Remains of Yesterday

Print edition : September 20, 2013

1968: Maharishi Mahesh Yogi with some of his famous followers (left to right) John Lennon, Paul McCartney, the Maharishi, George Harrison, Mia Farrow and Donovan. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

What is left of the Meditation Hall at Chaurasi Kutia.

The Beatles on the walls of the Yoga Hall, along with spiritual leaders.

The ruins of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's private abode.

A view from the roof of the guest house.

Signage pointing to The Beatles Ashram, in Rishikesh.

The entry to the ashram, with the "No Entry" sign.

The guest house on the ashram campus.

A moss-covered bench where celebrities once sat.

When The Beatles wanted time out from a tumultous and highly successful 1967, they spent three months in Chaurasi Kutia, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's ashram in Rishikesh, triggering a craze for everything Indian in the 1960s' counterculture. Today, the ashram, with all its told and untold stories, is a picture of neglect and decay.

IN the holy town of Rishikesh in Uttarakhand, a five-hour drive from Delhi, there are ashrams and ashrams. But very few would recommend a visit to Chaurasi Kutia, the expansive, six-hectare estate which was once the renowned meditation centre of the late Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. This is rather ironic since the now-abandoned ashram, overlooking the Ganga, was the cynosure of the international media in the 1960s, with rock stars and celebrities from across the world journeying there to find solace, to discover the meaning of life and to understand their true inner selves. It was here that transcendental meditation (TM) underwent a remarkable metamorphosis—from the technique of chanting a secret personal mantra that the Maharishi whispered in the ear of each devotee into a pop phenomenon. And, more importantly, it was here that The Beatles, the veritable gods of rock, stayed in 1968, triggering off a craze that made India a happening destination for the young seeking nirvana—both backpackers and the well-heeled. Suddenly everything Indian was in—music, culture, vegetarianism, yoga, philosophy and what have you. The quantum leap of Western interest in Eastern mysticism all happened at Rishikesh.

Today, those who know a thing or two about Mahesh Yogi’s ashram are guides who take foreigners to the hallowed cluster of buildings nestled in an overgrown wood outside the town. A sign on the dirt track that leads to the dilapidated structures directs the visitor to the “Beatles Ashram”. It was probably put up by an ardent fan of the Fab Four. Entry into Chaurasi Kutia is banned. A board put up by the State Forest Department at the sealed entrance says as much. So, those who wish to gain access must surreptitiously exploit gaps in the fencing. In legal terms, they have to break in—an exercise for which they can seek the assistance of one of the young men lounging around. They may not know anything about the legendary rockers from Liverpool or their music, but have the knack of spotting people looking for the Beatles Ashram and, for Rs.100-Rs. 150, they can help you sneak in. The guard, too, has to be paid Rs.50 or thereabouts for looking the other way.

Once inside, the long and winding path takes the visitor past one ruined building after the other. And the first question that comes to one’s mind is why was the ashram never renovated or preserved? Perhaps, no one realised the tourism potential of recreating the atmospherics that existed in the 1960s when top musicians and Hollywood stars came to seek spiritual enlightenment at Mahesh Yogi’s abode. In fact, restored to its original glory, it would be a tribute not only to The Beatles but also to the counterculture of the 1960s, represented by love, peace, music, psychedelia, brotherhood, breaking with tradition and embarking on a journey of self-discovery. However, today, among the ruins, all that reminds us of the glory days is graffiti—lyrics from the songs of John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison, some written during their sojourn here. Some fans have even drawn pictures of the Fab Four on the walls of the once-expansive buildings which no longer have a roof to speak of. Others have drawn Mahesh Yogi in his flowing robes and beard with “Jai Guru Deva”, a refrain that John Lennon used in his song “Across the Universe”, etched alongside.

It was back in 1961 that the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department leased 15 acres (one acre is 0.4 ha) of land for 20 years to the Mahesh Yogi Trust. It was reclaimed, according to news agency reports, in the 1980s by the government and it became part of the Rajaji National Park. In 2000, the 821-acre forest reserve, including the Beatles Ashram, was handed over to the newly created Uttarakhand State.

Chaurasi Kutia, which has for years been in a vandalised state, was once an impressive campus. Built in 1963 with a $100,000 gift from Doris Duke, the billionaire heiress and daughter of the tobacco tycoon James Buchanan Duke, the facility in Rishikesh was constructed to suit Western tastes. When The Beatles and other celebs came there, it was a cluster of five-room cottages, a meditation hall and a yoga centre and igloo-shaped modules where devotees could chant their mantras in isolation. Much changed subsequently as the Maharishi rode high on his Beatles connection and the ashram saw new constructions coming up to accommodate the influx of devotees. But that’s a very old story.

The feedback from the 1960s about the ashram is mixed. Some said that it was tastefully built in sylvan surroundings but others did not agree. They felt that the construction was rather basic and were unhappy with the “spiders, mosquitoes and flies” as well as the spicy food. Dal-sabzi-roti was the standard fare even for the celebrity guests, with the only Western component being breakfast —cornflakes, toast and coffee. In fact, wary of the kind of food he might be served, Beatles drummer Ringo Starr packed a suitcase full of canned beans and is said to have left the ashram when supplies ran out. He apparently did complain to the Maharishi about the flies that were bothering his wife, Maureen, but was reportedly told that when in a “state of pure consciousness flies don’t matter”. Ringo would later famously recall that the Chaurasi Kutia was “a kind of spiritual Butlins” (a reference to the no-frills holiday camps in Britain, first built in the 1930s by Billy Butlin to facilitate cheap holidays). With cigarettes, alcohol and drugs banned, substance abuse at the ashram was a covert business and it was not unusual for not-so-devout followers to call it a day after a few weeks.

However, the big mystery remains —why was so historic an ashram like Chaurasi Kutia allowed to slip into ruin? According to officials in the Uttarakhand government, it was abandoned by the Maharishi and was simply left untended since. As for the State’s Tourism Department, its officials are either unaware of the tourism gold mine they are sitting on or are wary of promoting a “rock n’ roll ashram which will attract drug-smoking hippies” which will go against the ethos of the holy town where liquor and even non-vegetarian food are banned. So there is a let-it-be attitude. “Though entry is banned, we don’t arrest those who wish to take a look at the ashram. We leave them alone. In any case, I don’t think there are too many people interested in seeing an ashram which has gone to seed,” says a Forest Department official.

But the journalist Saeed Naqvi, the only reporter to gain access to the ashram when The Beatles came to Rishikesh in February-March 1968, says the tourism potential is immense. “One must remember that at that point everything was happening at Rishikesh. The world came there because The Beatles were there. If Chaurasi Kutia is restored then you will have lots of people interested. Someone can even convert it into a heritage hotel and get it inaugurated by, say, Paul McCartney and you will have tourists flocking there,” he says. He recalls that such was the media interest when The Beatles were around that 500 journalists and photographers camped in Rishikesh but failed to gain access to the ashram. “Even those who wrote serious political stories and smoked pipes and considered themselves intellectual were forced to head to Chaurasi Kutia to file the big Beatles story.” It was because of his advance planning and guile that Naqvi managed to sneak in day after day even as a sea of frustrated reporters waited outside (see box).

It is not as if no one has tried to make use of the facility that Mahesh Yogi built in Rishikesh. In 2007, Maggie O’Hara (aka Prabhavati Dwabha), a former Hollywood actress who has dedicated her life to running schools for the poor in India, submitted a proposal to convert the ashram into a home for New Delhi’s street children. She also wanted to establish a job training centre on the campus for women. Her plan, which envisaged the setting up of an eco-friendly hotel to fund the home, knocked around various departments in the State and at the Centre and there has been no news of it since then. Perhaps handing over forest land is a tricky issue today, much more than when it was allotted to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Trust in the early 1960s.

Music, meditation and counterculture

Those who were at Chaurasi Kutia at the same time as The Beatles included several other celebrities. Actress Mia Farrow, her sister Prudence and brother John, Mike Love of the Beach Boys, Scottish folk-rock singer Donovan, who was often billed as Britain’s Bob Dylan, flautist Paul Horan, sculptor and songwriter Gyp Mills, fashion promoter and socialite Nancy Cooke de Herrera, who later became a publicist for the Maharishi, and the Canadian director Paul Saltzman, who married film-maker Deepa Mehta in 1973 (they parted ways ten years later). There were several other foreigners as well from Europe and America. But The Beatles largely bonded with the celebs mentioned, especially the musicians, with whom they exchanged notes and ideas for songs. They also performed for the ashramites in what can be described as casual concerts.

For The Beatles, the sojourn in Rishikesh came six months after the death of their manager Brian Epstein because of a drug overdose. The band was trying to get over his loss and also recover from the sensational commercial and critical acclaim of their epic concept album “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, which has been described in the Encyclopaedia of Popular Music as “no mere pop album but a cultural icon embracing the constituent elements of the 60s youth culture: pop art, garish fashion, drugs, instant mysticism and freedom from parental control”. The Beatles wanted to take time out from a tumultuous and tragic 1967 and found the Rishikesh ashram a retreat, far from the madding life of London.

It has been said that Chaurasi Kutia provided the perfect spiritual holiday and enough time for John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison to potter around and think up songs, melodies and riffs. In fact, the majority of tracks that figured in the group’s November 1968 untitled double album, referred to as the White Album because of its blank cover, had songs that were written in Rishikesh. According to reports, Lennon and McCartney would meet secretly in the afternoons (the day was strictly reserved for the Maharishi’s lectures and meditation) and take stock of what each had composed. Lennon pointed out in a later interview: “Regardless of what I was supposed to be doing, I did write some of my best songs there [at the ashram].” Even the disgruntled Ringo Starr managed to pen “Don’t Pass Me By”, which figured in the White Album. In all, some 40 songs were written (there is no exact count), with some of them appearing in solo albums released much after The Beatles split. Donovan also wrote his hit song “Hurdy Gurdy Man” in Rishikesh.

For The Beatles, the ashram provided free time to reflect and to be creatively active. They were initially impressed by the Maharishi but they did not take the TM course too seriously. Prudence Farrow, a committed believer in TM, virtually confirms this. “I would always rush straight back to my room after lectures and meals so I could meditate. John, George and Paul would want to sit around jamming and having a good time.”

According to Naqvi, the buzz at the ashram then was that Prudence spent all her time practising TM. “The staff would go around saying ‘shoo, shoo’, imploring people to remain silent since she was meditating.” If fact, according to her sister Mia, Prudence would meditate 23 hours a day, making herself a total recluse. John Lennon was asked to try to persuade her to come out of her shell. “She’d been locked in for three weeks and trying to reach God quicker than anyone else,” he recalled later. So Lennon turned to his acoustic guitar—the only Western instrument allowed in the ashram—and wrote a song inspired by her aloofness, titled “Dear Prudence”.

Here are some of the songs that were composed at Chaurasi Kutia and their context:

The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill: The song is about the socialite Nancy Cooke Herrera and her college-going son Riki, who visited his mother at the ashram when The Beatles were there. Riki and his mother went tiger-hunting on elephants and were attacked by a tiger which was shot dead by Riki. Nancy in her book Beyond Gurus says that John Lennon did not see it as an act of self-defence. He wrote a song critical of the shooting, which figured in the White Album. The lyrics say it all: “He went out tiger hunting with his elephant and his gun/ In case of accidents he always took his mom/ He’s the all American bullet headed Saxon mother’s son/ All the children sing, Hey Bungalow Bill, what did you kill, Bungalow Bill...”.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps: Though the initial lyrics were written in England, George Harrison’s song had its musical evolution in Rishikesh. According to Donovan, the spark was given by him when he played a particular guitar progression. “I helped George with ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’. It is based on a descending pattern based on a Bach piece. I just passed it on. I simply had some forms at the time that they [Beatles] didn’t,” he said in an interview. Donovan also taught John, Paul and George the finger-style picking on the guitar. “They were so brilliant, and they knew music so well, but one thing they didn’t learn was the combinations of the folk-blues-classical-flamenco-New Orleans-jazz progressions.... One day John said, ‘How do you do that? That finger-style, that picking, will you teach me?’ So I showed him. And Paul would stand around, he’d steal a look and then walk away into the woods. He was listening. A smart boy, our Paul. And from that he wrote ‘Blackbird’.” The finger-style picking was also used on several Lennon songs, including “Dear Prudence” and “Julia”.

Back in the USSR: McCartney wrote it at the ashram. Mike Love of the Beach Boys remembers him coming down one morning for breakfast with his guitar and playing the song. Love suggested that McCartney include “girls from Russia, the Ukraine and Georgia” in the lyrics. This was done since the song was also a tribute of sorts to the Beach Boys.

Mother Nature’s Son and Child of Nature: Both the songs were inspired by Maharishi’s lecture “Son of Mother Nature”. The first, written by Paul McCartney, made it to the White Album. The second, by John Lennon, did not. But it surfaced in his solo album “Imagine” with new lyrics as “Jealous Guy”.

Sexy Sadie: It was written about the Maharishi, by Lennon. In a Rolling Stone magazine interview, he has admitted as much. “That [‘Sexy Sadie’] was about the Maharishi, yes. I copped out and I wouldn’t write ‘Maharishi what have you done, you made a fool of everyone’. But now it can be told.... There was a big hullaballoo about him trying to rape Mia Farrow or somebody and trying to get off other women and all that.... When George started thinking it might be true, I thought well, it must be true if George started thinking it might be true....” The Beatles went to see the Maharishi and Lennon said they were leaving. Mahesh Yogi wondered what the problem was. The response from Lennon was terse and sarcastic: “Well, if you’re cosmic you’ll know why.” The original lyrics of “Sexy Sadie” was changed to take out all references to the Maharishi to avoid litigation.

Hurdy Gurdy Man: A big hit for Donovan, it was written in Rishikesh. George Harrison contributed a verse which was edited out of the final mix. But Donovan later played the unedited version at concerts as a tribute to his friend.

The three-month-long stay of the musicians in the foothills of the Himalayas was almost like a songwriting and spiritual workshop. If all the nuggets of information about what transpired there and the songs The Beatles and other musicians composed with memorabilia were collected and put on display at a restored ashram, it would attract tourists and music enthusiasts from around the world. But someone has to take the initiative to preserve the ashram as a significant slice of the history of the counterculture that once caught the imagination of the young in the heady 1960s and 1970s.