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

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 deluxe delights of Mandarin Oriental Jumeira

The hotel is located on Jumeirah Beach Road across from Mercato shopping mall. (Supplied)
Updated 06 December 2019

The deluxe delights of Mandarin Oriental Jumeira

  • New arrival justifies its place in Dubai’s already packed luxury hotel roster

DUBAI: Does Dubai really need another luxury hotel? If you had to pause to think about it, then you’re not Dubai. Four Seasons? We’ll take two, please. One&Only? Go on, give us two more. Ritz-Carlton and Waldorf Astoria? Oh why not, we’ll take two each. 

And yet, until earlier this year, one might say there was a gap in Dubai’s collection for a Mandarin Oriental, a hotel for all great hotel cities. 

It’s here now, located on Jumeirah Beach Road across from Mercato shopping mall and beside a drive-through Starbucks. It’s easy to miss the modern low-rise building perched just off the sidewalk because of its subtle (possibly a new addition to Dubai’s dictionary) daytime presence.

The seafront suite at Mandarin Oriental Jumeira, Dubai is one of a kind. (Supplied)

It is only after dark that it becomes more remarkable, when a forest of crystal trees lights up its lobby, and it sparkles like a jewel box through the glass from the sidewalk right through to the beach. 

There are further design delights in my deluxe sea-view room, which has a balcony overlooking the pool area. The centerpiece is the soaker tub in its expansive marble bathroom — which is almost the size of the sleeping area that it opens onto — complete with handily placed heated towel rack. My enthusiasm for the bath is momentarily dulled when sand-colored water gushes from the tap, but this is fixed by a few technicians who respond immediately when I call.

The hotel has luxurious bathrooms and interior. (Supplied)

Although I’m not usually impressed by hotel-room technology — too often fancy light switches only complicate a simple matter — this room has a few stand-out features. The curtains open and close automatically not only with a bedside button, but also when I go to part them; the lights in the walk-in closet turn on automatically upon entering; and even the blow dryer is touch-activated. 

It’s not just the technology that demonstrates attention to detail. The closet contains a yoga mat and beach bag. On the desk, there’s a small stack of books, including Peter Frankopan’s  “The New Silk Roads.” There’s also a box of coffee-table-sized books that turns out to be four hefty room-service menus: Middle Eastern, Asian, International and Healthy. All of which meant there was little reason to leave the room, if it wasn’t for a dinner reservation at Netsu, the hotel’s Japanese restaurant.

The curtains open and close automatically not only with a bedside button, but also when you go to part them. (Supplied)

An event in itself, Netsu is equipped with a glass-walled warayaki cooking theater, where chefs grill wagyu beef on a 900-degree fire. My friend and I are seated at a bar facing the glass, where we watch them stoking the fire with rice straw brought in from Japan. The tender meat is uniquely flavored, proving that it’s more than just a show for Instagram.

It would be hard to find more self-assured service than the kind shown to us by our waiter, Nick, who is definitive in his starter recommendations. “I won’t take no for an answer,” he tells us, and we’re pleased he didn’t. The Korean fried chicken, corn tempura and yellowtail tiradito are all worth their place on the signature tasting menu.

Netsu is equipped with a glass-walled warayaki cooking theater. (Supplied)

Breakfast in The Bay, the hotel’s brasserie-style restaurant facing the beach, makes less of an impression. While there was nothing wrong with the buffet, the staff seem oddly perplexed by my request to order à la carte. 

And while a peaceful day by the pool was threatened by a few loud teenagers throwing balls, the adult-only infinity pool on the rooftop, for hotel guests only, provided much-needed escape. At first it seemed odd that it was stationed outside the windows of Tasca, the Portuguese restaurant by Michelin-star chef José Avillez. But as the kitchen prepared for dinner, a waiter brought out small tasters, including avocado tempura, for the sunbathers to enjoy on our cushy daybeds with a vast view of the sunset over the Arabian Gulf.

So while Dubai might not need another luxury hotel, it can certainly use this one. To borrow the Mandarin Oriental’s slogan, I can definitely say: “I’m a fan.”