What happens when the world’s most famous rock and roll band descends on a small Indian village at the height of the hippie revolution?
Sex, drugs and rock and roll, of course — and inspiration, scandals and the creation of ‘The White Album’ … one of the greatest records of all time.
The Maharishi Mahesh Ashram in Rishikesh, India
Located in northern India, Rishikesh sits at the base of the Himalayas, surrounded by the holy Ganges River. Best known as a pilgrimage destination for Hindu devotees, the town has been at the center of spiritual and religious activities since ancient times.
That’s how the Fab Four found this sleepy hamlet in February 1968, when they descended on the Maharishi Mahesh Ashram to study transcendental meditation. The popular meditation modality involves the use of a mantra and is usually practiced for 15 to 20 minutes twice per day while sitting with the eyes closed.
The band had first met the Maharishi a year earlier in London, and he had since become the official “spiritual adviser to the Beatles.” After studying meditation together in Wales, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney and George Harrison decided to continue their studies in India.
While living in the ashram, the Beatles relaxed, meditated, wrote music and recorded much of what would become The Beatles, popularly known as the White Album.
Inside the Beatles Ashram
Abandoned since 1997, Maharishi Mahesh Ashram is now filled with a community of buildings slowly being overtaken by time and nature. Crumbling roofs give way to vines, branches and trees, while old hallways provide shelter for animals of all sizes.
Though the site is technically closed to the public, entrepreneurial security guards are happy to let anyone in who is willing to pay the proper baksheesh (bribe).
It’s easy to walk around the compound, though it’s a good idea to watch your step. Rusty nails and broken glass can easily puncture a flip flop or tennis shoe.
Anything worth salvaging from the Beatles Ashram has long since been claimed, leaving only a shell of porous walls, shattered toilets, broken shelves and glassless windows.
The White Meditation Domes of the Beatles Ashram
Perhaps the most famous architectural features of the Beatles’ Ashram are the large white meditation domes located on top of the dormitories.
With a hollow bottom half that can easily be walked through, countless tourists have followed in John, Paul, George and Ringo’s footsteps and sat in the dome’s base for a jam session.
The best acoustics, however, are found in the water tower occupying the top half of the dome. Accessible only during the dry season, adventurous visitors must first climb up a curved ladder to the top of the “Eggman,” then down another wobbly ladder into the inner chamber.
Fun fact: John Lennon wrote the lyric “I am the Eggman,” from the song “I Am the Walrus,” about the ashram’s white domes. Coo coo kachoo.
Even if you’re not a musician, it’s worth going inside just to hear your voice echo in that sacred place. Om’s and meditation are highly encouraged.
Aum in the Dome
Music was everywhere in the Beatles Ashram, and after climbing into one of the meditation domes, Carrie, Tara, Lauren and I decided to add a few tones to the collective buzz.
Sitting in the lotus position, we joined hands, summoned our best and longest aums and began chanting.
Ooooooom. Oooooom. Oooooom. As the sound reverberated off the walls, the vibrations shook our bodies, souls and the entire room.
Here’s a video of our “fab” four minute aum session in one of the “Eggman” domes.
Music and Art at the Beatles Ashram
When we weren’t making our own music or exploring the ruins, we spent time getting to know the founders of the Beatles Cathedral Gallery. For two glorious weeks in April, 2012, these wanderers started a paint-by-numbers public mural project in the abandoned Satsang meditation hall.
When they weren’t busy painting, they were playing instruments, singing, dancing and enjoying everything life has to offer. Sadly, the project was shut down shortly after we left Rishikesh.
You Say Goodbye, I Say Hello
Disillusionment at the Beatles Ashram
Less than two weeks after arriving, members of the Beatles began to become disillusioned with the Maharishi and left in somewhat rapid succession.
Ringo and his wife, Maureen, were the first to go, having stayed at the ashram for only ten days. Next were Paul and his partner, Jane Asher, who left after five weeks. John and George called it quits 16 days later.
According to rumor, the Maharishi’s demands for money and his behavior toward female disciples drove away the Beatles and their wives and entourage. Whatever the reason, they would soon formally renounce their association with the Maharishi as a “public mistake.”
Fun Fact:In the song Sexy Sadie, John Lennon’s sings “you made a fool of everyone.” The “you” he referred to is the Maharishi.
Fortunately for music lovers everywhere, that “mistake” led to one of the greatest rock albums of all time.
Years later, the New York Times and The Independent (UK) reported that the influence of the Maharishi and the journey to Rishikesh to meditate weaned the Beatles from LSD and inspired them to explore new directions, from which came many new songs.
Harrison later apologized for the way he and Lennon had treated the Maharishi, and in 1992 he gave a benefit concert for the Maharishi-associated Natural Law Party. In 2009, McCartney stated that “Transcendental meditation was a gift the Beatles had received from the Maharishi at a time when they were looking for something to stabilize them.”
Inspiring The White Album… and Other Famous Songs
While in Rishikesh, I came across a list of songs written or recorded by the Beatles at the Maharishi Mahesh Ashram … or inspired by their stay there.
Dear Prudence — (named after Prudence Farrow – Mia Farrow’s sister, – who would not “come out and play.”)
Sexy Sadie — (originally named Maharishi, but changed to avoid a lawsuit)
Back in the USSR
Cry Baby Cry
Don’t Pass Me By — (written by Ringo Starr)
Mother Nature’s Son — (inspired by a lecture given by the Maharishi)
Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey
Wild Honey Pie
Mean Mr. Mustard
Dehradun — (written by George Harrison but never released)
The Rishikesh Song — (also called the Happy Rishikesh Song, though it was never released)
Look at Me — (released on the 1970 album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band)
Child of Nature — (released as Jealous Guy on John Lennon’s Imagine)
Spiritual Regeneration/Happy Birthday Mike Love — (recorded on tape in Rishikesh)
Why Don’t We Do it in the Road — (inspired by monkeys having sex in the roads of Rishikesh and across India)
Rocky Raccoon — (co-written with Donovan and inspired by Bob Dylan’s new album John Wesley Harding, which they heard for the first time at the Maharishi Mahesh Ashram)
The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill — (inspired by the son of an American student who went tiger hunting)