Though “The Beatles Ashram” is closed, fans of the band still visit the spot in the foothills near Rishikesh, India. // © 2014 Thinkstock
At Your Own Risk
“Though entry is banned, we don’t arrest those who wish to take a look at the ashram,” said a Forest Department official in an interview with Frontline. “We leave them alone. In any case, I don’t think there are too many people interested in seeing an ashram that has gone to seed.”
While the Ganges River may be a pilgrimage site for Hindus, “The Beatles Ashram” is something of a mecca to many Fab Four fans.
That’s what I explain to Ramesh Chawla, a local guide and native from nearby Haridwar, who has trouble understanding why I would want to visit a closed, decaying ashram. Somehow, in spite of its blazing importance to Western pop culture, the place where Maharishi Mahesh Yogi taught Transcendental Meditation to his famous followers in the 1960s has been left to rot.
It’s also technically illegal to enter. Though abandoned since the 1990s, the former ashram is locked and guarded. Folks sometimes risk the $80 trespassing fine, but I decide to take the high road by offering the guard a bribe. While Chawla seduces the guard with a very generous 1,000-rupee offering (about $20), I inspect the surroundings. No wonder the Beatles wrote so many songs here. The ashram overlooks the city of Rishikesh and the Ganges River in a secluded section of the Himalayan foothills.
Just as a cow appears from nowhere and heads in my direction, Chawla says we have the green light. Later I learn that others have bribed for far less (like, $1), but I feel lucky . When the Beatles arrived in 1968, groups of foreign media reported from this very spot, but they were not allowed to enter the closed gates.
We have the entire ashram to ourselves. It’s the quietest place in India I have come across.
As we walk, I learn that Chawla knows a few things about the ashram, despite his initial reluctance to come.
“Locally, the ashram is known not for The Beatles or Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whose following was mainly comprised of foreigners,” he says.
Its name, “Chaurasi Kutia” translates to “84 huts.” The ashram is known for its little stone igloos, which are now overrun by forest growth. It sort of looks like something the cast of “Lost” would unearth during its discovery of the television show’s magical island.
The Maharishi did not own the land but was merely leasing it from the government until he left in the 1970s. It’s now in the control of the State Forest Department as part of the Rajaji National Park. According to Chawla, there have been periods when the ashram was open to the public, but it is usually closed during monsoon season. The state government of Uttarakhand and the State Forest Department are in a long-and-winding discussion about turning the ashram into a tourism site.
“In the future it may be restored as a place to visit, but when it will be implemented, it’s not sure,” Chawla says, alluding to Indian bureaucracy.
Beatles fans and historians alike are distraught that this storied land is not being used or preserved as a tourism site. The ashram’s near-mythological status as the place where The Beatles wrote most of their eponymous album (also known as “The White Album”) drives many fans to come here to view it in its current state, but by no means is this a typical tourist experience. No signs tell you which room John Lennon slept in, or where The Beatles may have spent afternoons playing guitar after morning meditations. There are no plastic replicas of the vegetarian food they ate at communal tables or transcripts of the lectures the Maharishi gave. Don’t come here expecting facts or analysis on how this moment in history triggered the Western world’s interest in Eastern practices.
Somehow, however, the decay of the space has not killed its spirit. In some ways, the decay is what is most inspiring to today’s Beatles pilgrims.
My favorite discovery was something created long after the Beatles left, when the ashram was in its current state as an abandoned relic of what it once was.
Just two years ago, Canadian artist Pan Trinity Das set out to revitalize Satsang Hall, the former meditation hall of the ashram. Das was joined by volunteers from around the world — artists and fans alike. According to the group, the project was closed down after two weeks by park authorities. But with just black, red and white paint, the group created what is now called Beatles Cathedral Gallery. As I view the art that fills the hall, it’s clear that this group tapped into the same creative energy that inspired The Beatles during their stay.
On one giant wall, there is a painting of John, Paul, George and Ringo in pop-art style, with each of their faces half-obstructed by shadow. Other pop-art portraits fill the hall, including that of Mahareshi Mahesh Yogi on an empty stage on the opposite wall. It feels like a visual representation of what the guru-teacher relationship might have been like, as imagined by fans solving the puzzle themselves. Snippets of classic Beatles lyrics written at this very location twirl around the paintings. They fill the silent hall with song.