Oct 9, 2015

Magical mystery

The Telegraph
October 28, 2007

Nearly four decades after The Beatles’ sojourn at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh, Anirban Das Mahapatra visits the ruined hermitage where the Fab Four wrote some of their finest lyrics

Amitai Segev was 16 when he was gifted a copy of the White Album by his father. It was the first Beatles tape he got to own, and he says it changed his life forever. A couple of years later, he heard about a decaying hermitage in the Himalayan town of Rishikesh, where the Fab Four had taken refuge in the spring of 1968 to script much of the material that the Israeli youngster had come to love. Sergev knew he would set foot there some day — it was a pilgrimage he had to make.

So when he got the chance to backpack through India this month, the 23-year-old went to Rishikesh to visit the now abandoned ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, located on a forlorn mountain by the Ganges on the southern fringes of the town. “I wanted to see for myself the place where The Beatles had written such awesome stuff,” says Segev. “It was a dream come true for me. It’s unfortunate that it won’t be there for too long,” he muses.

Almost four decades after The Beatles let their fringed hair down at Rishikesh, tourists continue to drop by to fulfil a wish of seeing the place where the quartet from Liverpool wrote some of the best poetry popular music has ever fed on. Paul Saltzman, a Canadian filmmaker who happened to be an inmate at the ashram at the same time, later wrote in his book The Beatles in India that the band wrote scores of songs during their stay from February to April 1968. Seventeen of those tunes were used in the White Album, which came out in November, 1968.

Not surprisingly, the forsaken ashram remains a hot spot for travellers who know and love their Beatles. “Some 30 people come here every day,” says caretaker Govind Singh. “Some come back over and over again.”

The ‘Beatles Ashram’, as the locals call it, was built after obtaining a lease from the forest department in 1961. It soon earned worldwide reputation as a place where the Maharishi taught the art of Transcendental Meditation.

“He taught people to reach, through meditation, a supreme level of thought,” says Dhirendra Baba, who was there with the yogi through the ashram’s formative years. “One could rise above thought and experience a state of enlightenment,” says the 76-year-old sadhu, now sitting in a modest building by a sandbank overlooking the ashram.

Entrance to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Rishikesh
JAI GURU DEVA: (top) Entrance to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Rishikesh, (below) a cave for meditation

cave for meditation
Word about the yogi’s teachings had spread like wildfire. The Beatles were trying to escape the high-flying circuit of rock and roll and spend a few contemplative moments all by themselves. Friends of the yogi — but relations soured soon thereafter — they chose to visit Rishikesh, and were followed, apart from their wives and girlfriends, by fellow musician Mike Love of the Beach Boys, Scottish guitarist-songwriter Donovan and actress Mia Farrow.

Saltzman, in a 2005 interview to The Telegraph, narrated a conversation he had during his stay with George Harrison, in an attempt to explain the situation that compelled The Beatles to come to Rishikesh. “George said… ‘We are The Beatles, after all, aren’t we' We have all the money we could ever dream of, we have all the fame you could ever wish for, but it isn’t love, it isn’t health, it isn’t peace inside, is it'’,” reminisced Saltzman.Whether or not they found peace in these Himalayan foothills never became clear. But under those deodars, they hit the peak of their creativity. They dabbled in meditation, survived on a no-onion, no-garlic broth that was the staple diet in the ashram, and produced classics such as Revolution, While My Guitar Gently Weeps and Back in the USSR.

But the ashram slipped away from public memory in due course of time, until it was deserted — upon the termination of a 20-year lease — by its administrators in 1981. The Rajaji National Park was subsequently created to protect several species of animals and plants of the region in 1983. “Since the ashram falls within the notified area for the park, a renewal of the lease for human habitation was completely ruled out,” explains Surendra Mehra, deputy director of the park. “Now it’s only a matter of time before the ashram is taken over by the wilds. We have no plans or intentions to revive it any way,” he says.

The yogi chose to move to the West, where he subsequently built himself a global foundation showcasing institutions such as the Maharishi University of Management in the US and the Maharishi Open University in The Netherlands. His departure, followed by the exodus of his 2000-odd disciples, reduced the ashram to a 15-acre ghost town lost in the wilderness. And that’s how it remains today. The palatial lodges are haunted by spiders. The igloo-shaped caves, where practitioners meditated, lie empty, as lichens grow in the crevices of the intricate pebbling that adorns their surfaces. The bare walls of the assembly halls where the Maharishi delivered his speeches are now covered with charcoal graffiti, inscribed by travellers who managed to hack their way in through dense shrubbery that now envelops the buildings. Up above, in an evergreen canopy cast by ageless trees, the crickets raise havoc.

Dhirendra Baba pulls out a frayed photograph, shot and later posted to him by a British photographer, of a younger himself walking alongside the Maharishi, escorting a foreign entourage around the ashram. He had another photograph of himself with the ‘Bittals’, he says. “But a trekker from Calcutta once came and begged me to give it to him.” The Baba obliged. Now all he has are memories of the sitarwallah [Harrison] who danced in the halls after evening lecture sessions, and the one who had a movie camera [drummer Ringo Starr], but left because he couldn’t put up with the bland food and the strict regimen. “I heard they went back and became superstars in their own country,” he laughs.

Even as he speaks, a party of tourists, armed with mosquito repellents and bottled water, walk up the cobbled track that leads to the gates of the ashram above, where the legend of John, Paul, George and Ringo lingers amid the ruins, obscured from the world by an emerald forest. Oh-bla-di, oh-bla-da, someone hums. And life goes on.


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