Magic Bus, page 21
I spend my evenings in Varanasi descending to the river at dusk to watch the lighting of the widow lamps, their cane baskets hoisted atop arched bamboo poles. I hear the crack of brazier coals, the lowing of cows and the cry of an owl. Funeral parties await their turn at the burning platform while along the shore hundreds of saffron-robed children sit cross-legged on mats, singing their evening prayers to the river.
My scepticism makes me doubt that I – unlike the faithful who come here to die – stand on the threshold of enlightenment. I don’t wake each morning aware of a new cosmic truth. I’m not anticipating an imminent release from the cycle of birth and death. My dreams don’t elevate me toward sublime, High Romantic visions and the stars. But I see here the importance the sixties placed on the individual, inner journey, as well as the decade’s enduring legacy of transcendental – transcending – travel.
‘Stop trying not to die,’ Ginsberg wrote during his sixteen-month Indian sojourn, ‘fly where you can fly.’
Sky and water are the same luminous blue, and a rowboat, its oars dipping into and lifting out of the airy fluid, seems to be swept downstream by an invisible hand. I listen out for voices on the river and hear tourists float by the ghats.
I backtrack 500 miles to reach the mother of pop ashrams, following the Ganges north-west until lines of slender hills rise out of the plain like the fingers of a Himalayan hand. On a knuckle of earth stands Hardwar, Gateway to the Gods. Hindus flock here in their millions to bathe in the ice-blue waters that rush out of the mountains. On the station platform I side-step a troop of red-assed monkeys and hail an autorickshaw to take me the final few miles upstream. The road is jammed with weekend pilgrims. Ardent devotees fly spangled banners from overheated Ambassadors. Two-wheeled sadhus cycle with Char Dham prayer flags on their handlebars. The blare of klaxons and clang of bells echoes into the open pine woods and off the far dark cliffs.
Rishikesh, tucked into a cleft between steep hills, flanks the narrowing river. My driver drops me, deafened now by the mobile piety and his tortured engine, at a slender footbridge. A scruffy Carnaby Street spreads along the near bank. I push past its souvenir-and photo-shops and over the eddying water, my progress slowed by an idling calf, toward a sacred, retail precinct of tapering temples.
On the far shore, numberless holy men daub themselves with ash. Beggars ring their alms bowls with – depending on their age – the high rattle of youthful exuberance, a persistent, middle-aged tick-tick or a single, sombre death knell. Day-trippers in colourful saris ignore them, as do their husbands, while buying ice cream. Shops sell plastic beakers for collecting the sacred water. A ragged, barefoot boy runs in front of me, pausing first at a sweet stall then a toy stand, at each stop holding out his hands. Between Ayurvedic chemists and spiritual bookshops (top sellers: Christ Lived in India and J. K. Rowling) a woman wraps her tame boa around by passers’ shoulders and earns a few rupees for each photograph.
In 1962, Ginsberg sampled this ‘pure and sacred atmosphere’, writing in his diary about clear-skinned, shining-eyed youth and homeless women ‘dressed in orange robes and singing Sanskrit hymns to nirvana’. Until then, Rishikesh was little known outside the Hindu world. Only a very few Intrepids had joined the ecstatic, once-in-a-lifetime pilgrims crossing the river by the open ferry. But the City of Saints rose to international attention in 1968 with the arrival of the Beatles, whose five-week stay changed for ever the trail, Western fashion and our perception of India.
George Harrison had long been attracted to the East. In 1965, he first met Ginsberg and heard the sitar. Within a year, he was a student of Ravi Shankar, a great Indian sitar master. Harrison’s haunting playing of the instrument on ‘Norwegian Wood’ inspired Brian Jones to use it on the Rolling Stones’ ‘Paint It Black’. He invited Shankar to perform at the seminal Monterey Pop Festival. The sitar had a profound influence on the Beatles’ work, as did Hinduism in Harrison’s life. Sales of Indian instruments soared, along with popular interest in Eastern religion and philosophy.
In 1967, Ginsberg, wearing a Tibetan oracle ring and brandishing finger-cymbals, dropped in on Paul McCartney at his London house. Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful happened to be there that day. They listened to his prayers and poetry and discussed Eastern mysticism: the need to reach beyond the material world, the Hindu belief in the World-Soul, Buddhism’s ‘four noble truths’. A few weeks later, all four Beatles, along with Jagger and Faithful, attended a weekend initiation seminar with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The giggling guru was in the UK to promote his Westernized version of the ancient Vedic quest for unbounded bliss. ‘Expansion of happiness is the purpose of life, and evolution is the process through which it is fulfilled,’ he assured his audience. Five months later, the Beatles – along with Donovan, Mike Love of the Beach Boys and a trailer load of Hollywood movie stars – arrived at his Academy for Transcendental Meditation in Rishikesh.
‘We wanted to try to expand spiritually,’ McCartney said of the experience, voicing the spiritual cravings of a generation, ‘or at least find some sort of format for all the various things we were interested in: Indian music, Allen Ginsberg, poetry, mantras, mandalas, tantra, all the stuff we’d seen.’
Their stay was a mixed success, ending for Harrison and Lennon in mutual confusion, anger and accusation. Ringo hated the food and flies. But as well as filling – as McCartney said – ‘a little bit of emptiness in our souls, a lack of spiritual fulfilment’, those few weeks were a period of remarkable creativity. Almost all the songs that would appear on the White Album and Abbey Road were composed beside the Ganges. The phenomenal success of the Beatles and their music conjured India and Nepal into the hip destination.
In Rishikesh I set out to find the Academy. At first, no local seems familiar with Transcendental Meditation. The manager of the Green Hotel not only doesn’t know of the Maharishi, he has never heard of the Beatles. Perhaps my pronunciation confuses him. At the Swarg ashram, one of the dozens in town, an aged ascetic tells me to walk along the Ganges, ‘past the yellow house’. As every third house is a dirty shade of yellow, his advice isn’t particularly helpful. But outside the Sri Ved Niketan ashram I stop a tall white yoga teacher. ‘Follow the path over the bridge, then turn up a dry riverbed,’ says Australian Michelle. ‘Ahh, the swami here will take you.’
At my arm appears a spindle-thin, silver-haired holy man dressed in a cotton robe. His forehead is banded by ash. In his right hand is a bucket of Ganges water. In his left he carries a staff. I didn’t hear him approach, but he nods to me and I follow, walking one step behind him in silence away from the town.
The swami moves like a leggy girl, elegant and effete, his slender, brown feet barely leaving an impression in the soft sand. After half a mile we reach the riverbed and turn inland. A high brick wall encircles acres of wooded hill. He gestures toward it with a gracious twist of his hand. We pass through a Hobbit-like gatehouse, glide up a snaking concrete avenue and squeeze through a line of barbed wire into the vast compound. Vines smother the main buildings. Saplings displace the cobblestones. The terraced gardens are wild with weeds and howling monkeys. Around us mushroom 120 river-stone meditation houses. The Academy is deserted.
The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi developed his tidy meditation technique while living as a recluse in the Himalayas in the 1950s. The repetition of a simple mantra for twenty minutes twice a day was said to unlock one’s ‘inner genius’. In India, Transcendental Meditation met with little success so, in 1958, the Maharishi took it abroad. In 1965, forty students at UCLA enrolled on an early course. Ten years later – after the Beatles’ flirtation with TM – there were 600,000 adherents in the US. Today, 4 million people are said to practise around the world. Maharishi Vedic City, ‘Capital for the Global Country for World Peace’, with schools, university and massive 2,000-seat Halls of Bliss, strives for an earthly utopia in the heart of the Iowa cornbelt. The Maharishi himself controlled this billion-dollar corporate empire into his
At his meditation mushroom, beneath a great overhanging oak, the long-limbed swami sits, tucks his left leg underneath him and says nothing. Behind him, I pick out the original lecture hall where the Beatles received instruction from the Maharishi. I also spot the ruined bungalow where Prudence, Mia Farrow’s reclusive sister, stayed. At her front door, Lennon wrote, then sang with McCartney, ‘Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play…’
A mauna or vow of silence can last for years so, in lieu of conversation, the swami agrees to mime answers to my questions. I ask him first if anyone still practises TM at the abandoned compound. He laughs without a sound and draws a definitive ‘X’ in space. Next I ask if the Beatles’ cottages are still standing. Each boasted a four-poster bed, a dressing table and occasional hot running water. He draws another ‘X’ between us. Not a guitar string remains to be found. Finally, I ask if the local tailor who dressed the Maharishi’s pupils in distinctive pyjamas and tinselly waistcoats, creating a look which was adopted by all flower children, is alive. A third big ‘X’.
Then the swami clutches his stomach.
‘Are you feeling unwell?’ I ask him.
He shakes his head and points at me.
‘Am I unwell? No. I’m fine.’
He throws his head back in laughter, again in silence, and makes a gesture of listening to his chest with a stethoscope.
‘A doctor? You want to see a doctor? I want to see a doctor?’
Finally, he pretends to strum a guitar while tossing his head back and forth as if singing a pop song.
‘A musical doctor?’ I ask. ‘The Beatles’ doctor!’
The swami leans back on a huge orange cushion and smiles with divine satisfaction.
I descend back to town, the name and address of the Beatles’ doctor written on a scrap of paper. Mangy sadhus, believers who renounce all worldly goods in their spiritual quest, puff hashish on the narrow, corridor-like streets. A revered mahant in beads and blossoms blows a conch shell. Israelis in dreadlocks float off to yoga class. A stoned German reads Tolkien under a hand-painted sign which warns ‘Western Tourist Murdered by Chillum Smokers’.
I cross to the west bank and plunge into a frantic mêlée of pilgrims’ buses and rickshaw repair shops. On Railway Road, between a nursing home and a men’s outfitters (‘Excite inner wear for the sensuous man’), I find the red-brick Guru-Dev-poly Clinic.
‘Welcome,’ says Dr K. P. Singh, holding out his hand. ‘Please come in.’ He is a compact, energetic sixty-year-old with pencil moustache and beak-like nose. ‘I offer spiritual treatment alongside full modern Western medicine.’
His surgery is a two-room, neon-lit, cross-cultural refuge. Holistic Ayurvedic health care is provided in the left-hand room. In his right-hand office, Singh proffers Viagra, Canesten cream and ECGs. ‘VAT, aches and pain, tone up and sexual disorders’ are his areas of speciality.
I explain that my needs aren’t medical, and Singh, courteous and mannerly, invites me to sit down.
‘Ah, the four mop-tops,’ he says, offering me a cup of his Himalayan tea. ‘The swami never speaks an untruth.’
‘He never speaks,’ I remind him.
‘I served as the Maharishi’s medical officer during the Beatles’ stay at the Academy.’
As a child in Gorakhpur, Singh contracted polio. His parents prayed for his health, promising to make him a doctor if he recovered. His survival was to them a miracle, a rebirth, and they encouraged Singh ‘to serve the people and nation’. After graduation in early 1968, Singh’s first posting was Rishikesh.
‘I knew of the Beatles from newspapers but I had never heard their music,’ he says, pushing the thinning grey curls back from his ears. ‘I sat with them on the banks of the Ganga most days. You see, they had no one to talk English with but the Maharishi and me.’
‘Were you with them that evening when the whole ashram walked to the travelling cinema?’ I ask. A procession of about a hundred people, decked in hibiscus and frangipani, strolled down the path into town. ‘When McCartney first played “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da”?’
He nods, answering, ‘They were not allowed to make very large music during their stay.’
‘And did you join them the night they drifted downstream in boats under the stars singing together?’
‘In the mornings and evenings the Beatles played on the roof of their cottages, but most of the time they were silent, living just in their rooms.’
And writing more than forty songs including ‘Blackbird’, ‘I Will’ and ‘Across the Universe’.
The Academy had no rules or timetables but breakfast tended to be followed by meditation. Afternoons were free for sunbathing and sightseeing. One day, at the long communal table, McCartney started composing ‘Back in the USSR’ on his acoustic guitar and Mike Love – amused by the take-off of Beach Boys harmonies – suggested adding some lines about Russian girls. He wrote ‘Rocky Racoon’ sitting on the ashram roof with Lennon and Donovan.
‘I understand they came here to find a path away from drugs,’ I say.
Since turned on to pot by Dylan in 1964, the Beatles – like almost every sixties rock ‘n’ roll group – had embarked on a heady exploration of hallucinogenics. By 1968, they wanted to cross the universe without LSD.
‘Mr Harrison aspired to reach God through music. He said that material things had become unimportant to him. They all tried to find a world apart from that of money and business. So they talked to me of spirituality, and how to make donations to orphans and the handicapped.’
The Maharishi gave two lectures each day and, in return, he asked the Beatles’ advice on how best to promote TM. Singh often sat at the back of the lecture hall pondering how best to deal with Ringo’s flatulence (he had brought a suitcase of baked beans from the UK).
‘They were very affectionate to me. And it was a new experience to treat the richest men of the world. Years later, Mr Harrison sent his eternal thoughts to me,’ he says. Then he adds, ‘Do you enjoy my tea? It improves freshness in the blood, concentration, memory and eyesight.’
‘How did their visit change Rishikesh?’ I ask, nodding my approval and wondering if the Beatles had drunk it too.
‘Their visit brought knowledge of yoga to many Western people. Now they come to Rishikesh every day looking – like you – for health and peace of mind.’
‘Looking for nirvana too?’
‘That is a little more difficult to find. Especially because…’ he hesitates. ‘Much of a doctor’s business here is with narcotics abuse. Unfortunately, many of the visitors seem unaware that the four mop-tops renounced drugs.’
I buy a jar of his tea. Singh gives me a second to pass on to Paul McCartney ‘when you next see him’. On the wall behind him is an American Medical Association lumbar-spine-exercise chart and a plaque from the Divine Light Society. His clinic’s name – Guru-Dev-poly – combines the ancient Greek word for ‘many’ with the name of his and the Maharishi’s guru. As I stand to leave, he asks me to photograph him outside his clinic.
‘One day, two monks were looking at a flag pole,’ he says as I take out my camera. ‘The first one said that the flag was moving. The second responded that the wind was moving. The Sixth Patriarch happened to be passing by and, hearing their argument, told them, “It’s neither the flag nor the wind. It is the mind that is moving.”’
I whistle ‘Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da’ back over the Ganges and up the path along which it had first been sung. A damp patchwork of brilliant saris and ochre cloaks dries on the stone steps. Marigold petals line the water’s sandy edge as if the river itself radiates an orange aura. The swami – whose name is Narayananda Saraswati – has no objection to me spending a night in one of the deserted mushrooms. At least, he doesn’t express any reservation. At dusk we sit together in silence watching camphor candles float past us on our hilltop, twinkling points of light and memory sweeping away on the black current toward the indistinct horizon.
I lie down to sleep on an ol
To be first in the queue, I reach Hardwar station before dawn. But the ticket hall, waiting rooms and platforms are already knee-deep in bodies. Three or four thousand people appear to have fled a storm and taken refuge in the station. Except this storm will never pass. It rages without stop, night after night, in the land of a billion souls.
Narrow pathways snake between sleepers lying on the concrete, beside steel trunks, with and without blankets. I step around dozing pilgrims and beggar children curved together in protective embrace. Next to them, a young woman stretches herself awake, shaking the red plastic bangles on her wrists, arching her back like a scarlet cat. Behind her is the booking office.
‘Sir, you must attend to Room 5 Platform 1,’ says the clerk. The sign above his head reads, ‘All tickets can be bought here.’
Room 5 Platform 1 is closed. As arrows of light pierce the grey sky, a kindly school boy takes my hand and walks me over the bridge to the advance booking office. I queue for thirty minutes at the Enquiries window to learn that there is one seat left on the first Delhi train. On a torn slip of paper I write the train number, the date and my details, then join the booking queue. An hour later, when I am only two places from the front, all of Indian Railways’ employees – 1.44 million by the last count – take a collective tea break.