On Harrison’s death anniv, Beatles ashram glory lost in Rajaji wilderness
Shivani Saxena, TNN
Nov 28, 2014
Dehradun: George Harrison died on November 29, 2001, of lung cancer. He was cremated in Los Angeles and his ashes later scattered in the Ganga and Yamuna rivers. Much water has flowed down two of India's holiest rivers 13 years since.
But in a nondescript ashram, overrun by creepers of Uttarakhand's Rajaji National Park, one of the defining legacies of Harrison and The Beatles continues to live on.
Situated by the Ganga, the 'Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram' of Rishikesh — known the world over as the Beatles ashram — is where the "band more famous than Jesus Christ" dabbled in transcendental meditation under the tutelage of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the spring of 1968. More famously, the Beatles ashram in Uttarakhand is where the iconic 'White Album' was born. The album sold 9.5 million copies in the United States alone.
The Beatles in India
Today, a few Beatles devotees, mostly Western tourists, seek out the ashram to pay their respects. Chris Cheul from England is one of them. With a guitar in his hands and 'Dear Prudence' — one of the more memorable singles from the White Album — on his lips, Chris walks around the abandoned ashram, "soaking it all in".
"I am a die-hard Beatles fan," he says, "and I couldn't stop myself from coming here once I heard that the Beatles were here for three months and wrote some of their most beautiful songs."
Dear Prudence, he says, was a song specially written for the actress Mia Farrow's sister, Prudence, who had accompanied the Beatles to the ashram. "When she turned into a recluse, John Lennon wrote the song to make her understand that there was a life outside her meditation room and she should step out," he says. "The sun is up, the sky is blue. It's beautiful and so are you. Dear, Prudence, won't you come out to play," he trails off.
As per official records, the UP forest department, in 1961, leased out 15 acres for 20 years to Mahesh Yogi to set up the ashram. The lease expired in 1981 but Maharishi had moved base by then. The land was taken back and, two years later, handed to the national park. Locals claim it was abandoned around 1977 and has failed to gain the administration's attention ever since.
In May, the state's tourism department decided to draft a plan with the forest department to develop the place into a tourist spot. But nothing has changed on the ground. "The development of the ashram will definitely attract more visitors and foreign tourists as well in huge numbers," says Y K Gangwar, regional tourism officer. "But the project is still in a limbo as we are waiting for the necessary forest clearances to come through. The financial and administrative approval from the state government is yet to be given a go-ahead, which is proving to be another hindrance."
Entry is prohibited — a board hung at the gate sounds symbolic. A solitary guard mans the entry point. He opens the gates only if he finds your requests convincing. The white, igloo-shaped meditation cells as well as the lecture halls still stand. The shabby walls of the main hall, dank and gloomy, sport some lyrical graffiti — a shaky vote of confidence for the ashram from some loyal Beatles fans.
Much like Chris, many people visit Rishikesh just to visit the ruin. A couple from Australia who learned meditation from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi himself are among them. "The transcendental meditation works," says John as Sussane nods her head. "Otherwise we wouldn't have been practising it for the past 41 years. We came to the ashram in 1973. It was beautiful and serene, but now all that remains is overgrown vegetation. The Beatles association by itself attracts so many fans to this ashram even today. Something really needs to be done about it."
Antoine from France is visiting the ashram with his girlfriend, "a die-hard Beatle fan". He sighs, wondering why the local government would not set the place right and open its doors to music lovers around the world. "Many a time fans from other countries come to the ashram and try to collaborate to save its history by cleaning up the place, decorating and putting up graffiti on the walls, but since it is prohibited and the ashram falls in the forest region, we can't do much, apart from sneaking in here from time to time," he says.
Perhaps the way out is hidden in another popular remain from the spring of 1968. 'Dehradun', a catchy ode to the state capital, penned by Harrison himself, says: "Many roads can take you there, many different ways/One direction takes you years, another takes you days/Many people on the roads looking at the sights/Many others with their troubles looking for their rights...Dehra Dehra Dun."
Members of the Beatles, from left, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney informally play music in Rishikesh, India in 1968