India was undoubtedly one of the most important influences on The Beatles, both in terms of its musical traditions and its various philosophical teachings. People tend to assume that the hippie generation’s fascination with the Indian subcontinent began with The Beatles, but they were in fact following in the footsteps of beat writers like Jack Kerouac and Allan Ginsberg, who were in turn inspired by the transcendentalists of the late Victorian era. All of them viewed India as a land of enlightenment, a nation which, with its dizzying variety of religious practices, stood in stark contrast to the stale monoculturalism that had defined the Western Christian world for centuries.
Harrison first discovered India through its music. During the filming of The Beatles’ second film Help!, the guitarist became transfixed by a group of Indian musicians performing in the background of a shot. As Lennon recalls in Anthology, Harrison soon developed an interest in classical Indian music and yogic practices: “Then, about two years later, George had started getting into hatha yoga. He’d got involved in Indian music from looking at the instruments in the set. All from that crazy movie. All of the Indian involvement came out of the film Help!“.
This Led Harrison to start using classical Indian instruments on The Beatles’ Rubber Soul, most memorably on ‘Norwegian Wood’, in which Harrison can be heard tentatively plucking at his brand new sitar. “I went and bought a sitar from a little shop at the top of Oxford Street called Indiacraft – it stocked little carvings, and incense,” he remembered. “It was a real crummy-quality one, actually, but I bought it and mucked about with it a bit”.
Then, in 1966, Harrison decided to take the plunge and made arrangements to stop off in Dehli during The Beatles’ trip from the Philippines to London. While the others were desperate to head home, Harrison thought that India would be the perfect place to get a bit of air time from Beatlemania. “I was feeling a little bit like that myself; I could have gone home. But I was in Delhi, and as I had made the decision to get off there I thought, ‘Well, it will be OK. At least in India, they don’t know The Beatles. We’ll slip into this nice ancient country, and have a bit of peace and quiet.’ And so his journey began.
Travel George Harrison’s India:
The Taj Mahal Palace hotel
Harrison first travelled to India in September 1966, between the Beatle’s third and final US tour and the making of Richard Lester’s How I Won The War. Harrison spent six weeks in India at the tail end of the nation’s monsoon season. His first destination was Mumbai (then known as Bombay). Although he hoped his time in India would serve as an escape from Beatlemania, Harrison’s young fans soon found out he was there and went looking for him.
During that initial period in Mumbai, Harrison stayed at the Taj Mahal Palace, a luxuriant hotel built in 1903 and designed in the Saracenic Revival style, which offers sweeping panoramas of the vibrant city below. “I stayed in a Victorian hotel, the Taj Mahal, and was starting to learn the sitar,” Harrison recalled in Anthology. Ravi would give me lessons, and he’d also have one of his students sit with me. My hips were killing me from sitting on the floor, and so Ravi brought a yoga teacher to start showing me the physical yoga exercises.
After leaving India’s capital, Harrison travelled to Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir. Located in the verdant heart of the Kashmir Valley, Srinagar lies 1,730m above sea level, meaning that in the winter months the hills are caked with snow. The city itself is nestled around the river Jhelum and boasts the famous Dal Lake, where Harrison once rented one of the historic Clermont houseboats moored on its northern bank.
“It was a fantastic time,” Harrison began. “We travelled all over and eventually went up to Kashmir and stayed on a houseboat in the middle of the Himalayas. It was incredible. I’d wake up in the morning and a little Kashmiri fellow, Mr Butt, would bring us tea and biscuits and I could hear Ravi in the next room, practising”.
One of the most important locations on Harrison’s itinerary was the holy city of Varanasi, which lies on the river Ganges. This, the most sacred city in India, is quite mind-boggling. Home to as many astronomers as it is sacred pools and technicolour tantric temples, there is barely an inch of Varanasi that isn’t painted a vivid shade or shrouded in plumes of incense smoke.
Harrison’s experiences in Varanasi completely altered his view of the West. The guitarist visited the city while a religious festival was going on, the Ramila: “It was out on a site of 300 to 500 acres, and there were thousands of holy men there for a month-long festival. During this festival the Maharajah feeds everybody and there are camps of different people, including the sadhus – renunciates. In England, in Europe or the West, these holy men would be called vagrants and be arrested, but in a place like India, they roam around. They don’t have a job, they don’t have a Social Security number, they don’t even have a name other than collectively – they’re called sannyasis, and some of them look like Christ.”
Swarg Ashram, Rishikesh
In October 1966, Harrison begrudgingly returned to England to finish filming How I Won The War. However, his experiences in India stayed with him, influencing his songwriting as well as his philosophical outlook. Two years later, he returned, this time with John Lennon in tow and Paul and Ringo trailing behind. The Beatles had originally planned to travel to India in the summer of ’67, but the trip had to be postponed following the death of Brian Epstein. With Magical Mystery Tour behind them and the grim late-winter British weather battering them at all sides, Harrison and Lennon took their first steps towards Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in at Rishikesh, where the pair planned to study a course of transcendental mediation until the 12th of April.
As Harrison recounted: “After alighting from the taxis, we were shown to our living quarters. They consisted of a number of stone-built bungalows, set in groups along a rough road. Flowers and shrubs surrounded them and were carefully tended by an Indian gardener whose work speed was dead slow, and stop.” The Ashram, although now abandoned, lies in the foothills of the Himilayas, 150 feet above the Ganges. Surrounded by mountainous jungle at either side, the only access to the compound is via a suspension bridge on which a sign reading ‘No camels or elephants’ has sensibly been slung.
George returned to India many times throughout his life, playing benefit concerts in the nation on numerous occasions, including his Concert for Bangladesh, which was designed to aid victims of the famine and war wreaking havoc in Bangladesh at the time. In 1996, Harrison made his last pilgrimage to the holy land of Vrindavan, the mythic birthplace of Krishna and an important location for the Hare Krishnas, with whom Harrison had a long history. Harrison and Lennon bought the first Hare Krishna mantra record in 1968, and, in 1970, Harrison produced the Radha Krishna Temple album. Many of his songs throughout the 1970s included devotional references to the Hare Krishna, including ‘My Sweet Lord’.
It was also in Vrindavan, years earlier, in 1974, that Harrison received his first lessons in Hindi by Natalya Sazanova, a Russian Indologist. After listening to Sazanova and Rabi Shankar speaking in Hindi, Harrison convinced the professor to take him on as a pupil. As Sazanova later recalled, Harrison mastered the language almost as quickly as he had mastered the sitar: “He had an absolute talent,” Sazonova said. While most of her students took about six years to master conversational Hindi, the Beatle managed to learn well in just four months of “irregular” classes. “George grasped the spoken language on the fly. He particularly learnt bhajans fast and sang them.”