Inside the ashram
The Maharishi’s Academy of Transcendental Meditation in Rishikesh was situated in a guarded compound in the foothills of the Himalayas, 150 feet above the River Ganges, and was surrounded by mountainous jungles on the other three sides. The compound was reached by a suspension bridge which featured a sign declaring ‘No camels or elephants’, though a ferryboat was the common way of crossing the river.
Although The Beatles’ presence was much publicised by the world’s media, they were part of a much bigger group of fellow meditation students.
There were probably about sixty of us at the ashram, an interesting collection of people from across the world – Sweden, Britain, America, Germany, Denmark – and everyone was so nice. Despite that, we felt cut off from the rest of the world so it was always exciting when letters came in the post – my mother wrote regularly with news of home – or when others joined us. One of the newcomers was Donovan, with his manager, ‘Gipsy Dave’. We had known Donovan for some years. He and the Beatles had recorded together, and he’d contributed to the Yellow Submarine album [sic]. He had fallen in love with Jenny [Boyd] – for whom he wrote Jennifer Juniper. Mike Love, lead singer of the Beach Boys, also turned up, as did the actress Mia Farrow, with her brother Johnny and sister Prudence.
A handful of photo opportunities were held for reporters eager to document The Beatles’ stay, but for the most part they were allowed to remain beyond the compound’s wire fence away from outsiders.
Every so often a tailor would appear and we would get him to make clothes for us. We all wore pyjama trousers and big baggy shirts, and the boys grew beards. It was baking hot during the day so you had to wear loose, flowing Indian clothes. After four in the afternoon it could get quite cold, and when it rained there was no hot water. One evening Maharishi organised boats to take everyone on a trip down the river while two holy men chanted. Then George and Donovan started to sing, and we all joined in with a mixture of English and German songs. It was so beautiful, with mountains on three sides of us. In the setting sun the one to the west turned a deep, deep pink.
The ashram had six simple stone bungalows, each containing five self-contained rooms with two four-poster beds. There were modern sanitary facilities, although the water supply occasionally broke down during their stay. The cottages were set along an unsurfaced road, with a path led down towards the Ganges.
Our arrival at Delhi went very much unheralded. We were bundled unmolested and travel-weary into three battered, ancient Indian taxis without all the usual fuss and frantic rush. It was wonderfully refreshing and stress free. After alighting from the taxis, we were shown to our living quarters. They consisted of a number of stone-built bungalows, set in groups along a rough road. Flowers and shrubs surrounded them and were carefully tended by an Indian gardener whose work speed was dead slow, and stop.
The ashram had around 40 members of staff, including a construction crew, printing works, cooks, cleaners and a masseuse. A swimming pool was being built next to the main lecture building, and a heated dining room was situated near to the kitchens.
Breakfast was held between 7am and 11am, and consisted of porridge, puffed wheat or cornflakes, fruit juices, tea, coffee, and toast. This was followed by meditation practice, which had no rules.
Lunch and dinner both had the same menu: soup followed by a vegetarian main course, and tomato and lettuce salad, turnips, carrots, rice and potatoes. Most meals were held in an open-roofed, glass-walled dining room, in which The Beatles were often joined by monkeys who attempted to steal their food. The Maharishi always ate alone in his bungalow.
At the time Lennon and Harrison were both vegetarians, but Starr found the spicy food disagreed with his stomach – the legacy of a childhood bout of peritonitis – so Mal Evans arranged eggs which were fried, boiled, scrambled or poached. Starr had also brought along a suitcase of baked beans.
In the evenings we got together, occasionally breaking the no-alcohol rule with a glass of hooch, smuggled in by Alex from the village across the river and tasting remarkably like petrol. Giggling like naughty schoolchildren, we’d pass round the bottle each taking a swig, then conorting as it scorched its way down our throats.
The Beatles were enrolled on a Transcendental Meditation teachers’ course, which consisted of 90-minute lectures from 3.30pm and 8.30pm, with the students describing their meditative experiences and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi answering their questions. Much of the time, however, was spent in a series of meditation sessions which became progressively longer.
The two who were most engrossed in Maharishi’s teachings were John and George. They would meditate for hours, and George was very focused. I loved meditating, but I can’t sustain that sort of intensity for long. Sometimes I would leave George meditating and make a foray to Mussoorie and Dheradun, Tibetan trading posts. At that time China was slowly taking over Tibet, whose people were being pushed out of their country as their culture was destroyed.
Ever keen to put his faith in others, John Lennon proved particularly eager to learn from Maharishi.
One day Maharishi needed to get to New Delhi and back for something, so someone suggested a helicopter. When it arrived we all trooped down, a bouncing line of devotees, coming down a narrow dusty track to the Ganges, singing, being delightful. Very like the Hare Krishnas, marvellous, chatting away. We got down ot the Ganges, the helicopter landed and then they asked, ‘Does anyone want a quick go before Maharishi takes off?’ John jumped up. ‘Yea, yea, yeah, yeah!’ John got there first, and there was only room for one.
So later I asked John, ‘Why were you so keen? You really wanted to get in that helicopter.’ ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘I thought he might slip me the answer!’ Which is very revealing about John. I suppose everyone is always looking for the Holy Grail. I think John thought he might find it. I think it shows an innocence really, a naivety. It’s quite touching really.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles