As I arrived in Uttarakhand, I received a message from my uncle Derek: “In Rishikesh, take photos of the Beatles ashram.” Derek is one of the best people I know. If he liked it, I’d like it.
The ashram was on the itinerary anyway but my guide was looking uncertain. “Khandar hai,” he tried to explain, hopeful that that would make me change my mind. Nice try but I love ruins.
I also love The Beatles and I like anything abandoned (check out this post about an abandoned amusement park in Berlin). In 1968, the Fab Four and their partners travelled to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi ashram in Rishikesh to live and learn Transcendental Meditation from its founder, self-styled guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. They were joined by a host of other celebrities including Donovan, Mike Love from the Beach Boys, Mia Farrow and her sister Prudence.
Ringo Starr and his wife Maureen left after ten days blaming it on the spicy food and insects, Paul McCartney left after a month, followed by George Harrison and John Lennon a week later. Rumour has it they left disillusioned by the self-styled guru but why they left or were kicked out is still up for debate (a toss between financial disagreements or the Maharishi’s inappropriate behaviour towards Prudence Farrow or their use of hashish and LSD) so can somebody please just ask one of the living Beatles?
Though their time in India was short lived, it’s said to have been rather productive. They wrote forty songs and most of the White Album while in Rishikesh. (Recommended reading: this piece by Saeed Naqvi on his time there.)
Abandoned since 1997, the forest is slowly reclaiming the former ashram, known locally as chaurasi kutia, for its 84 egg-shaped, Buddha helmet-style pebbled meditation huts. I found the architecture to be quite unique. Step inside the huts and you’ll found staircases to the top and the scrawled names of lovers and random drawings. My favourite one had coral vine growing all over it.
The site technically falls inside the Rajaji National Park so don’t be too surprised by any animal sightings. There are also several dilapidated buildings along the inside path to explore but one worth mentioning is The Beatles Cathedral Gallery, a former satsang room adorned with graffiti including artworks of Ringo, John, Paul and George and other famous faces. I enjoyed looking out for all The Beatles references.
It’s a bit of a free-for-all now but it was originally a project by street artist Pan Trinity Das who describes his work as ‘Bhakti Spiritual pop art’ and set it up as a paint-by-numbers for the whole community to be able to participate.
If you visit, take a camera, pack a snack, stream The Beatles and plan to spend a few hours at least. It’s derelict but in the best way and is made for exploring. I'd love to go back and meditate in the pods and spend more time in the storied buildings. To get to the ashram, hike over from either Ram or Laxman Jhula, or if you have a vehicle, you can drive right up to the gate. At the moment, you’ll have to bribe the security guard to let you in (Rs 100 should do it) though there are plans for the government to spruce it up and turn it into a proper tourist attraction. Personally, I’m glad I got to see it before it changes.
I travelled to Rishikesh courtesy the Uttarakhand Tourism Board and Lonely Planet Magazine India.