This quarter break we went to Rishikesh with our good friend Amy. If you know the name Rishikesh and are not Indian, it’s probably because John, Paul, George and Ringo visited in 1968 to learn Transcendental Meditation from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Ever since, the town has been a mecca for dreadlocked westerners with suspect bathing habits and a fetish for Eastern mysticism. The locals seem to know who butters their bread; while Rishikesh is considered a holy city, perched on the banks of the holy waters of the Ganges, spiritual tourism seems to be overtaking less lucrative spirituality. Everywhere (literally, in all places) there are english signs advertising yoga, meditation, ayurvedic remedies, himalayan healing, consciousness, philosophical answers, tarot card reading, or chakkra balancing. Additionally, Rishikesh offers some of the most convincing Western food outside of Delhi. All in all, it’s a pleasant place to visit, as long as you don’t mind an Indian experience that’s somewhat less than fully authentic.
It was a slow and restful vacation for us. We began our third day there like the previous two: reading in our porch chairs. Around 10am we moved the patio cafe below and ate a big breakfast before resuming our reading. By 3:30pm we were still sitting in the same chairs and reading things so I decided I that I needed to go exploring.
Down to the Ram Jhula bridge I went, making that most holy white-person-pilgrimage to the hallowed grounds of the “Beatles Ashram”. A quick google search of that term brings up the story of how the Beatles visited but grew disillusioned at the Maharishi’s preoccupation with profit, and the fact that he made a pass at their pal Mia Farrow. As the story goes, they moved out in a huff and when the Maharishi questioned why, John (the darkly ironic one) said only, “Well, if you’re so cosmic, you’ll know why.”
But Beatles lore is easier to find than directions to the actual site so I was forced to navigate a strange city with only a few cryptic hints (‘you go right off the bridge’) and grainy photographs of the decaying site as it sits today. So I went right off the bridge and kept walking along the road out of town until it deteriorated and abruptly dumped into a drainage gulley by the river. There were a few sadhus walking around the edge of the forest and then there on the beach was an odd, roundish building on the shore.
This seemed to ring a bell so I poked around in the woods and found a no trespassing sign overrun with vines, two cave-dwelling sadhus, and an elderly lady living in a hut who I think invited me in for tea, which I politely declined.
But there was no ashram and I was running out of time so I decided to walk up the gulley a ways before turning back. Suddenly, out of the blue there was a massive gate. Before I reached it a man emerged from the adjacent building and approached me from the other side of the gate. Not wanting to be one of those western pilgrims, I greeted him but resisted mentioning the Beatles. So we just stared at each other through the bars, each waiting for the other to reveal their intentions. Finally, with a knowing look, he broke the silence.
“Haa ji. Beatles.”
“This is Beatles ashram?”
“Haa ji. Maharishi Mahesh ashram.”
And just like the interwebs told me, for Rs50, he unlocked the gate and let me poke around.