls of others, and the forest has slowly, determinedly reclaimed the ashram as its own. Although, not all of it.
The 84 meditation caves, which were built for residents to live simply within their rounded walls and meditate undisturbed, still stand strong. A multistoried building that might have once housed living quarters, now stands covered in dust and leaves, its doors broken off the hinges, wind rustling through its empty corridors.
Today, the Beatles Cathedral Gallery features vibrant pop art in a riot of colour. (Photo: Saumya Khandelwal)
A high-roofed building lies partially hidden by tall shrubs towards the rear end of the property. It had once served as a yoga hall, Saini tells us, but is now known as the Beatles Cathedral Gallery, as the graffiti on the doorway announces.
Inside, the walls are a riot of colour. A big graffiti saying ‘100% Love Guaranteed’ is flanked by the Beatles on one side and various spiritual gurus on the other. Vibrant pop art covers other walls of the hall – some made with much effort by Beatles fans, and others, like names of lovers within hearts, scribbled hastily by locals.
Canadian artist Pan Trinity Das started the Beatles Cathedral Gallery at one of the yoga halls in the ashram as a collaborative space for various artists. (Photo courtesy: Pan Trinity Das)
Pan Trinity Das, a Canadian artist and the brain behind the gallery, tells us, “I first went to the Beatles ashram in 2012 when a musician friend insisted that we pay tribute to the band there. I had a vision then of what the space could look like and spent two weeks finishing the gallery with the help of all those who would accept a paintbrush. I also curated the space, organising walls for other international artists to come paint on.” The Beatles gallery now forms one of the major attractions for fans visiting the ashram.
Paul Saltzman was just 23 when he came to India from Canada in 1968 to work as a sound engineer on a documentary film. Soon after, he received a letter from his girlfriend saying, “Dear Paul, I’ve moved in with Henry…”.
He was left devastated. “Someone said, ‘Why don’t you try meditation for the heartbreak,’ and so I took a train to Rishikesh and arrived at the ashram,” he says. “I hadn’t made arrangements and didn’t even know the Beatles were there. I slept in a tent near the front gate for eight days before I was allowed in.
I learnt meditation in five minutes and within 30 minutes the agony of my heartbreak was gone.” And so he spent the next week “hanging out with the famous folks there,” – the Beatles and their spouses, actress Mia Farrow and her sister Prudence, the Scottish singer Donovan, Mike Love of The Beach Boys and several others.
Saltzman would later go on to become a two-time Emmy Award-winning film and TV producer-director with more than 300 films to his credit. “Meditation and my conversations with John and George and the others were life- changing,” he says. “They were totally down-to-earth, humorous and playful. They had no star egos. It was also the most creative capsule of time during their illustrious career: they wrote 48 songs in just under seven weeks!”
These songs would later appear on their
(1969). Some like
Back in the USSR
had no India connect. Others like
Mother Nature’s Son
were inspired by the natural beauty of the mountains in Rishikesh.
was written by Lennon to “lure Prudence Farrow out of meditation overload,” according to the book,
100 Best Beatles Songs: A Passionate Fan’s Guide
Lennon later told
, “She’d been trying to reach God quicker than anybody else. That was the competition in Maharishi’s camp: who was going to get cosmic first. What I didn’t know was I was
Raju Gusain says that the Beatles’ visit put Rishikesh on the world map. He says that the Fab Four could also perhaps be indirectly credited with the idea behind the rafting scene in Rishikesh.
“There was a man called Avnish Kohli who was with the Beatles when they were crossing the Ganga by boat one day. It was then that he heard them talk about rafting and the possibility of doing it in the Ganga.” According to Gusain, Kohli later established the first rafting camp in Rishikesh.
But all didn’t end well for the Beatles at the ashram. Ringo Starr left after the first week as his stomach couldn’t cope with the spicy food. Three weeks later, McCartney followed, while Lennon and Harrison returned home another two weeks after that, following rumours that the Maharishi had made sexual advances on one of the women in the ashram.
Their displeasure with the Maharishi would soon find its way into a sarcastic song which went, “Maharishi, what have you done? You’ve made a fool of everyone.”
But according to the 2008
New York Times
article, “it wasn’t released that way. In the end, the other Beatles, particularly Harrison, argued that whatever disagreements they had with the maharishi, his work demanded respect, and it was unfair (and perhaps libellous) to be so blunt.” The song’s title, and the references to the Maharishi in its lyrics, were henceforth changed to what we now know as
As we’re about to leave the ashram, two foreign tourists ask gatekeeper Saini if they can enter. “We’re leaving tomorrow and we really want to see the ashram once,” says Stefan from Germany.
“We got to know about Rishikesh and the ashram from a book on the Beatles. We’re both big fans, you know,” says Cris from Philippines. “It’s like a pilgrimage for us to visit this ashram.” Moved by their pleas, Saini duly keeps their ID cards and lets them in.
Later, we make our way through the twisted bylanes of the town centre to “The 60’s Cafe”. Its owner Keith Dympep moved to Rishikesh from Shillong a few years ago and started the café with a friend as a tribute to the glorious era of music that was the ’60s, and more specifically to the Beatles.
“Not many of the locals remember or know of the Beatles or their visit here,” he says. “But so many tourists from abroad visit Rishikesh just for the legendary band. This café is our little effort to revive that connection. Fans now lovingly call it the ‘Beatles Cafe’.”
Fans take photos next to graffiti at the ashram as it exists today.
(Photo: Saumya Khandelwal)
It is to recognise this attraction that Rishikesh and the ashram – even in its dilapidated, crumbling state – holds over legions of Beatles fans from all across the world that officials of the Rajaji National Park are finally planning to turn the ashram into a museum.
Rajender Nautiyal, range officer of Gohari Range of the Park, and one of the first to propose the idea, says, “The trend of foreigners coming to Rishikesh started with the Beatles in ’68. So the influence that the band had on the town shouldn’t be overlooked.”
He says that the initial plan is to remove the weeds from the paths, clean the floors of the buildings and erase some of the obscene graffiti from the walls. “We don’t plan to renovate any of the buildings as of now, since the property is inside a National Park and we don’t want to promote too much tourism.”
The idea, he says, is to legalise entry for the die-hard fans who otherwise trespass into the ashram through gaps in the boundary walls when denied entry at the gate. “We will keep all the other beautiful graffiti as it is, provide maps and drinking water facilities. We will also make two small museums inside one of these buildings – one dedicated to the Beatles of course, and one for the diversity of birds, animals, plants and herbs you find in the area.”
“I have never heard any song by the Beatles. I only listen to old Hindi songs,” Nautiyal says, laughing. “But I understand the following they have all over the world. My children too listen to their music.”
It is, thus, only fair to give all fans a chance to pay homage to the band they love, at an ashram where they once lived, in a mystical land like Rishikesh. After all, we can’t just
Let It Be
From the writer's diary
I remember the first time I listened to
Let It Be
. I had heard it a zillion times before, but this was the first time I really listened. I had just gotten my heart broken for the first time, you see, and almost instinctively I had turned to The Beatles for comfort, for the assurance that “there will be an answer, let it be.”
That was a half and one decade ago, but even now I associate most of my loves and heartbreaks with The Beatles.
A few weeks ago, I visited Rishikesh for this cover story (on the ashram The Beatles had visited in the spring of ’68, where they had written many, many songs).
Etched on the walls of the ashram were the titles of the songs I had sung on sad, lonely nights and those I had hummed when my heart was aflutter with new love. And so, on my very first visit, I was overcome by a sense of belonging.
Later, our photojournalist Saumya Khandelwal and I sat at the Beatles Café in the town centre, sipping organic drinks and looking out at the Ganga flowing below.
The calm of the place was punctuated by the tolling of prayer bells from the temples nearby. For me though, singing along with The Beatles as their songs played in the café was my way of pilgrimage.
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From HT Brunch, July 5
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