A Magical Mystery Tour

The Beatles in India, 50 year anniversary – Rishikesh and Liverpool.

I wrote this piece for the Vistara inflight magazine, of which a slightly edited version came out in the May 2018 issue.

A path runs along the lightly rippled blue of the Ganga, passing by a sadhu seated on the pebbled bank and leading to a walled enclosure punctured by an entrance of three pointed domes. Beyond this lies a rambling complex of jungle – part concrete, part natural – that exudes an aura of mystery and nostalgia. This is the Chaurasi Kutiya, more popularly known as the Beatles Ashram, the erstwhile home of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It was hugely popular during the height of the Maharishi’s fame with visitors who came to practice his method of Transcendental Meditation. Resembling the set of an Indiana Jones movie, the abandoned, yet poetic, ruins are intertwined with dense foliage, a lost kingdom within the Rajaji National Park. Fifty years ago the ashram received its most famous visitors – the Fab Four.

The Beatles were at the height of their frenzied career in 1968 when they descended in Rishikesh with an entourage of wives, managers and reporters. They arrived weary from the enormous strain their fame was putting on the band, as well as from the grief of recently losing their manager, Brian Epstein. The aim was to rejuvenate through meditation, isolation and a period of “normalcy” where they could get some peace and quiet. Though they only ended up staying a few weeks, the visit greatly influenced their future work and was a particularly prolific period of songwriting for them, with around 40 new pieces written during this time. The Beatles are iconic and any site associated with them is bound to draw fans and visitors. Rishikesh, where the band spent these few weeks, and Liverpool, their hometown, are testament to this enduring popularity. And more so this year which marks 50 years since the band visited India and the 100th birth anniversary of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Both destinations are celebrating this significant period in the lives of the Beatles, giving visitors a glimpse into this visit and how it shaped them.

Though the ashram has been in a state of abandonment for decades, people would sneak in to pay homage to the Fab Four. The Forest Department, who manage the property, opened it to visitors a few years ago and there have been efforts to make it more tourist friendly in time for the anniversary year. A new map details buildings of interest around the complex, a stunning Beatles photo exhibition was recently launched, information on Transcendental Meditation is on offer, and dazzling new artwork and graffiti brings the complex alive. As one enters, the path is interspersed with igloo shaped stone meditation huts overlooking the Ganga. It is a peaceful space, birdsong and the urgent swishing of langurs in the trees above punctuating the silence. One can imagine how different and isolated this location would have been for The Beatles. Though their bungalow and stay was made more comfortable with mattresses, heaters, running water and new furniture, with even eggs smuggled in to the vegetarian ashram for Ringo, this would have been a whole new world.

While George was reportedly the most dedicated to the regimen of meditation, the vegetarian diet and the quiet environment, Ringo left the earliest, supposedly because the food and mosquitoes did not agree with him. His serious expression is captured in some of the photographs displayed in an exhibition at the ashram. Other pictures include candid images of the band sitting on the steps while singing, strumming a guitar, laughing with the Maharishi and chatting with their wives. It almost looks like a group holiday with friends, except for the slightly guarded expressions in some of the photos which seem to betray some of the underlying strain they must have been under as a band, and personally, with John and Cynthia Lennon’s marriage breaking apart. Other parts of the exhibition have information on Transcendental Meditation and some of the famous songs inspired by it, like the Beach Boys’ “TM Song” and Stevie Wonders’ “Jesus Child of America”.

Undeniably the biggest attraction in the ashram is the artwork and graffiti splashed across various buildings. Though various fans and artists have snuck in over the years and left their artistic tribute to the Beatles, a new collection has emerged recently as a result of an amazing joint effort led by street artist Pan Trinity Das. He invited a few artists from around the world to help him create stunning murals at the ashram, not just inspired by The Beatles, but by images and people around Rishikesh. There are bright floor to ceiling murals in the old preaching hall of the foursome with the Maharishi in their midst. Phrases like “All you need is love” or “Imagine” are stencilled across walls or scribbled in rooms in the residential area. A woman with searing eyes on a wall or a bare-chested sadhu sketched on the Maharishi’s old residence follow you with their eyes. Atop a terrace two oval structures are masked with portraits of a bearded turbaned man and a monk, both framed against a blue sky. A dilapidated complex is all that remains of the erstwhile residences for The Beatles and other celebrity guests, including the Beach Boys’ Mike Love, Donovan, and Mia Farrow and her sister, Prudence. The Fab Four spent much of their time here creating new music, many of the songs featured on the White Album. Some of the music was inspired by their observations of life in the ashram, like “Dear Prudence” detailing the unresponsive state that Mia Farrow’s sister would go into while meditating. “I’m so tired” illustrates Lennon’s fatigue coping with insomnia and his inability to focus while meditating, while lyrics about a fellow resident at the ashram going out to hunt tigers for sport find their way into “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”.

The enormous impact these few weeks had on their lives is also being commemorated in their hometown, Liverpool. This is hallowed ground for any Beatles fan, from the Cavern Club where the band played almost 300 gigs before taking the world by storm; to locations like Penny Lane and Strawberry Field, which inspired iconic songs. Commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Beatles visiting India is The Beatles Story, a visitor attraction showcasing the band’s journey from Liverpool locals to global superstars. Along with their permanent display is a special exhibition that opened this year –The Beatles in India - with exclusive memorabilia, personal accounts and photographs from their visit. Paul Saltzman, a Canadian filmmaker, met the Beatles while in Rishikesh and took a series of candid photographs that are on display at the exhibition, including a life sized version of the iconic group photograph of the four, the Maharishi, and the rest of the entourage. Among the exhibits is a sitar of George Harrison’s mentor, Ravi Shankar, illustrating how Indian instruments were made popular in 1960s pop music. The exhibition attempts to recreate some of the sights and sounds from the ashram with themed areas like “The Bungalow” set, which showcases the living quarters. Visitors can hear about the inspiration behind the band’s trip, their introduction to Transcendental Meditation, the songs they worked on and some of the controversies surrounding the visit through video interviews by Pattie Boyd, former wife of George Harrison (and later Eric Clapton) and her sister – Jenny Boyd. The exhibition will run for two years, but there are also a series of music, yoga and meditation workshops through the year in celebration of this 50th anniversary. In addition, the annual Beatles week in Liverpool in August will likely be White Album themed this year. For Beatles fans and music lovers, a visit to these two towns is truly a magical mystery tour of the lives of four men on an extraordinary journey. Their allure resonates across the universe, even decades later.

- Rishikesh can be reached via air by flying to Dehradun, followed by a 1 hour taxi ride. Several trains run between Delhi to Haridwar, 25 kms away, from where a taxi can be taken to Rishikesh.
- Liverpool is a 2 hour train journey from London and a 25 minute train ride from Manchester. International flights fly into Manchester’s International Airport, as well as Liverpool’s John Lennon Airport.
- The Chaurasi Kutiya Ashram is walking distance from Ram Jhula (1 km) and Laxman Jhula (3 kms). Entry fees for Indian citizens is Rs. 150, and Rs. 600 for international visitors.
- The Beatles Story is located at Albert Dock in Liverpool. Adult tickets are for GBP 16.95 , children’s tickets are priced at GBP 9.50


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