Travelling is a common inspiration behind many artistic creations. Not only the change of scenery but also the exposure to different cultures and traditions rejuvenates the mind. The Beatles’ trip to India was one such creative stimulator that was marked by a hyper-productive phase in their decade long career.
The quartet emerging during the crucial 1960s or what is known as the ‘counterculture movement’ rose to the pinnacle of success too quickly and too fast. Always a casual bunch, as Paul McCartney would later state in numerous interviews, The Beatles found themselves leading the cultural sector of the movement before they could process anything. It would be a lie to claim that they didn’t enjoy their wild popularity, of course they did, but fame has its demands, and the foremost among them is to compromise on privacy. Ambushed by paparazzi and constantly interviewed by the media, the group was gasping for some fresh air and peace of mind.
The idea of an India trip came to them in a concretised form when in August 1967, they attended the spiritual guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s seminar on Transcendental Meditation in Bangor, Wales. George Harrison’s long-standing enchantment with India and its culture added a motive in favour of the trip. “We have all the money you could ever dream of. We have all the fame you could ever wish for. But it isn’t love. It isn’t health. It isn’t peace inside, is it?” Harrison said to Saltzman. A conditioned society indoctrinated with the stereotypical binaries associated with the West and the East typically didn’t approve of this idea. The group, however, desperate to find a leader/guru, as per Donavan, shut out all the noise and prepared for their journey.
Travelling in two groups, the team was joined by John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr’s wives, McCartney’s girlfriend, Donovan Leitch, Mia Furrow, Mike Love, ex-road manager Mal Evans along with few other friends and family members. A huge team of reporters followed the band as well, intent on prying on their retreat, but was kept outside the ashram fences. According to Donovan’s account, the first meeting with the yogi was steeped in awkward silence until Lennon pulled one of his antics and patted the yogi on his head saying “there’s a good little guru,” which tickled everyone present to their core.
Their days were dedicated to the practice of stage four of the seven steps of consciousness, which was “pure” transcendental meditation. Mystic as it might sound, the basis of this practice was more scientific than religious with the aim of building up concentration and alertness. Dressed in traditional clothes procured from the nearby Indo-Tibetan markets of Mussoorie and Dehradun they adapted themselves to the spiritual Indian way of life – a life that focuses on the non-attachment to the material world which is nothing but a Maya (illusion). The meditation practice sparked a healthy competition between the band members who would try to outdo each other. Their evenings were sometimes spent listening to the gurgling river nearby or the sitar cassettes which they collected and occasionally singing in Harrison’s room, who would sit with a harmonium.
Their time at the ashram stirred their artistic sensibilities, inspiring them to write some thirty-plus songs. As Lennon later said, “We wrote about thirty new songs between us. Paul must have done about a dozen. George says he’s got six, and I wrote fifteen. And look what meditation did for Ringo – after all this time he wrote his first song.” Most of the songs were included in their 1969 album, popularly known as The White Album, the Beatles’ only double album.
However, the experience at the ashram was met with varying degrees of interest by the band members. Lennon and Harrison were definitely the star students, while McCartney and Starr struggled with their distractions. “The way George is going, he’ll be flying a magic carpet by the time he’s forty,” said Lennon. At the same time, Lennon’s wife Cynthia commented that her husband was “evangelical in his enthusiasm for the Maharishi” and became “increasingly cold and aloof” during the procedure. Missing their prim and proper life, Starr and his wife left the ashram on March 1st followed by McCartney later in the month who was missing the hustle and bustle of public life.
Lennon and Harrison’s departure on April 11-12 is steeped in deep controversies that should not be subjected to light discussions. Tensions were brimming with the arrival of Mardas who allegedly plotted schemes of varying degrees against the yogi. But it was Mia Furrow’s complaint about the Maharishi’s inappropriate behaviour with her and probably with other female students that served as an ultimatum. Though in other versions it was said that they were asked to leave by Maharishi because there were infringements in the ashram protocol which banned drugs and alcohol. In fact, the Beatles’ later claimed the severe allegations against Maharishi to be false, which made the entire event complex and problematic at different levels.
The ashram that witnessed such a noteworthy visit now stands isolated and dilapidated in the arms of the Himalayas resembling an old woman who would flood occasional visitors with warmth and burst into tales of the yore. Situated in the State of Uttarakhand, Rishikesh is a raw beauty sitting on the laps of the holy Ganges river and is hidden from the eyes of the world by the circling mighty snow-covered Garhwal Himalayas and lush green forest. The ashram, abandoned by Maharshi in the 1970s, was called ‘Chaurasi Kutia’ meaning 84 huts owning to its elaborate structure.
The property became the victim of government politics for some time but nevertheless maintained its artsy vibe. It has been a site of illustrious graffiti since 1990 where trespassers decorated the wall as a tribute to the Beatles. Encouraged by the street artist Pan Trinity Das, the government, after initial hesitation, officially opened the ashram to the public in 2015. In February 2016, The Beatles Ashram Mural Project saw Das along with four other artists producing murals for what used to be the ashram’s lecture hall. Marking the 50th anniversary of Lennon and Harrison’s visit to Rishikesh, the celebration in the Chaurasi kutia followed the example of the two-year Liverpool museum exhibition.
Take a glimpse at the ashram that nourished the Beatles’ creativity, below.