Beatles’ Indian hideaway comes together, 50 years on

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Tourists walk past the now-derelict house of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at the ashram visited by the Beatles 50 years ago in Rishikesh, northern India. (AFP)
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Ajit Singh, a music shop owner, fixed John Lennon’s guitar and performed at George Harrison’s 25th birthday party when the Beatles stayed at an ashram in nearby Rishikesh in 1968. (AFP)
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A mural at the now-derelict ashram visited by the Beatles 50 years ago in Rishikesh, northern India. (AFP)
Updated 13 August 2018
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Beatles’ Indian hideaway comes together, 50 years on

  • Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram fell into disuse in the early 2000s
  • thanks to the efforts of a group of locals, the site has been reclaimed from the jungle

RISHIKESH: Fifty years after the Beatles came to India, the bungalows where the Fab Four lived, the post office where John Lennon sent Yoko Ono postcards and the giggling guru’s house are all ruins.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram, where the world’s most famous group sought refuge and spirituality in 1968 and wrote much of their seminal “White Album,” fell into disuse in the early 2000s.
But thanks to the efforts of a group of locals, the site has been reclaimed from the jungle and tourists now roam where tigers and snakes were until recently the most common day trippers.
“Before, people used to sneak in, which could be dangerous,” said local journalist Raju Gusain, instrumental in rescuing the area overlooking Rishikesh in northern India.
“There used to be leopard paw marks and elephant dung,” he said on a tour of the site. “Now we have erected a fence to stop animals getting in from the tiger reserve next door.”
By 1968, following the death of Beatles manager Brian Epstein the year before, fissures were beginning to show between John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr.
But the group found a new mentor: the magnetic Maharishi who promised them happiness and enlightenment without drugs, through transcendental meditation.
The bushy-bearded sage persuaded them to travel to his spiritual retreat in Rishikesh, and so in February 1968 they fetched up with their partners, not knowing quite what to expect.
A world away from “Swinging London,” the band appeared to reconnect, penning almost 50 new songs.
Others there included fellow musicians Donovan and Beach Boy Mike Love, actress Mia Farrow and her reclusive sister Prudence, inspiration for Lennon’s song “Dear Prudence.”
The local wildlife — although the song is also supposedly about heroin or Yoko Ono — inspired “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey” as well as “Blackbird.”
McCartney wrote “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” after seeing monkeys openly copulating, while Love’s presence helped spark “Back in the USSR,” a pastiche of the Beach Boys’ “California Girls.”
The band — with the exception of Starr, who brought a supply of baked beans due to his sensitive stomach and left after 10 days — enjoyed the break and the meditation too.
“I felt like I actually was a feather floating over a hot-air pipe,” McCartney recalled later of one session. “And I reported that to Maharishi, and he giggled: ‘Yes, this is good!’”
One local old enough to remember is Ajit Singh, the owner of a music shop — still open — in the nearby town of Dehradun, who fixed Lennon’s guitar and performed at Harrison’s 25th birthday.
Turbaned, thin and with a croaky voice, the 86-year-old Singh recalls with twinkling eyes the band wandering into the store one day, pursued by a crowd outside, and him “inviting them home for tea.”
“They were very polite with me, they were not haughty or something,” he said in his shop. “I always said to people that they were good people.”
After a while though, relations worsened between the Beatles and the Maharishi, the atmosphere soured by the yogi’s rumored sexual advances and his evident desire to make money from his famous new pupils.
McCartney left after five weeks and Harrison and Lennon after two months. Asked the reason by the yogi, Lennon is reputed to have told the guru, “If you’re so cosmic you’ll know why.”
But still, the Beatles helped put Rishikesh on the map for Westerners, and popularized meditation and Eastern spirituality. The Maharishi even made the cover of Time magazine in 1975.
His ashram initially thrived but then went into decline and was abandoned in 2001. Nature slowly reclaimed the site, while parts of the buildings were removed and people sneaked in and left graffiti.
But in 2016, paths were cleared, a fence was put up and some of the structures were repaired. Ruins they remain, however, although a few new murals have been added.
The site now charges an entry fee — 600 rupees ($8.75) for foreigners, 150 rupees for Indians — and boasts a cafe and a small photo exhibition and some information signs.
One recent visitor was none other than Prudence herself, said Raju Nautiyal, a ranger with the Rajasthan Tiger Reserve who has helped in the clean-up.
“I used to sing ‘Dear Prudence’ and one day Prudence came to play,” he said.
American visitor Atta Curzmann, 68, a “great Beatles fan” inspired to take a lasting interest in Indian spirituality, said she hoped the site would not be restored too much.
“The first time we came four or five years ago it was really run-down and we had to pay baksheesh (a bribe) to get in,” she said.
“But I hope they don’t make it too lovely and perfect because you want to see that antiquity, that part of it that shows the history.”


Influencer invasion as Pakistan launches tourism push

Updated 24 April 2019
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Influencer invasion as Pakistan launches tourism push

  • Cricketer-turned-prime-minister Imran Khan is keen to promote the nation’s tourism potential
  • The push has resulted in an influx of foreign travel bloggers extolling the virtues of its mountains and beaches

ISLAMABAD: They are young, Western, and full of praise for Pakistan: Travel influencers have moved in on the “land of the pure,” but critics warn their rose-tinted filters are irresponsible and sell an inaccurate picture of the conservative, militancy-scarred country.
As security improves, cricketer-turned-prime-minister Imran Khan is keen to promote the nation’s tourism potential, with the government claiming it has eased visa restrictions for many foreign visitors.
The push has resulted in an influx of foreign travel bloggers extolling the virtues of its mountains and beaches, as well as its rich heritage and history, from ancient Indus civilizations to Buddhist shrines and Islamic monuments.
“Pakistan, it was the trip of a lifetime,” food and travel YouTuber Mark Wiens told his four million subscribers.
Polish blogger Eva zu Beck informed her followers it could “become the number one tourist destination in the world,” while Canadian social media influencer Rosie Gabrielle said she wanted her stories to “tell the truth” about the country.
But there are concerns influencer content does not reflect the major challenges, from infrastructure to extremism, that Pakistan is facing as it embraces modern tourism.
Zu Beck, whose clip was even shared by officials, cites government commerce initiative Emerging Pakistan, as well as Pakistan International Airlines as partners she’s worked with, while Wiens credits tourism expo Pakistan Travel Mart for “making the amazing trip happen.”
Gabrielle says her 3,500-kilometer motorcycle trip across the nation was facilitated by a Pakistani association in Oman.
Once seen as an essential stop on the hippie trail, visitor numbers have slumped since the 1970s when the country first underwent sweeping Islamization then descended into a bloody battle with militancy.
Deadly attacks still occur but security concerns are easing, so authorities and businesses are keen to shake the perception it is a hostile and dangerous place.
They are enthusiastic that so-called social media “influencer” advertising, which generally provides glossy snapshots rather than in-depth investigation, can present an alternative vision of Pakistan to a new generation of young and adventurous travelers.
“People believe them,” says Pakistan Travel Mart CEO Ali Hamdani, who helped set up Wiens trip, adding that bloggers’ impressions are regarded as “authentic.”
Yet Pakistanis and seasoned foreign travelers warn such posts on social media do not paint a full and honest picture of Pakistan.
Tourism infrastructure is severely underdeveloped, there are opaque government restrictions on places foreigners can visit, and travelers are often harassed — whether by men bothering women in a patriarchal society; or suspicious intelligence officials detaining curious sight-seers or insisting on security escorts.
“All this ‘Everything is wonderful in Pakistan’ is just irresponsible,” reveals June, an indignant 51-year-old Briton who declined to give her last name, she had been harassed by a police officer during a visit to the northwestern Swat valley.
Influencers are shielded from many issues that ordinary visitors face, adds Zara Zaman, an attendee at a recent tourism summit in Islamabad.
“All of these travelers are also traveling with crews and are protected by more powerful people,” she argues.
Hamdani, for example, acted as a driver for both Wiens and another influencer, Trevor James, during their visits, smoothing out any issues.
Zu Beck and Gabrielle, were able to visit the southwestern province of Balochistan — famed for its spectacular scenery, but also for violent insurgencies, which means few foreigners are able to visit without the blessing of intelligence agencies.
What influencers publish “doesn’t represent the real experience,” warns Alexandra Reynolds, an American blogger on her fifth trip to Pakistan, adding that there is a risk that less experienced travelers will be misled by such content and potentially end up in trouble.
“In a time when Pakistan’s international reputation is so fragile, it is not something that should be risked,” the 27-year-old explains, revealing that she too experienced harassment from security forces during a previous trip.
Another tourist Sebastiaan, 30, says he was detained for 14 hours and questioned by suspicious government agents in the southern city of Mithi last September.
There is also frustration from Pakistanis that Western bloggers have been feted by authorities, while locals with better cultural understanding — especially of sensitive issues such as gender or blasphemy — are sidelined.
“It kinds of makes me angry to have white people represent us. We are not completely done with our post-colonial hangover,” says Zaman.
At the tourism summit a group of the Western bloggers were widely photographed meeting Imran Khan, with no local travel influencers in sight, prompting a backlash on social media.
Despite concerns, the bloggers remain enthusiastic.
Zu Beck, 27, has gained a huge following in Pakistan, where a local phone company has sponsored some of her videos.
She insists: “My job is not to love Pakistan. My job is to make content. But I love Pakistan.”