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A Magical Idyll's Mystery Future

John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison, with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Wales in 1967. The next year, the group traveled to India, where members became disillusioned with the maharishi, who allegedly started asking them for millions of dollars and was seen pursuing the band's female companions.
John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison, with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Wales in 1967. The next year, the group traveled to India, where members became disillusioned with the maharishi, who allegedly started asking them for millions of dollars and was seen pursuing the band's female companions. (Associated Press)

"I've never heard of that plan. But I'm always open-minded. I do think it's a jolly good idea to use the Beatles' ashram for something. But we are not saying yes or saying no," said Renuka Chowdhury, India's minister of women and child development. "I can say that it's never a good idea to shift people geographically, like moving them from Delhi to Rishikesh, away from their languages and their home. It's a complex issue and something we will have to take a look at."

O'Hara disputed Chowdhury's account and said she "personally submitted the plans" and placed them in the minister's hands. More broadly though, O'Hara said, the government should capitalize on the Beatles' legacy and use the ashram to help the country's poor children. According to the government, 170 million children, or 40 percent of India's youth, "are in need," meaning they require help obtaining food, shelter and clothing.

"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," O'Hara said, adding that she has raised more than $1 million for her plans for the ashram and that the government "won't have to spend a single rupee."

The project could be good for Rishikesh, where the divide between the poor and the rich is widening. At dawn, on the dusty platform of the city's nearest train station, unshowered and homeless mothers awake near the garbage-strewn tracks just as wealthy Indian and foreign tourists arrive.

Some of the most desperate mothers can be seen cutting their toddler's foreheads until they bleed. They then push the wobbling children to panhandle from Western tourists, who arrive on the platforms with yoga bags and end up in tears before their first relaxation stretches.

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 maharishi's 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 traveled 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.

O'Hara and other advocates for the homeless say the ashram's legacy could still become a happy one, if only the government would approve her plan.

Indian 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 world's 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 Indian musicians said they hoped O'Hara's 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 country's 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 couldn't be used to help them instead of being empty and without life."


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