A trip to Rishikesh wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the stunning remains of the mystical Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram; more popularly known as the ‘Beatles Ashram’ due to their legendary stay here in the late sixties. The now derelict property turned out to be a delightful getaway when I managed to sneak a little break from the packed schedule of the 2017 International Yoga Festival at the nearby Parmarth Niketan ashram.The Ashram is a comfortable walk if you’re coming from Ram Jhula but asking locals for directions to the ‘Beatles Ashram’ got me nowhere as they call it Chaurasi Kutiya, a reference to the 84 rather unique meditation huts or caves. Just follow the banks of the river till you reach the quaint Last Chance Cafe appropriately named as it’s really your last chance for some chow and keep walking for a few hundred meters till you reach the Ashram at your left, at the end of the road. You might spot a friendly bunch of langurs along the way that seem to live nearby :).If you’re travelling by car, look out for this signboard inside Rajaji Tiger Reserve which directs you to the Beatles Ashram, note that it says Chaurasi Kutiya and not Beatles Ashram.The Ashram is famous for these unique meditation caves, built in clusters and set along the banks of the holy river Ganga making for some really breathtaking views (cave number 9 belonged to the Beatles). Structurally, it appears that the ground floor was the living area and the tiny rooftop room more suited for meditation. Inside Cave Number 9 – The Beatles Cave
Once a thriving center of meditation, set next to the holy river Ganga, it was a sprawling property frequented by the rich and famous. Started by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who was a student of the Shankaracharya of Jyotirmath, he gained tremendous fame as the spiritual guru of The Beatles and many other prominent celebrities. However, the heydays of the Ashram were soon over and it fell into disuse following a leasing dispute between the state government and the Maharishi, which went on for over 14 years. It has now been renovated by the Government and opened up to the public for a fee (INR 150 for Indians and INR 600 for foreigners). I reckon there’s a student discount if you can present an ID, though I missed checking on it.The place was absolutely riveting with its haunting ruins that still resonate with an eerie yet tranquil vibe. Set along the banks of river Ganga with its cozy two storey caves and many other functional buildings, it is still intriguing, even though it is being reclaimed by nature through the ominous overgrowth of the forest around.This three storey building below presumably was the hostel or residential area of the students of Beatles Ashram. There were individual rooms, each with an attached bath and a balcony. It’s said these were lavishly furnished, ensuring a comfortable stay for those who could afford the programs that were conducted in the premises. The Beatles came to this ashram to pursue their new-found interest in the ‘elitist’ Transcendental Meditation or TM technique taught by Maharishi. TM is a form of meditation that had been sourced from the Vedas which Maharishi himself learnt during his time in the depths of Himalayas. It involves a unique personal ‘beeja’ mantra being given to each student basis his or her requirement and was promoted as a ‘systematic method to transcend that anyone could practice’.It was claimed that TM practice could help induce deep states of relaxation, which improved inner intelligence, brought more clarity, vigor, energy and also improved the body’s ability to heal itself. The practice found patronage from many a celebrities who frequented these premises and further soared in popularity on endorsement from the famous music band, from then on it has been known internationally as the Beatles Ashram. Referred to as simply a ‘mental technique’ with no beef with anyone’s existing religious or spiritual beliefs, TM was projected as distinct from the other forms of meditation which required breath or mind control. The fact that it took all of 20 minutes and was done only twice a day made it a perfect complement to the busy western lifestyle, especially of those who were upwardly mobile.In fact, it was said that in the advanced version of the Transcendental Meditation program called TM-Siddhi, students could even gain the ability to levitate. Though it involved exercises like hopping while in a cross legged position!The Beatles first came to be introduced to this form of meditation through George Harrison’s wife Pattie who found herself drawn to Eastern Mysticism after a visit to Bombay in the sixties. This got the group to attend a lecture by the Maharishi in London in August 1967, which impressed them enough that they followed him to Wales for a 10-day seminar. Ringo missed the London lecture but he too joined the party at Wales.The group then finally visited the Rishikesh Ashram in February 1968 and joined the ongoing Teacher Training program midway, which 60 others were attending. The Ashram was then only 5 years old, spread over 14 acres of land, funded by a hefty donation from socialite Doris Duke and was called the International Academy of Meditation.The Maharishi had gained quite a fan following amongst the rich and illustrious in the west and the ashram was inhabited by famous celebrities such as Donovan Leitch, The Beach Boys, Mia Farrow and her sister Prudence (Lennon’s inspiration for ‘Dear Prudence’ which he created to entice her out of extreme meditation).The Beatles’ visit to India was as much about meditation as it was about overcoming their addiction to narcotics and drugs (Lucy in the sky!) and getting them out of their creative rut. From the latter devil, they were clearly delivered as they ended up writing over 40 songs some of which also made it to their masterpiece, White Album. To some this was nothing short of ‘transcending’ their writers’ block during the short stay at the Ashram.Below is the entrance to the erstwhile Meditation Hall which has now been re-named as ‘The Beatles Cathedral Gallery’ by the devout graffiti artists. Even though Maharishi may have deserted this Ashram for greener pastures overseas, the artists have established his presence at the front of this hall, just as it should’ve and would’ve been, and just as the Beatles have been sketched all over its walls both in poetry and pictures
The Beatles visited here with a lot of aspirations and full of hope to find the answers that they were seeking, but left in the wake of many disconcerting events and reports regarding the Maharishi. Ringo Starr and his wife were the first to leave within 10 days, because he could not handle the food and she couldn’t deal with the insects. Paul McCartney was the next to leave in about a month citing prior commitments leaving John Lennon and George Harrison behind. Lennon and Harrison also left in another two weeks amidst reports of discord with the Maharishi due to his commercial inclinations compounded by rumors of inappropriate advances towards Mia Farrow which left them disillusioned and doubtful of his claims to be a truly ‘evolved’ Guru. It was after this incident that Lennon penned the famous song Sexy Sadie, which was originally titled Maharishi but was changed on Harrison’s insistence.The remains of the buildings are indeed beautiful, compelling stories about those who were once here to rise within you until the place almost magically comes alive. Progressing along with nature’s reclamation of its space is some absolutely stunning Graffiti interspersed with popular lyrics of the famous four – making it as much a shrine to the Beatles as a legacy of the sixties spiritual wave.While Maharishi started out his spiritual ‘career’ surviving only on donations, eventually he graduated to charging hefty fees. Soon his plentiful finances were being managed professionally and it was said that he was always accompanied by his accountant. He had a sharp business acumen and was a tough negotiator. There were reports that he even demanded from the Beatles, a 25% share of profits from their next album as ‘tithe’; to which Lennon is said to have replied ‘over my dead body’.The commercial inclinations of Maharishi were further accentuated when another well-known disciple, Indian Guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar branched out. Sri Sri started teaching Sudarshan Kriya to the ‘grassroots’ and not just the elite – which he said was more in alignment with his principles. Thus, was born Art of Living that reached out to the masses and remote villages whereas TM stayed a fairly guarded technique accessible only to those with deep pockets. Regardless of the notoriety that surrounded him, even the surviving Beatles eventually reconciled with the Maharishi in their later years and supported his endeavors calling all that transpired, a misunderstanding. In Maharishi’s own words when he was asked how he felt about the Beatles angst towards him, he said ‘I could never be upset with angels’.TM even today remains a popular form of meditation for the rich and is practiced by the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Oprah Winfrey, Katy Perry, Hugh Jackman and many more. I knew little about it when I first went to the Ashram but compulsively read a lot once I was out of it. Every nook and corner holds more meaning and the feel grows stronger as I browse these images and who would blame anyone for wanting to be here and to belong in this space.In visiting the Beatles Ashram, you can access remnants of the sixties’ spiritual wave and leave with an ardent curiosity to know more. Also be prepared for a hollow sense of déjà vu as the place brings an odd sense of familiarity. But that might as well be attributed to Rishikesh~ the city of saints, if you’re here then you’ve definitely been here before, in this lifetime or another :).