I WOKE up to the cold January weather of Rishikesh and was caught in between wanting to stay snuggled under my blanket, or start my exploration early. Half-dazed, I forced myself to saunter from across the room to the icy bathroom floor and find comfort from a quick, hot shower.
Fully awake now, I plotted my day thinking about a myriad of things I could do: try a new dish, go temple hopping, feed some monkeys, hang out by the Ganges, find a charming café, or rent a motorbike. However, the lure of laying eyes on a place that has caught my fascination ever since I started reading about the Beatles reigned over me.
First things first, I told myself. I kick-start my almost weeklong stay in Rishikesh by visiting what remains of the ashram that embellished Paul, John, Ringo and George mystical motivation to achieve creative, high penning of staggering 48 songs, most of which ended up on their double album “White Album.”
All things must pass
None of life’s strings can last. None can be truer than the state of the Beatles’ ashram that was founded by Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Known then as the International Academy of Meditation, the ashram today is a picture of scattered ruins of mural-painted walls overrun by overgrown bush.
Maharishi, who first met the Beatles in 1967 and later became their spiritual advisor, invited the group in the winter of ‘68 to study his devised Transcendental Meditation technique. The Beatles joined by their respective wives, along with Scottish singer Donovan, actress Mia Farrow, her sister and Beach Boys’ Mike Love, studied the guru’s meditation method from February until a falling out with Maharishi (which includes allegations of Maharishi’s sexual impropriety towards Mia Farrow) among the circle culminated in the group’s series of departures from India in April—with John Lennon and George Harrison being the last two to leave.
The band’s brief stay at the ashram provided the group with a creative rejuvenation delivering them their most productive period of songwriting. Lennon credited his experience in Rishikesh for writing some of his most miserable and best songs. “We wrote about 30 new songs between us,” Lennon said. “Paul must have done about a dozen. George says he’s got six, and I wrote 15. And look what meditation did for Ringo—after all this time he wrote his first song.”
As fleeting as it was the Beatles’ time in Rishikesh, it remains as one of the most talked-about and integral part of the band’s story analogous to their foremost overseas trip to Hamburg, Germany, in 1960 and their first visit to America in 1964.
The trip to India and the band’s episode in Rishikesh is also seen as a symbolic curtain drop on the group’s monumental history as this was the last time the fabulous four musicians traveled together. After the Maharishi stopped operating the ashram in the 1970s and the lease on the land expired in 1981, it has undergone years of neglect letting mother nature take over. In 2015, the ashram was reopened to the public as part of the Rishikesh heritage structures trail.
The Beatles’ Ashram today
Dressed-up aptly for a beautiful 14°C morning, I stepped out to the streets of Rishikesh among yogis, backpackers, locals on tuk-tuks, sadhus adorned in saffron robes, moseying cows and—upon crossing Lakshman Jhula bridge—mischievous monkeys.
Walking over footpaths parallel to the sacred Ganges River, I consulted my Google Map and upon thinking that the ashram doesn’t look too far away—a miscalculation that had me walking at least 11 kilometers—I decided to just keep on walking.
I passed by temples filled with morning worshippers chanting and Ghats dotted with religious bathers and, on occasion, a red and blue kayak filled with tourists on their river tour slicing through the Ganges.
Through small alleys flanked by bazaar booths on both sides, I resisted stopping by a quaint cafe or food joint serving Thali meals as I really want to start my day in search of Zen inside the Beatles’ ashram. Despite my slow walk, I reached the gates of the ashram half an hour before it opens. The guard tells me “You are too early my friend, you can sit first and wait for opening.”
Today, the ashram is where you can find a riot of arresting street art dominating its peeled-off walls. This was part of the mural essays created by street artists under the “Beatles Ashram Mural Project” which was founded in 2012. Aside from the mural paintings, lyrical lines such as “with every mistake, we must surely be learning” from a George Harrison-penned song, can be read scribbled on random walls.
Spread over 14 acres of forested land now concealing a legacy of 1960s transcendental meditation and spiritual counterculture, the ashram reveals a once fabled place where a community once thrived all in search of nirvana on Earth.
When the gates finally opened, I was the first guest to be let inside. It would take another half an hour before I saw other guests trickled in. By that time, I had made my way through the grounds of the ashram. After another hour, I sat on the front steps of the Beatles’ old dormitory with weary feet, where George used to practice his sitar every morning. With my sense of wonder satisfied, I hummed to myself, “And when the broken hearted people living in the world agree, there will be an answer, let it be.”