The Beatles, An Ashram, and The Music

I remember hearing The Beatles on an A684 Murphy radio when my sisters tuned in to English music programs such as His and Hers from The Netherlands and Lunchtime Request Show from India.

It was in February 1968 that The Beatles arrived at the International Academy of Meditation in Rishikesh, India, on the invitation of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Developed by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Transcendental Meditation was practiced in the Academy. The site is now colloquially known as Beatles Ashram and is referred to locally as Chaurasi Kutiya [pronounced chow-Rah-see koo-ti-yah; meaning “84 huts”]. The followers of Transcendental Meditation would perhaps prefer to call the site Maharishi-ji’s Ashram.

The global media followed The Fab Four to Rishikesh. Wouldn’t you too if you could tick off the following items as a reason to cover a story: The Beatles, Himalayas, Ganges, “Indian spiritualism and mysticism,” Transcendental Meditation, exotic location like Rishikesh?

Rishikesh

To visit Rishikesh in the state of Uttarakhand, I prefer the months of November to February. Dehradun is the nearest airport. You can take a 1.5 hour taxi ride from the airport to Rishikesh. Accommodations in Rishikesh range from budget to expensive; book in advance to reserve your dates. There are several things to do in Rishikesh—from yoga to meditation to spiritual ceremonies—but I will focus on Chaurasi Kutiya in this Pxley story.

Chaurasi Kutiya is 1.86 miles from Lakshman Jhula and .62 miles from Ram Jhula, the names of the two suspension bridges in Rishikesh. This area, within a government tiger reserve, can be a bit tricky to locate. If you don’t have a car at your disposal, an auto rickshaw will take you directly to Chaurasi Kutiya. The site is open from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. An entrance ticket is required. If you see a map on the side of the ticket booth, take a photo with your mobile device because it will come in handy.

Once inside the main entrance, you will make your way up a steep hill as you pass by a few meditation huts. Since there are no preset markers to tour the premises in any particular order, explore on your own. Be aware of your surroundings as some locations and buildings are somewhat desolate and dilapidated.

Meditation Caves

As you walk along the path from the entrance gate, you will see several dome-shaped structures. These were meditation caves. The first floor was sleeping quarters. Accessed by ladders, some of the caves have a raised platform on the second floor where one engaged in meditation. These structures had not been constructed when The Beatles were here. A sign indicates that the structures were “constructed from 1976-78 to accommodate Sanyasis and Brahmacharis for practicing their Sadhana,” i.e., they were constructed to accommodate hermits and scholars to practice their spiritual exercise.

Satsang Hall

The Satsang Hall was a lecture hall where Maharishi Mahesh Yogi shared his wisdom with his followers. The Hall is also referred to as "The Beatles Cathedral Gallery," which was an initiative by the street artist Pan Trinity Das who, with his wife, created a community arts project. A few walls and domes in Chaurasi Kutiya are covered in graffiti, pop art, poster-style portraits, lyrics to Beatles songs, and murals of the Beatles.

Gallery

A gallery at the ashram exhibits several photographs taken by Paul Saltzman. The photographs depict the time spent at the ashram by The Beatles and some of their friends [Donovan, Mia Farrow, Mike Love]. Saltzman’s candid photos gave the world a peek into the non-celebrity side of the Fab Four. Both the Beatles' much publicized stay at the ashram at the height of their fame, and their mission to learn meditation from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi had an effect on how Indian music, spirituality, and religion were looked upon in the West.

Panchkuti

Guests at the ashram stayed at guesthouses called Panchkuti. I believe guesthouse No. 9 was occupied by The Beatles and had modern amenities—electric heaters, running water, toilets, etc.

Chaurasi Kutia

As an academy of meditation, the Beatles Ashram has a building on its premises called Chaurasi Kutiya. Along the corridor of the building are chambers [total of 84] on each side for people to sit and meditate. A signboard in the building indicates that the chambers are based on 84 asanas. [yoga postures]. Individual chambers do not indicate if one chamber was meant for a specific asana.

Anand Bhawan

Anand Bhavan was the residential quarters for those enrolled in Transcendental Meditation courses. The stepped pyramid design of Anand Bhavan with large egg-shaped domes on its roof is unique. Perhaps the building was designed to reflect its location on a hill and embrace communal living within a sustaining environment. I was reminded of the Golden Domes at Maharishi International University in Iowa. The shape of the domes at these two sites are different but the commonalities are Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Transcendental Meditation. Nonetheless, I could not help but envision this site as a somewhat rustic imaginary university campus with students living and dining in communal buildings, attending lectures, participating in meditation at communal halls, and walking a few yards to the post office to collect and send mail to family and friends.

George Harrison

For me, the star of The Beatles was George Harrison. I understand this can be unfair to the rest of the Fab Four but we all have our preferences. As a songwriter, singer, and producer, George captured my attention and interest because he was passionate about his craft and humanitarian work. For example, he organized the first-ever benefit concert, The Concert For Bangladesh. George released the single, Bangla Desh, to raise money and awareness for the war-torn country and its refugees.

As an accomplished musician and song-writer in his 20s, George was introduced to Indian classical music and the works of Pandit Ravi Shankar by David Crosby of The Byrds. George played the sitar on the track Love You To from the Revolver album. He spent time studying with Pandit Ravi Shankar. The sitar, along with Indian classical music, influenced some of George’s compositions—Dehra Dun, Bangla Desh, The Inner Light , Within You Without You. As “The Quiet One,” George’s music led him to Eastern spirituality and religion as he began to study the teachings of Swami Vivekananda and Paramahansa Yogananda.

Academic Introduction to The Beatles

My academic introduction to the group began with a course offered by Dr. Michael Cheney called The Beatles: Popular Music and Society. Dr Cheney created podcasts and multimedia content for this course, which broke new ground in higher education by integrating technology into pedagogy. Dr. Cheney received a national Excellence in Online Teaching award. His podcast about The Beatles was the second most downloaded podcast on iTunes U. I am thankful to Dr. Cheney for enthusiastically sharing his knowledge and expertise on The Beatles, and taking me on a journey unparalleled in coursework, rigor, popular music, and society. [Screengrab from Wayback Machine, dated December 18, 2014.]

Wah-Wah

As I started my car in the parking lot of my former workplace on my last working day, the following song played on CarPlay:

Wah-wah • You made me such a big star • Being there at the right time • Cheaper than a dime • Wah-wah, you've given me your • Wah-wah, wah-wah

For George Harrison, his song Wah-Wah suggested disenchantment, discontent, and his expression of independence from The Beatles.

For me, the song wasn’t about disenchantment or discontent. Instead, the song reflected my frame of mind that day—a thoughtfully planned departure, the opportunity to break free and steer in a new direction.

Dichotomy

Chaurasi Kutiya is now taken over by trees, shrubs, and vines; “overgrown” is the apt word in this case. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi stopped using the ashram in the 1970s. The land was reclaimed by the state government when the lease expired and is now a part of the Rajaji Tiger Reserve. Efforts by the Uttarakhand Tourism Development Board are underway to revive the site’s legacy. The goal is to make the area a World Heritage site.

The Beatles left the ashram, each at different times, each disillusioned by different aspects of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi or, food allergies in Ringo Starr’s case. In addition, there was a difference of approach to The Beatles’ stay at the ashram—Paul wanting to work on the next album while George wanted to use his time to meditate. The Beatles wrote over 30 songs during their stay at the ashram and several of those songs ended up in the White Album.

While The Beatles continued on their path to fame and fortune, the ashram in the foothills of the Himalayas lies in ruins. There is an allure in visiting such ruins. It is a fond reminder of what George Harrison wrote in his iconic post-Beatles track:

All things must pass
None of life’s strings can last
So I must be on my way
And face another day


Pxley Extras on The Beatles:

A) My favorite song by The Beatles is While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

I wrote ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ at my mother’s house in Warrington. I was thinking about the Chinese I Ching, the Book of Changes… The Eastern concept is that whatever happens is all meant to be, and that there’s no such thing as coincidence – every little item that’s going down has a purpose.

George Harrison
Anthology

B) My favorite song by George Harrison is My Sweet Lord, a composition from his post-Beatles career. He blends a Hebrew word with a Hindu Vedic prayer in the song. Perhaps it was George’s way to provoke and unify us, irrespective of our religion, while seeking spirituality. [Note: My preference for listening to My Sweet Lord is a simple setting—loud, for Volume.]