Yet another trip. Yet another experience.
I was happily on my way to Roorkee this week, when my driver (a prodigious chap named Shekar) told me that we would be crossing Haridwar on the way from Dehradun. Since we reached Dehradun in the early afternoon, and the trip to Roorkee would take a couple of hours at most, he suggested I should spend some time in Haridwar and maybe explore a few places along the way.
Always happy to take a detour, I decided we would stop at Haridwar and maybe I would collect some Gangajal for all those sinning friends of mine. Halfway there, however, a fork in the road and a wrong turn meant we were almost at Rishikesh before we knew it. Now, anybody named Rishi would love to visit Rishikesh, and though the place has a huge list of beautiful places to visit, we wouldn’t have much time if we did.
How then could you spend an hour in Rishikesh and view all that it has to offer? Google it, and you get 49 places to see in and around Rishikesh. Damn, no chance. So I prepared myself to do a recee of the place, and return when I had more time on hand. We crossed the Laxman Jhula and the Ram Jhula, past the mountain where India’s highest bunjee jump is set up, and decided to try our hand at rafting this cold and unruly part of the Ganges.
We were out of luck. Modi’s Swachh Bharat abhiyaan is in full swing (I have mixed feelings here) and the river has been dried up to help clean the source and the paths at Haridwar and further. Rishikesh now has a drying Ganges flowing through it, providing enough water for the temples, but not enough for rafting. Even the Triveni doesn’t draw the crowds in this year.
And on Google, I finally found what I knew I would most certainly enjoy, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram. For those without a background, this is where the Beatles came down in the 60’s for most of their inspiration. (Thanks Akshay Harikumar for all those stories of the Maharishi! I knew at once that this was the place.) No one on the street did know, however. We tried to grill at least 50 locals for the location, no one knew it. They could count out fifty places of significance in Rishikesh, but no one knew who the Beatles were.
I found a few random blog posts claiming that the ashram was in ruins, and half engulfed by the forest. I knew now that this was a place I had to see. We took a forest route suggested by one site, and ended up at the other end of the Laxman Jhula, again in the midst of locals who had never heard of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Shekar was giving up now, intent that there wasn’t such a place and I was just reading the stuff of internet folklore.
I read somewhere that the ashram was close to the Swargashram, and people seemed to know where it was. But there was no sign near the ashram. Finally, a local who had heard that the foreigners flocked to this random cave in the hills pointed me in the right direction. When you move south from the Swargashram, you come across a cab parking area which is where the cabs drop visitors to the river bank. Somewhere along a small road from there is a one lane road which ends up the the river, with no where to go but a broken concrete bridge with cows herding all over. I left my cab here and started walking. The cab driver was skeptical, and said, “There’s nothing here. Let’s get to Haridwar, I will show you the best temple in India, and you get to go there via a cable car.” But he didn’t understand that I had a temple of my own I was searching for.
A good ten minute walk uphill, and you meet a few straggling tourists lost. Ask them where the ashram is, and they don’t know. They just came here to this lonely spot to ingest some narcotics approved by the local baba. A lone young foreigner walks down the hill, wearing John Lennon shades and a Beatles tee. Yes! I asked him where the Beatles Ashram is, and he excitedly points me towards the left, happy that someone else has at least a tiny interest in the ones he came all the way to Uttarakhand to understand.
We get talking, and he says, “It’s shut down. They don’t let anyone in, saying the Government has shut it down. Why would the Indian Government do that? In England, this place would be a museum. But I’m glad it’s not, preserves the feels. However, you need to pay the gatekeeper to get in.” He paid Rs. 100 to get in, and guessed that Indians would have to pay a little less. He walks away muttering about unofficial bribes and looting the foreigners.
Revitalized, I walk further. I reach a broken down gate, made of stone. This, is the entrance to the Maharishi’s ashram. A sneaky Indian youth sees me and informs me the place is shut down. Government doesn’t let anyone in. A persuasive conversation of how I’ve come all this way to see this place makes him open the gate. He shrugs, “Your wish. There’s nothing here. I don’t know what is wrong with all the people who come here.” He didn’t charge me a dime, as I’m Indian. I grin to myself, when has that ever happened?\
The ashram is an odd ruin, overgrown with weeds and hidden in the forest. However, all the huts of stone are intact. It is a nature lover’s paradise. Birds, fauna, flora, and happy people. There are close to 20 people inside the ashram. I’m the only Indian here. A Russian passer-by asks me, “Is there a temple here? Why are you here?” “The Beatles!” I grin. Relieved, he points me up the mountain and says, “House No. 9, you want to go there.”
House No. 9 is where John Lennon apparently stayed while here for six weeks. The Beatles wrote over one and a half albums while here, all within 60 days. The entire White Album was written here. And no one knows. Wow. At least now you do.
All the huts are the same, except 9. You crawl into it, and you are met by paintings and doodles by fans, a memorabilia which is worth visiting if you’re a Beatles fan. Hugely popular in the 70’s, hundreds of foreigners have visited this place, and still do, as an ode to the inspiration that created some of the Beatles’ best work. A few musicians sit outside, under trees, seeking their own inspiration.
I found the Beatles. I found peace, in an Indian setting, with huge history and amazing feels. I hope that the Indian Government conserves this goldmine of history, restores the area and maintains it. I’m sure any fan would pay Rs. 100 to visit this place, and many fans don’t even know of this place. But again, I don’t want it to be a crowded museum, it would spoil the legacy and the ambience.
My driver called, we don’t have time for Haridwar. Let us head back to Roorkee as soon as possible, before it gets late. I smile, it was well worth the time lost. And as I walk away, the White Album plays in my head…
Yeah, ob-la-di ob-la-da life goes on,
La-la how the life goes on.
And if you want some fun,
Take ob-la-di ob-la-da.
Thank you, uh, ha ha ha!
– The Beatles
Pictures up soon!