The Beatles Ashram at Rishikesh
Chaurasi Kutia, now the Beatles Ashram, on the foothills of the Himalayas got its name after the Fab four lived there to connect with the subconscious
Yesterday: all my troubles seemed so far away.
Bars of a much-loved song wafted in from a distant past and had us waltzing with memories as we walked down a pathway punctuated with ruins of what was once a thriving six-hectare ashram. The ashram was not an ordinary bolt hole where spiritual seekers incarcerated themselves in order to find themselves. It was once a luxurious haven that attracted celebrities and rock stars from around the world, seeking an oasis of peace and calm.
Those were revolutionary times and four young lads from Liverpool with mop-top hairstyles who called themselves the Beatles, were doing their bit to change the world with their music. They were the toast of music charts around the globe; screaming fans packed their concerts, chased them down streets, braved bone-chilling freezing weather to get a glimpse of them. The mayor of their hometown received them on their return from a hugely successful US tour!
It was a heady and hectic time, and the Fab Four needed a respite from the whirlpool of adulation that swirled around them, to get off addictive drugs and find meaning in their lives. In February 1968, clad in kurtas with marigold garlands strung around their necks, they arrived at the hilltop Chaurasi Kutia ashram in the foothills of the Himalayas, near Rishikesh. Located on the fringe of Rajaji National Park, with the Ganga flowing swiftly below, the serene setting, they hoped, would enhance their ability to connect with the ultimate cosmic subconscious. And they tried to do this by mastering the nuances of Transcendental Meditation from their guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, purveyor of peace and spiritual salvation.
During their stay at the ashram, they took their music and made it better. Critics believe that the music they composed here for their White Album, a compilation of 48 songs, was probably the most creative. In the ashram's glory days, the Maharishi's cliff-side bungalow was where the band gathered for lectures; there was a helicopter pad nearby and the rooms were equipped with electric fireplaces and other doodads.
We walked uphill, past conical stone meditation cells and imagined John, Paul, George and Ringo, each one sitting in their own little meditation pods, luxuriating in the seclusion. With the cacophonous clutter of their hectic lives behind them, their creative juices began to flow like the Ganga.
Imagine by John Lennon dreams of a world without barriers in which people live in peace and harmony. However, there were murmurs of discord even before the rock band left for Rishikesh with an entourage that included their wives and girlfriends, Mike Love of the Beach Boys, Scottish singer Donavan and actress Mia Farrow. Sadly, the fabled musicians, who had hoped to detox at the ashram, ended up unofficially splitting up the following year.
Chaurasi Kutia, now known as the Beatles Ashram, did not survive the surging tide of time either, and was abandoned in 2000. The sprawling grounds were slowly reclaimed by the forest and tall weed-like grass. The structures were vandalised and disfigured with puerile graffiti scrawled on mossy walls. Soon fans and artists began to sneak into the crumbling ruins of the closed complex, and recorded their impressions in vivid colours on the walls of what had been a symbol of counterculture in the sixties. Murals of butterflies, a spaceman frozen in a yogic asana, a meditating guru, lines of immortal songs, the ceiling of a meditation pod, painted in brilliant hues.
The ashram was re-opened for visitors in 2015 by the Forest Department; the pathways were cleared, but the ruined buildings remain. It is in the former Yoga Hall that Beatle lovers whip out their cameras and cells for selfies, clicked against a backdrop of the lurid pop art that smothers the walls. Now christened the Beatles Cathedral Gallery, it was the brainchild of a Canadian artist who started it as a space where other international artists could also daub the walls with colour.
On a wall of the former Yoga Hall is a large mural of the Fab Four, with their guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, which evokes the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album. Tucked away in a side altar of this chapel is a mural of sitar maestro, Ravi Shankar. In another room, called the Beatles Gallery, the walls are adorned with photographs taken of the Fab Four during their time at the ashram.
Wise or not, Rishikesh had little choice in the matter and just would not let things be. Once a retreat for rishis and evolved souls seeking enlightenment, the pilgrim town suddenly found itself in the limelight. The media coverage of the Beatles' visit swept through it like a tidal wave. Tourists from around the globe descended on the town, hoping to find instant nirvana in the yoga and adventure capital of the world.
We, too, found nirvana of sorts in our quiet little hideaway, Roseate Ganges, snuggled in the forested folds of the mountains, a short drive from the bustle of Rishikesh. We would sip drinks by an infinity pool that gazed down on the holy river surging through the valley below and would doss down to the chorus of cicadas' amorous calls and wake to a symphony of songbirds.
We did yoga on a sandy river beach and, like the Fab Four, let our creative juices flow..