India | The Beatles haunt a Himalayan 'Long and Winding Road'

The Beatles haunt a Himalayan ‘Long and Winding Road’

Raja Murthy April 11, 2017 11:39 AM (UTC+8)
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The storied “Beatles Ashram” awaits beyond a long and winding road across the Ganges River in Rishikesh, the Himalayan town where The Beatles lived in 1968 and composed their curious chapter of renunciation.

Nearly five decades later, the ashram is derelict yet still alive, a peaceful yet eerie abandoned ghost village that the Rajaji Tiger Reserve is now slowly consuming – like the bodily desires eating away at humans and demigods of fame and fortune as The Beatles were circa 1967.

John Lennon (left) and George Harrison leave London’s Heathrow Airport for India on February 15, 1968. Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr joined them later.

The iconic British band met Transcendental Meditation founder “Maharishi” Mahesh Yogi in London in 1967, and their India odyssey followed. And worldwide media attention followed them.

“I followed The Beatles to Rishikesh with my photographer colleague Raghu Rai,” Saeed Naqui reported in Indian newspaper The Statesman. “Almost every newspaper in the world had sent their senior reporters. Not to much avail, though. The ashram was out of bounds for the media.

” … We walked on ’til I spotted the Maharishi under a tree with The Beatles. I promptly sneaked Raghu Rai in and he took a shot with the aid of his zoom lens. The Statesman had its scoop.”

The Beatles and their wives at Rishikesh in March 1968. The group includes Ringo Starr, Maureen Starkey, Jane Asher, Paul McCartney, George Harrison (1943-2001), Patti Boyd, Cynthia Lennon, John Lennon (1940-1980), Beatles roadie Mal Evans, Jenny Boyd, Prudence Farrow and Beach Boy Mike Love.

Four days before my visit to the ashram this month, the Fab Four’s “The Long and Winding Road” was playing on the opposite bank of the Ganges at the 1960s-themed Dilmar Cafe, better known as The Beatles Cafe.

Lights in the Himalayan dusk turned the Ganges into a river of gold, as the Lennon-McCartney lyrics rang appropriately in this ancient town full of seekers of the true way:

“The long and winding road, that leads, to your door
Will never disappear, I’ve seen that road before
It always leads me here, lead me to your door …
…. Why leave me standing here, let me know the way.”

The Beatles Cafe menu carries The Statesman article on The Beatles’ initial days in Rishikesh, and their search for the way.

“[John] Lennon was the reclusive one,” Naqui reported, “and [Ringo] Starr was the friendliest. Paul [McCartney] would come and lie down in the Maharishi’s secretary Suresh Babu’s cabin and leaf through the copies of the Junior Statesman [the popular Statesman youth magazine of the 1960s].”

Artwork at the assembly hall dubbed ‘The Beatles Cathedral.’ Nearly two generations of fans have left their mark at the Rishikesh site.

Gaping windows, piles of dead leaves in rooms, graffiti on still-sturdy walls are all that are left of the modest bungalows that housed some of the world’s most popular stars.

Igloo-like concrete meditation huts facing the Ganges, a wooden shelf in a ruined room that may have held Paul McCartney’s books, a bench in a courtyard where John Lennon might have played his guitar, doors of dwellings left still open like residents had popped out for quick chat and never came back.

Archival British news footage of The Beatles in Rishikesh, in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, northern India.

The Beatles came here to renounce worldly pleasures, and search for the richer treasure of inner peace and contentment. Then reality hit them that this was not the way.

“The person most skeptical of the Maharishi, Transcendental Meditation and what The Beatles were up to, was Ringo Starr, the Beatles drummer,” said the Statesman reporter.  “Within a day of his arrival, he told me with considerable amusement, ‘It’s like a Butlin ’oliday camp’ [Billy Butlin’s budget holiday camps were popular across England]. Starr left for London shortly after.”

The Beatles composed about 30 songs here (featured on Abbey Road and The White Album), so this obviously was no serious meditation center.

Many visitors are searching for traces of The Beatles stay among the wildlife and public art that is now part of Rajaji National Park. 

Starr had compared Maharishi’s enterprise to a holiday camp after seeing idlers in ashram robes. Even the Buddha admitted householders straight away into the order of monks, but instituted a three-month trial for ashram dwellers, to see if they could fit into the hard-working discipline needed in his meditation centers.

Given that idling and irrationality did not get them success, The Beatles could not accept that a Band-Aid solution of mantras, or chanting a word, could deal with all of their personal and cosmic problems.

Graffiti on a white wall near the entrance to The Beatles Ashram declared: “You cannot escape your demons, you can only slay them.”

As I have experienced over the past 24 years, slaying these inner demons needs penetrating depths of the mind, where they are created and multiply as harmful thought patterns. No miracles or “gurus” can liberate. I often heard Burmese-born Vipassana principal teacher Sayagyi U Goenka (1924-2013) say: “Never fall into the clutches of a guru; be self-dependent.” The guide shows the way, and the student strives hard to walk on it.

The Beatles with actress Jane Asher, Maureen Starkey and Pattie Boyd in Rishikesh celebrating George Harrison’s 25th birthday on February 25, 1968.

The Beatles’ Rishikesh saga ultimately became a failed quest for the way.

Like realistic people grounded in common sense, they became uncomfortable with the Jai Gurudev cult around the Maharishi, and they found no way to slay inner demons in dungeons of the mind.

John Lennon’s wry take on ‘The One Word, The Mantra.’ His ‘Happy Rishikesh Song’ ends with the words ‘Something is wrong, something is wrong.’

The disillusioned Beatles left – first Ringo Starr, then McCartney a month later, and two weeks afterward Lennon and Harrison. They left behind ghosts of their Himalayan saga, of those here going away without finding the way.

Amid people doing quality work and selfless service, I see such “spiritually” exploited and exploiters continuing to haunt Rishikesh: victims of marketers of mantras, commercial yoga firms, ritualistic practices, and dangerous delusions of the kind that corrupted a fully Enlightened Super Scientist’s suffering-ending universal practice into a sectarian distortion called “Buddhism” (Why the Buddha was not a ‘Buddhist’).

The Beatles suffered from bad timing, arriving in India a year too early and missing the path that in 1969, from Mumbai, began flowing again like the Ganges of Dhamma (laws of nature) in the land of its origin.

This timeless path looks for the person when the time ripens, through someone informing that there exists such a way, this practice of experiential wisdom shared entirely free of cost. “I wish I had done this sooner,” is a common feedback I have heard.

So there’s time for you yet, Paul and Ringo, to see if this is the way for which you took the long and winding Himalayan road.

Raja Murthy
Raja Murthy is an independent journalist based in Mumbai contributing to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990, and formerly for Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, Wisden.com etc. He shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.
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