ACROSS THE UNIVERSE — TURNING BACK TIME AT THE BEATLES ASHRAM IN RISHIKESH
TRAVEL | THE BEATLES ASHRAM
Rishikesh — the ‘Yoga Capital of the World’ offers a popular slice of history from the Himalayan foothills. Meandering along Ganges River, the city has become a global melting pot of cultures over the years, where the East meets West.
Turn back the pages of history, and one can see the visages of a pop-culture confluence that found its origins with the arrival of Beatles at Rishikesh in early 1968. The Fab Four escaping the clutches of their cultish popularity were to find redemption in Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who set them on a course of transcendental meditation, which popularised the Indian meditation and spirituality in the Western world.
Since then, a plethora of international tourists have flocked to Rishikesh to attain inner peace and visit the popular attraction — Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Ashram aka the Beatles Ashram. The moment you step in the ashram, you hear every ruin speak of the history of the ashram and the cultural legacy of the Beatles. A walk through this ashram is like a walk back in time.
TICKET TO RIDE
Located in Rajaji National Tiger Reserve, the Beatles ashram is now covered by rich foliage of the forest. Small shrubs have grown in the rooms and creepers have crawled over the walls. But this wasn’t how it had always been.
When you step in the now silent ashram, you enter a forgotten era of Beatlemania. A quick walk through the ashram shows hints of visual delights in the ruins amidst the lush greenery. These silent ruins speak volumes about how mesmerising and lively the place must have been in the 1960s. Adorned with graffiti that convey love, peace, and spirituality, the place has got its own tranquil vibe. Inspiring quotes have been scribbled on the floor, as well. The art grabs your attention and teleports you to the decade of the 1960s when the Beatlemania phenomenon was at its heights. The band members — John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and, Ringo Starr who ushered in the global counterculture movement, were already the biggest icons of rock music.
The now-desolated ashram was at the centre of this global culture in the early 60s. The popularity of the Beatles had started growing in the UK in late 1963 to such an extent that CBS News characterised Beatlemania as an ‘epidemic’ that had seized Britain’s teenage population and was soon to infect America.
When on 9th February 1964, the group performed live for the first time on the US Television show — The Ed Sullivan Show, the programme was watched by approximately 73 million viewers all over the world. Overwhelmed by the media and fan frenzy, the Fab Four were seeking salvation in India.
George Harrison had famously wondered, “We have all the money you 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?”
The Indian connection of the Beatles dates back to 1965 when George Harrison first developed an interest in Indian music on the sets of The Beatles’ film — Help. He was smitten by the Indian musician Ravi Shankar and his sitar. The song Norwegian Wood released in December 1965, would go on to become the first Western pop song to incorporate sitar.
THE INNER LIGHT
The Beatles had attended Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s lecture in London in August 1967 and in February 1968 four of them along with their partners, arrived at Maharishi’s Ashram in a quest for inner peace. Their time spent in the Ashram was a productive one. The world’s most influential rock band would spend its days meditating and attending lectures by Maharishi. George Harrison and his wife even had an ‘out-of-body experience’ through meditation. This was a far cry from the early heydays of the LSD consumed-generation, which spoke of the promised land as heard in the Beatles’ track Lucy In The Sky With The Diamonds.
The biggest heartthrobs of the world led a simple life in the ashram. They would eat vegetarian meals in a common dining area, where food was vulnerable to monkeys and crows. Ringo Starr had a difficult time with food because of his allergies and illnesses, so much that he took two suitcases with him- one of clothes and one full of Heinz beans. He disliked the food and he and his wife also missed their children. Besides, Ringo was troubled by the spiders, mosquitoes, and flies present in the ashram. When he complained about this to Maharishi, he got the reply — “For people travelling in the realm of pure consciousness, flies no longer matter very much.” Thus, Ringo and his wife left India 10 days after their arrival.
The musicians would often gather on the roof of George Harrison’s bungalow at night to listen to the Ganges river and records, as they strummed to the guitar and sitar.
Journalist Lewis Lapham in his diary mentioned of one such night, John Lennon had described the band’s songs as “diaries of its developing consciousness”.
During their stay at the ashram, they wrote around 40 songs that were featured on their albums — The White Album and Abbey Road. One such song Dear Prudence was composed by Lennon to coax Prudence Farrow, who was locked in for three weeks, out of her intense meditation. John Lennon had written some of the best songs while he was in Rishikesh. Ringo Starr also completed his first solo composition, Don’t Pass Me By.
Most of their songs were inspired by nature and reflected the simplicity of their surroundings and their experience of Transcendental Meditation. The Beatles’ experience would be passed on in tracks such as Sour Milk Sea, Child of Nature and Mother Nature’s Son.
While the Fab Four wrote most of their biggest hits during their stay in the ashram, the song Dehradun was never released. The Beatles immortalised the town with soulful lyrics and this beautiful track, which emerged on YouTube decades later. The lyrics are a catchy ode to the Doon Valley, describing how different ways take you there.
The Beatles’ stay in Rishikesh had a huge impact on them, their music and on Rishikesh, as well. Since their visit, Rishikesh has become associated with the Beatles and has become a popular tourist destination worldwide. Some of their song titles are preserved on the walls of the ashram, evoking memories of the bygone era.
ACROSS THE UNIVERSE
One song captured the spirit of the Beatles’ stay at the ashram more than the others. Across The Universe, which includes the mantra Jai Guru Deva, emerged after John Lennon and his wife Cynthia had an argument. His wife was going on and on about something and Lennon kept hearing those words over and over, flowing like an endless stream. This incident inspired the track.
Years later, on 4th February 2008, for the first time in history, the song was transmitted into deep space to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the song’s recording, the 45th anniversary of Deep Space Network and the 50th Anniversary of NASA.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi established the Beatles Ashram, also known as Chaurasi Kutiya Ashram in 1961. It was then closed in 1981 when Maharishi’s lease on the ashram’s land expired. The ashram was left in ruins for more than three decades. In 2003, the Uttarakhand Forest Department took over the site and officially reopened it for the public in December 2015. When the ashram was officially closed, people would sneak into the property to admire the ruins and the graffiti.
Though many of the original buildings have been demolished, a few old structures from 1968 still stand and the most fascinating part of the ashram is Beatles Cathedral Gallery. It was in 2012 when artist Pan Trinity Das along with other travelling artists created the gallery. You can see the portraits of a series of spiritual leaders and the Beatles painted in shades of black, white and red. There is also a mural of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
This colourful space and the ruins narrate the story of a lost era and the spiritual and musical influence the ashram had on the world. Walk past the relics and graffitis, and you may well be transported to a time when Rock music first came to be. The message remains preserved till posterity in Lennon’s immortalised words…
Photo Attribution (From the Ashram): ABHISHEK RAJE/ DEV ADHIKARY
Photo Attribution (Others): Original Authors / Beatles Bible.
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