All You Need Is Love!
By Louise Guthrie
“How long does it take to get to the Beatles Ashram?”
The prompt and almost blasé way that locals here in Rishikesh, self-styled yoga capital of the world, respond to this query suggests it’s one they have become very used to over the last 51 years. Lou and I have, by necessity, established this
fact as we pick our way along a slender thoroughfare running parallel with the broad silvery-green slate of the slow-moving and holy river Ganges. But shop-keepers’ and traders’ responses to our Beatles question vary just that bit too much to give
us any accurate indication as to when we might reasonably expect to reach the Fab Fours’ former spiritual stomping-ground. It’s turning out to be a spectacularly grey and drizzly February late-afternoon here at the foothills of the mighty Himalayas.
And it’s also getting late. Though space may be infinite, and time is (surely) eternal, today’s daylight hours are rapidly dwindling.
The Foothills of the Himalayas
Back at our luxury Rishikesh hotel resort, we had ordered a taxi that, we were assured, would deliver us right to the portals of the fabled ashram in exchange for a mere 200 Rupees. If that seemed a bit too good to be true, it’s because it was.
Even though we knew that The Big Fabs’ historic hangout was on the opposite side of the river, we had failed to factor in that the nearest available crossing was a pedestrian-only affair.
Lakshman Jhula – A Pedestrian-only Affair
So, it appears, had our taxi-driver, as he firmly ditched us at the end of Lakshman Jhula, an imposing iron suspension foot-bridge straddling the Ganga. (NB No skin off his nose, he still got his 200 Rupees.)
Over to the East
Undeterred, we scurried across the bridge past monkeys perched on iron handrails like furry pink-faced sentries nonchalantly guarding our passage, (although we still had to make way for the odd scooter nudging its way across this ‘pedestrian’ bridge).
Keeping a Watchful Eye
Now firmly on the eastern side of the Ganga, the only thing we are sure of – If an earlier cursory glance at the colourful, if crudely, painted Rishikesh map gracing our hotel foyer walls is anything to go by – is that the lengthy tarmac ribbon
we are now forced to tread is the actual ‘Long and Winding Road’ that will lead us to the ashram door. And, hopefully, it’s no more than a kilometer or two away.
The Long and Winding Road
After what is at least half an hour’s walk – NB not so fast that we can’t sporadically stop off to peruse brass Buddha, Vishnu and Ganesh deities, singing bowls and stone bracelets – a trader touting wooden tortoises, yoghurt lassi stirrers and alabaster
eggs informs us that the final kilometer to the Beatles Ashram will take us 35 minutes (are we going to have to crawl it uphill on hands and knees?)
On a Leisurely Shopping-Spree?
Something doesn’t add up here. We pause to weigh up whether it’s even worth continuing our mission, given that we ideally need to be back at our hotel to rejoin our tour-group by early evening. We no doubt look like typical lost tourists, wearing, as
we are, flimsy blue plastic rain-macs with ill-fitting sleeves and hoods designed, if not to keep the rain off, then to slowly but surely asphyxiate the wearer. (At least that’s what it feels like.) So, on a practical whim, we have, a touch
incongruously, accessorized this stylish apparel with battered straw sun-hats. The fabulous designer-piece macs were originally retailing on the banks of the Holy Ganga at a near give-away 5 Rupees, until last night’s Rishikesh rain-fall became so
heavy that an opportunistic vendor felt wholly justified in taking 50 Rupees off each of us for them. Our sun-hats hail from the UK and were never specifically intended as rain-protection.
We must look a bit dazed as we stand there deliberating, because a man on a motorbike steps into the breach to offer us a ride.
I trust this man on instinct, but I’m not so sure about his vehicle.
“Will it take three of us?” I ask
“I’ve had four on here” he replies
“We’ve got no choice, Lou” I tell her “You’re small, get in the middle so you don’t suddenly vanish off the back”
Lou hops onto the seat behind the driver without any hesitation. I pitch up at the rear, lightly taking hold of the back of our Knight-in-Shining-Armour’s sleeves to (hopefully) afford us some kind of balance, but mainly to keep Lou sandwiched in. We
set off, if not in complete hedonistic abandon, then at least tentatively hoping for the best possible outcome to this timely offer of assistance.
The track is bumpy, and, while my left leg is securely rooted on a footrest, this small step (for mankind) is a minor god-send that doesn’t have a counterpart on the right side of the bike. As our motorcyclist adeptly manoeuvres around pebbly peripheries
of deep wide puddles, skilfully skirts around swathes of mud lacing underlying gravel, and deftly turns his vehicle around tight bends, to (sensibly) only speed up when we intermittently alight upon stretches of smooth tarmac, my right leg is without
anchor. I have to muster up a similar kind of core stability to that engaged during years of three-legged down-ward dog yogic posture practice. This, after all, is the world’s yoga capital, you just have to go with the flow, even if the current
set of challenges bears little or no resemblance to astanga vinyasa as we know it. Let’s hope this ride is a short one.
So far, so good, until, less than three minutes into our impromptu two-wheeled journey, Lou blurts out: “He’s taking us the wrong way”
She raises her voice: “You’re going inland” (I myself have been a bit too concerned with basic balance issues to be able to focus on minutiae such as where we might actually be heading.)
Our motorist could, hypothetically, be taking us anywhere he likes, to meet his ‘friends’, to completely fleece us (or even worse….), but I really don’t think so.
“I know short-cut, Madame” he insists “I take you to Bittles ashram”
Although I didn’t take out any dangerous sport insurance before coming here (not sure its scope would extend to this kind of caper anyway, and wet sun-hats probably don’t qualify as sensible head-gear) I did, as it happens, push out a couple of Hare Krishna
maha-mantras as soon as this motorcycle set off:
Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare Hare,
Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare
I uttered the mantra not so much by way of cosmic accident cover, (although I don’t doubt its potency), but more by force of recent personal habit. Lou and I are on a 16-day ‘Mystic India’ trip with some 20 Hare Krishna devotees, ably organised by a team
of stalwarts from Bhaktivedanta Manor, the UK Hare Krishna headquarters generously donated by George Harrison in 1973. NB This afternoon’s little foray into the unknown is not a scheduled part of our tour-itinerary, it’s just a side-step
Lou and I feel it imperative to make.
The Maha Mantra
You see, our beloved Beatles honed their Transcendental Meditation techniques back in 1968 with Indian Guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at the very campus we should shortly be arriving at (if our driver is to be trusted, as I still believe he is), even if their
association with Maharishi was never set to be a long-term one. (Ringo was the first to leave Rishikesh, possibly because his supply of tinned baked beans was rapidly dwindling, and, as a Northern English lad, he really didn’t want to have to cope
with any weird Indian spices.) Plus, if you believe reports, the giggling guru with the flowing beard had shown a rather non-spiritual interest in one or two ladies at the ashram, (notably blonde elfin actress Mia Farrow). And so that particular spiritual
bubble soon burst. However, the Beatles Indian sojourn did lead to the opening up of a cross-cultural and trans-national interchange of pretty ‘far-out’ ideas, inspiring Western people to ‘go East’, either physically or mentally. NB The Fabs wrote
much of their ‘White Album’ here, as well, so it wasn’t all time wasted.
Time Well Spent – The White Album
Visionary George Harrison, however, was more genuinely attuned to Eastern Mysticism (and, presumably, less genetically Heinz baked-bean dependent) than any of his band-mates. In the wake of his summer stopover with Maharishi, George went on to make a
sincere and life-long commitment to what became internationally known as the Hare Krishna movement (the same burgeoning crusade that has brought Lou and I to India). The far-seeing Fab had discovered the Hare Krishna maha mantra as early
as the mid-1960s, when Swami Bhaktivedanta, ISKCON’s (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) founding father, first brought it from India to the US. By the time Swami Bhaktivedanta’s special six young pioneering disciples reached UK shores
to set up the first Hare Krishna temple in good old London Town, the Quiet Beatle had already been chanting the maha mantra for a couple of years. And when Swami himself arrived in England, something clicked, and he and George became friends.
“I once chanted the Hare Krishna mantra for three days while driving round Europe” said George “You get hypnotised on some subtle level that makes you feel so good, you don’t want to stop”
My intrepid Mystic India 2019 tour companions (who I do hope to see again in this life-time, preferably this evening back at our hotel) and I have, in recent days, been reciting that self-same mantra in the holy town of Vrindavan, where Krishna
spend his childhood. We chanted it in the pilgrimage city of Mayapur, home to world ISKCON-Headquarters, and while passing through Delhi and Kolkata, in airports and aeroplanes, busses and rickshaws. Upon arrival here in Rishikesh, we spontaneously
took the maha mantra to the streets in musical format as a merry band of minstrels complete with Indian percussion instruments.
Mystic India Trippers
So I must be, at the very least, peripherally qualified to casually offer up this time-tested refrain once or twice on the back of this here somewhat beat-up bike.
According to George: “You don’t have to ask the vicar about this, because it all becomes clear with the expanded state of consciousness. But you don’t get it in five minutes. It’s something that takes a long time. So it’s really… It’s like to give peace a chance, or all you need is love. The thing is, you can’t just stand there and say, love, love, love or peace, peace, peace and get it. You have to have a direct process of attaining that. Like Christ said, ‘Put your own house in order.’ Maharishi said, ‘For a forest to be green, each tree must be green.’ So the same for the world to have peace, each individual must have peace. And you don’t get it through society’s normal channels. And that’s why each individual must tend to himself and get his own peace.”
On To Something
That’s deep, George, and there’s no vicar around here to ask anyway. And I definitely haven’t reached a state of expanded consciousness (it’s not that easy on the back of a scooter with only one footrest) let alone found long-term peace, although, in
the short-term, this is quite fun. Nevertheless, I am deeply grateful when, before too long, we grind to a halt in front turreted gates that are reassuringly overgrown with weeds and grasses. My not entirely misplaced yogic chanting seems
to have worked. This looks like it could well be an out-dated ashram, we have not been mugged, and there are enough harmless-looking people meandering around to dispel even the mildest sense of (unnecessary) foreboding. But my sense of relief is mainly
founded on the fact that, being now ever-so slightly right-leaning, I almost certainly could not have remained seated with any great dignity and composure for too much longer.
It’s all looking good, except for the fact that the site entrance is clearly emblazoned with the words TIGER RESERVE.
“You’ve brought us to the wrong place” I protest
In spite of the huge TIGER RESERVE signs, our make-shift chauffeur insists this really is the ashram we’ve been looking for. It’s now ten-to-four in the afternoon, and, not wishing to waste any more precious time discussing the *subtle semantic
differences between the two, let’s face it, near-identical descriptive terms ‘Beatles Ashram’ and ‘Tiger Reserve’, we ask this chap to come and pick us up again at half-past. (This is India, and *we cannot afford to stall over niceties.)
Enter if you Dare
I tell him he can have 100 Rupees when he returns collect us. He tells me I can pay him now. I do so on good faith (he’ll come back anyway because he, presumably, wants more money off us), and we stumble through the TIGER RESERVE gateway in the vague
hope that it is, in fact, the Beatles Ashram. We are not disappointed. Not only are there no (visibly) roaming tigers, but there’s enough signage around to indicate that this is exactly the place we’ve been looking for. A warden takes 500 Rupees each
off us for ‘Foreigners’ entry tickets. We’ve only got forty short minutes in the rain to get a feel for what this place must have been like in its gloriously endless-seeming summery 1968 hey-day, when George and Pattie Boyd, Paul and Jane Asher, John
and Cynthia, plus Ringo and Maureen came to pursue what was, back then, a ground-breaking quest for enlightenment.
Today there’s no way we can properly explore an entire collection of dilapidated buildings that now brandish dark gaping hollows where once stood doors and windows, and roofs which look like they are about to cave in, interspersed with odd-looking circular pebble-dashed huts (meditation pods?) that are more than vaguely reminiscent of hairy coconuts as stubborn weeds force themselves en masse through the stones.
Lou and I rush straight into a decaying bungalow which, while obviously having seen far better days, still proudly houses a stunning exhibition of Summer ’68 photographs by one Paul Saltzman – some of
which have already been etched indelibly on my white European retinas for decades.
It’s amazing to finally see them ‘in situ’. Shame though that no-one has thought to invest in a light-bulb for this place. Because on a dull late-afternoon like this you struggle to see much more than your own hazy mirror-image through the prism of windows reflected inside the frame of a timeless Beatles’ portrait.
Peering through the Windows of Time
In Sun-Hat and Rain-Mac
Although the entire compound’s general state of disrepair could simply be construed as sad, it can also, depending on your perspective, be seen as flawless. This sprawling and authentic monument to East-meets-West stands unsullied by anything other than
time, and bears testimony to how slowly but surely nature reclaims her own territory. What could be more perfect than that?
Not the Summer of 68
But even if we are not about to hurry straight to our banks and ask for loans to convert it all into boutique hotels, Lou and I feel there are residual mysterious energy fields here that could be put to good use – not necessarily to send New Age wannabe yogis flying across the room – but, we muse, wouldn’t it make a glorious site for an extensive ISKCON-centre?
Mysterious Energy Fields
We are allowed to dream, after all. And even though time is now really working against us, we manage to crowbar in a flying visit to a lodge in the farthest back corner of the compound that served as temporary home to Fabs and friends just over
half a century ago.
Perfect as it is?
We then scuttle hastily back to the TIGER RESERVE entrance (only five minutes late!) to see if our driver has thought fit to come and collect us.
We stagger back through the front gateway and there, as promised, stands our trusty fellow with his motorbike.
He whizzes us back to the spot where he first found us. We need to give him another 100 Rupees, I guess, but we have no change. “You can go and get change in the temple” our man tells us, nodding perfunctorily towards a nearby house of God. I
had no idea that temples took on this particular functionality, but the incumbent curator has no qualms about opening a safe-box and furnishing us with notes of smaller denomination, even if he seems to be doing this in extreme slow-motion.
When I (eventually) return outdoors, our driver friend is deeply engrossed in conversation with other locals. I interrupt to hand him the 100 Rupees.
“There” I say “That was good business, wasn’t it?”
He ignores my question and, instead, gives me a long searching look.
“Are you happy?”
“Pardon?” I say
“Was it the right place?”
“Yes” I reply “It was absolutely the right place. I am happy”
“Is your friend happy?” he asks, looking even more concerned
I turn to ask Lou, who is coming towards us across the temple forecourt
“Lou, he wants to know if you’re happy”
Lou grins cursorily
“Yes” I tell him “My friend is happy”
And, having confirmed our relative state of happiness to a virtual stranger, we turn to head back to the Lakshman Jhula suspension bridge, in leaking blue macs and sagging straw sun-hats….