The Beatles in India: 50 years later, a look at how the band's stay in Rishikesh influenced their discography

It didn’t work out the way they thought it would. They left sooner than they intended. The parting was ugly. They did not learn the secret to happiness.

But their brief sojourn in India changed the Beatles in ways they never expected.

“I think it might have just sort of saved their sanity,” says Rock biographer Philip Norman. Norman spoke recently at the Jaipur Literature Festival about the Beatles and India with Ajoy Bose, the author of the just-released book Across the Universe: The Beatles in India.

50 years after that famous trip, we can look back at it with rose-tinted glasses. After all, nostalgia can be good for the tourism business. “We have earmarked the last three days of the [International Yoga] Festival to celebrate 50 years of the Beatles' visit to Rishikesh,” says Uttarkhand Tourism Minister Satpal Maharaj. In fact, the 14-acre Chaurasi Kutia Ashram where they stayed had fallen into disrepair, the buildings crumbling, covered in graffiti, largely ignored by the local government after Maharishi Mahesh Yogi left. “At the last minute, they are waking up to the possibility,” says Ajoy Bose, “Now I am hearing there will be a museum.” A California-based tribute band, the Fab Four, will play in Rishikesh on 6 March as part of the special Beatles commemoration.

 The Beatles in India: 50 years later, a look at how the bands stay in Rishikesh influenced their discography

McCartney, Lennon, Harrison and Starr with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Facebook/@HistoryInPictures

But in 1968, it was a different story. Bose writes that the Free Press Journal had sensational headlines calling Rishikesh “the hotbed of espionage”. Communist MP K Anirudhan complained in the Lok Sabha that, “The Beatles and hippies have set up their own colony in Rishikesh. And a foreign secret service boss is sitting at the foot of the yogi and living in the inner camp of the ashram ostensibly seeking nirvana.” There was talk that the Maharishi was in “cahoots with the CIA,” writes Bose. While no CIA links were established, a KGB spy admitted he was sent to the ashram.

It was not just the politicians who were suspicious. Some musicians thought Ravi Shankar had become a hippie, selling out India’s cultural traditions by becoming George Harrison’s guru. Other holy men were peeved at the Maharishi’s mega success. “He tells young people that it is easy to find inner peace. That you can drink, smoke and eat anything you want and need only meditate for 15 minutes a day. This is not correct,” Los Angeles-based guru Swami Vishnudevananda complained, according to Bose.

He might have had a point. The Maharishi asked little of his star disciples by way of meditation. It was really a “spa” says Philip Norman, with “nice vegetarian food.” Alcohol and pot were smuggled in as well. The Beatles had just had their experiments with LSD. India was part of the Magical Mystery Tour but for rock stars with short attention spans.

When the Maharishi tried to impress his celebrity disciples by taking them on a helicopter ride, Lennon insisted on being the first to go up. He thought the Maharishi might slip him the secret mantra to happiness while they were up in the air.

“All of this seems comical to us right now,” says Bose. With the hindsight of 50 years, the Beatles come across as rather naïve, wide-eyed white boys from Liverpool with marigold garlands around their neck, embracing the exotic East but not always having the stomach for it. Ringo Starr had chronic stomach issues and could not stand Indian spices. He came with a suitcase of baked beans. His wife Maureen could not deal with Indian bugs and the jungles of Rishikesh were filled with flying insects. They were the first to leave, complaining, writes Saeed Naqvi who covered them for The Statesman and says the ashram was “like a Butlins holiday camp” (Butlins were low-end holiday arrangers in England). McCartney and his girlfriend followed soon.


The band was reaching out to India's ancient wisdom at a time when the country was looking to the West. Twitter/@charlesapple

After six weeks, Lennon stormed off accusing the Maharishi of making a pass at Mia Farrow or her sister Prudence. Lennon then wrote 'Sexy Sadie' which says, “You made a fool of everyone/
Sexy Sadie ooh what have you done?”. Originally, that song was called 'Maharishi'. As they were leaving, the Maharishi asked why they were going. Lennon said, “Well, if you’re so cosmic, you’ll know why.” Later McCartney and Harrison apologised, saying that the accusation was not true, possibly concocted by their electronics engineer Magic Alex, who was jealous of the Maharishi’s influence over Lennon. Bose says Lennon was anxious to leave because he was in love with Yoko Ono, who was sending him postcards from New York. Mahesh Yogi said he was not upset because he could “never be upset with angels”.

Soon the Beatles imploded. So why celebrate the golden anniversary of the Beatles’ all-too-brief passage to India with such fondness?

The answer is not about the headline, Naqvi says. All sub-editors wanted to write at that time about how the 'Beatles seek salvation in a Hindu hermitage’. That did not happen. Only George Harrison remained truly immersed in Hinduism for the rest of his life. The reason India was so important to those who love the Beatles, is because it gave the Fab Four something they never got in their country – the time to be themselves.

They were away from everything that was familiar to them, says Bose. This was not even a luxury holiday. It was the middle of the jungle. They could let their hair down. It would be a mistake to look for sitar twangs to measure the impact of India on the Beatles. The true impact of India is in the volume of work that came out of the time spent Rishikesh. Some 38-40 songs that ended up in The White Album and Abbey Road were written in Rishikesh - songs like 'Dear Prudence', 'Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me' and 'My Monkey' (there were a lot of monkeys in Rishikesh), 'Polythene Pam', 'Blackbird', the never released song 'Dehra Dun' and of course, 'Sexy Sadie'. Even Ringo Starr wrote his first ever song, 'Don’t Pass Me By'. The songs might not sound Indian, but India is in their DNA.

The Beatles would go on to write about 40 songs during their stay in India. Facebook/@AntonioCerdaArdura

The Beatles would go on to write about 40 songs during their stay in India. Facebook/@AntonioCerdaArdura

Ajoy Bose says that for his generation, this was the “first real engagement between the post-colonial younger generation of Indians and a fast changing West.” He remembers how he fought with his father to keep his hair long like the Beatles. His father relented when that doyen of respectability, The Statesman, put the Beatles on the cover of the Junior Statesman. But now, looking back at those heady few weeks, Bose says he is struck by the irony of it all. “We saw the Beatles as a symbol of modernity, of a revolt against parents, against the old authority,” he laughs, “But the Beatles were rejecting their own cultural mores and reaching out to the ancient wisdom of India.”

Or as Lennon wrote in a song he called one of his best:

Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup
They slither wildly as they slip away across the universe
Pools of sorrow, waves of joy are drifting through my opened mind
Possessing and caressing me

Jai Guru Deva, Om
Nothing's going to change my world
Nothing's going to change my world
Nothing's going to change my world
Nothing's going to change my world

But India did change their world.

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Updated Date: Mar 10, 2018 14:12:33 IST