The 11 days I spent meditating with The Beatles in Rishikesh
Film director Paul Saltzman recalls his first visit to Rishikesh in 1968 – and his return.
How did it feel to return to Rishikesh?
The first time I went back was in 2000. I hadn’t been back before, although I’d been in India many times since. The ashram was shut. The guard said: “Sorry, you can’t come in.” I laughed. It was such an echo of 1968, when the gates were closed as the Beatles were there. But I went back the next day. The manager was there. I walked through, and did a spot of meditation at the cliff edge, where I used to hang out with the band. It was lovely.
Has Rishikesh changed?
It’s still a special place. It still has this incredible beauty – the Ganges, the foothills of the Himalayas, the tranquillity. Yes, the town is bigger – but the other side of the river, Swarg Ashram, has hardly changed since 1968. Obviously, economically, there has been a change – so many tourists, people studying meditation. You can see it in the luxury hotels. Other things, too. When I went back in 2000, I saw a group rafting along the river. My jaw dropped – nobody rafted the Ganges in 1968.
Why did you go there in 1968?
I wanted to see India. I worked as a sound recordist on a documentary to pay my way. I’d said goodbye to my girlfriend in Toronto. Six weeks later, I finished filming and got to Delhi. I got my letters from home. Her first line was: “Dear Paul, I’ve moved in with Henry.” I was devastated. Somebody told me to try meditation for the heartbreak. I went to the ashram. I didn’t know the Beatles were there. The gates were locked. They called a man named Raghavendra, the administrator. I said I’d come to learn meditation. He said he’d ask the Maharishi. Three hours later, he came back and said: “The Maharishi says not at the present time.” I said: “Can I wait?” He said: “Sure.” There was a tent across the path. It wasn’t being used. On the ninth morning, Raghavendra returned and said “come on in”.
When did you meet the Beatles?
I did a meditation session with Raghavendra. When I came out of it, I was in bliss. The knife in my heart was gone. It was morning, I was walking, looking at the trees, and I saw John 200ft (60m) away, near the end of a table. Then I noticed Paul. I found myself curving towards them. There were 12 of them. The Beatles, their wives and girlfriends – Cynthia [Lennon], Pattie [Boyd], Maureen [Starkey], Jane Asher with Paul, Donovan, Mike Love, Mia Farrow, Mal Evans their roadie. They were talking. I didn’t interrupt. After a moment John looked up. “May I join you?” John said: “Sure mate – pull up a chair.” That was it.
They took me into their group. At that first meeting John said to me, with his dry, digging wit: “You’re American, then?” Teasing me. I said: “No, Canadian.” He turned to the rest and said: “He’s from the colonies. You’re still worshipping Her Majesty, then?” Paul and Ringo started teasing me about having the Queen on our money. We laughed, and Cynthia said, from down the table: “Come on chaps, leave the poor guy alone – he’s just arrived.”
Were they taking it seriously? Was it a stunt?
It wasn’t a stunt. It was a desire to find a new way of being. George made it clear to me. He said: “I get higher meditating than I ever did on drugs.” He was humble. He told me: “We have all the money you could dream of, all the fame you could wish for. But it isn’t love, it isn’t health – it isn’t peace.” I was 24 – he was 24. That was life-changing for me.
They were writing the ‘White Album’ at the time. Did you get a sense of the music?
I was present as they were working on one song. I passed a bungalow where John, Paul and Ringo were sitting on the steps. I sat beside Ringo. They were singing, over and over, “Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on”. They were working it, speeding it up, slowing it down, bending the words. I noticed that, under Paul’s sandal, there was a little piece of yellow paper, with the same words written on it. It was new. They hadn’t memorised the words yet. Paul looked at me, and said: “That’s all there is so far – we don’t have any lyrics yet.”
How long did you spend with them?
Jane wanted to see the Taj Mahal, so she and Paul talked about leaving early. They left after five weeks, John and George after seven. Ringo left after 11 days. I left with Ringo.
Were you aware of the tension that would split them soon after?
The only tension I could feel was between John and Cynthia. John had already met Yoko. Cynthia hoped they could put their relationship back together at the ashram. But you could see they were not in synch. I could see Pattie and George were very close, that Maureen and Ringo were very comfortable with each other; Paul and Jane, you could see that there was a lot of affection. With John and Cynthia, sadly, you could see the distance. But with the four Beatles, there was no hint of discord. They were very close. They were like brothers. They were a tight circle, and even their wives and Jane, though close, were one circle out. They were a tight group, the four of them. I realised they were like family.
How do you feel now when you look at the photos? Nostalgic?
They don’t conjure nostalgia at all. They conjure pleasure. I look at the pictures and I smile. The Beatles were breaking new ground. They have been a gift to generations.
The Beatles in India, by Emmy award-winning producer-director Paul Saltzman and produced by Saltzman and Reynold D’Silva, will be released in the autumn through Sunrise Films, Renoir Pictures and Silva Screen. Paul offers guided group tours of India that conclude in Rishikesh. Bookings at thebeatlesinindia.com
Interview by Chris Leadbeater