I had always sensed the Beatles connection in Rishikesh, even when I wasn’t looking for it. To me, Rishikesh is the ultimately detox destination and no, I have never needed to check into an ashram for it. The sight and sounds of Rishikesh are enough, nature’s glory and the fleeting impressions of art left behind by inspired minds from around the world have long satiated my creative needs. On my latest visit, I set out to find the real Beatles Ashram or to bust the myth forever.
Parmath Ashram is a well-known landmark in Rishikesh near Ram Jhula (the first of two suspension bridges in Rishikesh). Moving along the only paved road that leads to Ved Niketan, follow the road to the end, always along the river. The paved road leads you past Last Chance Cafe before ending abruptly after the Geeta Bhavan. Here, you tread up what seems like a dry river bed until you arrive at an entrance of the Rajaji National Park (Tiger Reserve). Surprised? I was!
For an entrance fee of Indian Rupees 150, I was allowed to explore what the gatekeepers called ‘a set of abandoned buildings with some paintings’. It wasn’t much to go on but I was not about to go back without seeing it for myself. That has always been a good idea.
The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram, became the Beatles Ashram after the British band members stayed here in 1968. Their stay was surrounded by controversy and although the members ended up drawing great inspiration from the Trascedental Meditation they learnt here, the emphasis on vegetarian food caused Ringo Starr to leave after a few weeks. It is also believed that the other members of the band were upset as the Yogi did not approve of their smoking of marijuana. Allegations were also made, although later dismissed, of sexual advances made on Mia Farrow, who accompanied the band on their trip. The Beatles’ visit put the ashram on the world map.
The ashram is also called Chaurasi Kutiya (84 cottages) for the same number of pod-like cottages found on the campus. These were specially designed to enhance the effect of chanting of Vedic mantras for the residents of the ashram. It remains, even today, a serene sanctuary.
Despite the controversies, the Beatles Ashram flourished with international attention till 1984. The ashram was built on land leased from the forest and when the lease expired, the Indian government did not grant an extension. The inmates of the Ashram were given a very short notice to pick up their belongings and leave, it is said. Since then, the ashram has been left and the forest has taken over.
It was only after the turn of the century that attention went back to it. In recent years, the Rajaji National Park has undertaken partial restoration of the Ashram in order to promote the cause of wildlife among the visitors to the ruins. The main hall has been turned into a space for exhibition, one of the Beatles visit to the Ashram and the other of the wildlife that can be spotted in and around the National Park.
Located next to these exhibitions, is a cafe. You could indulge in some sweet ginger lemon honey tea or a plate of instant noodles and it is here that I met some of the most important residents of the ashram. A few friendly dogs and one extremely cuddly tomcat. I wanted to spend more time with the cat but the two dogs were bursting with energy and eager to guide me through the ashram. They playfully led me through the gate and onto the paved path towards the interiors of the ashram.
The post office, printing press and the kitchen are easy to locate with the signboards. My furry friends guided to me to the unmarked cottages, many of them bearing breath-taking graffiti. I couldn’t find out when the artwork was commissioned or who did it but it felt like a treasure hunt, seeking out the painted corners with messages and artwork.
Without the graffiti, there is truly not much to see, not counting the butterflies though! The ashram in itself, has been turned into a graffiti lover’s paradise and no corner has been left untouched. The butterflies, however, are indifferent to its effect – or their’s – to the surrounding. I spotted at least 50 different kinds in the walk from the canteen to the meditation hall and back. The dogs seemed quite content chasing the bigger ones and rolling in the grass.
The Vidyapeeth, or scholastic centre, is located at the very edge of the campus and is the hub of butterfly activity. I paused for a few moments, to soak in the surroundings with a sense of the form of conversations that might have taken place many years ago. I could not capture the butterflies with just the camera of my mobile so I turned back on the path to head to the meditation hall.
The run down building opens into what would have once been an open-air hall. At its far end, a cliff, overlooking the river Ganga. A sight reserved only for those patient enough to reach this corner of Rishikesh. The dogs and I settled down to witness the magnificent view for a few minutes before heading back to the centre of artistic attention, the satsang hall.
It is here that the very first rendition of the songs, Jai Gurudeva (a version of Across the Universe) first came to life! The satsang hall has now been converted into a Beatles’ shrine and resounds with the common philosophy of the Yogi as well as the Beatles.
A group of Taiwanese travellers broke my solemn mental soliloquy with their high-pitched shrieks. Clearly lovers of the band, they queued up quickly for pictures with their favourite members as I headed back with the dogs to the cafe to soak in the symphony of the forest and the ashram.
Vegetarian food, meditation as a way of life, vedic mantras to channel your core, non-violence, surrounded by nature – The Beatles Ashram still has all the elements of magic that drew the Beatles and other celebrities to its doors. And now, as a wildlife education centre – the ashram continues its good work.
— Text and photographs by Susmita Mukherjee