Friday, March 24, 2023

Here Comes the Sun in Rishikesh

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In a happy initiative, Uttarakhand has decided to convert an ashram the Beatles lived in into a heritage property rather than tweak forest laws for commercial reasons. A happy moment for Beatles fans!
By Ajith Pillai

If you are a Beatles fan, then, this would surely qualify as good news. On December 8, while the world solemnly remembered that day in 1980 when ex-Beatle John Lennon was shot dead outside his New York apartment building by a crazed fan, the Uttarakhand government, some 11,500 miles away, formally opened the gates of what is referred to by tourist guides in Rishikesh as the “Beatles ashram”.

Ever since the ashram was abandoned, many had been eyeing the land. There were  several attempts by hoteliers and real estate developers to grab the property.    

By doing so, the state government may have unwittingly entered the book of Beatles memorabilia. The ashram in the holy town of Rishikesh is the Chaurasi Kutia built in 1961 by the Transcendental Meditation (TM) guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It was here that the Fab Four—as the Beatles are referred to—spent a few months in 1968 to meditate and introspect. It was also here that they composed over 40 of their songs.

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But after the glory days of the 60s when celebs rushed here, the ashram fell into bad times. It started with the then Uttar Pradesh government terminating the 20-year lease of the 19.81 acre land in 1981. Reason: the ashram land fell within the newly demarcated Rajaji National Park and Tiger Reserve and forest land could not be leased out. However, the ashram continued to function out of the premises till 2003, after which it was formally abandoned.

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Since then, Chaurasi Kutia has been in a state of disrepair till it was recently refurbished and opened to the public. When it was abandoned, a board outside identified it as forest land and banned the entry of visitors into the scenic property overlooking the Ganga. Now the notice has been formally revoked after approval from the National Tiger Conservation Authority to allow ticketed entry into the ashram (`150 for Indians, `600 for foreigners). According to Neena Grewal, director of the Rajaji Tiger Reserve, the ruins of the ashram will soon be declared and maintained as a heritage site.

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But ban or no ban, the ashram has been frequented by Beatles fans from across the world. All it takes is a ` 150-tip to the forest guard for one to sneak in through gaps in the barbed wire and set off on a magical mystery tour. It will take you through winding forest paths to the egg-shaped futuristic igloo-like meditation cubicles where the rich and the famous used to go. Graffiti, drawn by ardent fans, on the walls of the dwelling quarters and community halls remind you of the Beatles, their songs and the Maharishi in his flowing robes with the signature line “Jai Guru Deva” which famously formed the refrain of the Beatles song, “Across the Universe”.

How such pristine forest land was handed over to the Maharishi remains a mystery. But back in the 1960s, conservation was not a priority and the Guru enjoyed tremendous popularity and clout to get the land.

Ever since the ashram was abandoned, many had been eyeing this land. There were several attempts by hoteliers and real estate developers to grab the property. India Legal has learnt from sources that setting up an upscale Beatles resort was among the proposals once mooted by a prominent hotel group. It goes to the credit of the Uttarakhand government that it did not give in to pressure and has decided to preserve the ashram as a heritage property accessible to the public. It was not agreeable to tweak any forest land laws.

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There was even a proposal to use the ashram land to build a home for Delhi’s street children. This idea was mooted in 2007 by Maggie O’ Hara (aka Prabhavati Dwabha), a struggling Hollywood actress who gave up the silver screen in the 1970s and headed to India seeking spiritual solace and enlightenment. Since then, she has dedicated her life to running schools for the poor in India. She said she would establish a home for 2,500 street children and a job training centre on the ashram for 500 women.

According to her proposal, the project would be financed by an eco-friendly hotel on the campus where guests could share the same space that was once occupied by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. When she first submitted her proposal, O’Hara told The Washington Post that she was determined to make something out of the ashram which was going to seed. “Helping India’s children would be in the spirit of what the Beatles were in India searching for: generosity, optimism, kindness. It’s a terrible shame that the Beatles’ ashram is lying in waste. It could become a model for other centers to be built like it around the country,” she had told the paper. However, her plans came to naught as they found no favor with the government which was not prepared to hand over forest land even for an altruistic cause. Other efforts to make commercial use of the ashram campus were relentlessly pursued.

“Regardless of what I was supposed to be doing, I did write some of my best songs there.”
—John Lennon remembering his days in Chaurasi Kutia

Mahesh Yogi died on February 5, 2008, at the age of 90 in Vlodrop, Netherlands. But much before that, he had faded into oblivion. The ashram that he abandoned in Rishikesh continued to draw tourists because of the Beatles connection. The few months that the Fab Four spent there in 1968 is almost a must visit for the band’s devoted following.

It was an evolved Beatles that came to Chaurasi Kutia in 1968. They had by then shed their boy band image and put their syrupy songs of the I Want to Hold Your Hand and Love Me Do period behind them and got down to more serious writing. They were fresh from the critical and commercial success of their epic 1967 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”.

But the band, which had stopped live performances and touring in 1966, was also trying to live with the loss of their manager, Brian Epstein, who died of a drug overdose on August 27, 1967.
His death left the band rudderless and drew it more towards eastern mysticism and spirituality.
The Beatles first met Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in London in August 1967 and had then gone off to attend one of his seminars in Bangor, Wales. When he suggested a trip to the ashram in the Himalayas, they agreed.

The Fab Four were in good celebrity company when they reached Rishikesh in February 1968. These included actress Mia Farrow, her sister, Prudence and brother, John, Mike Love of the Beach Boys, Scottish folk-rock singer Donovan, flautist Paul Horan, sculptor and songwriter Gyp Mills, socialite Nancy Cooke de Herrera and Canadian director Paul Saltzam.

Chaurasi Kutia provided the perfect backdrop for Lennon, McCartney and Harrison to set down song ideas and lyrics, figure out melodies and riffs. In fact, several tracks which figured in the group’s November 1968 untitled double album, referred to as the White Album because of its blank white space cover, had songs from the Rishikesh phase (see box). Years later, Lennon remembered his days in Chaurasi Kutia in an interview: “Regardless of what I was supposed to be doing, I did write some of my best songs there.”

Lyrical strokes: Graffiti, drawn by ardent fans, at the ashram.
Lyrical strokes: Graffiti, drawn by ardent fans, at the ashram.

The Beatles first met Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in London in August 1967 and later attended one
of his seminars in Bangor, Wales. When he suggested a trip to his ashram, they agreed.

How seriously did the band take to meditation and the Maharishi? The Beatles apparently took it lightly after the first few days. They treated the trip as a good break from the madness of London.

Prudence, who took her sojourn at the ashram in all earnestness, did not fail to notice their casual approach. “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.”

Lyrical strokes: Graffiti, drawn by ardent fans, at the ashram.
     Lyrical strokes: Graffiti, drawn by ardent fans, at the ashram.

In fact, Prudence was so obsessed and lost in her transcendental meditation that Lennon was even asked at times to make her snap back to reality.

He composed a song on her detached existence titled, “Dear Prudence” which later figured in the White Album.

It is scraps of such memorabilia that could enliven a visit to Chaurasi Kutia. Right now, Rajaji Tiger Reserve authorities have put up new signages identifying the various jungle trails, but something more needs to be done to bring to life the glory days of the ashram in the heady Sixties and its place in counter-culture history.

What the Beatles visit did was to give a quantum push to western interest in eastern spirituality.
Suddenly, philosophy, mysticism, music and yoga from this part of the world got a big boost. Young men and women who wanted a break from western materialism and the rat race took the next flight out to India. One holy town on their itinerary was Rishikesh. It still is.

This is the reason why Uttarakhand tourism must maximise on the legacy and iconic status of the ashram in musical culture.

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