Fifty years after John, Paul, George, and Ringo descended on an ashram in Rishikesh, the country is making the spiritual site a tourist destination.
Paul Saltzman was stoned—not on drugs, but on inner peace—as he sat cross-legged in an ashram bungalow in northern India. It was 1968, and across the room his new friend, the 24-year-old Beatles guitarist George Harrison, set down his sitar and the two of them talked about meditation, fame, and finding bliss within and without.
At the time, Saltzman was a 24-year-old documentary filmmaker from Canada. He had never imagined when he set out for India that he would find the world’s greatest band holed up in the very ashram to which he, too, was drawn. Eventually, John Lennon and Paul McCartney would invite him to join their entourage at a long table on a cliff overlooking the Ganges river in the foothills of the Himalayas. He’d hang with Harrison in his room as he practiced sitar.
Over the course of his week at the ashram, he would capture some of the most intimate photographs of the Fab Four in their decade together. In 2000 he published a book of photos called The Beatles in India, and he would go on to share his story at Beatles conventions and gallery exhibitions. In the last few years, he has led tours back to India and the city of Rishikesh, about a five-hour drive northeast of New Delhi.
And next year, Saltzman aims to take part in the 50th anniversary celebrations being planned in both Rishikesh and Liverpool, the quartet’s hometown, to mark the band’s time in India. This month, the Uttarakhand region’s forestry department announced that it is mapping out renovations on some of the ashram’s buildings and that it will create a mini-museum to the Fab Four in Rishikesh.
The Details, So Far
The now-legendary spiritual retreat was opened in 1961 by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the diminutive mystic who turned the West on to Transcendental Meditation, but it has been abandoned for years. In 2015 the forestry department finally began to allow paying tourists to wander the overgrown grounds, where the walls are covered in colorful graffiti murals.
The plan is to revitalize the site in time for the half-centenary and, coincidentally, the 100th anniversary of the Maharishi’s birth. But first, because the site is part of the Rajaji Tiger Reserve, the department will reinforce a wall to keep the elephants, tigers, and leopards out, according to Sanatan Sonkar, director of the reserve. Then the forestry department will renovate one of the main buildings, which will be converted into a Beatles exhibit and an interpretive center for the tiger reserve, Sonkar told Bloomberg.
The Mararishi’s bungalow, one of the only buildings remaining from the time when the Beatles were there, will also be restored. What photos and memorabilia will be displayed is still to be determined, and the Indian government has yet to sign off on the final architectural plans. Sonkar said the work could be completed in January.
Satpal Maharaj, Uttarakhand’s tourism minister, said he wants to partner with the forestry department to develop and promote the ashram and museum. He’s also looking to put on a concert in honor of the Beatles on the banks of the Ganges. “It’ll be a big achievement for Rishikesh,” Maharaj said. “It will definitely be a selling point.”
In Liverpool, The Beatles Story, the largest permanent Beatles museum, is also designing an exhibit that will open Feb. 15 with memorabilia, photos, and video interviews with people who were there, said Diane Glover, the Liverpool attraction’s marketing manager.
She traveled to Rishikesh to visit the ashram earlier this year and saw “a lot of monkeys and some elephant dung” and an abandoned hall that serves as a makeshift exhibit with graffiti and murals. “It’s a magical place, to be quite honest,” she said.
Glover met with a forestry official and put him in touch with contacts who can help with the celebration, she said. Saltzman is to attend the Liverpool exhibit opening and return for a Q&A as part of a lineup of events through 2018.
A Spiritual Center
Long before the Beatles arrived in Rishikesh, the location was a revered pilgrimage for Hindus. Today the city is known as the “Yoga Capital of the World” and draws thousands of Westerners in search of the ideal downward dog and one-nostril inhale. Tourism officials say there are a few hundred centers for meditation and yoga, as well as adventure travel companies that offer river rafting, mountain trekking, and jungle safaris.
At the time, the Beatles were at a crossroads. They had stopped touring, tired of the Beatlemania mobs. They had flirted with LSD, released the monumental Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Bandalbum in 1967 and were already drifting apart with disparate interests. They were searching for some sort of cosmic connection, and gurus and mantras were in vogue.
The group first attended a Maharishi lecture in August 1967 at a London hotel. Two days later, they were on a train to Wales for a 10-day seminar with the yogi, but it was cut short by the death of their 32-year-old manager Brian Epstein, according to The Beatles Story timeline.
Their next opportunity was a meditation teacher-training course with the Maharishi in Rishikesh. The four, along with their partners, arrived on what would be the band’s final trip abroad in February 1968. The solitude, meditation, vegetarian food, and natural beauty all contributed to an explosive creativity. Many of the songs on the double album The Beatles, known as the White Album, were composed there, as well as a few that ended up on Abbey Road.
Lennon wrote the song The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill about an American visiting the ashram who hunted tigers in the jungle, and Dear Prudence about actress Mia Farrow’s sister Prudence (both of whom were at the ashram) because Prudence was so deep into meditation she wouldn’t come out of her hut.
McCartney wrote Why Don’t We Do It in the Road after he saw monkeys copulating. Lennon and McCartney, along with Scottish balladeer Donovan—he and Mike Love of the Beach Boys were also among the entourage—came up with Rocky Raccoon riffing on the roof of a bungalow.
“Our time at the ashram was indeed very creative,” Donovan wrote in the forward to the 2005 edition of Saltzman’s book. The photos, he wrote, “show that we’re young art students again, we’re young musicians and we are seekers. We had only our acoustic guitars with us. We threw off our Western clothes. We took up our silk pantaloons. We were in the no-time zone. We could be ourselves again. And who ourselves were—who ourselves are—we were keen to find out.” Harrison, who had already taken up the sitar with Ravi Shankar in India in 1966, was finding his spiritual center in Indian philosophy.
“The Beatles were the avatars for our generation,” Saltzman said. Their trip East “opened the floodgates of interest in travel and meditation and yoga and the spiritual life for millions of people around the world who knew nothing about Rishikesh and meditation.”
After finishing his sitar practice, Saltzman recalled, “George said, ‘I get higher meditating than I ever did on drugs.’ And then after a while, he said, ‘We’re the Beatles. We have all the money you could ever dream of, we have all the fame we could ever wish for. But it isn’t love, it isn’t health, it isn’t peace inside, is it?’ I’ve never forgotten that.” Saltzman, now 73 and still meditating, will lead a tour next September to India that ends in Rishikesh.