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On the road to Rishikesh

Pattie Boyd reminisces about introducing The Beatles to meditation and the time they spent in India, 50 years ago

George Harrison and Pattie Boyd. Photo: Getty Images
George Harrison and Pattie Boyd. Photo: Getty Images

Fifty years ago, in February 1968, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Rishikesh received its most famous visitors—The Beatles. They came looking for peace and quiet, and answers. But if it was not for one of the women in their lives, the Fab Four may never have visited India. Pattie Boyd, former wife of George Harrison and later Eric Clapton, is one of the most famous muses in rock history, inspiring some of Harrison’s songs like If I Needed Someone and Something, and Clapton’s Layla and Wonderful Tonight. Her interest in meditation set in motion a journey that involved not just her and The Beatles, but also several generations which were influenced by the group’s interest in Eastern spirituality. Fifty years later, she remembers Harrison and “the boys", the visit to Rishikesh and talks about a special exhibition commemorating this 50th anniversary, Beatles In India, at The Beatles Story museum in Liverpool. Edited excerpts from an email interview:

You introduced The Beatles to meditation and the Maharishi in 1967. How did you become interested in Transcendental Meditation (TM)?

I had already visited India and had found it incredibly spiritual and moving. I was keen to take up meditation and saw an advert for TM classes at Caxton Hall in London. A friend and I duly went along and, over a long weekend, we were initiated and given our mantras. I loved it and found that it worked for me on a number of levels—I felt “energized", so I told George (Harrison) all about it at the earliest opportunity. He was interested and agreed to come along to see the Maharishi in London in August 1967. In fact, all four Beatles came along.

The Beatles came to India to grieve after the death of their friend and manager, Brian Epstein, and get some time away from the public eye. How was this time in the ashram and did it help them get some peace of mind?

The time at the ashram was wonderfully peaceful and tranquil, just as we had hoped. We were out of the glare of the public eye and could meditate and listen to the Maharishi’s lectures and teachings in an ideal environment. The Beatles were incredibly productive, musically, during our stay. Armed only with acoustic guitars, they wrote many songs for The White Album and beyond while there. Although there wasn’t much for us to do, I enjoyed the peace and took time to visit Tibetan trading posts and also walk down to the Ganges on a few occasions.

Harrison and Ringo Starr in Rishikesh, 1968. Photo: Getty Images

Do you have any anecdotes or memories around any songs that The Beatles wrote while there?

I believe that George may have started work on Something whilst there and probably his songs which appeared on The White Album later in 1968. In its embryonic stages, While My Guitar Gently Weeps was a slower song with just George on his acoustic. I clearly remember Dear Prudence being sung by the boys to Prudence Farrow to try and entice her from her room at the ashram.

Harrison and you spent some time in India with Pandit Ravi Shankar. What are your memories of this time with him?

Ravi remained a dear friend and he and George stayed close down the years. I vividly remember the time spent in India with him. He was well respected in India and we travelled extensively together. I recall visiting the Taj Mahal and the sacred ghats of Benaras where people have their ashes scattered in the Ganges. We stayed on a houseboat in Kashmir and Ravi explained that, sometimes, while he was playing the sitar, he would enter a meditative state and be unaware of what he was playing. He taught us about Indian music in general, which was so new and interesting to us. The impact on George and his songwriting can be heard from that time onwards on The Beatles records and beyond.

This year’s ‘Beatles In India’ exhibition must be a trip down memory lane for you. Tell us about the exhibition and your role.

I can’t believe that it is 50 years since we were in India! The Beatles Story kindly invited me to visit and officially open their Beatles In India exhibition in February earlier in the year, which I had great pleasure in doing. I visited the exhibition with my sister, Jenny, who was also in Rishikesh in 1968. The Beatles Story team have done a wonderful job portraying the feel of the ashram and the period in general. I was interviewed by various media teams whilst opening the exhibition and enjoyed talking about those days in 1968. Photographer Paul Saltzman was also with us in India (in 1968), and attended the opening; some of his iconic pictures feature in the display.

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