Journeys: Rishikesh, The Beatles’ Ashram

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In India, I went everywhere by train. The train ride itself formed my image of my destination, whether I’d ridden first-class and had been served black tea on white china or third-class and had handed down grubby ten-rupee notes from the top bunk to men who poured sweet milky chai into single-use clay cups from dented metal tea kettles. The train to Haridwar took me five hours outside of Delhi and ended at a concrete station with people camped out all over the floor, multiple generations of families lying and crying, talking and eating.

The train station was old and crumbling, yet a man on a ladder slathered the soot coated, grimy walls (and floor, and himself) with bright blue paint. The floor was once painted red, which had since worn away to so many shades of brown and black. It was covered with brightly patterned blankets, home to people equally ravaged by time and overuse, wearing colorful saris over their small thin bodies. The colors masked the underlying problems, but who am I to say whether that is a bad thing or a good one.

The air outside the station was hot and dense with fumes, burning the hair off the inside of my nostrils. I kept an eye out for any building that might have held a bus terminal, picking my way among the taxis and rickshaws jostling each other for space on the road, and, even more arresting, their drivers. I’ve never felt more like a commodity, as if each moment that I was there I had to be put to use, buying something Indian or using something Indian or employing something Indian to lend a purpose to my taking up space. If I didn’t participate, there was no use to me being there at all. In an enterprising country full of people who do not accept ‘broken’ as a final say, no one accepted me taking a moment to look around. There were hotels to check into, taxis to take, rivers to visit, chai to drink. The needs of a nation expressed themselves to me as the exploiter of those needs.

Leaving the Haridwar station, I started to hear, faintly at first, the word “Rishikesh” buzzing in the air around me. It soon roared around me like a swarm of locusts as more and more taxi drivers caught on to my destination and tried to win me into their charge. This is where the Beatles headed for peace and redirection in 1967 — after a few meetings with the Maharishi and the untimely death of their manager, Bobby Epstein, who had discovered them and guided them to fame. They wrote all eighteen songs on the White Album tucked away here, as well as a handful of others. It was a strange time, they would later argue, but also one that put Rishikesh on the map and on cabdriver’s tongues. The Beatles probably took a cab, but I opted for the Rishikesh bus. It does roll off the tongue nicely, I’ve since decided. Rishikesh. A lonely cicada has a more pleasant sound. I didn’t know what I’d find there, hoping as always for something on a sliding scale from peace to chaos.

I’m in a strange place. Fifty-eight years ago, the Beatles came to Rishikesh to explore more of the transcendental teachings that the Maharishi had introduced them to on his trip to Wales. The Beatles described their time here as among their most miserable periods, yet it was here where they wrote some of their best songs.

Rishikesh turned out to be a clean and bright town, in which colorful buildings perch high on the banks of the Ganges. It’s a place of eternal summer, a holy site for Hindis and an attraction for yogis and those practicing transcendental meditation, as well as a welcome resting place for passers-through like me. With many shrines and a famous suspension bridge cutting off all but foot traffic, this holy site for Hindis is vegetarian and alcohol-free by law. The absence of India’s constant car-horns is just an added benefit.

After the dusty bus ride to the fabled village, the tourists diverge. The Hindi tourists come for the temples dressed in a rainbow of saris and pose over the green-blue Ganges on the Laxman Jhula suspension bridge. The Westerners, outnumbered but a common, pale presence, come for a supreme yoga experience, adopting the traditional wide pants and saris that the Beatles and their wives made popular in Western fashion decades before.

The Maharishi’s ashram site is a few kilometers away from the center of Rishikesh, abandoned by business and not often frequented by tourists, perhaps because of its distance from the center of town. Walking towards the ashram site, the stores and stands thin out and the road becomes less colorful by degrees. My eyes adjust and pick out the various shades of verdant green behind stone walls. The ashram, originally a place for holy hermitage, has dozens of huts standing from its days as a teaching site. One four-story building had small rooms like a hotel, yet now stood as a nondescript concrete shell. Most of the structures from the site’s booming period are abandoned now, save a club-footed keeper: one man in a small village of one-man huts.

Many of the huts are made of concrete and stone, with a squat toilet and a bookshelf as the only fixtures on the main level., A small set of spiral concrete stairs was built into the wall to a round meditation room upstairs, an open window on the world. In the peace of the jungle, with its overgrown trees, vines, and bird calls, it’s hard to recall how this space could have kept a handful of rock stars, wives, followers, and the neighboring onlookers and reporters that accompanied the Beatles here in the sixties.

Walking around, I try to think of what one should do when visiting an abandoned holy ashram. It’s too buggy to sit still, too interesting to close my eyes and meditate, too quiet to write songs, too large to capture in a drawing or photograph effectively, too holy to take my clothes off and sunbathe.

I wonder if I’m hungry, and I start to see how this place could induce the mental state that drove the Beatles to insomnia, argument, peace, creativity, boredom, and finally anger and early departure. Alone on a stage, alone in a crowd, alone in an ashram, alone in a bed: where can you find peace, love, contentment? If the answers don’t lie inside your mind, they must lie out there, but how many rickshaws, taxis and trains you have to take to get there, I don’t know.

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