Mar 21, 2020

The Beatles Ashram in India is popular but might be scamming vulnerable tourists

Visitors are flocking to northern India to seek spiritual enlightenment but they may be being tricked by unscrupulous gurus

Luke Taylor
March 2020

In North India, The Beatles’ quest for enlightenment lives on. But in the midst of the chanting, barter and guitar strumming, does something darker lurk?

When local authorities decided to open “The Beatles Ashram” to tourists back in 2015, the spiritual hermitage had become so abandoned the grass and weeds grew taller than the park rangers.

Then part of a tiger reserve, yoga aficionados and Beatles fanatics would break in at night seeking the same tranquillity and spiritual connection that brought the world’s biggest pop group all the way from Liverpool to Rishikesh, North India, back in 1968.

The forest department realised the potential revenue it might accrue by converting the ashram into a tourist attraction. And so it set about chopping back the undergrowth, setting up a café and photo exhibition and printing flyers.

Here comes the scam
The ashram first caught the world’s attention when The Beatles accepted an invitation from the charismatic guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to join him at his transcendental meditation training camp.

Film crews from across the world scrambled to the town of Rishikesh to get a glimpse of the Fab Four embracing spirituality in the Himalayan foothills.

Ringo Starr departed after only 10 days complaining about the spicy food and abundance of flies. McCartney left after four weeks. When the more committed Harrison and Lennon left, the trip was marred by allegations that the guru made sexual advances towards Mia Farrow and was exploiting the group for self-promotion.

The ashram was abandoned in the 70s and the Maharishi left India for Holland in 1990 for tax reasons. Many of the concrete buildings – the rooms where the band slept and the canteen in which they ate – are now in decay, crumbling from the damp as carpets of moss sprout from the walls.

“Of course the place is historically important,” says Nicolas Alba, a musician from Chile who fronts a funk group in the capital, Santiago. “But it’s something more than that. It has a particular energy you can feel.”

Beatles experts say the visit held great significance for the band but also for global culture, precipitating a surge in interest in eastern spirituality which continues to fascinate the West today and which has remoulded Rishikesh.

“The Beatles created curiosity among foreigners about the Himalayas,” says Raju Gusain, a Beatles in India expert based in the nearby city of Dehradun.

“10,000 people lived here in 1968; now 50,000 tourists – five times that population – come each year to visit.”

Most come to the “world capital of yoga” seeking a spiritual journey. Its vegan cafés and bakeries are filled with Westerners wearing baggy cotton yoga pants and thick woolly scarves and discussing the search for meaning.

Tourists pay as little as $1,000 (£775) per month for classes, food and accommodation and most talk highly of their ashrams. But economic opportunity has also bred charlatans and frauds.

Some beggars have realised they can get more rupees if they masquerade as monks in orange robes and tourists complain of beguiling characters relying on their charm and wit more than their expertise to fool students.

“We were hanging on his every word but I realised after half an hour that he was talking absolute nonsense,” a Spanish yoga student says of a teacher at a school she had attended and then quickly abandoned, chuckling.

“It’s hard to guarantee that every person is a real teacher – all you need is a bit of paper,” admits a teacher in a school close to the town centre. “It’s not easy to control.”

Other allegations are more sinister.

Local residents talk of consistent allegations of sexual impropriety from yoga teachers who use their position as wise gurus to take advantage of female students.

Others allegedly trick pupils into believing they are in a transcendental state of meditation by slipping hallucinogens into their tea.

Travel forums warn visitors to avoid particular teachers whom they accuse of a long list of sexually inappropriate behaviour.

In February 2018 a teacher in Rishikesh was charged with sexual harassment following accusations from a Japanese pupil. The teacher was later acquitted, however, and claimed it was “a planned conspiracy… by some foreigners who wanted to tarnish the image of the holy city.”

Unsavoury secrets
Rishikesh would not be the only retreat stalked by predators.

In 2018 Thailand’s Agama Yoga School was closed after instructor Swami Vivekandanda Saraswat – whose first school was established in Rishikesh – was accused by 14 women and two men of sexual assault, rape, and “allegedly ‘brainwashing’ hundreds of women into having sex with the Swami”.

Murray Jenkinson, 33, from Queensland, Australia, is completing his course to become a yoga instructor before heading to Thailand to teach English as a foreign language.

He says that where open-mindedness is seen as key to success, being sceptical can appear counterproductive.

“It’s hard to get into all this while being a sceptic and questioning everything – but then it’s pretty foolish not to,” he warns.

After all, it wouldn’t be the first time a commune in the middle of nowhere was hiding some unsavoury secrets.

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