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Beatles ashram in Rishikesh to reopen for tourists this month

Raju Gusain | Updated on: 14 November 2015, 9:03 IST

The history

  • At the peak of Beatlemania in 1968, The Beatles and their friends arrived in Rishikesh for a retreat
  • They were to take a three-month course in meditation at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi ashram
  • Ringo left in 10 days, Paul in five weeks, and John and George in eight

The revival

  • After almost two decades of neglect, the Uttarakhand forest department is reopening the ashram to the public
  • It wants to promote eco-tourism through the Beatles connection

More in the story

  • Which songs did The Beatles write while in Rishikesh?
  • Why you should be excited about the reopening of the ashram

If you happen to be a music fan, wouldn't you want to visit the place where The Beatles wrote almost their entire self-titled 'White Album'? The place where 'Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da', 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps', 'Mother Nature's Son', 'Sexy Sadie', and Abbey Road's 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer' and 'Mean Mr Mustard' were conceptualised?

Sample these lyrics:

Sit beside a mountain stream, see her waters rise

Listen to the pretty sound of music as she flies

Doo doo doo....

Find me in my field of grass, Mother Nature's son

Swaying daisies, sing a lazy song beneath the sun.

The mountain stream in question is the mighty Ganga, and the songs were all written during the band members' retreat to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's ashram in Rishikesh.

READ: The Beatles' mini movies restored for DVD release in November

The ashram, abandoned in 1997, is slowly being reclaimed by the forest and overrun by wild animals. But the Uttarakhand forest department, which owns the land, has come up with a way to utilise its fame and the Beatles connection.

The forest department wants to promote eco-tourism - by introducing bird watching and a nature walk. The ashram is being spruced up and will be thrown open for tourists this month.

Beatlemania in the hills

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi leased 15 acres of land from the forest department for setting up his ashram in 1961.

Seven years later, at the peak of Beatlemania around the world, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr arrived in India to take a three-month course in Transcendental Meditation, in February 1968.

The boys from Liverpool came with their friends, and the trip had a deep impact on their lives and creativity.

But things didn't go according to plan - none of the Beatles ended up completing the course. Just 10 days in, Starr, the drummer, got into an argument with the Yogi and left. McCartney stayed for five weeks, while Lennon and Harrison departed after eight weeks.

At the peak of Beatlemania in 1968, the group arrived to learn meditation at the Rishikesh ashram

Among other things, including a breakdown of their relationships with the Yogi, the group and their friends were troubled by the bevy of monkeys and mosquitoes.

Decades later, the Yogi failed to get the land lease renewed, and his followers and staff had to vacate the premises.

Sprucing things up

A signboard outside the main entrance gate of the ashram used to caution visitors that the property belonged to the Rajaji National Park and the common public didn't have permission to enter. Despite this, foreign tourists managed to visit the Ashram by bribing the forest guards.

The forest department's decision will not only make things easier for tourists, but also be a source of income for the government, since it can levy an official entry fee.

Though the vandalised buildings tell a sad tale of the ruined ashram, the clean pavements showcase some positive changes. To stop the entry of wild animals - like elephants and leopards - the forest staff is repairing the broken boundary wall of the ashram.

Rajendra Nautiyal, ranger of the Rajaji National Park's Gauri Range, says: "We have cleared the bushes and removed the garbage. The construction of a nature trail - from the main gate to Mahesh Yogi's bungalow - has finished. In the first phase, we will be introducing nature walk and bird watching here, and later, a cafeteria and a museum will be established."

The main attractions

Among all the old buildings, the Yogi's bungalow, where Starr reportedly had the argument with him, will remain a major attraction for Beatles fans. Locating the bungalow and reaching it was difficult - due to Lantana bushes - but now, the pavement leading to the building has been cleared and a sign board is being placed to provide information to visitors.

Besides this, a graffiti painting on The Beatles and Mahesh Yogi will help the visitors retrace the band's journey to the Himalayas.

The land lease wasn't renewed, and Mahesh Yogi's followers had to abandon the ashram in 1997

A large number of foreign tourists come to Rishikesh to learn meditation and yoga. According to a rough estimate, Rishikesh annually gets about 35,000 foreign visitors. With the ashram reopening, there'll be an added attraction for foreign tourists to visit.

Positive reactions

Two-time Emmy award winning Hollywood filmmaker Paul Saltzman was invited by The Beatles to stay with them at the ashram, and clicked some of the most intimate photographs of the group. He penned a pictorial book 'The Beatles in Rishikesh' on his time at the ashram.

Asked to comment on the reopening of the ashram, Saltzman said: "I definitely feel the ashram being reopened will draw more and more Beatles fans to Rishikesh. But to make the ashram a major attraction, the need is to refurbish it with photographs of The Beatles and other artifacts, to create a fantastic and more historic environment."

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Mahesh Yogi's disciples are understandably thrilled with the developments. Sixty-four-year-old Tony Ellis, who was associated with the ashram for over three decades and presently lives in the US, says: "It is a brilliant idea to connect eco-tourism with the legacy of the ashram. The forest department should use the popularity of The Beatles and Mahesh Yogi for the preservation and promotion of the place."

Even among the locals, there's excitement about these developments. As Chandramohan Negi from Kunao village says, "It's better late than never. It is a positive development and we are happy that the heritage building will now be saved. Mahesh Yogi made meditation popular worldwide, and the Beatles visit to Rishikesh boosted the tourism industry in this part of the world."

First published: 14 November 2015, 9:03 IST