A Travellerspoint blog


African Diaspora in India-The Siddis

Merchants, Slaves and Rulers of the Deccan Regions........................Ramdas Iyer

Nearly four decades ago my college mate, Rupak Swali used to tell me about his family’s fabled presence in Zanzibar for over 200 years, until the 1940s, as advisors to the Sultans of Oman who ruled this famed 'Spice Island". Despite being Hindus, his family took the name Swali for the Swahili language spoken by the Bantu peoples of east Africa. His amazing ancestral home in India's west coast, Bhuj, is testimony to the trade and wealth amassed by Indian merchants as they followed the trade winds from the State of Gujarat in India’s west coast to the African continent.
Fascination with such tales and my travels across Africa eventually inspired me to write about the African dispersal into the Indian subcontinent, a subject of much scholarship lately. In preparing this article my research on the subject included the works of African and Indian scholars on this subject in order to gain a proper perspective.

The history of African arrival into India is complex and broad, however, it started with oceanic trade. The Africans came in two separate waves to India. The first wave came from the Abyssinian empire of Aksum between 4th and 8th century mostly as Ethiopian traders, settlers and along with a few who were sold as slaves. They were the old order and were called the Habshis, meaning Abyssinian in Arabic. They were mostly Christian and despite conversions to Islam, many still maintain their original identity. The second wave arrived between the 13th and 18th century mostly extracted from Tanzania and the Somali coast to become soldiers or servants during the Muslim conflicts in India at that time. As North and Central India was invaded by Islamic rulers between the 12th and 19th centuries, they accelerated the import of Africans to India.
Although Africans have been crossing the Indian Ocean for over a millennium, most of those who make up the Afro-Indian population in India came in the past five hundred years. Not all of them were brought as slaves as India's caste-based society provided ample cheap labor for the ruling elite. Some arrivals were fortune hunters, herbalists, musicians, sailors, job seekers, merchants and even conquerors. The largest concentration of Africans was found in the western part of India, particularly in and around port cities facing Africa. It is reported that there were about 40,000 soldiers and 12,000 artisans of African origin in Mughal Delhi alone in the 14th century.
African immigrants, who are locally known as Siddis, presently live in various geographical pockets of India forming their own ethnic enclaves amidst their host societies. A recent chromosomal analysis of a comprehensive group of Siddis from different parts of India indicate a 67-72% Bantu Sub Saharan markers while the balance shows an inherited ancestry of Indian and Portuguese Europeans.

Many agree that the main source of slavery among the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa were the prevalent wars among the various tribal peoples of the African continent. War captives were often enslaved and either retained to work for their new masters or sold to other parts of the world including India. The enslaved Africans were taken across the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden to the Arabian Peninsula and then onto the Indian subcontinent. In time, the descendants of Afro-Arabs would become among the leading sailors in the region. Guiding dhows propelled by seasonal winds, these mariners transported and traded a range of commodities, including slave cargo, between Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Gujarati merchants used to trade in Africa, selling Indian commodities and buying in return African raw material that was required in India. The most important item sought by traders was African ivory, but importers faced difficulties transporting from the inaccessible inland Africa to the coast.
It was relatively easier to buy slaves who would carry the ivory from the interior. This also provided an opportunity to earn an additional profit on both the cargo and the carrier after arriving at the coast. As the demand for labor grew in several rising Asian empires, the trade in humans became more lucrative than the trade in ivory or other items. The profit margin of the slave trade increased tenfold in the 19th century.
The profit margin of the female slave trade was more than that of the males. In Islamic India, unlike in the case of the Americas, slaves were mainly needed for domestic labor, as midwives and inside the harems and not for plantation labor, thus creating a greater demand for females.
Despite the dark side of human cargo transport, Africans rose to prominence in an India which was liberal towards assimilation of foreigners. From Gujarat in the west to Bengal in the northeast to the Deccan in central India, the immigrants vigorously asserted themselves in the country of their arrival. As foreigners and Muslims, some of these Africans ruled over indigenous Hindu, Muslim and Jewish populations.
Malik Ambar remains the greatest of the habshis in India. Born in the 1540s into the Oromo tribe in Ethiopia, he was captured and enslaved by the Arabs and eventually sold in India. His buyer in the 1570s was the peshwa or minister of the sultan of Ahmednagar, also a descendent of slaves. Malik Ambar’s capability as a military leader, his diplomatic skills and land-reform policies contributed to his success in keeping the Deccan free of the mighty yoke of Mughal imperial rule. Eventually this slave-soldier would become king in all but title, thwarting the ambitions of such mighty Mughal kings like Akbar and Jahangir for the conquest of Deccan for decades.

East Africans distinguished themselves in India as military commanders, admirals, ministers, and sometimes rulers. Theirs was a story unparalleled anywhere in the rest of the world — that of enslaved Africans attaining the pinnacle of military and political authority not only in a foreign country but also on another continent.

The Siddis have also left an impressive historical and architectural legacy. As rulers, city planners and architects the imposing forts, mosques, mausoleums, and other monuments that they built nearly half a millennium ago still stand as a testimony to their ingenuity and hard work in north and central India. From humble beginnings, some Africans created their own princely states — Janjira and Sachin — complete with their own coats of arms, armies, mints, and stamps. They fiercely defended their principalities from powerful enemies well into the 20th century when, with another 600 princely states, they were integrated into the Indian State.

Most Indian Siddis are Muslim or Christian, while a small number have adopted Hindu practices. With the disappearance of Indian princely states in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Siddis retreated into their own communities and now live in pockets along the coastal states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Goa.
The Siddis of Karnataka primarily moved into the unpopulated forested areas and lived off the land, in a rather impoverished condition. After years of appeals the local government has legitimized them as Scheduled Tribes of India, which helps them obtain governmental assistance.
Other than these two communities, a small community of African descent is also to be found in the city of Hyderabad, descended from guards employed by the erstwhile Nizam of Hyderabad until 1948. They still live in their original but ramshackle regimental buildings of the African Cavalry (AC) which at one time housed over 300 African guards.
In Gujarat where most Siddis live, music remains the enduring link to Africa. Some Gujarati Siddis look upon Malik Ambar as a patron saint of the community. In the Gir National Park, home to the last population of the Asiatic lion, the Siddis are the keepers of the forest while many are guides. This was an accidental development since the Nawabs of the state (land owning nobility) who had employed them as slaves during the 1700s assumed that their African ancestry would make them familiar with managing lions. Due to the popularity of the park, the Siddis have cashed in on their African lineage by creating exotic performances that involve fire breathing, gymnastics and dancing to the beat of the drums. Tourists are regaled by what they see as authentic African dances performed by Africans.

Many Siddis, who now consider themselves as African-Indians, are slowly giving up their unique identity as a result of their adoption of either Indian or Arab identities. This is mainly as a result of assimilating through intermarriage and cultural integration.

Ababu Minda Yimenean, an anthropologist with the Max Planck institute of Social Studies in Germany and an expert in Siddi history writes in his book Dynamics of Ethnic Identity Among the Siddis of Hyderabad :" It is more probable that those young Siddis who emigrated to Middle Eastern countries in search of jobs will identify themselves as Arabs rather than Africans. However, identification with Africa and its people will continue among Siddis who still physically resemble Africans. This endogamous section of the community does not or cannot identify itself as anything other than African.
The End.
All photos taken from the Web. This is a non profit article to spread knowledge. If there are any objections please write to riyerr@aol.com.


Posted by Ramdas Iyer 00:02 Archived in India Comments (2)

A South East Asian kingdom in India-The Ahom Dynasty

An amazing story of 600 years of rule by the Tai People of Southern China...........Ramdas Iyer

On the flight from Calcutta to Jorhat, Assam I was seated next to a very attractive woman with whom conversation ensued following take off and did not stop for nearly two hours of flying. She insisted that I must visit Shibsagar, her beautiful home town sometime during my travels but did not quite explain the significance of that place. I asked my local guide to take me to Shibsagar but other than showing beautiful buildings and architecture the history of the place had still eluded me.
Upon return to my lodging I quickly combed the internet to do further research on the place. While 2000 words are not enough to highlight an empire, its mere absence in normal conversations outside of Assam was an object of dismay for me. Having a thick veneer of knowledge in Indian History, the chapter of the Ahoms was completely missing from my knowledge base Not knowing its rich history I deeply regretted not spending enough time especially to see the World Heritage Site: The Burial Mounds of the Ahom Kings. I felt the need to tell the story of the Ahoms and used the quiet time provided by the pandemic to present to my blog readers a comprehensive 600 year history of an amazing kingdom: the Ahom Kingdom of the Brahmaputra Valley in North East India.
The ancient kingdom of Kamarupa once covered the present state of Assam. Pragjyaisha, the capital, was located near Guwahati. Kamarupa is mentioned as a frontier kingdom and tributary of the Gupta Empire in the Allahabad inscription of Samudra Gupta (A.D. 330-375). The Kamarupa -Varman empires (350-650 AD) of the great ruler Bhaskaravarman and his contemporary Harshavardhana ranged up to present day Bangladesh, West Bengal and North Bihar. The Chinese traveler Hsuan Tsang( 602-664 AD) visited the capital of Kamarupa and has written about it. He recorded Bhaskaravarman as the King of Eastern India.
The ancient Kingdom of Kamarupa eventually became the Kingdom of Ahom ( 1228-1826) of Assam being physically distant from the center of India it was ruled by tribal kings for many centuries until the early 19th century. The Assamese tribes today numbering over 106 is what makes it a very interesting place with a variety of cultures melded into mainstream Hinduism.
The Kingdom of Ahom remained virtually cut off from the rest of the world for a long time partly because of its geographical location, separated as it was by numerous hills and rivers interspersed by deep valleys, and partly because of the deliberate Ahom policy of isolation. Most of the inhabitants settled along the fertile banks of the Brahmaputra or on the banks of its tributaries. The journey to and from Assam was extremely long and tedious.

To understand the history of the NE of India one must familiarize them with the Caste and Tribe based system that still dominates India. Scholars have argued that during the Aryan settlement in the Indo-Gangetic plains from 1500 BC onwards, the creation of a Hindu state replete with caste system and the usage of the Sanskrit language were considered mainstream. Since Ahom were never in the Sanskritised part of the Indo Aryan people its importance after the Varman Empire was diminished. It was more connected with the hill tribes from north east India, Nagaland, Burma, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Yunnan province's non Han Chinese people.
Origins of the Ahom People
The Ahoms were a Tai speaking people came into prominence first in the Yunnan province of China , from where they moved to mainland Southeast Asia in the middle of the 11th century after a long and fierce battle with the Han Chinese. The Tai-Ahoms are traced today to either the Mong Mao Tribe of South China or to the Hukawng Valley in Myanmar.
According to chronicles kept by the Ahoms—Sukaphaa, a Tai prince of Mong Mao, accompanied by his family, five nobles and many followers, mostly men, crossed the Patkai hills and reached the Brahmaputra valley in 1228. They came with a higher technology of wet-rice cultivation then extant and a tradition of writing, record keeping, and state formation. They settled in the region south of the Brahmaputra river and to the east of the Dikho river; the Ahoms today are found concentrated in this region. Sukaphaa, the leader of the Tai group and his 9000 followers established the Ahom kingdom (1228–1826 CE), which controlled much of the Bramhaputra valley until 1826.
Tai-speaking peoples are widely distributed in southern China, mainland Southeast Asia and the Brahmaputra Valley of Assam. For ethnographic and linguistic purposes many subdivisions are recognized, the most important of which are the Chuang in southern China, the Tho, Red Tai, Black Tai and White Tai of northern Vietnam, the Lao, the Siamese or Thai, the Shan of northern Burma, and the Ahom of Assam. The greatest Tai empire to exist till date is that of the Siamese kings of Thailand( Tai Land).
The Ahoms believed that they were divinely ordained to bring fallow land under the plow with their techniques of wet-rice cultivation, and to adopt stateless shifting cultivators into their fold. They were also conscious of their numerical minority. As a result, the Ahom polity initially absorbed Naga, Borahi and Moran, and later large sections of the Chutiya and the Dimasa-Kachari tribal peoples. This process of Ahomisation went on till mid-16th century when the Ahom society itself came under the direct Hindu influence. That many indigenous peoples were ceremonially adopted into Ahom clans are recorded in the chronicles. Since the Ahoms married liberally outside their own exogamous clans and since their own traditional religion resembled the religious practices of the indigenous peoples along with Hindus, the assimilation under Ahomisation had a little impediment.
The Ahom occupy a rather exceptional position amongst the Tai peoples. In the first place, they have remained relatively isolated from other Tai speakers, their contact with Shan (The Burmese Shans can be found in my 'Peoples" album in RamdasIyerphotography.com) and Khamti groups of northwestern Burma being via long, difficult and hazardous trails, and apparently interrupted for centuries at a time.
When the Ahom conquered a small corner of the Brahmaputra Valley at the beginning of the thirteenth century, they probably brought with them their own script, apparently based upon a Mon example. They maintained historical records throughout the centuries, various versions of which have been preserved until today. Although it is possible that the Ahom may have taken note of the Buddhist traditions which were adhered to in some of the regions they must have crossed on their way to Assam, there is little or no evidence that they had been influenced by Buddhism when they entered Assam. Recent research suggests instead that they brought with them their own indigenous sacrificial religion, traces of which can still be found in the modern Hindu Ahom culture of today.( The famous Kali temple of Kamatakiya in Gauhati which I visited sacrifices animals regularly. For many hundreds of years human sacrifice was common here).

Alas the Ahom people found themselves in a different situation from most Tai in that they had discovered a valley of immense size, further to the west of which were mighty kingdoms and elaborate political organizations.
Gradually, step by step, the Ahom extended their grip over the easternmost part of the Brahmaputra Valley, especially at the beginning of the sixteenth century when they conquered the Kachari and Chutiya kingdoms. Later in that century, and during the seventeenth century, the Ahom kings further extended their influence and gradually became masters over the whole of the Assamese valley. This was the time when the gradual "hinduization" of the Ahom upper classes accelerated. The unified country under Ahom rule was soundly defeated by Muslim invaders in 1662, but a few years later the foreign yoke was thrown off and a new, invigorated Ahom rule was born with Shibsagar as its capital.
In the 17th century, the intellectual elite took the sophisticated Bengal culture as the ideal model. From this time onward the Ahom were firmly set on the path towards full assimilation of Assamese Hindu culture and the Ahom tongue became obsolete. Assamese script took over from the old Ahom characters. Only in a few isolated pockets were the old traditions still remembered; amongst the traditional Ahom priestly families the ability to read the old books and the observance of Tai religious ceremonies were perpetuated.
Ahom Religion and Society
The Ahoms worshipped their own tribal gods. However, Brahmanas (one of a class of Hindu sacred writings composed around the 9th to 6th centuries BC and devoted chiefly to the instruction of Brahmins in the performance of Vedic ritual) during the first half of the 17th century achieved a great influence, further giving rise to Hinduism. The rulers started assuming Hindu names since that time. In the reign, the Sib Singh, Hinduism became a predominant religion. However, the Ahom kings did not completely let go of their traditional beliefs to some extent even after adopting Hinduism.
The Ahom society was very sophisticated. Poets and scholars were given land grants. Theatre was encouraged. The Ahom state was completely depended upon forced labor and was forced to work for the state known as paiks. Near about a census of the population was taken and each village was supposed to send a number of paiks in and by rotation.
Majority of the people from the densely populated areas were moved to the thinly populated areas – further leading to the break of the Ahom clans were. However, the administration had become quite centralized by the first half of the 17th century.
The Ahoms society underwent many changes due to a large state being built. The influence of Brahmins increased. The land was given to the temples and Brahmins by the king.

Mughal Incursions & British Rule:
With the successful capture of the Kingdom of Bengal by the Mughals, their eyes were set on the North east of India. The states of Koch and Dhaka were traditional rivals of the Ahom Kingdom were now under the sway of the Mughals. 17 battles were fought between the Ahoms and the Mughals in which the Mughals suffered many defeats due to the tactical guerilla warfare and river battles fought on the Brahmaputra.
These small skirmishes reached the ears of the powerful Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. The Mughal army commanded by Raja Ram Singh I tried to capture the Ahom State but failed miserably at the hands of Gen. Lachit Borphukan ( A source of great pride even today)commanding the army of the Ahom Kingdom. Even though the Mughals could capture Guwahati for a brief period, the Ahom wrested control in the Battle of Itakhuli in 1682 and the Mughals could never recapture it again.
Around 1800 there was a small rebellion against the Ahom King Gaurinath by the Ahom nobles which was eventually quelled with the help of the East India Company. When the company eventually withdrew, there was a lot of infighting within the nobility thus opening the doors for the expansionist King Mindon of Burma.
In 1817, the Burmese took advantage of the rivalry between the Ahom chiefs, invaded Assam, and established political control. The Burmese presence threatened British commercial interests. In the first Burmese War (1824-1826), the British drove the Burmese out of Assam. Under the Treaty of Yandabo, the territory was annexed by the East India Company in 1826.
The year 1826 saw the final collapse of the Ahom monarchy which ruled for over six- centuries and marked the entry of the British who stepped in to fill the political void in the region due to depletion of state funds as a result of the many wars waged. It was the beginning of the transition from the medieval to the modern age. When the East India Company appeared on the scene, they were heralded by the Ahomese as saviors and were welcomed with open arms.

The East India Company desperately needed the gold from Tibet to finance its growing China trade. Hence, an alternative route to Tibet became an urgent necessity. They believed that such a route might be possible via Assam. And the fate of Assam was to be decided by them only. Assam was governed as a part of Bengal by the East India Company till its collapse in 1858. The British (United Kingdom) government administered the state from 1858 until 1947. India achieved independence in 1947 and Assam became a state of the Indian Union.

The End
History of India-Romila Thapar
"Mission Assam"- Gen. S.K.Sinha
"Ahom and the Study of Tai Cultures"- Barbara& Jan Tewibl, Australian Nat. Univ, Canberra.



Posted by Ramdas Iyer 12:30 Archived in India Tagged people india company east tai assam ahom tai-ahom kamarupa shibsagar Comments (5)

In the Footsteps of The Beatles to Rishikesh, India

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



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.

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.
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.
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.”.

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................ "


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.

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)


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



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 Comments (11)

Life, Death and Salvation along the Water's Edge: India

Experiences along the Ganges River in Varanasi, India

sunny 95 °F


The ancient city of Varanasi (Kasi) has been the ultimate pilgrimage spot for Hindus for ages. Varanasi is the oldest living city in the world. These few lines by Mark Twain say it all: "Benares( a British corruption of Varanasi) is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together". Hindus believe that dying along the Ganges in Kasi would enable the soul to attain Moksha (liberation) from the cycle of birth and re-birth. The river Ganges according to Hindu mythology flows from the hair of Lord Shiva seated in the Himalayas.

Born a Hindu, I have always had a special place for Kasi( Varanasi )in my heart. Growing up in a traditional Brahmin family, I often heard of tales about men and women leaving their family lives to spend the reminder of their life in Kasi seeking spirituality, self-reflection, meditation and atonement. Like a visit to Mecca most Hindus would like to bathe in its waters at least once in their lifetime.

My short trip to Kasi in 1998 was interesting but not eventful due to heavy rains that submerged most of the bathing Ghats( steps leading to the river). Coincidently on the day I was being rowed along the river banks where cremations were conducted, my mother’s only sister passed away, and I was thinking of her!. In 2011 I set out seek out the “real” Kasi where learned men once wandered in their loin cloths, where devotees by the thousands traveled for miles to bathe in the sacred waters of the Dashwamedh Ghat, to watch the burning pyres of the Manikarnika Ghats or simply revel in the joy and reverie of pilgrims enjoying themselves in the holy city. As a traveler I was trying to see through my mind’s eye the concept of Kasi, a land of spirituality. Those with no knowledge of its history will only witness a dirty and polluted river city with hordes of people.


Early western visitors to this place were so fascinated that they waxed eloquent for many years about the greatness of India. George Harrison did his bit too!. India like the rest of the world is changing fast, leaving behind age old traditions, facing corruption and seeking a more material existence. In this scenario I am attempting here to focus on three important events experienced during my three day stay that were amazing and thought provoking.

My sister Ranee, brother-in-law Dave and I were staying at a wonderful haveli( nobleman’s home) on the banks of the Asi Ghats. This hotel, Ganges View, is very well known amongst the literati where small classic music concerts are common place daily . While we were enjoying the broad river view from our second floor terrace, there was a commotion and there arrived a man with a flowing beard , penetrating eyes and wearing the handloom outfit of a cultured man. He was followed by an entourage of bureaucrats, policemen and the like trying to appease him. Later that evening I stopped the gentleman as he was passing by and inquired about all the fuss over him. It turned out that he was 80 years old, was an IAS( elite Indian Administrative Service) officer from the Uttar Pradesh cadre, a former Cabinet secretary and “Minister” at the Indian High Commission in London. He mentioned that he was visiting with his family to do the annual rites for his parents who lived and died by the river Ganges for over 50 years. He continued that he was from a well to do Brahmin family from South India and after he had graduated from college and the IAS his parents decided that their only son was in a good station in life and they removed themselves from the material world and retired to an ashram, where they meditated, studied and did charitable work until mother Ganges took them into their fold. What makes it more interesting is that this gentleman’s one son is the Editor of a major US weekly magazine and an ex NYU professor, his American wife a contributor to Wall Street Journal and the other son is the Editor of India’s oldest National Newspaper,both educated in Oxford University, were all there with their families. He was also thankful that he served India when corruption was not an issue and politics did not prevent progress. It is a great story of an illustrous family connected deeply to Varanasi and the river ganges.

The second experience was absolutely surreal. We were walking along a quiet section of Asi Ghat at night . The Ghats are very busy during the day with pilgrims and vendors but at night it quiets down only with an occasional stray dog barking, or a small group of elders discussing the rotten state of politics or a group of young men laughing and lollygagging. Near the river bank in a dark obscure corner we saw a man sitting in the lotus position completely covered from head to toe in white cloth with a clean copper bowl of Ganges water next to him. We observed him for some time and realized that he was in deep meditation. I later read that “Covering the whole body above the crown chakra( skull) activates, what the yogis call the sarasu and it is from here that the soul is said to descend into the child at birth or leave when cremated.. Sarasu is also a huge energy field. By covering the head, the energy is retained to help the inner fire build.”
We were completely blown by this sight. One needs to be there to understand the gravity of the moment and not being an Indian did not deter Dave from appreciating the moment. The next morning I was up by 5:30 AM ,a time of intense activity amongst the ritualists and the purists along the banks of the river and there I saw the same slender figure in white cloth saying his morning prayers under the Peepal tree to Lord Siva. (see the picture of a slender figure doing Puja under a tree)


The last experience that I am about to write was one of extreme sadness and raised the question of belief over propriety. It was around 11:00 Am as we approached Dashwamedh Ghat after a long walk along the 80 or so bathing Ghats on the river bank. The sun was shining bright and the temperature was hovering around 95 F. Close to the water the activities were numerous: pilgrims performing ritual dips, families taking a plunge fully clothed, local children playing, an occasional dog or monkey trying to grab some food offerings to the river, Brahmin priests conducting family prayers, barbers shaving heads of pilgrims who have vowed that as a sacrifice to Ganga. Amidst all these activities was a very old man, quite infirm, curled up on the steps writhing gently with very little sound coming out of him. Each lap of a wave would briefly inundate him with water. I realized that he was dying and was left there to die. We were distraught and did not know what to do and ended up inquiring about his condition to a nearby vendor of religious articles. He mentioned that many poor people leave their very old and infirm to die here since they have no money to cremate them and hope that the river will consume him . While we were shocked, all the activities around him were going on as though nothing happened. Full of guilt we walked away so as not to interfere with this cruel form of euthanasia. Filled with curiosity we came back an hour later to realize that he was not there anymore. We only hoped that one of the many volunteer /NGO took care of him. I searched the web for articles similar to what we had seen and found none.


The water’s edge of Varanasi, where Buddha preached and Tulsi Das composed the Hindu epic Ramayana is still a place filled with wonderment; of life, of meditation, of sacrifices, of learning and the corruption of the body and its aftermath. It brings out emotions of love, sympathy, empathy, devotion, agony ,grief and misery.


Posted by Ramdas Iyer 14:15 Archived in India Tagged ganges varanasi ganga kasi beneras Comments (4)

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