Banking on The Beatles, an ashram in India hopes for a revival

(Above) Religious students and tourists during a nightly ritual at the Parmath Niketan ashram in Rishikesh, India; and a meditation pod (right) on the roof of the ashram formerly run by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, where The Beatles had stayed in 1968.
A meditation pod (above) on the roof of the ashram formerly run by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, where The Beatles had stayed in 1968.PHOTOS: NYTIMES
(Above) Religious students and tourists during a nightly ritual at the Parmath Niketan ashram in Rishikesh, India; and a meditation pod (right) on the roof of the ashram formerly run by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, where The Beatles had stayed in 1968.
Religious students and tourists during a nightly ritual at the Parmath Niketan ashram in Rishikesh, India.PHOTOS: NYTIMES

RISHIKESH (India) • In 1968, The Beatles and a crew of hangers-on traded hip London threads for kurtas and wreaths of marigold, trudging through dense forest to an ashram in Rishikesh, India, where they spent weeks writing songs.

There was George Harrison, a devoted follower of Transcendental Meditation; John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who had started to feud over the band's direction; and Ringo Starr, the band's drummer, who was so perturbed by India's famously spicy food that he packed a reserve of beans for his stay at the ashram. He lasted 10 days.

"Scan all the photographs of Ringo in Rishikesh and you'll find few in which he's smiling," said Raju Gusain, a local journalist who has become something of an expert on the band's trip to India.

These days, the forest has swallowed up the ashram's crumbling buildings, obscuring traces of celebrity from their halls. But the complex is set for a revival, with renovations planned for many of the structures, long unused and only recently reopened to the public.

A new museum on the grounds will showcase the legacy of The Beatles and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the guru whom band members abruptly fell out with towards the end of their stay in Rishikesh. Across the world in Liverpool, England, The Beatles Story, a museum dedicated to the band, is opening an exhibit next month to mark 50 years since their trip to India.

Over the years, as more spiritual seekers from the West travelled to India looking for enlightenment, Rishikesh ballooned in size. But when The Beatles arrived, the place was a sleepy town straddling the banks of the Ganges.

Bob Spitz, a biographer, characterised the trip as a spectacularly creative time for the band and as an escape from the "rat's nest of fame" that consumed their lives in London.

With noise from the big city far behind them, Lennon and McCartney wrote many of the songs that would later appear on the album The Beatles (the White Album), including Back In The U.S.S.R. and Dear Prudence. Of note, Spitz said, was a brief thaw in the deteriorating relationship between the men.

"The pressure of being The Beatles had driven a wedge between them individually and that had all percolated in the months leading up to their visit to Rishikesh," he said. "Once they got there and they unburdened themselves from all of that, they reconnected with their songwriting and their creativity. It just flowed forth."

A few months before the trip, Harrison, who had discovered the sitar and Hinduism, brokered a meeting in England between the band and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the progenitor of Transcendental Meditation, which involves sitting and repeating a mantra silently.

Eventually, the rest of the band agreed to a trip in February 1968 to visit the Maharishi's ashram in Rishikesh, recruiting their wives, girlfriends and an entourage that included actress Mia Farrow, singer Donovan and Beach Boy Mike Love, among many others. The band, Harrison said, were "looking to re-establish that which was within".

The ashram grounds were not exactly spartan. The Maharishi's cliffside bungalow, where the band would gather for lectures (and the occasional argument), had a nearby helicopter pad and living quarters were equipped with electric fireplaces.

In the evenings, the group would sometimes break the ashram's no-alcohol rule with "a glass of hooch" smuggled in from a nearby town, Cynthia Lennon, Lennon's wife at the time, wrote in her memoir.

Today, many of the original buildings have been demolished, but a few unmarked structures from 1968 still stand, said Mr Anand Srivastava, the Maharishi's nephew, who had helped manage the ashram for many years.

These buildings include the post office where John Lennon waited for letters from Yoko Ono and the Maharishi's crypt-like sleeping quarters, now inhabited by bats. A set of 84 blackened meditation caves also survived.

The ashram remained operational for many decades after the band left, housing dozens of straight-backed sadhus, or holy men, in small domed huts. But in the early 2000s, the land was taken over by the Indian government, leading to its abandonment, except for wandering leopards and elephants from a nearby nature reserve. In 2008, the Maharishi, who had moved to Europe, died.

Tourist numbers are still low, with around 13,000 people, mostly Indians, visiting the ashram last year.

For The Beatles, the connection to Rishikesh puttered out. By April 1968, only two band members, Harrison and Lennon, were still at the ashram.

A few weeks before they were set to depart, Magic Alex, one of the band's business associates, spread rumours that the Maharishi had made sexual advances towards a female student, warning them of "black magic" if they stayed at the ashram. The band members abruptly packed their bags and left the "madman's camp", Lennon said.

In an interview, Mr Srivastava denied that his uncle had made any sexual passes, describing him as warm, humble and fiercely committed to his work.

After the band left Rishikesh, different impressions of their time there also surfaced, with Harrison saying there were "a lot of flakes" at the ashram, including members of the band, and Cynthia Lennon questioning the truth of the rumours and the motives of Magic Alex, "whom I had never once seen meditating". "I hated leaving on a note of discord and mistrust, when we had enjoyed so much kindness and goodwill from the Maharishi and his followers," she wrote in her memoir.

But John Lennon was less convinced at the time, writing his last song in India, Sexy Sadie, originally titled Maharishi, as a thorny tribute to the guru and the chapter of his life he was leaving behind.

"Sexy Sadie, you'll get yours yet/However big you think you are"

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 16, 2018, with the headline 'Banking on The Beatles, an ashram in India hopes for a revival'. Print Edition | Subscribe