It’s 1968. The Beatles need a holiday. Since their first hit Love Me Do just over five years ago, touring and recording schedules have been non-stop. Beatlemania is at such a height, no one can hear the live shows over screaming fans.
By this point the group’s interest in Indian spirituality and music had been growing for some time – George Harrison’s especially, having learned sitar with Bengali musician Ravi Shankar for tracks such as Norwegian Wood. They decided to take a break to learn transcendental meditation in a small holy town 240 kilometres northeast of Delhi, in the foothills of the Himalayas. They arrived with their wives and entourage at Rishikesh, the birthplace of yoga, in February of that year.
‘In 1968, Rishikesh was a very small, sleepy town,’ says Dr Meenakshi Sundaram, tourism secretary for the state of Uttarakhand. ‘Rishikesh in those days used to be just the ashrams around the River Ganges.’
Adventurous Western tourists were beginning to find their way to Rishikesh – along the marijuana-smoking hippie trail from Afghanistan to Nepal – but the arrival of The Beatles brought international attention.
The band slept in simple, egg-shaped stone bungalows 50 metres above the Ganges at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram, known locally as Chaurasi Kutia, meditating five hours a day and eating a vegetarian diet. They shared the compound with around 70 other students, some of them celebrities including Mia Farrow, Donovan and Mike Love from The Beach Boys.
Although bemused by the effect the group had on fans, contemporary Indian newspaper articles with headlines such as ‘The Beatles Are Coming!’ showed a positive reaction to the group’s interest in Indian culture. A local commentator described the Maharishi’s involvement with Western celebrities as ‘distasteful’, but praised his keenness to promote Eastern spirituality to the rest of the world.
While at the ashram, the band wrote songs that appeared months later on a self-titled double LP (known as The White Album), which begins with the swoosh of a plane landing. Dear Prudence is an ode to Mia’s sister, urging her to stop taking meditation so seriously and come out of her room, while The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill is about another student going tiger hunting.
But despite its moments of unbridled, excellent creativity, the album reveals a difficult dynamic for the band in Rishikesh. ‘You can tell how far apart The Beatles were by listening to The White Album,’ says Dr Mike Jones, the University of Liverpool’s Beatles expert. ‘None of them are Beatles songs; they’re individual songs. They were in their own worlds in Rishikesh. They began to pull apart.’
Tensions had been building for a while. George in particular was frustrated, says Jones. Outside the studio he was treated like a god, but in the studio he was the youngest in the band: ‘Paul and John would be telling him to wait his turn.’ Their manager Brian Epstein had died of a drug overdose months before, while John Lennon’s marriage to Cynthia was ending.
Paul McCartney was keen to embrace the experience, staying for around six weeks. But Ringo Starr missed his young children and struggled with food allergies – he apparently arrived in India with a suitcase full of baked beans – leaving after two weeks. ‘They were going to Rishikesh to find themselves, and it all went badly wrong,’ says Jones.
Sexy Sadie immortalises John’s disillusionment with the experience, with thinly veiled lyrics dealing with the sexual advances the Maharishi allegedly made towards Mia Farrow and other women at the ashram. It’s since been denied, with the suggestion that the Maharishi had taken a disliking to the group taking LSD and smoking cannabis against ashram rules. Perhaps we’ll never know the exact nature of the bust up, but either way John and George left Rishikesh on awkward terms.
‘There’s no question that The Beatles post-Rishikesh were different from The Beatles pre-Rishikesh,’ says The Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn.
‘The relationship between George and Paul was different after Rishikesh, partly because George was disappointed Paul had left. When they got back to England, John and Yoko got together and John’s marriage with Cynthia was over, so everything shifted. It didn’t break The Beatles up, but Rishikesh was a watershed period. It was a time for reflection,’ he adds.
Although Western newspapers viewed meditation as slightly mad, the global press attention attracted more visitors to the small holy town. ‘Even though they were laughed at, you can set The Beatles’ trip as the start of meditation and yoga being much more widespread. The Beatles didn’t even do yoga, but them being so accepting of something that was then an alien Eastern culture very much popularised it in the West,’ adds Lewisohn.
Chaurasi Kutia fell into neglect over the decades, its walls covered in graffiti. It opens for International Yoga Week in March, and for the rest of the month to celebrate 50 years since the Liverpool lads’ visit. Rishikesh remains famous as the world’s yoga capital. Roads and infrastructure have improved, and it’s now accessible by train and Dehradun’s Jolly Grant Airport, but it still has a calm, backpacker atmosphere.
‘Backpacking and seeing the world became the thing for dropouts to do,’ says Lewisohn. ‘The Beatles didn’t begin that, but undoubtedly there was an encouragement there from the very fact that they did something similar. Rishikesh became part of the hippie trail, and it still is.’
Mark Lewisohn is the author of trilogy The Beatles: All These Years
Rishikesh is a six hour drive from New Delhi. Cathay Pacific flies to New Delhi from Hong Kong 14 times a week