(Clockwise from left) A Beatles album cover; the Fab Four with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh; and the ashram
Rishikesh, Dec. 19: Iconic long hair and marigold necklaces in place, the Beatles journeyed to this city in the foothills of the Himalayas in the late 1960s. They were at the height of their fame, but they came to escape material wealth and the pressures of celebrity.
Their destination: an ashram, where they would study with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of transcendental meditation.
Today, nearly 40 years later, the gurus former campus is still known as the Beatles ashram, a 15-acre expanse dotted with cosy igloo-like huts and vegetarian food halls. It was here, along the cliffs overlooking the Ganga, that the Fab Four hunkered down in the spring of 1968 to compose as many as 48 songs, including Revolution, While My Guitar Gently Weeps and Blackbird.
Tourists and adventurers sporting dreadlocks, Birkenstocks and Hindu goddess T-shirts still show up in this self-proclaimed yoga capital of the world. They come in search of enlightenment and stress relief, and they find hotels offering ayurvedic third eye massages, chakra rebalancing and the chance to visit the ashram where the Beatles once slept.
But many visitors are surprised to find that the ashram, now owned by the government, is closed and dilapidated, filled with overgrown weeds and slowly being destroyed by desperately poor villagers who loot the teak furnishings and sell them for firewood.
There is, however, a new vision for the ashram.
Maggie Hara, a former Hollywood actress who has lived in India running schools for the poor for the past 30 years, has submitted a plan to the government to turn the ashram into a home and school for 2,500 street children from New Delhi. She would also open a job training and rehabilitation centre for 500 women.
Ten of the 500 rooms would be used as an eco-hotel, where guests could volunteer to work with the children or simply relax in the same ashram where John Lennon searched for the meaning of life and George Harrison worked to perfect his sitar playing.
The campus has been vacant for 12 years, since the authorities who oversaw the ashram abandoned it. The government then took it over, but Hara said the property has been neglected. She sees her plan as a way to change that.
Helping Indias children would be in the spirit of what the Beatles were in India searching for: generosity, optimism, kindness, said Hara, who is also known here by her Indian name, Prabhavati Dwabha.
Its a terrible shame that the Beatles ashram is lying in waste. This could become a model for other centres that could be built like it around the country.
So far, the government has been unresponsive to the plan. Hara said she is frustrated with the bureaucracy and fears the project might never come to fruition.
The plan seems caught between several government agencies, including the ministry of women and child development, which could approve moving the homeless into the ashram; the forest department, which controls the land; and the central government, which has yet to take action.
Ive never heard of that plan. But Im always open-minded. I do think its a jolly good idea to use the Beatles ashram for something. But we are not saying yes or saying no, said women and child development minister Renuka Chowdhury.
I can say that its never a good idea to shift people geographically, like moving them from Delhi to Rishikesh, away from their languages and their home. Its a complex issue and something we will have to take a look at.
Hara disputed Chowdhurys account and said she personally submitted the plans and placed them in the ministers hands. More broadly though, Hara said, the government should capitalise on the Beatles legacy and use the ashram to help the countrys poor children.
We are saying that the idea to bundle away the poor is so cruel. And at the same time, we are offering a plan to help several thousand women and children, Hara said, adding that she has raised more than $1 million for her plans for the ashram and that the government wont have to spend a single rupee.
The ashram has, at least symbolically, retained an important role in the annals of rock-and-roll history and 1960s counterculture.
The Beatles time in Rishikesh is often described as one of their happiest and most creative periods. They ate communally and relaxed, free from the constant watch of the media. They learned the maharishis philosophy that repeating a word, or mantra, helps the body relax.
But things quickly grew troubled for the band, the maharishi and the ashram.
First, Ringo Starr left early, citing the irritation of bugs, heat and spicy vegetarian food. The band then became disillusioned with the maharishi, who allegedly started asking them for millions of dollars and was seen aggressively hitting on the women they travelled with.
Lennon wrote the song Sexy Sadie about the maharishi. It begins: Sexy Sadie, what have you done?/You made a fool of everyone. A year and a half later, the Beatles announced they were breaking up.
Hara and other advocates for the homeless say the ashrams legacy could still become a happy one, if only the government would approve her plan.
Some musicians who worked with the Beatles during their visit also said that they wished the issue could be resolved and that a piece of the worlds music history is being wasted.
Filmmaker Mira Nair, director of such Hollywood features as The Namesake, has recently said she is making a film about the Beatles search for spirituality in Rishikesh. Some musicians said they hoped Haras plan could be implemented before the movie creates a buzz and corporate hotels seek to buy the property.
George Harrison was always giving to the street children. He had such a beautiful soul, said Ajay B. Dass, who owns Rikhi Ram in New Delhi, one of the countrys oldest sitar shops and the place where Harrison bought his first sitar.
I know if he were alive today, he would feel sad that the ashram couldnt be used to help them instead of being empty and without life.