That India had once received The Beatles in Rishikesh was a revelation to me during the peak of my teenage “why wasn’t I around in the 60s?” phase. I grew up listening to the Beatles since my parents were big fans. Years later, when I was a teenager completely infatuated with everything that the likes of The Beatles, Hendrix and the ilk stood for, I made a startling discovery. I was visiting an ISKON temple in near Byron Bay (Australia) and I found a book titled Chant and Be Happy with John Lennon and George Harrisson on the cover.
Why Were The Beatles in Rishikesh?
It turns out that The Beatles were to go through an Eastern philosophy phase when they met Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at one of his sermons in London in the late 60s. Completely tuned in and ready to take on Transcendental Meditation, they followed him to the picturesque, sleepy little town along the Ganges – Rishikesh. Here, the Maharishi had a beautiful little ashram, with meditation pods and perfect sunsets and views across the Himalayas. Over the years, this sleepy little town shot to fame, pulling in Westerners looking for peace, balance, themselves, nature and all those elements of an alternative lifestyle. Even today loads of fans, like myself, visit to trace the epic journey of The Beatles in Rishikesh, and the story of how it ended up as an important spot in India on the Hippie Trail of the 60s.
Getting to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram
Met with immense resistance by our guide (‘Why would you want to go there? It’s isolated, in ruins and takes a ridiculous amount of uphill walking.’) we were all the more enchanted by the prospect of visiting the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram. The thing is, the lease ran out on this place, and the Government reclaimed it in the mid 90s, following which it is now a part of the Rajaji National Park. Lying derelict and ignored, nature has taken control of what was once a haven for followers and devotees of the Maharishi. Weeds have conquered everything, from the ground to the walls, bricks have crumbled and tree trunks grow through the ones that remain. Despite this state (or perhaps because it adds to the nostalgia for a time that will never return) fans of The Beatles flock to this rather out of the way spot above Rishikesh treating it like a pilgrimage. So after much ado, we discovered the road leads right to the gate, and there’s no walking required. Currently there’s no official entry ticket, but we hear that is soon to change, with plans to develop this into a proper tourist site afoot.
The Meditation Pods
With a gleeful skip in our step, we ascended the curving path, that passed by what one passer by quipped looked rather like an upright breast. The meditation pods were only large enough to accommodate one cross-legged individual within its igloo-like shell covered in mosaic stone. Sitting inside to test drive one of them, I could see how beautifully they let you cut off from all that surrounded you, allowing you to concentrate on meditation. Turns out, achieving a certain level of transcendental bliss became quite the competitive sport among the Beatles and their companions at the time. I discovered that the song “Dear Prudence” was written for Mia Farrow’s sister (who had become rather fanatical in her attempts to reach God first) who would stay isolated in her pod for weeks at a time, refusing to come out. They wrote this song trying to implore her to come out and see that the “sky is blue, it’s beautiful and so are you.” I tried to place myself in her shoes, obviously without a community to compete with I had no sense of urgency, but I could see why this was addictive.
The Residential Pods
The Meditation Pods gave way to two storeyed versions halfway through as we walked towards the orange evening sky. Entering a clearing, I gasped. Standing here, watching the tangerine sun setting over the flowing greenish-blue Ganges with faint silhouettes of the Himalayas in the distance, I at once understood what inspired The Beatles to write Mother Nature’s Son (or at least the lyrics that John Lennon contributed to). Peeping inside some of these huts, their entrances covered in twigs and creepers, I noticed slim narrow steps embedded into the inside walls leading up. Hollow spaces remained where electric fittings once sat (apparently they had all the modern luxuries in the lap of nature way back in the 60s). Little windows allowed light and flowers and birds and bees in. In a somber voice, our driver informed us that since it’s a part of the national park, animals often roam around here after dark. Unperturbed, we exited the clearing of the 84 pods (thus the local name Chaurasi Kuti meaning 84 huts) only to make our way further in, hunting for another slice of The Beatles nostalgia- The Beatles Cathedral Gallery. [To be continued]