Rishikesh: home of the yoga bums, pseudo-hippies, various drugs (a few of which I may or may not have sampled), and The Maharishi Mahesh (Beatles) Ashram. Anyone who follows my blog will know that I won’t have come to Rishikesh for the yoga, and definitely not to hang around with the tie-dye crew, but to see a place famed for the way it changed, or at least altered, the way that the Beatles wrote songs and helped change the way eastern music was seen across the world (though admittedly it was more George Harrison who did this).
Of course, if you’re into yoga then Rishikesh is the place to go; I’d say two out of three guesthouses offer some sort of yoga training or a at least classes to take part in. There are a few places here that have accommodated people for many months for the sole purpose of training them to be able to train other people how to practice yoga; yes, there are people here who spend thousands on learning to show others the way of the Yogi. Now, I don’t mean any disrespect to yoga folk but it’s really not for me and, though surrounded by people who see it as a way of life, I had no temptation to take part whatsoever; I was happy strolling up and down the Ganges and getting lost chasing waterfalls and falling in rivers (true story).
If you’re in India and are wanting to see the famous holy waters of the Ganges, then I suggest coming here or perhaps further upstream; though Varanasi is a major draw, the water is filled with, well, I’ll explain that in a later post. The water here, especially in the smaller rivers that flow into the Ganges, is near spotless, it really is beautiful to see and, if you want to get a bit closer and maybe a little wet, there are various lengths of rafting that you can do at points up and down the river, all day, every day. Rishikesh is becoming a tourist attraction now because of its rafting and bungee jumping just as much as its yoga and Beatles draw; it really is becoming ‘the place to be’. However, if you’re not a flip-flop fanatic or Yogi wannabee and actually want to see something worthwhile, it’s the ‘Beatles Ashram’ that you need to find. I say find because there aren’t actually any signs for it and asking people can prove to be fruitless; you will have to do a bit of research beforehand and just find the right path which eventually is lined on both sides with white rocks.
Once inside I was very aware of an eerie kind of atmosphere, the place has been abandoned for nearly 20 years, the greenery is overgrown, wildlife aplenty, and the buildings dilapidated. I was first met by a small group of ‘meditation pods’ that lined the hilltop; these pods were used by people visiting the ashram to basically live in and meditate in, though I’m not sure how many people could stay in one pod at one time- my guess would be 2 at the absolute most. All of these pods, 135 that I counted, are identical with the only differences being their orientation to the landscape and whether they’re conjoined with other pods or not, but the layout of each one stays the same. Cosy is probably the wrong word, but I can understand how they could create a peaceful, if not mindful, atmosphere in which to live in. One thing that I actually loved about many of the pods is the graffiti; some of it is very well done and actually makes the place feel like a kind of Beatles shrine, some of it is just shocking, children’s type stuff that makes it look like a squatter’s paradise (there is actually evidence of people sneaking in at night and sleeping in the pods, though these are likely to be a faction of the tie-dye crew).
As I made my way around the river facing side of the Ashram, the density of the pods and the undergrowth grew, almost like the pods had actually come out of the forest itself; it really looked quite natural. The pods now were no longer home to transcendental meditation students, but to various types of wildlife, both dangerous and non dangerous (there are signs warning about walking into the pods and deep grass in case of animal attacks). As I said previously, all the pods are identical so you could argue that once you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all, but this simply isn’t the case. From each pod you can stand on the walkway, or roof area and, depending on where in the ashram you are, the view completely changes, as does the condition and graffiti within each one (though some really are barren and are dangerous to go inside, especially when you try and climb the spiralling steps within.)
As I mentioned, a lot of the pods are filled with graffiti of various thought and skill; some are filled with crap about John and Yoko who, of course, together started the beginning of the end for the Beatles with their pretentious stunts, whereas others are filled with Beatles lyrics and Paul or George drawings, though Ringo seems to be absent mostly and a figure of ridicule (from what I saw anyway).
So, what’s so special about the ashram and why is it so important? Well, the Beatles, encouraged by Harrison, came here in 1967 with their spouses to study transcendental meditation under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, with mixed results (only Harrison would go on to continue the discipline in the years after their visit). However, though the meditation was unsuccessful, and the 4 of them left under disputed circumstances, they wrote all of the ‘The Beatles’ (White Album) and most of ‘Abbey Road’ whilst here, both of which are some of the their most revered work and albums that created a shift in their musical style going forward. The move by the group to the ashram during these months was widely covered by the media around the world, much to the dismay of Harrison, but actually encouraged by Maharishi Mahesh. This was one of the reasons for the group eventually leaving (though they all left at different times).
If you look around the ashram as it is today you can easily see how its surroundings back then were a source of inspiration for songwriting, even if they only had a couple of acoustic guitars. Other than the many pods that cover the site, there are two larger buildings that are similar to hotels or apartments; this is where the better of the graffiti and life affirming lyrics seem to have been done; nearly every room is filled with some lyric or spiritual painting of one thing or another and it can take a couple of hours to walk around and truly explore (if you head to the rooftop you get a great view over the ashram, the Ganges, and the surrounding hills). Of course, as well as these buildings, there is the bungalow of Maharishi; this isn’t as special as I expected but is somewhere worth a look- though be careful if you head to the basement as it’s full of bats!
After a couple of hours of strolling around, staying out of the long grass and trying to find shade where possible, I definitely found a certain kind of calm; I’m not sure if it was because I was completely alone in the place, if there was a certain aura to it, or if I’d finally, after nearly 4 months, found whatever it was I was never looking for in the first place. The birds, crickets, and distant flow of the Ganges were the only things I could hear, and the only things I could see were trees, pods, and the sky; there was nothing else to think about. This was one of the few times in India that I couldn’t hear traffic, shouting, beeping, and the general chaotic ambiance that I’d become all too familiar with; no, here there was very little to occupy my mind other than my own thoughts and feelings; nothing bothered me, no stress, no worries-it was as close to a blissful feeling as I imagine I’ll ever get. Of course this peaceful feeling was somewhat spoilt by the fact that I passed several of the harem heroes on the way back to the main part of town but, fortunately, I’d managed to keep my thoughts off them and on something else entirely.
So, another few days went by and by now I only had little under 2 weeks left in this incredible country. I had two places left to visit: the Taj Mahal (I’d feel incredibly guilty if I didn’t see it) and the holy, ancient city of Varanasi, before I made my way into Nepal. My feelings are as they were nearly a month ago when I entered Rajasthan; that of sadness of having to leave such a great country, and of excitement of entering a newer, perhaps lesser travelled country…