It was the month I was born, February ‘68, that The Beatles travelled to Rishikesh in northern India to take part in an advanced Transcendental Meditation training course at the ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a Hindu Guru whose seductive anti-establishment stance drew the group to visit at a time when they were questioning their existence.
They were joined by singers Donovan and the Beach Boys’ Mike Love, as well as actress Mia Farrow while there – with the visit receiving widespread media attention. They stayed between three and ten weeks, meditating, playing music, and reportedly writing as many as 30 songs, including most of those on the “White Album”. Their relationship with the Maharishi was not to last, but the lessons and influence from their time in India would remain with them.
The Beatles Ashram – or Chaurasi Kutia, was abandoned in the 1990s and engulfed by the Rajaji National Park, a place where wild elephants and tigers roam in the tree thick wilderness. After lying derelict for years, with many of the buildings overtaken by nature, the ashram was converted into an eco-friendly tourism destination, reopening to the public in early December 2015.
While in Rishikesh on a ten-day detox and transformational retreat, I ventured out there to walk the grounds, climb the meditation chambers and linger in the rooms where these musical greats had once been, visualising them there. The place is in a state of disrepair with the walls covered in murals and graffiti, yet the magic prevails and the rooftop domes make ideal photo ops with the Himalayan foothills as a backdrop.
There is a spiritual air about the place as though all visitors over the years have left a part of themselves there. A place of expression, these words scribbled on the walls resonated: ‘You are the love you seek’.
Rishikesh, the birthplace of yoga and soul seekers
Rishikesh in India’s northern state of Uttarakhand is a 40-minute drive from the Dehradun Airport. Reached by winding road through thick forest, you’ll pass brightly decorated trucks and tuk-tuks, passenger laden motorbikes and the occasional roadside monkey en route.
A place of ancient spiritual practices and thousands of years of meditation and Ayurveda, the city is built upon the banks of the Holy Mother Ganga river, on the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains. Known as the ‘Yoga Capital of the World’ it is said to be one of the holiest of Hindu places and sages, saints and pilgrims have visited here since ancient times in search of higher knowledge.
The most recognisable image of Rishikesh is the view across the Lakshman Jhula hanging bridge to the huge 13-storey temple of Swarg Niwas and Shri Trayanbakshwar, which resembles a fairytale castle and has dozens of shrines to Hindu deities on each level, interspersed with jewellery and textile shops.
Walking along the east bank of the Ganges you’ll find ashrams, an incredible bazaar, and the bathing ghats – or steps leading down to the Ganges River where religious ceremonies are performed at sunrise and sunset each day.
Walking the streets richly rewarded, from Baba’s reading the newspaper to women in their bright saris chatting on the streets, endless gorgeous items for sale and food prepared by hand at the various stalls, everywhere I looked there was something to pause and appreciate. Throughout sacred cows and attention-seeking dogs roamed free, all tended and fed by the local community.
Today most of the ashrams and retreats are found north of the main town, on the banks of the fast-flowing Ganges, surrounded by forested hills. In the evening, an almost supernatural breeze blows down the valley, setting temple bells ringing as sadhus – holy men, pilgrims and tourists prepare for the nightly Ganga aarti – the river worship ceremony.
I have no doubt that the Rishikesh of today differs vastly from the one The Beatles encountered 50 years ago, but the soulful connection, introspection, self-love, seeing and being that the city brings, remains. Like them, after a visit there on my personal spiritual journey, I will never be the same.
‘There’s nothing you can know that isn’t known.
Nothing you can see that isn’t shown.
Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be.
It’s easy. All you need is love’ – The Beatles
Booking your Trip to Rishikesh
Getting there: Emirates and Ethiopian Airlines offer convenient connections from Cape Town and Johannesburg to Delhi. From there book a flight to Dehradun on Air India or IndiGo Airlines. A driver can meet you on arrival and transfer you the 40 minutes to Rishikesh.
Visas: South African passport holders require visas for India and an e-Tourist Visa can be conveniently applied for online – https://indianvisaonline.gov.in/
Booking Details: Namaste Retreats India offers numerous transformational retreats in India each year. Their packages include accommodation, meals, workshops, meditation, yoga and activities. Where to stay: Dewa Retreat Hotel https://www.dewaretreat.com/ Don’t miss a delicious coconut masala chai latte at their Pure Soul organic restaurant. Getting Around: From Rishikesh take a Tuk-Tuk to the Beatles Ashram or rent a bike and self-navigate the surrounding area. I booked one with Sharma Adventure Bikers. Beyond that, walking the streets, the bridges and the banks of the holy Ganges River is the very best option.
** Rishikesh is an alcohol-free and entirely vegetarian city. I travelled on my own, all pics are mine.