The Beatles’ magical mystery tour of India
On the 50th anniversary of The Beatles' visit to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's ashram, Lounge returns to Rishikesh to trace the role Indian music and mysticism played in bondingor breakingthe world's most popular band
The narrow path leading to the main hall of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram—or the Chaurasi Kutia Ashram as the locals refer to it—in Rishikesh is slippery even when not wet. What was once a paved thoroughfare, used by hundreds of disciples of the globe-trotting Indian ascetic, is today covered with moss that requires visitors to mind every step.
Even as the impressive architecture of the buildings along the main walkway is hidden with foliage of plants splitting through the concrete, the giant hall inside, where the Maharishi gave his sermons, is a burst of colour. The hall is airy and spacious with a large platform at one end. Graffiti in all sizes adorn the walls, lending a colourful character to what fans have christened the “Beatles Cathedral". While not much signage or information is provided at the ashram, the graffiti has been painted over the years by those who managed to sneak in with cans of spray paint and their love and loyalty for the British band from the small city of Liverpool who won over the world.
A black and white hand-painted portrait of the Maharishi dominates the centre of the platform; from here he would address his disciples. Alongside the small flight of three steps leading to the platform, a line is scribbled in red ink: “With every mistake we must surely be learning." It is a throwback to While My Guitar Gently Weeps, a song that Beatle George Harrison had written and composed in 1968 as a comment on the tensions and discord gripping the rock band. The scribbled line could well encapsulate a 50-year-old tale.
A passage to India
On a crispy cool wintry afternoon in February 1968, film-maker and photographer Paul Saltzman sat near John Lennon and Paul McCartney as The Beatles practised two lines they had just composed of a song. Saltzman happened to be present at the ashram in Rishikesh during the band’s visit.
McCartney, in a white kurta-pyjama, looked at ease in the surroundings. Drummer Ringo Starr hung around in a Nehru jacket and provided rhythm by snapping his fingers while Lennon and McCartney sang and strummed on Martin D-28 acoustic guitars. Sitting near them, Saltzman’s eyes followed McCartney’s reading from a piece of paper on which was scribbled the refrain: Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da, life goes on, brah, La la, how the life goes on.
“McCartney told me that those were the only two lines they had so far. The two of them kept singing the chorus and played around with it. But what shone through was the joy infused in their music at that moment," says Saltzman over the phone from Ontario, Canada. “John and Paul were working as equals and the four of them (including George Harrison) were like a family of brothers out there in Rishikesh when I met them."
Fifty years on, the Rishikesh stint of the Fab Four, as The Beatles were often referred to, stands apart as a cultural signpost, as it marked the entry of Indian music and spirituality in Western mainstream pop culture. The seven-week-long stay at the ashram resulted in The Beatles composing the bulk of the songs for their ninth studio album, The Beatles (more famous as White Album); a phase when, as Lennon described in The Beatles Anthology (2000), he wrote some of his best songs. Over 30 songs were written during their ashram stay, including Back In The USSR, Dear Prudence, Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da, The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill, While My Guitar Gently Weeps and I’m So Tired. “The quiet of the ashram, the daily meditation, healthy lifestyle and vegetarian food allowed their creativity to blossom and it was possibly the most artistic phase of their career," says Saltzman.
US-based music critic and author of The Unreleased Beatles: Music And Film (2006) Richie Unterberger considers the Rishikesh trip to be “very important" to the career of The Beatles. “First, because they were away from Beatlemania for the first time in five years and away from a hectic work schedule for the first time since 1960, they had less distractions from songwriting," he says on email. “Second, because they only had acoustic instruments with them, many of the songs they wrote in Rishikesh had an acoustic, folky flavour, as you can hear on the White Album tracks like Julia, Dear Prudence, Blackbird and Mother Nature’s Son. Because they spent a lot of time practising meditation, they might have allowed thoughts buried in their subconscious to surface. As a result, their time in Rishikesh might have been the most prolific in their songwriting career, yielding such an abundance of material that their next album, the White Album, became a double LP and not a single one."
Before their 1968 visit to Rishikesh, The Beatles were in India twice. The first, on 8 June 1964, was during a stopover at the Calcutta (now Kolkata) airport en route to Hong Kong. That visit, Beatles fansites remark, passed off uneventfully, with a crowd of girls waiting for them when the plane touched down—a phenomenon of screaming fans that they encountered during refuelling stoppages in Beirut, Karachi, Kolkata and Bangkok.
Around the time of their second visit, this time a one-day layover in Delhi on 6 July 1966, enormous fame and furious controversies had caught up with the band. Before arriving in Delhi, the band had been troubled by rightwing elements in Japan and roughly booted out of the Philippines for not having attended a breakfast meeting with the then first lady Imelda Marcos at the presidential palace. The band found hordes of fans waiting at the Delhi airport and along the route; fans on scooters gave chase, shouting “Hi Beatles, Beatles." The fansite Beatlesbible.com quotes George Harrison as saying, “Oh no! Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but Beatles have nowhere to lay their heads." Harrison, nevertheless, found time during the brief stopover to indulge in a passion that had gripped him by then—the sitar. The band went looking for these at Rikhi Ram and Sons’ musical instruments shop in Connaught Place. Later, some were sent over to their hotel room for them to try out. The previous year, when The Beatles released their album Rubber Soul, with Harrison playing sitar over the deeply introspective Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown), a sore point was the cheap sitar going slightly off-key. This one bought from India had to be perfect.
The dark horse
If anybody was steering the band towards India and all that the country possessed, musically and spiritually, it was Harrison. “The Quiet One" could also have been the one with the most inherently seeking nature. In the mid-1960s, when rock music in the West was seeking new musical frontiers and challenges, a 20-something Harrison discovered the sitar and his guru, sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar, in June 1966 in London. They remained friends till Harrison’s death at age 58 in 2001. For some critics, the sitar and his Indian classical music-influenced compositions gave Harrison his own niche in a band where Lennon-McCartney held the creative reins. For others, it was an essential component of Harrison’s search for meaning in life.
The sitar was part of Harrison’s journey and with it he wanted to understand sadhana (meditation) through the highest Indian guru-shishya traditions, says Kolkata-based tabla player and composer Bickram Ghosh, who toured with Ravi Shankar for many years and played on Shankar’s album Chants Of India (1997), which was produced by Harrison. In 1999, Ghosh got a call from Harrison, asking him to play on the title track of his forthcoming album Brainwashed (released posthumously in 2002). Ghosh spent a week recording with Harrison at his mansion in the UK’s Henley-on-Thames. The song turned out to be an apt summary of Harrison’s music: a balanced blend of Western rock and Indian music.
Norwegian Wood is often considered to be the opening salvo of raga-rock, a musical fusion that flourished in the 1960s and 1970s. Harrison’s Indian compositions—Within You Without You, Love You To with The Beatles—and his single The Inner Light continued the trend. Early in his solo career, Harrison wrote songs like the folky Dehra Dun and the passionate Bangla Desh, which recounts “his friend" Ravi Shankar approaching Harrison to help the victims of the 1970 cyclone in West Bengal and East Pakistan and the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. Harrison was moved enough to singlehandedly organize rock music’s first charity show on a massive scale. The Concert for Bangladesh at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1971 was a huge hit, helping Harrison raise millions for Unicef. His experience with India was immersive. To that effect, it might not be entirely surprising that the final strains of music ever recorded by Harrison was an over 2-minute section to end the album and song, Brainwashed, where Harrison and his son, Dhani, chant the bhajan Nama Parvathi Pathaye Hara Hara to Ghosh’s tabla. “Till the day I die," Harrison is known to have told Rolling Stone magazine in 1968, “I still believe (Indian music) is the greatest music ever on our level of existence."
Indian classical music led Harrison towards Eastern spirituality and religion. He became a life-long adherent of the teachings of Swami Vivekananda and Paramahansa Yogananda. He helped London’s Radha Krishna Temple financially and also produced the single Hare Krishna Mantra. “One can say that of The Beatles it appears that only George ‘got’ India," says Sally Grossman, wife of the late Albert Grossman who managed the likes of Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin, on email from her home in Woodstock, US. Other than vigorously pursuing a five-decade-old interest in the baul music of Bengal, as is documented on Baularchive.com, a scholarly repository of her work and association with India, Sally once hosted George Harrison and his wife Pattie Boyd at their home. “They came to stay at our house so as to visit Bob Dylan. We bonded immediately over India. We all knew India had seduced us, entranced us, educated us and broadened our horizons," writes Grossman. It was Boyd who introduced her husband and The Beatles to the Maharishi in 1967, which initiated the Fab Four into the Spiritual Regeneration Movement at Bangor in the UK.
The global yogi
By the time The Beatles came to Rishikesh in 1968, they were worn out by the strains and stress of fandom. It was already a couple of years since the Beatles had renounced touring, tired and stretched as they were by thousands of screaming teenaged fans at concerts, which often interrupted the actual performance. In director Martin Scorsese’s documentary film George Harrison: Living In The Material World (2011), there is a dramatic moment when Lennon stops an arena concert to look up at the shrieking girls interrupting the band’s performance. “Shut up," he says firmly in the footage, “I’ll kill you." Wild car chases by fans, stalking and the occasional threat of bodily harm were already part of the Beatles experience—clearly the band was at the end of their tether. India, and meditation, possibly, came as an escape hatch to the other side of celebrity.
Just prior to their arrival in Rishikesh, Brian Epstein, the band’s longtime manager, died. The Beatles were consoled by the Maharishi, who they had met just days before Epstein’s death, but were devastated nonetheless.
Then there was the issue of drugs. A couple of years back, the band had its first taste of the “notorious wonder drug LSD", as Harrison put it the Scorsese film. Widening the mind’s perception and altering one’s consciousness through LSD was a key goal of the 1960s counterculture. It was no different for The Beatles. Even as he dropped acid near the door of a nightclub and took off on an “incredible" trip across time and space, Harrison was, by then, a student of Ravi Shankar. “I had this lingering thought that just stayed with me after that," he says in the movie. “And this thought was the yogis of the Himalayas. I had never thought about them...but suddenly this thought was in the back of my consciousness. It was like somebody was whispering to me, you know. The yogis of the Himalayas."
It was the Maharishi who impressed upon The Beatles to publicly renounce drugs at a press conference. “It was an experience we went through," McCartney is quoted as saying at the press conference in Philip Norman’s biography, Shout!: The True Story Of The Beatles (2004). “Now it’s over. We don’t need it any more. We think we’re finding new ways of getting there." At that juncture, it would have seemed that all roads, literally, spiritually and metaphorically, converged to get The Beatles down to Rishikesh.
The global media followed the band till the barred ashram gate for it ticked the boxes of “exoticism, Indian spiritualism, Ganges, Himalayas and the world’s most famous band," says Saltzman. While the Beatles trip triggered the arrival of Indian spirituality and yogic practices in Western consciousness with the sprouting of street corner yoga and meditation studios, the personality of the Maharishi, who had harped on the need for Transcendental Meditation to the Beatles, saw McCartney penning a ditty like The Fool On The Hill in 1967 for the band’s Magical Mystery Tour album. On the other hand, Lennon went on to write the wry Sexy Sadie, an acerbic comment on the Maharishi (Sexy Sadie, what have you done/ You made a fool of everyone) and how ignominiously the Rishikesh visit ended for the band when there were allegations of sexual misdemeanour against the Maharishi.
Though the allegations were never really proved, the infamy stuck, says Anand Shrivastava, nephew of the Maharishi. Shrivastava is also the vice-president of the New Delhi-headquartered Spiritual Regeneration Movement (SRM) Foundation of India. “I don’t know what led John Lennon to make the allegation, for the Maharishi was a bal brahmachari who led a pure life. Maybe Lennon was frustrated at something," says Shrivastava, on the phone from the Netherlands, where the Maharishi died in 2008, aged 90.
The cultural moment
The Maharishi’s Uttarakhand ashram was closed down by the state’s forest department in 1990 after its lease expired. It remained shut for 15 years and was opened to public only in 2015.
Seekers from the West continue to throng Rishikesh and the ashram, drawn by the prospect of attaining spiritual salvation and helped by The Beatles lore. Take, for instance, Tejasvi Giri who was earlier Deja Cross. An entrepreneur from the US who also helmed “multimillion dollar businesses", she “renounced everything" and came to Rishikesh. She was an eight-year-old growing up in California when she heard about The Beatles’ tryst with the Maharishi and Indian mysticism, “another way of living that was difficult to fathom in a country where, back then, there was no culture of meditation," she says.
Today, Giri, 58, is the founder-director of the Rishikesh International Film Festival, which in its second year is organizing a two-day event at the ashram to commemorate the 50th year of The Beatles’ visit. Beginning 16 March, the commemoration will see displays of photographs, presentations with slide shows, playing of songs and videos, Transcendental Meditation practice by schoolchildren, a ticketed tour of the ashram and a panel discussion centred around consciousness and creativity, among other events. Giri, who has been based in a village outside the touristy zones of Rishikesh, “living close to the people", says, “I’ll be here only to be with the people."
Ever since he first visited India and sought the curative powers of meditation at the ashram to overcome an estranged relationship, Saltzman, by his own reckoning, has been to India over 50 times. It wasn’t easy for him to gain access to the ashram, where the Beatles along with other musicians like Donovan and Mike Love of the Beach Boys were staying.
For the one week he was there, Saltzman slept in a tent pitched outside the ashram’s tall periphery wall but was permitted to participate in the ashram’s activities during the day. The meditation exercises gave Saltzman an insight into his own mind and soul; his intimate and candid photos of The Beatles gave the world a sneak peek into the bare and unvarnished side of celebrity lives. “The 50th anniversary is culturally significant because it marks one of the few times famous celebrities, who were artistically and commercially successful, put their careers on pause to study and investigate a spiritual discipline for their personal enlightenment," explains Unterberger. “They did this even knowing they would be ridiculed by much of the media. If their fans were unlikely to ridicule, many were puzzled. It also marked one of the first times that Western pop stars committed to spending time experiencing a non-Western practice and culture that was very different from what they had grown up with and that made their superstardom possible."
This year, coinciding with the India release of the special 50th anniversary edition of his photobook, The Beatles In India, by Simon & Schuster, Saltzman will be back in India to complete the filming of his “Beatles film", one which will bring in the elements of creativity, meditation, spirituality and love pivoted around Saltzman’s stories from 1968.
And in the end
The Rishikesh stint was possibly the first time in many years that Lennon and McCartney were staying next door to each other. This lead to an burst of creative camaraderie, says Miti Adhikari, who used to be the chief sound engineer at the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios in London.
Yet, despite the bonhomie, described by Norman as “the group mind", Rishikesh, it can be argued, could well have widened the already-existing cracks of disagreement between the band members.
An indication to that effect can be found in Lennon’s song India, India, one of two India-specific songs that he wrote in 1980, about his 1968 sojourn. In it, he sings: I’m waiting by the river, but somewhere in my mind, I left my heart in England, with the girl I left behind. This was Yoko Ono, the Japanese avant-garde performance artist he had befriended in 1966. Lennon had travelled with his wife Cynthia to Rishikesh but would sneak out every once in a while to the local post office to collect the postcards that Ono would send him. These would usually consist of one word, “Breathe", Norman mentioned to an amused audience at a session on The Beatles in India held at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2017.
Within a year of returning from Rishikesh, Lennon would divorce Cynthia and get together with Yoko Ono. Ono became a fixture at the studio sessions when The Beatles started recording the songs they had composed in Rishikesh for the White Album.
Lennon’s Rishikesh songs cropped up again on The Beatles’ final record, Abbey Road, in 1969. Mean Mr. Mustard and Polythene Pam were fragments which he later disparaged as “a bit of crap I wrote in India". The Beatles would disband in 1970.
Whichever way you look at it, the ashram in Rishikesh remains a cultural signpost. Fifty years later, the weather-beaten, moss-covered and mouldy walls stand as mute witness to one of the most iconic moments in popular culture.