Dec 17, 2015

India reopens the Beatles’ ashram in Rishikesh to tourists

The National
December 17, 2015

NEW DELHI // Just over forty years ago, the Beatles descended upon an ashram in the Himalayan town of Rishikesh, spending weeks meditating and writing songs, and bestowing pop-culture fame upon their guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

The ashram was abandoned in 1997, when the last disciples of the Maharishi’s order left. The Maharishi himself had moved to Europe in the late 1970s, where he stayed until his death in 2008.

But last week, the Uttarakhand state government opened the spruced-up ashram as a tourist site, hoping to lure Beatles fans from around the world.

“This is our state’s treasure, and its opening is an important landmark for us,” Dinesh Aggarwal, Uttarakhand’s minister for forests, said at the inauguration of the renovated ashram on December 10. “Our aim is to ensure that visitors don’t come for the Beatles connection but to learn the magic of nature, meditation and yoga.”

The ashram, named “Chaurasi Kutiya” (or “84 huts”), sits in a corner of Rajaji National Park, a tiger reserve that sprawls over 820 square kilometres. Before renovations began late last year, its huts and assembly hall were being slowly submerged by the park’s vegetation.

The Maharishi began touring India with his trademark transcendental meditation technique in the mid-1950s. He rented the land from the state government in 1957 and completed the ashram in 1963.

He then embarked on a decade of international preaching, visiting Myanmar (then called Burma), Singapore, Hong Kong, and various European countries. In the United States, he appeared on The Tonight Show and was featured on the cover of Time magazine.

But even this renown paled in comparison to the fame that followed when the Beatles arrived in Rishikesh in February 1968.

The Fab Four had already met the Maharishi in the United Kingdom the previous year, having developed an interest in meditation.

In August 1967, their manager, Brian Epstein, died. “It was as though, with Brian gone, the four needed someone new to give them direction, and the Maharishi was in the right place at the right time,” Cynthia Lennon, John Lennon’s wife at the time, wrote in her 2005 book John. Her husband, she said, “was evangelical in his enthusiasm for Maharishi”.

The Beatles came to Rishikesh with a large entourage: spouses and girlfriends, friends, and colleagues. Their cottages were given special decorations, with mirrors, better mattresses, and carpets.

Individually, the musicians’ reactions to the ashram varied. Ringo Starr left after 10 days. His wife hated the teeming insect life, and he couldn’t take the food, finding himself “allergic to so many different things”. Paul McCartney stayed for five weeks.

Lennon and George Harrison remained for nearly two months. Harrison said he found peace there. “We have all the money you could ever dream of,” he told Paul Saltzman, the author of The Beatles in Rishikesh. “But it isn’t love. It isn’t health. It isn’t peace inside, is it?”

During their stay, the group wrote roughly 30 songs. Many of these became hits such as Back in the USSR, Dear Prudence, and Revolution. They were released on major albums such as The White Albumand Abbey Road. Others appeared on solo records such as Lennon’s Imagine and Harrison’s Gone Troppo.

Harrison and Lennon eventually left the ashram on bad terms with the Maharishi, unhappy that he constantly asked them for money and that he was allegedly in sexual relationships with some of his young female disciples. Lennon would go on to say: “We believe in meditation, but not the Maharishi and his scene.”

Harrison later repaired relations with the Maharishi, particularly after the guru moved from India to Europe, where he died in 2008.

Between 1997 and 2014, the ashram was left abandoned and neglected. But even during this time, straggling tourists still found their way to the site, wandering around with little supervision.

Three years ago, a troupe of artists painted murals of the band members and lyrics of their songs on the walls of the main yoga hall.

Following last week’s opening, Beatlemaniacs can now wander the refurbished ashram for a fee of 150 rupees (Dh8.3 for Indian tourists and 600 rupees for foreigners, said DVS Khati, Uttarakhand’s chief wildlife warden.

“Earlier, visitors who liked the Beatles were just landing up at the ashram in a disorganised manner, and of course they were entering for free,” Mr Khati told The National. “There was a lot of graffiti work going on, so it was necessary for us to step in and regulate it.”

The state’s forestry department renovated the ashram only minimally, Mr Khati said. Rubbish was cleared, bushes were pruned, and trails were marked.

The minister said he hoped that the ashram’s new visitors would enjoy the wooded calm as much as Lennon and Harrison did, adding that there were no plans to pipe the band’s music through the site.

When asked if he was a Beatles fan himself, Mr Khati laughed.

“I don’t listen to the Beatles very much,” he said. “I prefer Abba and Boney M.”

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