Many of us know the Beatles’ first trip to India as the one in which they travelled to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Rishikesh in 1968 in an attempt to become a part of his programme on Transcendental Meditation. Band member George Harrison had been engrossed in the Maharishi’s teachings, and it was his enthusiasm that made the band travel to India. Their time in the ashram, although it had varied reactions, resulted in them denouncing the use of drugs.
Spending some downtime in Rishikesh received widespread media coverage. Many of the band members were quite sceptical about the Maharishi’s teachings and, in the end, they did end up denouncing his ways, too. However, what they gained from it all was a break from the constant bustle of star-life, a change in their surrounding and, apparently, ample inspiration to be their most creative selves during the visit also. If the huge number of songs (somewhere between 30 and 48) they wrote and composed here were anything to go by, the band found a new level of creative understanding. But, contrary to popular belief, the Beatles’ visit to Rishikesh was, in fact, not their first trip to India.
In 1964, The Beatles had made a quick stop in Calcutta while travelling from Amsterdam to Hong Kong. Calcutta had been good to them; they could enjoy their beverages in peace without being chased after by a crowd of people — a welcoming moment of calm and quiet against the wild and turbulent storm that was the rest of the world. This wasn’t a ‘trip’ in a traditional send, considering they didn’t even leave the airport, but a quick stopover that managed to open their eyes. It was two years later that the Beatles made their first trip to India.
In 1966, after a tumultuous experience during their time in the Philippines, the Beatles were as good as evicted from the country. Without further ado, they got on a flight, stopped at Bangkok for a brief refuelling, and landed in New Delhi, India, on the 6th of July. It was probably their time in Calcutta that led them to believe they would have a quiet and relaxing period of isolation in India this time around, too. But, alas, their dreams were promptly shattered when they were greeted by over six hundred fans who had turned up at the Delhi Airport. They surrounded the Oberoi Hotel where they were staying with Harrison’s hopes of “at least in India they don’t know The Beatles. We’ll slip in to this nice ancient country, and have a bit of peace and quiet” long abandoned.
The primary reason behind the Beatles’ first trip to India was Harrison wanting to explore the music stores and buy himself a good sitar. Ever since he came to hear the instrument on the sets of their movie Help!, Harrison couldn’t help but be enamoured with it. The film’s music composer used an ensemble of Indian instruments including the sitar for the background score of a sequence in the film. The sitar featured in the Beatles’ famous song ‘Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)’ from their album Rubber Soul in 1965 and their affiliation with Indian culture was cemented. Intercultural fusion had existed in music prior to the Beatles, but with the Beatlemania in full force in the 1960s, the Classical Indian-Western duo epitomised not only intercultural fusion, but also brought Indian Classical music to the pop scene. Harrison had been well aware of Ravi Shankar, a world-renowned Indian sitar virtuoso and composer, and had been an audience to some of Shankar’s works. We eventually went on to meet Ravi Shankar later on in his career and learned the nuances of the sitar as well as Indian Classical music from him.
The day after the Beatles landed in Delhi, the group was able to sneak out of their hotel and go for some sightseeing. Although the first half of the sightseeing turned out to be hugely underwhelming, with men in suits taking them to show the camels and how they drew water. Thankfully, the latter half of the day made up for it, when the group was able to go shopping and ended up in a shop called Rikhi Ram & Sons on New Delhi’s Connaught Place. George Harrison finally bought his sitar, and the trip ended on a relatively happy note. A couple of years later, when the Beatles along with an entourage of their families and friends visited the ashrams in Rishikesh for joining Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s programme on Transcendental Meditation, it turned out to be one of the most productive times for the band, even though they were here to take a break from that life and reconnect with their inner selves.
In the end, it is probably doing what one loves doing that they genuinely find their inner peace. Indian music impacted the Beatles’ musical style immensely and their time being on Indian soil proved to be both introspective as well as reflective – thoughts that later found their way into paper, and in so many of the songs the band went on to produce.