A Magical Idyll's Mystery Future
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
RISHIKESH, India -- With their iconic long hair and necklaces of Indian marigolds, 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 guru's former campus is still known as the Beatles' ashram, a once-whimsical Hobbiton of 15 acres dotted with cozy igloo-like huts and vegetarian food halls. It was here, along the cliffs overlooking the Ganges River, 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 O'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, about 115 miles away. She would also open a job training and rehabilitation center 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 O'Hara said the property has been neglected. She sees her plan as a way to change that.
"Helping India's children would be in the spirit of what the Beatles were in India searching for: generosity, optimism, kindness," said O'Hara, who is also known here by her Indian name, Prabhavati Dwabha. "It's a terrible shame that the Beatles' ashram is lying in waste. This could become a model for other centers that could be built like it around the country."
So far, the government has been unresponsive to the plan. O'Hara said she is frustrated with the Indian 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.