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In the Footsteps of The Beatles to Rishikesh, India

Highlights of my 'Beatles Ashram' visit in Rishikesh, India.............................................Ramdas A. Iyer

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It was a grey and rainy day when friend Mark Riesenberg and I crossed the long suspension footbridge, Ram Jhula, hanging nearly 200 feet above the Ganges into the wonderful valley of Rishikesh, early last month. The river Ganga, both a spiritual and life giving resource had finally descended here to make its journey through the plains of India, after traveling from the glaciated peaks of the Himalayan ranges.
I had met Mark in my gym in New Jersey over a decade ago and soon came to realize the spiritual depth of this man though raised Jewish was more Hindu than most. Soon he became my meditation guru and who better to learn the techniques than from a master who was a student of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi himself, the founder of Transcendental Meditation( TM) institutes, whose ashram we were visiting. After graduating college in the 60s during the thick of the hippie movement, Mark chose to become a meditation teacher and worked for many years as one for the TM institute in the NY/NJ area.
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I had promised Mark that someday I would escort him to the real India and in 2016 accompanied by his daughter Kate, we embarked on a spiritual journey visiting Varanasi, Haridwar, Rishikesh and Bodh Gaya. We were treated to some amazing experiences including the Ardh Kumbh Mela in Haridwar ( over 100 million bathe in the Ganges during this month long worship of the river), meditations twice a day along the Ganges, uplifting moments under the Bodhi tree where Buddha achieved his enlightenment 2500 years ago in Gaya. One of the unplanned highlights was a visit to the Maharishi's much vaunted ashram in Rishikesh; a musical and spiritual retreat for the Beatles in 1968. Mark always remarked that the Maharishi had told him to visit India with an Indian in order grasp the full impact of the experience. The Maharishi's wish had indeed come true.
The Beatles first met the Maharishi in London in August 1967 and then attended a seminar in Bangor, Wales. They had planned to attend the entire ten-day session, but their stay was cut short by the death of their manager, Brian Epstein. Wanting to learn more, they kept in contact with the Maharishi and made arrangements to spend time with him at his teaching centre located near Rishikesh, in "the Valley of the Saints" at the foothills of the Himalayas.
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Along with their wives, girlfriends, assistants and numerous reporters, the Beatles arrived in India in February 1968 and joined the group of 60 people who were training to be TM teachers, including musicians Donovan, Mike Love of the Beach Boys, and flautist Paul Horn. While there, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Harrison wrote many songs and Ringo Starr finished writing his first. Eighteen of those songs were recorded for The Beatles ("the White Album"), two songs appeared on the Abbey Road album, and others were used for various solo projects.
According to McCartney, the Maharishi "was great to us when Brian Epstein( their manager) died" and Cynthia Lennon wrote "it was as though, with Brian gone, the four needed someone new to give them direction and the Maharishi was in the right place at the right time." Curious to learn more, the Beatles made plans to spend time at the "Maharishi's training center" in India in 1968.
A quick brief here on the Maharishi(meaning Great seer) is apropos. Mahesh studied physics at Allahabad University and earned a degree in 1942. In 1941, he became an administrative secretary to the great philosopher and Vedanta scholar and Shankaracharya of Jyotir Math, Swami Brahmananda Saraswati( respectfully called Guru Dev) and took a new name, Bal Brahmachari Mahesh. The Maharishi recalls how it took about two and a half years to attune himself to the thinking of Brahmananda Saraswati and to gain "a very genuine feeling of complete oneness". Eventually he gained trust and became Guru Dev's "personal secretary" and "favored pupil". He was trusted to take care of the bulk of Swami Brahmananda Saraswati's correspondence without direction, and was also sent out to give public speeches on Vedic (scriptural) themes.
Although Brahmachari Mahesh was a close disciple, he could not be the Shankaracharya's spiritual successor because he was not of the Brahmin caste. The Shankaracharya, at the end of his life, charged him with the responsibility of travelling and teaching meditation to the masses. Thus began the TM movement.
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As Mark and I walked through the town along the many ashrams, coffee shops and Ayurveda Clinics, Mark with his characteristic smile quipped " This is a perfect home for a Hippie" . The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram was a bit way out of town, a 20 minute walk along the high river bank where the jungle starts engulfing the narrowing pathway. The Ashram today is inside the Rajaji Tiger Reserve and National Park. Until recently, one had to scale a small fence to get inside but recently access to the site is allowed with an entrance ticket. As we walked into the overgrown vegetation onto the small stone pathway we came suddenly we treated to a unique sight of multiple meditation pods that lined it on either side. The place was quiet, extremely peaceful except for an occasion chirp from the birds amidst the sound of flowing water. Lennon-McCartney song" Mother Nature's Son" written in this location rang in my mind:
"Born a poor young country boy, Mother Nature's son
All day long I'm sitting singing songs for everyone

Sit beside a mountain stream, see her waters rise
Listen to the pretty sound of music as she flies

Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo
Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo
Doo doo doo

Find me in my field of grass, Mother Nature's son
Swaying daises sing a lazy song beneath the sun

Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo
Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo
Doo doo doo doo doo doo
Yeah yeah yeah

Mm mm mm mm mm mm mm
Mm mm mm, ooh ooh ooh
Mm mm mm mm mm mm mm
Mm mm mm mm, wah wah wah

Wah, Mother Nature's son ".

Mindy Poder, executive editor of Travel Age West captures the scene inside the ashram well in her 2014 article.
" 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. There, overlooking the Ganges River, they grew beards, donned Indian-style cotton pajama pants and tunics, meditated in private caves and attended lectures and discussions on their meditations. Following years of extraordinary success and the sudden passing of their manager Brian Epstein, the Fab Four were seeking peace of mind. They were hoping to expand their minds as well.
“Oh, it was pretty exciting, you know,” said Ringo Starr in an interview for “The Beatles Anthology” documentary. “We were in this really spiritual place, and we were meditating a lot, having seminars by Maharishi. It was pretty far out.”
Their time in Rishikesh turned out to be one of the most prolific periods of their career. They wrote most of the double album, “The Beatles” (more popularly referred to as “The White Album”), as well as songs that would later appear on “Abbey Road.” Many songs, such as “Dear Prudence,” “Mother Nature’s Son,” and “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and Monkey,” make direct references to what the band learned and saw while in India.
“I remember having a great meditation, one of the best I ever had,” recounted McCartney in the biography “Many Years From Now” by Barry Miles. “It was a pleasant afternoon, in the shade of these big tropical trees on the flat roof of this bungalow. It appeared to me that I was like a feather over a ... warm-air pipe. I was just suspended by this hot air, which was something to do with the meditation. And it was a very, very blissful feeling … And I thought, ‘Well, hell, that’s great, I couldn’t buy that anywhere.’ That was the most pleasant, the most relaxed I ever got, for a few minutes I really felt so light, so floating, so complete.”.
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The guide, Ramesh Chawla, referred in Mindy Poder's article incidentally turned out to be our guide too. He was a great 'guyde' and can be seen with us in a photo shot inside the Maharishi's bungalow . Each of the 86 meditation pods had a private room, toilet and a winding staircase that leads to a meditation grotto under the foliage. The scene was very surreal and looked like a scene from "Lost" as mentioned in Poder's article. Two wonderful gentlemen, from New Zealand and lovers of the Beatles emerged from the thicket and were glad to see us since they were completely lost. We walked and chatted away into the late evening with much energy and excitement.
It is said that it was Paul and George who had the most benefits from this trip. Ringo left in a week while Lennon was very restless during his stay. Mia and Prudence Farrow were a part of the Beatles entourage. Prudence was supposed to be a serious meditator, spending hours a day deep in meditation. She became so serious about her meditation that she "turned into a near recluse" and "rarely came out" of the cottage she was living in. John Lennon was asked to "contact her and make sure she came out more often to socialize". As a result, Lennon wrote the song "Dear Prudence". In the song Lennon asks Farrow to "open up your eyes" and "see the sunny skies" reminding her that she is "part of everything". The song was said to be "a simple plea to a friend to 'snap out of it'".
" Dear Prudence, won't you come out to play?
Dear Prudence, greet the brand new day
The sun is up, the sky is blue
It's beautiful and so are you
Dear Prudence, won't you come out to play?
Dear Prudence, open up your eyes
Dear Prudence, see the sunny skies
The wind is low, the birds will sing
That you are part of everything
Dear Prudence, won't you open up your eyes?
Look around round
Look around round round
Look around
Dear Prudence, let me see you smile
Dear Prudence, like a little child
The clouds will be a daisy chain
So let me see you smile again
Dear Prudence, won't you let me see you smile?
Dear Prudence, won't you come out to play?
Dear Prudence, greet the brand new day
The sun is up, the sky is blue
It's beautiful and so are you................ "

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My friend Mark was so excited to visit Maharishi's bungalow- once a wonderful abode with fine detailing and sweeping views of the Ganges below. Mark had always maintained that the Yogi was a very special person with great penchant for of design and organization. This was evident from the layout of the ashram. Later as we walked into the huge meditation/ lecture hall, Mark remembered his lectures in Switzerland in similar halls were Maharishi used to be seated in front of 400 plus devotees who listened to his speeches on Vedanta. One of the idealistic views of the Maharishi was that World Peace could be achieved through inner peace attained through meditation. While a great utopian concept, it was unfortunately a failed attempt at changing the world. At least someone tried and many of us are still on that path.

Just two years ago, Canadian artist Pan Trinity Das set out to revitalize 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. We were lucky to photograph this beautiful place and present it here even as the light on that rainy evening was fading rapidly.
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 Maharishi 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. What was even more beautiful was a 'Peace" symbol made completely out of fallen leaves.
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It was indeed a reminder of an amazing counter culture age so enriched by the music of the Beatles and the spiritually uplifting message of the Yogi.
With joy in our hearts we left this beautiful ashram, though in a state a decay it still had the spirit of a great philosopher and the imprint of four great musicians. Jai Gurudev!.
emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

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Credits:
Wikipedia (245 references)Travel Age Media, The Story of the Maharishi (published 1976), William Jefferson,Photographs of the Beatles in Rishikesh by Paul Saltzman, Mark Riesenberg

PHOTO GALLERY

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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 11:55 Archived in India Tagged india himalayas john beatles george rishikesh paul lennon mia starr ringo harrison yogi mccartney tm maharishi mahesh farrow

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Comments

A labor of love that turned into a work of genius. A beautiful tribute to India, the Maharishi, The Beatles and to our friendship. Thank you from the bottom and the top of my heart.

Mark

by Mark Riesenberg

An eye opener indeed... Felt I was there...beautifully written..
Cheers
Dev

by Dev

How wonderful to travel together and explore these spiritual sites in India. Mark also taught TM to me... Thanks for sharing this journey!!! Meditation, Beatles, history and all.

Namaste,
Karen

by Karen Tose Tank

Thank you Karen, Dev and Mark for your kind remarks.Such support fuels my passion for travel and writing. This was a special trip and more so because I had someone like Mark who made India feel special to me: a place where I was raised.There were moments during this trip that can never be revisited with the same result.
On a separate note, I understand that the famous director Mira Nair is contemplating a movie about the Beatles visiting India.

The bottom line is that World Peace can indeed be obtained when Assad, Khamenei, Netanyahu, Putin, Obama, (lets throw Trump in for a before and after study), all the Arab and African dictators all sit in a room and meditate.

Ramdas

by Ramdas Iyer

Shared the experience though a world away, in distance only. Thank you.

by Robert Glaubinger

Beautiful words, stories and magnificent photographs to illustrate your passion. Thanks for always sharing my dear friend.

by Annie

Your photos and fine prose evoke memories of an era sadly passed.

by Dan Austin

Mark: You have been my teacher in so many things - your willingness to journey has been inspiring to me. Now I thank you for once again sharing yourself and this experience. With love, Jackie

by Jacqueline Herships

SO Wonderful Ram! Thank you for this beautiful and thoroughly colorful journey via your words and pictures. I am so happy for you and my friend Mark and all of us who benefit from meditation and those who spread it about this world.
Peace,
Disa

by Disa

Thank you Jaqueline and Disa,

Mark is a great friend to have as my own during these wonderful journeys. I must say that my meditation experiences were more vivid and satisfying with him around. And under the Bodhi tree with Mark, his daughter Kate and I with scores of Tibetan monks meditating....FUGETABOUTII!!

by Ramdas Iyer

Dan and Annie:

Thanks for your comments. Dan, I will be missing you as you move on down towards warmer climes. But our brief friendship will prevail. Yes it is an era that has sadly passed away. I do not want to dismiss that era as old folks reminiscing- there can be no such era given the complete change in human condition in the digital era.

Annie-My dear Frenchlette, I am not sure that you experienced that era but nevertheless appreciate your understanding my passion and feelings. merci Beaucoup.

Ramdas

by Ramdas Iyer

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