By Parul Doshi:
As my friend and I landed at the Jolly Grant airport in the city of Dehradun around noon, it occurred to me that she presented the perfect picture of an Indian-American tourist; with her hat, sunglasses and backpack at the ready. When I first suggested this trip to her, I was sceptical of her response. Her travels in India had started and ended with the two Tajs – the hotel in Mumbai and the spectacular structure in Agra.
So when she finally agreed to come to India and “explore” the interiors with me, I was jubilant. It was easy booking tickets to Dehradun via Delhi. We exited the tiny airport and she quickly took out a small planner which had a list of things to do in Dehradun. As we left the airport vicinity, the crisp morning air greeted us. Fresh smells of magnolia and greenery soothed us after our days in hot summery Bombay. On our way from Dehradun to Rishikesh, tree-lined roads with thick deodar forests greeted us. The wind brought with it an earthy fragrance mingled with the scent of flowers.
Soon, we started climbing the hills of the Shivalik – a range in the Himalayas that boasts of bearing the Gangotri and the Yamnotri in its womb. Our car passed through clouds and the whole landscape resembled a Monet painting. Far away, we could see the flow of the Ganges. The river accompanied us – at times parallel and at other times, distant like a sulking bride.
The moment we entered Rishikesh, we could feel the tranquillity and quietness of the surroundings. As one experiences the sheer poetry of the Ganges, one feels it ricochet within.
We had decided to explore the untouched and offbeat parts of Rishikesh, besides taking a dip in the Ganges. The next day, as we walked around the small lanes and by-lanes of Rishikesh, we came to the Parmarth Niketan, a popular Hindu temple and ashram that hosts the famous Ganga aarti every day. Further down, the lanes were crowded with pilgrims wearing saffron and chanting loudly, some of them wet from the dip in the holy river, small children running helter-skelter and sadhus asking for bhiksha in their quiet way. It indeed was a colourful sight. Shops selling gemstones, sweet shops selling local sweets and vegetarian fare and heavily crowded bookshops selling books on religion and spirituality along with loud honking of the scooters lend these small lanes of Rishikesh a unique dimension. In a whim of fancy, I felt the need to explore the end of that lane assuming it to be the end of the whole city. Completely overpowered by the sensual influx, we finally reached the end of that lane, only to reach a small cafe named, The Last Chance Cafe. Ironically, it shared its boundary wall with a Hindu crematorium (Smashan Bhoomi)!
In our quest for exploration, we moved further down and found a group of sadhus sitting below a huge mango tree, playing cards and smoking bidis. Out of curiosity, I went and asked them if anything lay beyond this place for us to see. At first, they completely ignored us. When I pestered them again and asked, “Baba, is there anything ahead?” Irritated by my enquiries, one Sadhu without looking up replied nonchalantly, “Nothing except the Beatles Ashram.”
“The Beatles Ashram?” my friend and I simultaneously squealed, creating a dramatic effect. The sadhu looked up at us, not moved by our reaction and said lazily, moving his hand as if he were swatting a fly, “Those singers from Amrika.” (Maybe for them all the foreigners were from the U.S.A.) My curiosity knew no bounds. I started walking ahead and suddenly came across an entrance with three conical structures decorated with round pebbles from the Ganges and a huge board hanging on its gate with the sign, ‘This property belongs to Rajaji National Park. Entry is prohibited.’ I knew a little bit about the Beatles’ visit to India and Rishikesh and their stay with Maharshi Mahesh Yogi, who had established his ashram there.
Never in my wildest dreams, had I ever thought of encountering the ashram where Beatles spent their time in 1968. The Maharishi was already well-known among Britain’s hippie circles and had made numerous public appearances in the UK by the time he met the Beatles in London in 1967. It appears that in February 1968, highly fascinated by spirituality and Indian culture, the Beatles travelled to India to attend an advanced Transcendental Meditation (TM) training session at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Amid widespread media attention and all the hype, their visit was one of the band’s most productive periods. Led by George Harrison’s commitment, their interest in the Maharishi and Transcendental Meditation changed Western attitudes about Indian spirituality and encouraged the study of Transcendental Meditation all over the world. As we all know, the Beatles already had a huge fan following. Their stay in Rishikesh became a huge incentive for a lot of foreigners and spiritual pursuers to visit the Ashram.
Feeling all excited, I asked the sadhus again if I could go inside and see the ashram. “Please go away. There is nothing to see. It is all over. The ashram is dilapidated with its glory gone. Please go away,” one of them, visibly annoyed, snapped. Disappointed, we came back to our hotel room. But somehow, the place struck a chord within me. I couldn’t forget that place and its solitude. I decided to visit again. The next day, I went alone – cautious yet determined. It was 11 a.m. and the sun brightly spread its halo over me, even as it played hide and seek with the clouds. When I reached the ashram, I found it quiet and lonely. No sadhus flocking under the mango tree to play cards. Taking a deep breath, I approached the gate – entry was prohibited. I could hear the rhythmic sound of the Ganges in the distance, enveloping my senses with its musicality.
Ten or fifteen minutes must have passed like this, when I suddenly saw an old sadhu with a long white, beard and a thick turban of tangled hair, wearing a white dhoti approaching the gate. I requested him to open the door and allow me to go inside. In a thick Garhwali accent, he asked me whether I was from the media. I said I was just a curious traveller and a huge fan of the Beatles. He said thickly, “OK beta, I can let you enter this place but promise me that you will come out within ten minutes.” I promised as requested and, with a spring in my feet, finally entered the Maharshi Mahesh Yogi ashram aka the Beatles ashram.
As soon as I went inside the creaky doors, everything exuded a sense of calm. Eerily quiet and completely secluded, this place must have seen better days for sure. As I started walking on my right, I could see single small cubicles scattered all over the place. They were conical shaped and the outer wall was decorated with pebbled stones from the Ganges just like the cubicles at the entrance. Upon enquiring, the gentle elderly sadhu – my guide – told me, “There are 84 such kutikas (cubicles) scattered all over the ashram. They were mainly used for an individual to meditate and dwell in.” He also said that the conical shape would transfer the energies in a concentrated form which would be helpful in increasing the vibrations of the person sitting within.
Climbing further through the winding stairs, we passed by a small house that belonged to the bank, where all financial transactions used to take place. A little ahead lay a community mess, cottages for the guests, cottages for the regular staff and a huge hall for meditators and practitioners. As I walked along, I could feel the whole tree-lined lane becoming quiet and heavy with thick air. I could hear my guide’s heavy breathing as we climbed up. I thought of the glorified past of this beautiful and tranquil place and the slice of heaven it must have been, back then.
Walking further down, we came to the huge meditation hall. At times, the Beatles used to host their concerts here with yogis sitting on the elevated altar. But the space was mainly used for quiet meditation and satsang, I was informed by the sadhu. Reaching the old dilapidated green moss-covered building, he pushed the creaky door slightly. To my surprise, a large hall with all the four sides painted with fancy texts and photos of the Beatles and also Mahesh Yogi opened up like a magic box! The paintings appeared well worn but still in their essence. The entrance to the hall was painted with colourful graffiti. One side had the Maharshi’s profile, and the opposite that of the Beatles. A few poetic sentences here and there along with scattered drawings and paintings amongst the tattered walls made for a unique sensory experience. I stood staring at it all in awe. On seeing my expression, my guide, by now a friend, said, “It’s all been done by the Beatles fans who come from all over the world.”
Suddenly, out of the blue, he said almost incoherently, “If you know their famous white album, it was all conceptualised and also played here. All on the land of this Ashram. The Beatles along with others used to meditate, give concerts, and ask questions to the Yogi.” I was completely captivated and in a state of trance, overwhelmed by the place.
Out of nowhere, the sadhu started humming a song I couldn’t decipher. I looked at him and with blank eyes, he looked at me saying, “Everything is over. The past has gone, the present is here. I don’t know where everybody else is. I miss those days, those moments, those people.”
This article was originally published here.