By the end of the bloody Kurukshetra war in the Mahabharat, the Pandavas sought atonement for having killed their brothers (the Kauravas). Legend has it that the Pandavas trekked to Garhwal, Uttarakhand, in search of Shiva and salvation. It was there, amidst the mountains, that they finally found the elusive god who had separated into five parts.
In February 1968, four hallowed visitors touched down in Rishikesh. It was at the height of Beatlemania, and The Beatles were reeling under the untimely death of its manager, and had an identity crisis to boot. They were to learn Transcendental Meditation (TM) in Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram. The quiet, enthusiastic George Harrison and the precocious, intellectual John Lennon arrived in New Delhi on February 16. Close behind them were the resourceful, dominating Paul McCartney and the laid-back Ringo Starr, the latter carrying with him a stock of baked beans in his bag. The Fab Four from Liverpool, England, were hapless sailors who had lost their bearings in the storms of unimaginable fame. And, they moored their boat at Rishikesh, on the sacred Ganga. What followed was a period of unbridled creativity—the band wrote almost 40 songs in the ashram, most of which made it to the White Album (1968).
“This is undoubtedly the most beautiful state I have ever travelled through,” I exclaimed to my co-passenger Shailendra Singh Rawat, the hills looming closer as we slowly made our way through the scenic route from Dehradun to Rishikesh. “Thank you,” he said, naked pride lighting up his face. “But,” he hesitated, “there is no place that we can go here for fun.” The mountains nodded silently in assent. Fast-growing urbanisation had extracted its pound of flesh from the ‘Devbhoomi’. Migration from the hills, which often results in entire villages moving to the plains in search of well-paying jobs, is an ongoing phenomenon in the state. It was a major poll plank for the Bharatiya Janata Party, which trounced the ruling Congress in the 2017 assembly elections. The statistics, too, paint a grim picture. According to the 2011 census, 1,048 villages were left abandoned in the state. It is not unusual, especially in areas like Pauri Garhwal or Almora, to come across ‘ghost settlements’ in varying states of disrepair.
An eerie silence engulfed the ‘Chaurasi Kutia’ ashram, too. The Beatles left the place barely two months after their arrival. The followers of the Maharishi followed suit in the early 2000s, when the government took over ashram lands. When THE WEEK visited the site, the crumbling buildings were annexed by vegetation, and the egg-shaped living quarters of TM practitioners were disfigured with spray-painted nihilistic slogans, Beatles lyrics and supplications of lovelorn teens (Tushar ‘hearts’ Diya). The ashram was reopened as a tourist destination in 2015, known among the local residents as the ‘Betel Ashram’. “When The Beatles first came here, the communists believed they were actually CIA spies,” said journalist and commentator Ajoy Bose, in conversation with The Beatles expert Philip Norman at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2018.
By all accounts, The Beatles were enamoured of their new living quarters in the Himalayas. It was also a virtual fortress, perfectly capable of keeping out the media, Beatlemaniacs and curious onlookers, who bore down in full force. “They ate well, rested well, wrote songs together, and altogether seemed quite happy. It was an atmosphere of easy geniality,” Canadian filmmaker Paul Saltzman, who spent time with The Beatles in the ashram, told THE WEEK. There are numerous written accounts of their stay at the ashram. For instance, Prudence Farrow, sister of actor Mia Farrow, wrote in her book Dear Prudence: “John and George were the only two taking the course. After a period of longer meditations, George reported feeling an enormous silence while John was seeing all kinds of colours. They both found a way to tap into their music in a way they couldn’t normally do.” In With The Beatles, journalist Lewis Lapham wrote, “Their accommodations, more spacious than those allotted to meditators of lesser stature, were equipped with modern plumbing and comfortable furniture. The Maharishi cherished The Beatles as his prized students, and gave private lessons to John and George in the evenings. Their wives [Cynthia Lennon and Pattie Boyd] expressed their delight in the exotic scenery—monkeys in the trees, elephants in the forest, saffron-robed monks floating on the rivers. In the afternoon, they went shopping and received daily massages from a nearby woman.”
It was Boyd who first turned the group to the Maharishi. In 1967, she came in contact with the TM movement and the Maharishi. George, obsessed with Hindu philosophy and Indian music, jumped at a chance to meet him. The band attended a lecture by the “giggling guru” at the Hilton in London on August 24. After meeting The Beatles, the Maharishi invited them to Bangor in Wales, where an introductory seminar was held on August 26. The next day, tragedy struck: their manager Brian Epstein was discovered dead at his residence in London.
“For one thing, Epstein was the glue that held the band together. His death was a huge shock for them. The Rishikesh visit was a watershed moment in The Beatles history,” said Chris Collins, head of School of Music, Bangor University, Wales.
Till date, the Rishikesh visit remains one of the least-reported periods in The Beatles history. Starr left after 10 days; McCartney after a month; Lennon and Harrison, after nearly two months. The circumstances of their departure remain a mystery. Lennon allegedly claimed that the Maharishi had made advances towards a female practitioner—later found to be without basis—and left in a huff. He later wrote the scorching song Sexy Sadie, widely believed to be a parting shot at the yogi.
Sexy Sadie what have you done
You made a fool of everyone
Vararuchi was a poet and scholar in King Vikramaditya’s court. To challenge his scholars, Vikramaditya posed a question: which is the best sloka in the Ramayan? The king granted Vararuchi 40 days to find the answer. If he did, he would be rewarded 1,000 gold coins. If not, he would have to leave the court. To find the most important line from a book as complex, poetic and layered as the Ramayan was an impossible task for a human, Vararuchi discovered, as he wandered through the country like a mad man in search of an answer.
The only thing more ubiquitous in the internet than cat videos are Beatles fan clubs. The users who populate those online forums can be broadly classified into three: shitposters (Bieber>>>Harrison), Beatles nerds (the proud owners of binders cataloguing The Beatles’s wardrobe, colour-coded to season) and music alphas (are you tone deaf? It is a descending arpeggio in C Lydian). But, even the nuttiest digital grenade lobbers kept clear of the one question-which-must-not-be-asked: which is the best Beatles song? The query, as the wise old men say, is potent enough to overheat a supercomputer. In the history of music, there has been no other collective that experimented in so many forms and genres, pushing the envelope of the all-encompassing rock ‘n’ roll and revolutionising popular music as we know it. Indian classical music has had an indelible influence on their songs, and The Beatles did a yeoman’s job ushering Indian music into popular consciousness in the west, spawning new genres of what is now informally dumbed down as raga-rock. So, what ignited their interest in eastern philosophy?
George, along with the rest of the band, first came across a sitar while filming Help! (1965). On the sets, he came across Indian musicians playing a sitar, and fooled around with the instrument. From them, he first heard about Pandit Ravi Shankar.
Shankar, born in a Bengali family, spent his youth touring Europe with a dance troupe led by his brother Uday Shankar. Later, he gave up dancing to perfect his sitar skills, under musician Allauddin Khan. His earlier collaborations with violinist Yehudi Menuhin and other musicians had brought him widespread acclaim in the classical world, but the western public was, to a large extent, resistant towards the “foreign sounds”. But, all that changed by the late 1960s.
In Rubber Soul (1965), The Beatles had a surprise in store. George, who bought a cheap sitar from Oxford Street, experimented with the instrument in the song Norwegian Wood. It was not a great piece of musicianship, and the sitar was merely used as an embellishment over a western melody in 12/8 rhythm. As Graeme Thomson wrote in George Harrison: Behind the Locked Door, this was not the first time a western musician was using the sitar—musicians like Philip Glass and John Cage were familiar with Shankar’s music, and folk legends like Davey Graham had already created a DADGAD open tuning to help transpose the sitar into the guitar. But, in the age where The Beatles were all the rage, the general public perked up its ears for the first time.
In 1966, The Beatles’s album Revolver featured Love You To, a number with an authentic Hindustani classical sound, replete with sitar, tanpura and a tabla. Music critic David Reck wrote, “For the first time, Asian music was not parodied, but transferred to a new environment with sympathy and rare understanding.”
By the time, George’s association with Shankar, whom he had met at a fellow Indian musician’s home, also picked up pace. The latter had accepted George, whom he considered a brother, as his disciple. In a documentary, Raga (1971), Shankar said, “I never thought our meeting would cause such an explosion, that Indian music would suddenly appear on the pop scene.” But, that was exactly what happened. Shankar performed at the 1967 Monterey Pop Fest (where he was the only artist to be paid for performing), and the 1969 Woodstock festival. According to popular lore, the crowd went crazy at the mere sound of his sitar being tuned. In the psychedelic sixties, the exotic eastern music became intricately linked to the existing drug culture, much to Shankar’s dismay.
And, it was not just Harrison who developed an affinity to Indian music. “Take the song Tomorrow Never Knows [Lennon-McCartney collaboration in Revolver]. Though not strictly Indian in nature, it captures the subcontinent’s soul, and you can hear Paul playing the guitar in an Indian style,” Liverpool University’s Mike Jones told THE WEEK. Other Lennon-McCartney songs like Strawberry Fields Forever (1967) are representative of an eastern influence.
In May 1967, after a US tour and the decision to stop performing live, the band released the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Bands Club. It was an impressionist, fantastical masterpiece, expertly studio-engineered by their producer George Martin, and widely lauded upon its release as a truly groundbreaking moment in rock music history. If Lennon’s psychedelic song Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds was reflective of the prevailing drug culture, the B-side of the album opened with Within You Without You, another eastern masterpiece fashioned in the manner of a Hindu bhajan (and elements of khyal). Harrison had originally come across the tune while tinkering around with a harmonium. The song, which features a dilruba and tabla, introduces an unusual 5/4 rhythm, which while very common in genres like jazz, was a break from the 4/4 pop tradition. According to music critic Gerry Farrell, “the song is a reflection of George Harrison’s increasing knowledge of Indian musical form and structure”.
But, the fissures within the band were starting to show. Harrison, who was back from an extended trip to India, was preoccupied with mastering the sitar as an instrument. Between 1966 and 1969, he barely picked up the guitar. As a result, his contributions are hardly noticeable in the album. Lennon was lethargic, fretful of his stifling domestic life, as the song Good Morning Good Morning (inspired by a cornflakes commercial) in the album would imply. Moreover, the band would start recording together less and less. It was in such an atmosphere of discord that the band found themselves in the foothills of the Himalayas, armed with guitars and free time. So, how did the Rishikesh visit influence their musicianship? Why was it that overt displays of eastern motifs disappeared from the band’s vocabulary in the later years?
“The distinguishing feature of White Album was variety,” said Chris Collins. “You can hear the individual voices of John, Paul and George. Though the eastern musical influence reduces, on the face of it, you have philosophical and introspective songs like Long, Long, Long [White Album] and others in albums like Let it Be and Abbey Road.” One of the major shifts that was seen after Rishikesh, said Mike Jones, was Harrison taking back his first love—the guitar. Listen to the omnipresence of the stringed instrument in the immortal While My Guitar Gently Weeps (White Album), an apology of sorts to a partner that he ignored for so long. “George realised he would never reach that level of expertise on a sitar, which takes decades of single-minded dedication to master. It was his way of respectfully bowing out,” said Jones.
For The Beatles, the Rishikesh stay meant a complete turnaround in musical styling. “In Rishikesh, the band heard Bob Dylan’s December 1967 album John Wesley Harding [polar opposite to Sgt. Pepper’s, in terms of sheer simplicity] and reacted to that. George started doing riff-heavy, blues-rock pieces that would define his early solo career,” wrote Graeme Thomson. But, the Indian influences wouldn’t leave his music that easily. After The Beatles broke up, Harrison would develop his own signature slide guitar tone inspired by his years of tryst with the sitar and Indian microtones. His love for eastern philosophy lasted till his death. The single My Sweet Lord, in the later solo period of his life, effortlessly fuses Hare Krishna chants with gospel hallelujahs.
Lennon, who found himself cut off from drugs like LSD in the ashram, finally faced up to the truth of his failed marriage with Cynthia. It also marked the start of his relationship—artistic and romantic—with Yoko Ono. There was a renewed vigour in his approach; he suddenly transformed into an angry young man shouting from the rooftops. On one hand, he wrote songs like the heartbreaking, confessional Yer Blues (White Album). On the other, there were highly politicised ones like Revolution, with its intentionally ambiguous lyrics—but when you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out/in—expressing his reservation towards the approach of the protesters in the global political turmoil of 1968. Each subsequent song would be increasingly confident affirmations of his political beliefs, culminating in cult classics like Working Class Hero, and the musically unimaginative Imagine (1971). The latter would become the anti-conflict anthem of an entire generation. For Lennon, it would also mark a return of sorts to his roots. He embraced the primal, stripped down soul of rock music, and it is nowhere more visible than in his maiden 1969 solo album Plastic Ono Band. White Album opens with Back In The USSR, a pastiche of sorts written by Paul McCartney, which sparked conspiracy theories that the line ‘I am back in the USSR’ was actually a disguised version of I am backing the USSR.
Prince Ram of Ayodhya was engaged in a battle with Ravana, the king of Lanka, who had abducted his wife Sita. Ram’s brother Lakshman was seriously wounded by Ravan’s son Meghnad. On Lankan royal physician Sushena’s advice, Hanuman flew to the Dronagiri hills (in Uttarakhand) to fetch four divine herbs. But, Hanuman was unable to identify the four, and so he brought the whole hill to Lanka. Thanks to the herb mritasanjeevani, Lakshman recovered soon.
It was not always adulation that awaited The Beatles. In August 1966, a statement by Lennon—that the “band was now more popular than Jesus”—had earned them ire among the Christians in the US. The Ku Klux Klan issued threats and burnt the band in effigy throughout the country. In Philippines, they were manhandled by an angry mob, after reports spread that the band had insulted Imelda Marcos, the president’s wife, by refusing an invitation. Moreover, their fame had reached such giddy heights that their identities—personal and artistic—were reduced to manifestations of millions of adoring listeners’ projections. For the album Sgt. Pepper’s, McCartney conceived an idea—they would make it an alter ego of the band. They could do what they like, free of the crushing expectations of being a Beatle. At the same time, fissures within the band were getting wider and deeper.
It was a tumultuous time, and the Rishikesh visit acted as a healing balm; the band started functioning as a group after a long time. “Going to Rishikesh was the last thing they did as a group. After that, I am not sure they even faced the same direction again,” said Chris Collins. “After the death of Epstein, the Maharishi filled the void,” said Mike Jones. “What happened in Rishikesh was no fault of the Maharishi. Their fame was just too much for anyone to cope with. They started looking inwards, and discovered their own identities, which were in conflict with that of The Beatles.”
By late 1968, The Beatles had begun to despise each other. The recording studios of the White Album became a battleground of egos. Harrison was, since the early days of the band, considered a junior member of the crew. His songwriting potential was hugely restricted by a domineering McCartney and the big-brotherly attitude of Lennon. Even while many of the songs he wrote were overlooked, Rolling Stone magazine reported that many of his riffs and licks were mercilessly snipped away by McCartney. But, after the Rishikesh retreat, Harrison was a man with a fresh purpose, unwilling to be kicked around anymore. His solo album, All Things Must Pass (1970), had the song Wah Wah, an unbridled celebration of his freedom from the shackles of his band members. Said Harrison in The Beatles Anthology, “There came a time when Paul would have fixed an idea of how to record. I would open my guitar case and he would go: no no, we are not doing that yet.” Lennon, the de-facto founder of the band, was engaged in the musical equivalent of a stare-down with McCartney for the throne of the leader. To make matters worse, Yoko Ono remained a continuous presence inside the recording studio, irking the others to no end. Lennon and McCartney had an interesting partnership. The former was a flamboyant songwriter—introspective, bitingly confessional and philosophical—while the latter was gifted with an unmatched musical versatility, spanning genres. The feud was one that continued a long way into their solo careers—the McCartney song Too Many People (1971) from Ram was a subtle dig at Lennon, and the latter came back with a vengeance in How Do You Sleep (1971) from Imagine. In the later years, the duo would quibble over songwriting credits to certain songs. The tension reached such heights that Ringo Starr, sick of all the jibes and barbs, quit the band in the middle of a recording session; he was coaxed back. The White Album, in a way, was Sgt. Pepper’s evil twin. There was no hiding behind an alter ego; it was The Beatles, warts and all.
The Beatles broke up in 1970. Lennon was murdered in 1980. Harrison died in 2001, after a protracted fight with cancer. But, the band remains a pop culture icon unrivalled in popularity, and the 50th anniversary of their Rishikesh visit is a major event across the world. Dave Milner of The Beatles Story, the largest permanent exhibit devoted to the life and time of band, said, “Our new Beatles in India exhibition will explore this key and relatively secretive part of the story with never-before-seen memorabilia, imagery and personal accounts from people who were there with the band in 1968.” The Uttarakhand government has announced a bash celebrating the visit, reportedly to take place in March.
What is my favourite Beatles song, you ask. It is Within You Without You. No, it is not the beauty of eastern modality that moves as much as the mirthless, intentional laugh that Harrison is supposed to have added at the end of the track. I believe it was the young, sweet and quiet member of the world’s most influential music group revelling in a rare few moments of artistic freedom.
On July 6, 1957, a young Paul McCartney met John Lennon, for the first time at St Peter’s church in Liverpool, where Lennon was performing with his band The Quarrymen. A mutual admiration blossomed. The rest, as they say, is history.
McCartney was an extremely gifted jack-of-all trades. Considered one of the greatest vocalists of his time, he had an enviable melodic range—from the love ballad Maybe I’m Amazed to his heavy rocker vocals in Helter Skelter (White Album). When it came to writing on love, there was none better. His song Yesterday (Help!) remains one of The Beatles’ most covered numbers. Picking on his early music hall influences, and the later eastern, avant-garde, arthouse and even the parodies, he is the most musically versatile of the Fab Four. In some of the tracks, he moonlighted as a one-man band, demonstrated his capabilities with the keyboard, the lead guitar and the drums. But, it was as a bass player that his genius shone the brightest, elevating numerous songs like Something (Abbey Road) and Rain to the classics that they are now. The 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s records him at his best. He is a committed animal rights activist.
One of the many drawbacks of being a Beatle, Lennon told The Beatles biographer Hunter Davies, was that he missed playing jokes on people. “I used to do it on trains—go into people’s compartments and pretend to be soft; or in shops,” he said. Lennon, the oldest in the group, had a reported history of experimentation with drugs, starting with LSD, which he renounced during his period of interaction with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. He was an unmatched songwriter, an emotive and a skilled musician, who could play the harmonica (the mainstay of The Beatles in the early years), guitar, keyboards and more... but, lacked the musical virtuosity of McCartney or Harrison. Reportedly, he first announced The Beatles breakup in 1969—privately to the band—but it was not until 1970 that McCartney made it public.
Lennon married Asian artist Yoko Ono, who would greatly influence his art and his personality, in 1969. They presumably met at an art gallery in 1966. And, during his stay in the Rishikesh ashram, Lennon regularly received postcards with inscriptions from Ono. After the band’s breakup, Lennon’s political views became more pronounced. He staunchly opposed the Vietnam war, and in 1969, Lennon and Ono organised a bed-in (their version of a sit-in) for peace at the Hilton Hotel in Amsterdam. While in New York, his political views resulted in many run-ins with the Richard Nixon administration.
Harrison was the youngest in the band. He was introduced to Lennon and The Quarrymen by McCartney. Harrison was later inducted as a guitarist in the band. But, he was always out of place in the group. Neither Lennon nor McCartney—the heavyweights—wanted him to write songs. So many of his numbers were left in cold storage that, when his solo album All Things Must Pass was released after the band broke up, the record became a triple LP. Harrison was closer to Lennon, whom he looked up to as a big brother, but he was openly hostile to Yoko Ono. Their relationship worsened post-White Album. According to reports, Lennon and Harrison almost engaged in a fist fight on the Let It Be sessions. In the face of repeated disinterest from his teammates, Harrison brought in guitarist Eric Clapton to record While My Guitar Gently Weeps in the White Album sessions.
In 1971, after the band broke up, Harrison organised The Concert for Bangladesh, a first-of-its-kind benefit concert featuring an all-star roster. Only Starr acquiesced. McCartney refused to come—Lennon did not come, as Ono was allegedly not invited to perform.
Richard Starkey aka Ringo Starr first sat in with Lennon, McCartney and Harrison as a substitute for their then drummer Pete Best. “That was the beginning, really, of The Beatles,” McCartney would later claim. But, most of the fanfare that surrounded The Beatles was not kind to the unassuming Starr, a criminally underrated drummer who has produced such exquisite fills and backbeats in songs like She Loves You, Rain, and Something. He wrote only a couple of songs for the band, but was a prism that would help converge the refracted geniuses of McCartney, Lennon and Harrison. He was a left-handed drummer playing a right-handed kit, helping give rise to his idiosyncratic sound. He got on well with Lennon’s girlfriend Yoko Ono, unlike McCartney or Harrison. And no, Lennon never claimed that Starr wasn’t even the best drummer in the band, let alone the best drummer around.