In Rishikesh, sound of music

The memories of The Beatles haunt you at every step in and around the mural-rich, awe-inspiring ashram

The sound of River Ganga flowing along the banks of Rishikesh is ethereal music to the ears, but more than 50 years ago, the banks reverberated with another type of music, that of The Beatles.

The iconic English rock band that achieved cult status in the annals of world music visited Rishikesh in 1968. They came to learn transcendental meditation at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram and stayed there for six weeks.

Tracing the steps of The Beatles

We walk on the narrow suspension bridge Ram Jhula as we watch the Ganga flow gracefully beneath, and cross over to the eastern bank. In 1968, The Beatles had used the older Lakshman Jhula suspension bridge to cross the river.

A narrow street flanked by temples, ashrams and small shops selling everything from snacks to rudraksha beads lead to the ashram where The Beatles had stayed, meditated, and of course, made music. The changing colours of the river reflect the colours of the sky as we dodge a couple of cute calves and walk the same path on which The Beatles had trodden in 1968.

Magical Chaurasi Kutiya

As we step into the premises of the Chaurasi Kutiya, which is the name given to the erstwhile ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a strange serenity seems to envelop us. Chaurasi Kutiya in Hindi roughly translates to ‘84 caves’. This refers to the 84 meditation caves built for the private meditation of visitors. The ashram lies in shambles now, a shadow of its former self, but still with a sublime beauty.

A path with a steep incline curves from the entrance to the ashram premises. A few dark structures with domes at the top catch our attention. These were once self-contained cottages with basic accommodation at the base and a small dome-like structure for meditation at the top. The cottages were added later, after The Beatle’s sojourn in the ashram, between 1976 and 1978. The exterior of the structures is inlaid with round stones gathered from the river banks. They were built for the convenience of sanyasis and brahmacharis for practising their penance and meditation.

Postcard to Lennon

A path that runs through the ashram takes us across the buildings that lie in ruins. Buildings without doors or windows, and bare, except for some magical graffiti that touch your heart. A small desolate house greets you as you start walking on the path. This building has a window with a small opening, and apparently served as a post office for the ashram guests in the 60s. As we slip our hand into the tiny opening, we imagine John Lennon doing the same many years ago to receive a letter from Yoko Ono.

A special birthday

“This is where George Harrison celebrated his 25th birthday, says Raju, our guide, as he gestures expansively across a hall with a raised dais on which the words ‘Let It Be’ are painted boldly in the centre.

February 25, 1968 was a special day and the cake came all the way from Dehradun. The birthday celebration started with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi applying tilak on George Harrison’s forehead and some songs by The Beatles as well as local singers from Dehradun followed.

“One of the singers named Ajit, now an old man, runs a music shop in Dehradun,” says Raju with a smile. The hall is open on the eastern side as the wall is broken. On either side of this hall are 42 small chambers, which were once used for meditation. The small chambers built from the rocks collected from the banks of the river each represent a different classic yoga asana.

Mural magic

Colourful murals and graffiti enchant with their timeless beauty as we walk around the ruins of the ashram. They are a homage to The Beatles, their Guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and transcendental meditation. One of the most stunning murals is in Ved Bhavan, a large hall that was constructed in 1976 and used for conducting classes and lectures. An entire wall is covered with a spectacular mural of The Beatles with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and acts as a backdrop to the stage.

Unique architectural structures

Apart from the memories of The Beatles that haunt us at every step in the ashram, we are also struck by the unique architectural styles of the buildings. One such structure is Panchkuti, a building that was used for accommodating international guests, course participants, and dignitaries. The building is a visual delight with its arched balconies and domes painted with vibrant murals.

The house of the Guru

A large house stands in solitary splendour overlooking the enchanting waters of Ganga. This is the house where Maharishi Mahesh Yogi stayed. As we move around inside the rooms, we wonder how the place must have been in the year 1968, when The Beatles must have had long talks with their Guru. It is here that John Lennon had his last discussion with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, which was an argument about the former’s rumoured misconduct, after which he left the ashram. He was so upset that his emotions erupted in the form of the song ‘Sexy Sadie’.

An ashram of memories

Today, the ashram, once a spiritual oasis nestled in the hills overlooking the Ganga, is a place where only memories and stories seem to hang in the air. Every dilapidated structure, every fading mural seems to echo a unique story. A story of music, love, trust and mistrust. The Beatles also created wonderful music during their stay here.

The quartet of John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, and Ringo Starr wrote 40 of their legendary songs while they stayed here.

After a stay of about six weeks, John Lennon left the ashram along with George Harrison and the rest of their entourage. Paul and Ringo had returned much earlier.

The ashram ran into bad times later and lay abandoned as its lease ran out, and was under the Forest Department. It was vandalised and lay desolate for a period of three decades.

It is now part of the Rajaji Tiger Reserve, and the Uttarakhand Tourism Department has taken over the upkeep of the ashram and has opened it to visitors from 2015. The place is like a pilgrimage for The Beatles fans, a place akin to the Vatican or Mecca for the devotees of The Beatles.

As we walk in the tranquil environs of the ashram, we wonder about the relationship between The Beatles and their Guru. The rustling of the wind seems to whisper these lines from one of their songs,

“And when the broken hearted people living in the world agree

There will be an answer, let it be

For though they may be parted, there is still a chance that they will see

There will be an answer, let it be.”

 

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In Rishikesh, sound of music

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