Photos of the ‘Beatles Ashram’ in Rishikesh


In 1968 The Beatles went to India to study at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's ashram in Rishikesh. While there, the Beatles wrote much of the White Album: 'Dear Prudence' was written to coax Prudence Farrow out of her meditative seclusion; 'Bungalow Bill' was apparently inspired by the son of an American visitor who went tiger-hunting; 'Mother Nature's Son' (and the unreleased 'Child of Nature') were based on a lecture by the Maharishi; and 'Why Don't We Do it In the Road' was written by Paul McCartney, inspired by the carefree mating of some monkeys in the ashram.


Lennon and Harrison stayed for a couple of months, leaving after a disagreement with the Maharishi, probably arising from accusations of sexual impropriety. The falling-out is referred to in the song 'Sexy Sadie'. It was originally titled 'Maharishi' but changed either to avoid libel or at Harrison's request. There is apparently a vicious outtake full of obscenities aimed at the Maharishi.


The ashram's land was rented from the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department. The site is 14 acres and features a couple of large buildings, various smaller structures and dozens of egg-shaped two storey stone huts. Starr later compared the ashram to "a kind of spiritual Butlins". In 1997 the site was returned to the Forest Department and left to grow wild. The buildings are slowly falling into ruin. There is some footage of the site in its prime on an old Pathe newsreel.


Officially the grounds are out-of-bounds and signs on the gates read 'No Entry'. But it's fairly common knowledge that a 50 rupee payment to the guards will get you access. There are also guided tours available but I didn't manage to organise one in the time available.


While there are no traces of the Beatles themselves, the ashram has an amazing atmosphere. I love ruins and this site is incredibly atmospheric, with lots of stairways and long, dark corridors. I have an over-active imagination and would probably have had a heart attack if anyone had jumped out at me. I waited until returning with my friends Emily and Caspar before exploring some sections.


As you can see from Johnny Vagabond's photos, the old yoga center shown below is regularly repainted.


All around the site were small two-storey huts. In one was writter the words 'John Lennon was here', but I suspect that graffiti was not original. The huts were small but cosy, and I'm surprised no-one has tried to turn the site into a hotel. 


There were two large buildings with egg-like structures on the top. These were the most interesting part of the trip with the roof reached by some spooky stairways (to see the graffiti better click on the photo to load a larger version):


There are ladders on the side of the 'eggs' which lead to a hole in the top. Inside the top half of the egg is a chamber. People were chanting inside one of them when we passed.


I loved visiting this place. On my second visit with Emily and Caspar there were more tourists around, and many of them were hanging out on the roof. It was a fantastic atmosphere.  


How not to have a dull life


I love non-fiction books that are written about a very specific area yet have something to say about life in general. A good example is Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn. It's about how buildings adapt after they're built, but has a lot to say about things like the importance of maintenance versus repair. Another example is Keith Johnstone's Impro. Subtitled 'Improvisation and the theatre', Johnstone also takes the opportunity to discuss the influence of his art on his life.

I discovered the book through Michael Coveney's biography of Ken Campbell, The Great Caper. Coveney describes a bizarre weekend course inspired by Johnstone's Impro and the Dice Man that Campbell put on during a period of "volative personal life". A quote from Impro led me to buying the book and I was not disappointed.

Johnstone writes in great detail about acting but he is never overly technical or boring. He also makes some curious and fascinating asides. My favourite comes during a discussion of blocking in improvised scenes. Johnstone describes how many actors 'close down' a scene, ignoring the possibilities introduced by other players, giving detailed examples of actors blocking the 'offers' they receive. He then concludes:

"People with dull lives often think that their lives are dull by chance. In reality everyone chooses more or less what kind of events will happen to them by their conscious patterns of blocking and yielding. A student objected to this view by saying, ‘But you don’t choose your life. Sometimes you are at the mercy of people who push you around.’ I said, ‘Do you avoid such people?’ ‘Oh!’ she said, ‘I see what you mean."

It's a single paragraph at the end of the discussion but a thought-provoking one. Johnstone suggests that life itself can be seen as an improvisational game. Having an interesting life is not something that happens by chance, but a skill that can be learned.

A strange job


The photograph above shows a tank near the Jodh Bai palace in Fatepur Sikri. A group of men were sat in the sun and, when they saw me, shouted that they would jump into the water for 150 rupees (£2). I declined. Later, a group of tourists gathered and one of them did leap into the water. I don't know how they collected the man collected his fee, or if they did. It seemed like a strange way to make a living (but I also saw much worse jobs in India).


A day-trip to Agra


Often the major tourist destinations in a city are less interesting than some of the more obscure places. On my first trip to Agra I visited the Taj Mahal and found it slightly underwhelming. The Taj is beautiful, but somehow the experience of being at one of the world's great tourist attractions overwhelms the location's glory. (I wonder what it was like to visit the Taj Mahal in the 50s when Allen Ginsberg could sleep overnight in the compound?)

On my second trip to Agra I went on a Friday, when the Taj was closed. Instead my destination was Fatepur Sikri, a ruined city about 30km away.  This was founded as the capital of the Mughal Empire in the 16th century but was soon abandoned due to water shortages. We took the early train from Delhi and hired a driver from the state tourist office. We had chai then set off for the main site.


The buildings are truly incredible, although there are some very hardworking touts. Even the most persistent of them couldn't detract from the amazing buildings. Below is the gateway to the Jama Masjid:


Behind the main palace was the Caravanserai where visiting merchants stayed. It was an evocative location, impossible not to imagine the people who might have gathered there. Behind the Caravanserai is the lighthouse-like Hiran Minar. This is said to be a monument to the Emporer Akbar's favourite execution elephant and is decorated with hundreds of stone elephant tusks.


Fatepur Sikri was an incredible place to visit, yet there were very few tourists there. On the way back we visited some other locations, including Akbar's Mauseoleum:


Near sunset we went to the Mehtab Bagh gardens, across the Yamuna river from the Taj. There is a small, free viewing area nearby but we paid to enter the gardens for a respite from the touts. Between the gardens and the riverbank is a muddy no-man's land. One tourist had found their way onto it and we watched a Ballardian scene as they were intercepted by guards and led back to the road.


Climbing in Hampi


I had an enjoyable small adventure while I was in Hampi. Dad and I were exploring the Royal Center and saw some temples on a hill in the distance. We followed a path into some scrubland to get a better look when we realised a guard was following us.

We expected to be told that we had to turn back. Instead the guard said he had to check some temples and did we want to join him? He led us through a gap in the barbed wire fence and up into the hills nearby.

(Yes, I was wearing a hoodie in the desert. It keeps the sun off)

We were led towards a group of buildings among some rocks. Up on the hill it was incredibly quiet – cars are banned from the heritage areas of Hampi, making it very peaceful. Dad waited in the shade of a large boulder and I headed for the temples.


I'm not much of a climber so the section below was quite a challenge. The man I was following told me to take my DMs off as I'd get better grip in bare feet. With his help I managed to scramble up onto the top of the hill.


I wasn't sure about the climbing (I suspect my insurance didn't cover me for such escapades), but I was glad I took the chance. The views from the top of the rock were incredible. Now I'm back in Brighton there's a part of me that would love to be in Hampi instead. 







One of my favourite places on my trip to India was Hampi. This village lies within the site of a city destroyed in the 16th century by an invading army. Temples and ruins are scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.

The area is also supposed to have been Kishkinda, the monkey kingdom of the Ramayana, where Lord Hanuman was recruited to help Ram (the Ramayana is brilliantly re-told in the free-to-view/download animation Sita Sings the Blues). Legend says that the rocks and boulders in the landscape were placed by the monkey warriors flinging them in tests of strength.  Dad and I spent a few days in Hampi, but I could have happily spent a week there. 


I went on one of the most amazing hikes of my life in this countryside, trying to reach a temple that is reputed to be Hanuman's birthplace. We had to cross the river twice – first with the standard 20 rupee ferry crossing near the ruins of the new bridge. The Lonely Planet states that the bridge "mysteriously collapsed, taking away with it all hopes of cycling across" Which I guess works out well for the ferrymen.


The second crossing was made on the way back, when we were a little lost. We found someone with a group of coracles, who took full advantage of the fact we were lost and tired when negotiating. The fact that the river was only about 50 feet wide made no difference. It's hard to negotiate when you're on the wrong side of a river.


The aim of our walk was the Hanuman temple at the top of Anjanadri Hill. Reached by a 570-step climb, this is reputed to be Hanuman's birthplace. The hike took us through beautiful countryside and while we were never truly lost, we always had that pleasant feeling of not being quite sure where we were.  


Apparently, in the 90's Hampi only had four guesthouses, and hippies used to sleep in the caves. Now there are a lot of guesthouses and restaurants. One of these (whose menu announced 'Fell Like Home') had a number of dishes containing 'Huhn'. When I asked what this was, the waiter said "Chicken, but we don't have any." All meat is banned from Hampi for religious reasons, and I appeared to have found myself in a possible meateasy.


A beautiful article about programming for non-programmers

While I was on holiday, I had a conversation with my friend Emily about programming. She's not a particularly technical person and felt overwhelmed by the things she didn't know about computers. She could use them but she didn't understand them.

While computers are embedded in everyday Western life, most people don't know how to program. I guess it's a manifestation of the two cultures problem. When I was studying for my BSc in Theoretical Physics at Sussex there was an Arts/Science programme. 5% of science degrees were assessed on a pair of arts courses. I was told that a similar Science/Arts programme had never got off the ground because the humanities departments were so resistant.

Personally, I think that an understanding of ideas like evolution and the big bang, basic statistics knowledge and a concept of how a computer works are as important as knowing the story of Hamlet, familiarity with canonical poems such as Ozymandius and Dulce and Decorum Est or a working knowledge of English history. I don't expect everyone to be able to program, but everyone should know enough that they feel they could if they needed to.

Apparently Slate allow their writers a month each year to work on an ambitious project. Annie Lowrie used this opportunity to learn to program, resulting in Where's _why an amazing article about programming, which threads together the story of _why the lucky stiff with a discussion of an non-programmer's first steps in programming.

You may not want to become a programmer, but the article is worth reading. One particular quote from _why sums up the sort of excitement I felt when I first compiled a C program: "[Programming] will teach you to express your ideas through a computer. You will be writing stories for a machine … All you need to know thus far is that Ruby is basically built from sentences. They aren’t exactly English sentences. They are short collections of words and punctuation [that] encompass a single thought. These sentences can form books. They can form pages. They can form entire novels, when strung together. Novels that can be read by humans, but also by computers.

Journalism as a trade is in a lot of trouble, as demonstrated by Nick Cohen's excellent book Flat Earth News. At the same time, we are in the midst of a golden age of journalistic writing, as showcased by sites like longform (where I found this article). Annie Lowrie's piece could, I think, stand among the pieces collected in Wolfe's New Journalism collection.

My new project: A PhD!

I'm returning to Sussex University in April. This will be my fourth course there since I studied for my BSc in Theoretical Physics during the 90's. This time I'll be working part-time towards a Doctorate in English Literature.

The topic I'll be investigating is the way in which the Internet has undermined counter-culture. One of the major influences on my proposal was Barry Miles' fantastic counter-cultural history of London, London Calling. At the end of the book, Miles laments:

"…with the coming of the Internet, underground publication has effectively disappeared. There can be no avant-garde unless there is a time-delay before the public knows what you are doing… whereas artists in the sixties could work for years with no media coverage, the hardest thing now is to not have thousands of hits on Google or a page on Wikipedia."

There seem to be a lot of people questioning whether counter-culture is less exciting than it was before the Internet. Of course, this could be due to those people getting old and becoming out-of-touch; but despite the fantastic things the Internet provides, there do seem to be some things lost at the same time.

I'm going to investigate the question through Jacques Derrida's Postal Metaphor. Derrida was one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century. One of his achievements was questioning the concept of communication. Derrida used the metaphor of the postal system to illuminate certain paradoxes about how language worked (or didn't work). In one of his more playful books he declared that "the end of a postal epoch is doubtless also the end of literature". I want to see whether that is true or not.

So, from April I'm going to be working two days a week on the PhD and will be looking for programming/DBA work for the other three. It's going to be a lot of fun. 

Double Holi: Delhi and Richmond


March 8th, the day I flew home from India was Holi, the festival of Colours. This involves bonfires, throwing coloured powder and general mayhem.  I was in the backpacker district of Paharganj and popped out to take some photos. That evening I flew out of India, landing in Sussex on Friday. The next day Holi was celebrated in Richmond. I'd been told about the event by an Indian friend of my Dad's, so went to visit with Vicky and Mr. Spratt. Some photos of the two events are below.



Watch out for snipers:



Celebrations in Richmond:



While the festival is supposed to be fun, a lot of Indians avoid the main celebrations. Like many carnivals, people are less constrained than normal, and some take advantage of this. In the Delhi Times, an article described "a day of harrassment". For what it's worth, Richmond Holi seemed like a more celebratory event.

India Part 9: Rishikesh, Delhi, Brighton

The bus journey from Pushkar to Rishikesh was quite something. When we left Pushkar, the only passengers were 6 tourists. As we continued through Rajisthan more and more people boarded. I woke in the middle of the night to find a bus with people on every seat, on the roof, and lying on the floor. There must have more than a hundred people crammed into the bus.

Rishkesh was beautiful. The town lines the valley of the Ganges with beautiful mountains either side. I spent most of my time there relaxing and also met up with my friends Caspar and Emily once more.

My favourite place in Rishikesh was the ashram where the Beatles once stayed. The site was abandoned in 1997 and left to grow wild. The derelict buildings and old meditation cells had an incredible mood. I have quite a strong imagination and didn't dare explore some of the dark corridors by myself. Coming back with Caspar and Emily I visited more of the site, taking a lot of photos, the best of which I'll post soon.

I left Rishikesh for Delhi by train, arriving the day before Holi. The festival of colours involves people being covered with coloured dyes (some of which stain people for days afterwards). I set off for the airport in the afternoon, when the celebrations of Holi were calming down. The flight seemed to take ages, particularly the 3 hour stopover in Dubai. It was strange to walk down the central corridor at midnight local time, watching people frantically shopping. I barely slept on the final leg of the flight, to Gatwick, where I was met by my friend Vicky.

Despite the chilly weather, it's good to be back home. As wonderful as the trip was, I have missed Brighton.