His ashram hosted disciples from the world over. He probably chose Rishikesh because it provided the right address for gurus with spiritual credentials. His ashram, not an open house, was run like a gated spiritual community.
Newspaper obits on Maharishi Mahesh Yogi highlight the time spent by the Beatles at his Rishikesh ashram in the ‘60s. For those of us in newspapers, the Beatles’ stay at the ashram in 1968 was a major media event. Several reporters, including many representing the British media, descended on Rishikesh, a sleepy pilgrim town in North India peopled by saintly souls and yogis on a renunciation mode.
Unlike most other residents who chose Rishikesh to lead a life of relative obscurity at the Himalayan foothills, Mahesh Yogi wasn’t a seeker of enlightened anonymity. His ashram hosted disciples from the world over. He probably chose Rishikesh because it provided the right address for gurus with spiritual credentials. His ashram, not an open house, was run like a gated spiritual community. Located on the far side of the Ganges, his place was accessible from Rishikesh town only through a pedestrian suspension bridge over the river, the Lakshman Jhoola. You needed clearance to gain entry into the Maharishi ashram, tucked away in the densely wooded hill area.
A helipad near the ashram, built with Mahesh Yogi’s blessings, facilitated his high profile disciples who preferred to air-dash to the ashram backyard, rather than motoring from Delhi to Rishikesh. The cottages at the ashram had all the basic comforts, including geysers and air-conditioners, suited to VIP lifestyle.
The secluded location and the security arrangements at the ashram ensured that the celebrity inmates were insulated from prying outsiders, notably the media. Newspaper reporters were not allowed. I went into the ashram for a look-see under the pretence of being part of a TV documentary crew. Newspaper reporters, under pressure to produce stories on the goings-on at the ashram, relied on visitors’ tales and on accounts of obliging ashram staffers.
News agencies such as PTI and UNI maintained a constant watch, while major newspapers had their stringers camping at Rishikesh. The Statesman, New Delhi, deputed a reporter on the Beatles beat. My friend Saeed Naqvi of The Statesman, along with a staff photographer, drove from Delhi to Rishikesh every weekend looking for a Beatles story. I don’t know if Saeed ever got an interview with them.
I did manage to spot Paul McCartney, and even exchanged pleasantries with him, while location scouting for a documentary on the pilgrim town. He had apparently strayed out of the ashram and was walking about on his own on an isolated stretch of the river bank. Our TV producer Yavar Abbas, for whom I was then a legman, and his cameraman from London walked up to Paul for a chat. The Beatle, suitably amused to see a fellow Brit at such a desolate spot, indulged in small talk for a while.
The chance encounter would have given Yavar valuable footage. But then our cameraman had left behind his equipment across the river at Shivananda ashram, which was where we were staying. The next day we gained access into the ashram, thanks to some glib talking by Yavar who was filming a documentary – Faces of India – to be telecast on BBC. (There is a reference in a post by blogger Paul Mason to Yavar’s film footage shot during our visit to the ashram.)
We had an audience with Mahesh Yogi, but the Beatles were nowhere to be seen. Instead, we found a large group of Russians at the congregation. They were officials and technicians visiting a public sector drug manufacturing unit set up at Rishikesh with Soviet collaboration. The next day my newspaper carried a story headlined – Mahesh Yogi Ropes in Russians.
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