By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
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.
"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."