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.”


The mussels from Brussels: 48 hours in Belgium’s classy capital

City Square in Brussels. (Shutterstock)
Updated 05 November 2018
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The mussels from Brussels: 48 hours in Belgium’s classy capital

  • A quick guide to the Belgian capital, Brussels
  • Not the first destination that comes to mind for a European mini-break, but Brussels turned out to be quite the surprise

LONDON: It’s not the first destination that comes to mind for a European mini-break, but Brussels turned out to be quite the surprise.
With a couple of days to spare in the UK, my travel partner and I decided to find the quickest — and most affordable — trip, and our search took us to the Belgian capital.
Tickets and hotel booked, we jetted off with little expectations except wanting to find the perfect waffle.
Landing in Brussels at noon, we headed straight to our hotel to drop off our bags, and were delighted it was a 12-minute drive from the airport. Our temporary home of choice was the ultra-affordable ($96 per night) Aloft Brussels Schuman in Place Jean Rey, a fuss-free four-star establishment that impressed with its laidback atmosphere and street-art-inspired rooms.

A main street in Brussels. (Shutterstock)

We began our sightseeing at the European Parliament Hemicycle — the main office of the members of the European Parliament. It certainly offered a great insight into the world’s largest transnational parliament’s role and powers. Entry is free, but you’ll need ID.
After that, we headed to one of the city’s most famous landmarks: Grand Place. Breathtakingly beautiful is an understatement; this UNESCO World Heritage Site — home to the city’s Town Hall and main museum — is so impressive it’s hard to take in its true scale.
A few blocks away is the Manneken Pis, a bronze statue that’s too cheeky to feature a picture of, but is so well-known we had to include it in our tour. The sculpture is said to be the best-known symbol of the people of Brussels, representing their “sense of humor and independence of mind.”
You could spend hours exploring this area. We stumbled upon Comic Strip Route, a trail featuring 50-odd colorful murals that represent the city’s comics heritage (Brussels is the birthplace of The Smurfs and Tintin, among others).

It was time to find a snack, and during our walk we passed by a tearoom that had a long queue outside. Surely a good sign? Turns out we were at Maison Dandoy, a Belgian institution dating back to 1829, known for its speculoos and waffles.
It was worth the wait. We had the best waffle we’ve ever eaten: freshly cooked, crispy on the outside, and fluffy on the inside. The addition of speculoos-flavoured ice-cream was delightful.
Later we made a final stop at Frit Flagey for a cone of Belgian frites — another oh-so-tasty local delicacy.

On our second day, we headed to the Atomium, an iconic building built in 1958 and renovated at a cost of €26 million in 2006. It’s certainly peculiar; but it’s the only place that offers a 360-degree view of Brussels. Strike it lucky with clear skies, and you’ll get a great experience.
Next to it is the mildly amusing Mini-Europe, a park that displays, you guessed it, mini replicas of monuments in the European Union, at a scale of 1:25. Cool spots were Big Ben — let’s face it, it will probably be demolished post-Brexit next year — and a real piece of the Berlin Wall.
A short walk away is the Brussels Expo. We came across a “Star Wars: Identities” exhibition that appealed to our inner nerd. Upcoming events include “Walking with Dinosaurs” and the Brussels Motor Show.
With the end of our trip fast approaching, there was just time for an early dinner. We saved the best dining experience to last. Mussels are a must-have, and we couldn’t have found a better place than Le Zinneke, a charming bistro serving up over 69 mussel dishes. We opted for the signature Fisherman’s Style — a delightful pot served in a vegetable and herb mix, with a side of Belgian fries. Each pot contains over a kilogram of mussels and, although the friendly staff may advise you take one each, we’d suggest sharing.
Brussels and its friendly people were a pleasant surprise, and we’d definitely return. And with its most famous foods being waffles, chocolate, fries and mussels, it’s the perfect stop for a halal break.