Why the beginning of The Beatles’ end started in India
It was one of the group's most creative periods.
- Total Shares
All you need to do is say this little word
I know it sounds absurd but it's true
The magic in the mantra will give you the answer
And swallow this that's all you gotta do
So recommends the "Happy Rishikesh" song of The Beatles. The Beatles did swallow the mantra but whether and to what extent they got the answer is the moot point.
But one thing is for sure - their visit to Rishikesh to meditate in Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram from February to April in 1968, 50 years ago, was transformative in many respects. The beginning of The Beatles’ end began in the sylvan foothills of the Himalayas.
Later that year, they released the White Album - a double album in white sleeves with nary a graphic nor a text save the band’s name embossed on the cover. The recordings began in May.
The album cover was as dramatic in its simplicity as its predecessor Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’s was with its vivid colours and razzmatazz. The music reflected this simplicity and, as with the cover, stood out in stark contrast to the earlier offering. While Sgt Pepper’s was fuelled by LSD, the White Album was inspired by marijuana - most likely sourced locally.
The clear minds at the retreat led to composition of songs marked by musical purity. The stay turned out to be the group's one of the most creative periods.
According to Lennon, he wrote some of the most miserable and some of his best songs there. Both Lennon and McCartney often spent time composing rather than meditating. While he also wrote several new songs, Harrison complained that more time should be spent on meditating.
Collectively, the group wrote around 40 songs in Rishikesh. Eighteen of those songs were recorded for the White Album and two songs appeared on Abbey Road. Others were used for solo projects.
At the ashram. (Photo Courtesy: Morrison Hotel Gallery)
The only western instrument available to the Beatles was the acoustic guitar, and thus many of the songs were written and first performed on that instrument. The album’s sound was scaled-down with no technical innovations. Whereas in earlier albums several musical genres were mixed into a single song, in this album every song was faithful to its selected genre. It was back to basics. Some critics call it the best album of all time. It reached number one on both sides of the Atlantic.
Yet Lennon claimed that the break-up could be heard on the album. Consider this - arguments broke out among the Beatles during recordings over creative differences. The constant presence of Lennon’s new partner, Yoko Ono, did not help, violating the Beatles' policy of wives and girlfriends not attending recordings. Producer George Martin, whose influence over the band had waned, took a sudden leave of absence and engineer Geoff Emerick quit. Ringo Starr left the band briefly in August.
The album comprised four increasingly independent artists who frequently found themselves at odds. Several backing tracks did not feature the full group, and overdubs tended to be limited to whoever wrote the song. Sometimes McCartney and Lennon would record simultaneously in different studios, each using different engineers. Of the album's 30 tracks, only 16 had all four band members performing.
The Beatles with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at Rishikesh. (Photo Courtesy: Beatles blogger)
Having given up touring in 1966, the trip to India was the last time all the four Beatles travelled together. Their self-exploration through meditation led to each of them adopting a more individual focus, at the expense of band unity. Following their return from Rishikesh, Lennon, Harrison and McCartney were three very different personalities who seldom saw eye-to-eye any more. The break-up was only a matter of time.
Musically, the stay in Rishikesh proved especially fruitful for George Harrison as a songwriter, coinciding with his re-engagement with the guitar after two years studying the sitar. This helped him immensely with his solo career. His repertoire after the break-up was simply outstanding begging the question as to why he did not get to play a more prominent role in the band. Ringo Starr wrote his first song, "Don’t Pass Me By".
Many of the songs were inspired by nature and reflected the simplicity of life at the ashram. This was in stark contrast to the band's psychedelic work over the previous year.
"The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill" was written by Lennon after an American visitor to Rishikesh left for a few weeks to hunt tigers. "Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?" was written by McCartney after he saw two monkeys copulating in the street and wondered why humans were too civilised to do the same. "Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey" was written by Lennon. Harrison claimed that the title came from one of the Maharishi's sayings (with "and my monkey" added later). "Dear Prudence" was composed by Lennon to lure Prudence (sister of Mia Farrow, who was also at the ashram) out of her intense meditation.
McCartney, inspired by the natural beauty of the mountains as well as the teachings of the Maharishi, wrote "Mother Nature’s Son". Drug-free for the first time in years, Lennon found himself not so much at peace, but tortured by insomnia. Exhausted, Lennon’s frustration is on full display in "I’m So Tired". Harrison a wrote a song called "Dehradun" - a catchy ode to the town - Dehra Dehra Dun/Dehra Dun Dun/Many roads can take you there/Many different ways/One directions takes you weeks/Another takes you days/Many people on the roads/Looking at the sights/Many others with their troubles/Looking for their rights.
The band's interest in the Maharishi's teachings changed western attitudes about Indian spirituality and encouraged the study of transcendental meditation.
The Beatles first met the Maharishi in London in August 1967, and then attended his seminar in Bangor in Wales. They had planned to attend the entire 10-day session, but their stay was cut short by the death of their manager Brian Epstein. Wanting to learn more, they came to his ashram in February 1968, along with their wives, girlfriends, assistants, and numerous reporters. They joined a group of 60 people who were training to be transcendental meditation teachers.
The Maharishi's International Academy of Meditation, also called the Chaurasi Kutia ashram, was a 14-acre compound surrounded by jungle, set across the Ganges from Rishikesh, above the river.
The facility was built in 1963 with a $100,000 gift from American heiress Doris Duke, on land leased from the Uttar Pradesh forest department. The training centre was built to accommodate several dozen people and each of its stone bungalows contained five rooms. The Maharishi's own accommodation was a long, modern-style bungalow located away from the other buildings.
The guests had a simple lifestyle. Meals were vegetarian taken outdoors in a communal setting. The days were devoted to meditating and attending lectures by the Maharishi, who spoke from a flower-bedecked platform in an auditorium. The Maharishi also gave private lessons to the individual Beatles, due to their late arrival. The tranquil environment helped the band to relax. Like the other students at the ashram, the Beatles adopted the local dress - saris for the women and local dress material made into shirts and jackets for the men. These had an influence on western fashion when the Beatles wore them.
Accounts of the food vary, some calling it spicy while others saying it was bland. Lennon described the food as lousy, while Pattie Boyd said it was delicious. Starr recalled that the food was impossible for him, because he was allergic to so many different things, so he took two suitcases with him: one of clothes and one of Heinz beans. After dinner, the musicians used to gather on the roof of Harrison's bungalow to talk, or listen to the Ganges river. Sometimes they listened to records and played the guitar.
Starr and his wife left on March 1, after a 10-day stay; McCartney left after a month as he had to get back to London to supervise Apple Corps. While Harrison and Lennon remained devoted to meditation after McCartney left, some members of the Beatles' circle continued to be distrustful of the Maharishi's hold on them. Harrison and Lennon stayed for about six weeks, but left abruptly following rumours of the Maharishi's inappropriate behaviour towards his female students. Mia Farrow told the Beatles that the Maharishi had made a pass at her and Lennon believed her. At the same time, many of the people who were there, including Harrison, did not believe that the Maharishi had made a pass at any woman.
However, on the night of April 11, both Harrison and Lennon decided to leave the next morning. While waiting for their taxis to arrive, Lennon wrote the song "Maharishi", which was later renamed "Sexy Sadie" because Harrison advised Lennon that the title was potentially libellous.
Many years later both Harrison and McCartney offered their apologies after they discovered the allegations to be untrue. Lennon also had a change of heart and used the chorus learned from the Maharishi - "Jai Guru Deva", which was a standard greeting in the Maharishi's Spiritual Regeneration Movement - in his song "Across the Universe" in the album Let It Be.
Lennon's wife Cynthia also reported that there was not a shred of evidence or justification to the charges.
The ashram was reclaimed by the government in the mid-1990s after the lease expired in 1981 and fell into disrepair. We visited the ashram last year. Near the entrance is a cluster of stone igloos. These are caves, where ashram devotees meditated. One is called "The Beatles Cave", ostensibly because the group used it. Its walls are painted with psychedelic graffiti and song lyrics. Many have recently-painted murals of the group and a catalogue of their song titles - Yesterday, In My Life, I Am the Walrus, Penny Lane, I Wanna Hold Your Hand.
The caves are well-preserved. Other buildings on the site, however, are in decline, their concrete crumbling after exposure to the elements for half a century. Some have been taken over by peepul, banyan and fig trees, like a lost city in the jungle. Some foreign tourists sit about, deep in thought. The place is a mess and it’s a shame how such a treasured legacy, such valuable piece of music history could be allowed to go to seed.
But things appear to be changing. On the International Yoga Festival from March 1 -8, 2018 at Rishikesh, the departments of tourism and forest, Uttarakhand, is commemorating the 50 years of the Beatles’ visit to Rishikesh by hosting events on March 4, 5, and 6. A Beatles Tribute band from London has been invited to Rishikesh to pay tribute to the Beatles and relive the memories.
As a curtain raiser, a networking evening in London was held on November 6, 2017. A Beatles tribute band named "Fab Four" was invited to pay tribute to The Beatles. The event was attended by more than 225 people with international travel agents, hoteliers, investors, local media, dignitaries from high commission of India, among several others.
The Beatles had their first overseas adventure in Hamburg in the fall of 1960 in a seedy nightclub called the Indra. Eight years later they would have their last overseas adventure in a spiritual paradise named after the form adopted by lord Vishnu when he appeared before Saint Raibhya Rishi to reward him for his penance. Little did they know the Garden of Eden would two years later bring their extraordinary story to an end.