India: Trespassing at the Beatles ashram

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It’s a hot (are there any other?) day in Rishikesh, the ‘yoga capital of the world’, where I’m attending a yoga retreat. It’s been a few days already and I’ve settled into a little routine. The 5 am meditation sessions combined with blistering heat mean that the time between lunch and the afternoon yoga practice are devoted to napping. But when my roommate Renee asks ‘Do you want to go see the Beatles ashram this afternoon?’, I jump out of bed, even though I don’t have a clue what the Beatles ashram may be.

We cover ourselves in sunscreen, put headscarves on and take plenty of water – the only way to survive in 50 C. It is Renee, myself, and a young girl staying at Parmarth Niketan, our ashram. She has been living there for a while now, doing a bit of office admin work in exchange for room and board, a typical way for young Westerners to live in India on the cheap.

We spend a desperate and very hot hour wandering around the streets of Rishikesh, as Renee can’t remember where it is that we’re supposed to take a turn. The locals are surprisingly useless – no one seems to know where the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi ashram is.

It is quite a way out of town. We pass by poor villages, and brave many a ravine, filled with water and fallen tree trunks, a legacy of recent storms and the flooding Ganges. At one point we almost step on a giant lizard.

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And then finally we are there. An angry river separates us from a tall wall of the ashram. Renee is worried we may not be able to get in if the water has damaged the only entrance she knows. But we’re in luck. After crossing the river we find a hole in the wall and climb through it. We are now on the grounds of the iconic ashram that closed many years ago, in fact shortly after the Beatles stayed there in 1968.

All around us is vegetation so thick we’re suddenly happy we listened to Renee who insisted that everyone wears long trousers. Here and there a crumbling building shows from among the foliage. It suddenly occurs to me that this site is probably very unsafe, and no one knows we’re here. Not long after we get in Renee’s friend is starting to feel dizzy. We sit her down in the shade and get her to drink lots of water. Luckily, she soon begins to feel better.

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We roam around, and at some point we bump into a thrilled but slightly frightened group of young Israelis. They join us with relief, as Renee is the only person who seems to know her way around.

We tread carefully, as the ground is full of holes and debris, hidden by thistles and nettles. At some point we pass by a group of local women cutting grass and collecting wood. They pay us no attention – clearly we are not the only trespassers here.

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We go inside what remains of the once splendid ashram buildings, some of them several storeys high. Now all that remains are broken windows, empty door frames and rickety looking ceilings.

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The massive yoga hall is painted with psychedelic drawings, and lyrics from some Beatles songs, like Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. In one corner a group of local men are having lunch and drinking beer. They are quite aggressive and threaten us with the police if we don’t leave immediately. We tell them to please go ahead, as they have no more right to be here that we do. They curse us, but we pay them no heed and inspect the drawings before heading out.

The best part of the ashram grounds is a scattering of what looks like little concrete bunkers (or igloos), perfect for playing hide and seek, or for a solitary meditation. In another place, the bunkers are much bigger. The entrance is on top of each one and a rusty ladder runs along the side, should you be inclined to climb. I don’t dare.

Looking at the state of the ashram now, it is hard to imagine its former splendour. 50 years ago it was state of the art and teeming with life. In fact, it was built thanks to a generous $100,000 donation by an American philanthropist. Spiritually minded Westerners would flock here from all corners of the world. The ashram supposedly offered a very digestible diet of vegetarian food and Eastern philosophy tailored towards Western tastes and standards of comfort. Some sources describe it as luxurious, each room  equipped with running water, heating, and English furniture. A far cry from the modest ways of Parmarth. For his special guests, the Maharishi (which means the ‘Great Seer’) allegedly ordered special furnishings and the Beatles ended up living in what witnesses describe as ‘a palace’.

At the time of the Beatles’ visit, plans were under way to build an airport in the middle of the forest, to make it easier for future distinguished guests to reach the grounds.

The Maharishi (deceased in 2008) himself was described as a skilled businessman who managed to build a small empire with assets worth over $300 million, consisting of for-profit training centres, universities, health clinics, organic farms and mail order companies scattered all over India, UK, Switzerland, Canada and the US. The Maharishi spent most of his active life touring the world, giving lectures and raising funds for his numerous business initiatives. At one point in the 60s he met and became a spiritual guru of the world’s most famous boys band.

The Beatles spent a few weeks at the Maharishi ashram in 1968 attending a Transcendental Meditation training. That brief stay incited a massive surge in interest in meditation and Indian philosophy in Europe and America, spurring a massive flow of hippies to this and other ashrams in Rishikesh. Allegedly the Beates arrived accompanied by a sizeable crew consisting of their wives, girlfriends, assistants, friends and journalists. Starr left after only a few days, complaining of bad food and insects, McCartney stayed for a month, and Harrison and Lennon stayed for 6 weeks. As the story goes, their departure was hasty following allegations of financial disagreements with the Maharishi, who supposedly asked for a 25% share in profits from the next Beatles album, and inappropriate behaviour related to drugs and sex. Numerous (some say 48) songs date back to that period, including some that became part of the ‘White Album’ and ‘Abbey Road’.

We leave the Beatles ashram drenched in sweat and stung by nettles. On the way back to Parmarth, I’m thinking about how anything can become a commodity, including Eastern philosophy and the simple lifestyle of a yogi. OK, so maybe my own little spiritual retreat is not going to bring me closer to Enlightenment, but I’m still glad I’m staying at a simple local ashram rather than one like this. I’m even starting to have fond feelings towards the giant cockroach that often frequents my pillow.

P.S. About a year after my return from India I read about plans to re-open the Beatles ashram as a tourist attraction. It makes perfect sense, given how many Westerners would be ready to pay good money to do what we did back in summer of 2014 as trespassers. The late Maharishi would be proud.

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