Reluctantly leaving heaven

Some parts of heaven are dangerous now, dilapidated, ready to fall. Still, the magic draws people from across the world. Many have left elaborate artwork on the walls. Perhaps inspired by them, others have sketched outlines of work elsewhere. We walked through the parts of the abandoned Swarg Ashram which were built after the famous visit by the Beatles.

There are two apartment blocks next to each other. They looked dilapidated. Unlike in the bungalows, there were no signs warning us off. But maybe that only meant that the blocks just haven’t been inspected recently? We peered through doors and windows. They are one-bedroom apartments, of a size which is larger than most one-bedrooms in Mumbai. Some of the walls reminded me of the overused word palimpsest. Perhaps a graffiti wall is as good a descriptor. Some of the sketches were good, perhaps the artists could have developed them into paintings if they had materials.

These blocks date from the seventies, when the Maharishi Mahesh yogi’s business venture was beginning to boom. For the pioneer of the yoga and guru industry, he has little name recognition now. For that matter, even the Beatles are fading. I was in a lift a couple of years ago with a older person, when the door opened and a bunch of kids with phones and earbuds came in chattering. “Have you tried out the Beatles?” one asked. Some of the others looked puzzled. The experimenter said “Ancient group, interesting music.” One of the others explained, “Yes a singing group like Abba, with three members. One was called Paul.” The lift door opened, and they left. We two, grizzled veterans, looked at each other, eyebrows raised.

There were a lot of really interesting paintings inside. I inspected the outer walls. There were no large cracks. There could be a danger of falling blocks of plaster, but perhaps we could risk quick forays into the buildings. We darted through the doorways which gaped open. In and out quickly, a few times. Then I noticed that there are no cracks in the internal plaster either, no bulges. We were not going to risk the stairs, but spending a little longer exploring inside may not be dangerous. We found a large number of very expertly executed pieces inside. Some of them really worth your time.

Even apart from the paintings, the remains of the ashram were beautiful, quiet and peaceful. The silence was broken now and then by the cackling of tree pies, and the deeper calls of hornbills. We were reluctant to leave. The canteen did not have anything other than chai and small snacks. If it had, we would have stayed longer.

In Heaven

Heaven is abandoned. The Family and I walk through the shaded path where immortals once strolled, and speculate about when everyone moved away. There’s still magic here. A small group of hip city youngsters give us lessons on how to take selfies. The Family gives me a warning look, and I behave. I move where they ask us to go, let them suggest how to strike an attitude, thank them as they go away. Human contact with strangers after a year can be disconcerting for everyone, even in Swarg Ashram, which was briefly, half a century ago, the most famous place on earth. That’s when the Beatles spent time here, between releasing the contents of Magical Mystery Tour and the white album.

The bungalows next to the yoga center carry warning signs. I’m used to distancing now, and I manage to peer in, let my camera do the walking. Nice murals. Not half a century old, I think. By far not, The Family agrees. A signboard says this is where “distinguished visitors” stayed. The Beatles would count. So would Mia Farrow. Peter Saltzman talks about listening to George Harrison play the sitar on a rooftop terrace. That would be one of these, I guess.

An abandoned garden and what looks like two apartment blocks lie between this line of bungalows and the distant cliff edge overlooking the Ganga and Rishikesh. Peter Saltzman mentioned a place overlooking the river where the Beatles sat and worked on the words and music for songs which eventually appeared in the white album. The Family has already crossed the garden. I follow. We laugh at a sign that says “Do not write on walls.”

We skirt the apartment blocks for now. I spot a couple come out to the path from behind a little house. “Let’s go there”, I suggest. The Family’s okay with it. Temple, or meditation center, you take your pick. I walk through the door, and some dark chambers to the paved area behind. Beyond it I see an open space overlooking the river. I walk out to stand there. Mentally I subtract the apartments, keep the bungalows. I try to match the description I remember from Peter Saltzman’s interviews. This must be it. This is where the Beatles came repeatedly during those weeks to put words to ob la di. This is where the music for Dear Prudence came together. There is magic here. Briefly the tiny blue flowers on the ground look like the Himalayan Gentian.

In my life

When you pay your money, walk through gates at the side of a road which winds through a forest, and you see a sign announcing a tiger reserve, you may be a little surprised if you thought you were visiting the ruins of the Swarg Ashram, the place where the Beatles composed large parts of their best album. That was the opinion then, and it remained the opinion of fans when the queen of England was fifty years older. Are you in the right place?

The disorientation persists as you walk up a steep paved path, with a high wall on one side. A large butterfly stares at you as you pass. I haven’t been in a tiger reserve like this. Perhaps you need your elephant and gun. Perhaps, in case of accident, you should always bring your mom. But continue, look around round, look around round round.

Strange. The path leads past a ruined bungalow. No Bill, no children asking if to kill was not a sin. The ruin is full of interesting looking graffiti, so we walked in to look. But it is only a distraction, perhaps a structure built and abandoned by the forest department which now owns this land.

I’m at the top of the slide. I stop and I turn and I go for a ride. “Right?” The Family suggested, and I agreed. Into the helter skelter maze of strange domed structures. A notice tells us that they were built as meditation huts in 1978. We walk into one: a round room on the ground floor, a tiny toilet and bath on one side, and stairs going up the wall to a domed platform, presumably the place where you sit to meditate. The first one we walked into had some beautiful work on the walls. The dome had an interesting piece in colour, which was very hard to take a look at because the stairs were not terribly safe. I stood on one of the safe lower rungs, stuck my phone up, and took a panorama. Unfortunately the phone needed more of a revolution than my precarious perch would allow.

We followed the path through these domed apartments, and saw the Ganga in front of us. Lovely view of Rishikesh on the other side. The place where there river turns is Triveni ghat, where the arti takes place in the evening. We seemed to have reached a dead end. It was time to follow the signs to the canteen and get our bearings.

The canteen was attached to some kind of an art gallery; I like the view through a series of doors which is an unmistakable sign that of one. The displayed work was not a surprise. They were photos of the Beatles in the ashram taken by Paul Saltzman. It was late in the morning, and getting warm. We hadn’t found the Swarg Ashram yet. We had a tea and went is search of Swarg.

Doorways in The Door

Haridwar means the door to Hari. And Hari is another name for Vishnu. Just before the river Ganga exits the Himalayas through Haridwar, it flows past the town of Rishikesh. On left bank of the Ganga, away from the recent expansion of the town, we stood inside the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s abandoned ashram, known locally as the Beatles ashram, and The Family took this photo of Rishikesh. The Maharishi leveraged the visit by the Beatles in 1968 into global stardom, and may well have a claim to be the person who firmly placed yoga and meditation in world culture. The ashram was abandoned some time after his move to Switzerland, and is now in the care of the forest department of the state. There was a coronavirus surge during our visit to this region, and we decided that abandoned open spaces were the safest. There were many visitors to the ashram, but it is large enough that it never felt crowded.

If you are not distracted by the strange ruins of the domed apartments that an entrepreneur built in the 1970s for the hordes of well-heeled peace seekers who never turned up, then the first thing you’ll find are the kitchens and the yoga hall of the ashram. They are full of graffiti and artwork by visitors who ignored the sign which urges them not to write on walls. From the weathering of the works, and some dated signatures, it is clear that people are still using these ruins as a canvas. Others works, especially the ones which give prominence to the Maharishi, are quite weathered, and possibly date from the 1970s. Twitter launched in 2006, so the work you see in the photo above cannot be more than 15 years old. That tells us how quickly the weather affects the paintings.

These four pieces come from the kitchen. The maharishi is painted on to a crumbling wall. I wish the person who’d started the Jai Gurudeva painting had gone on to finish it. I can imagine that the sun will be marvelous in full colour. Given its location, it is almost certainly a reference to Lennon’s 1968 composition Across the Universe.

The rest of these paintings come from the large yoga hall just beyond the utility complex. This is really the central vista of the ashram as it once was, with the main visitors’ buildings placed around a quadrangle with this hall at one corner. The architecture tells us how savvy the Maharishi was; yoga was the magnet to draw people in, but a good holiday in lovely surroundings was what you remembered after you left. Good enough to draw you back, or to have you recommend it to friends. Even though the Beatles left after a spat, their visit was good enough advertisement. I love walking through recently abandoned buildings, and this one was specially inviting, with its vibrant artwork, and the doors and windows reduced to specters which allow the inside to merge with the outside.

As we left the building we heard the squawks of a trio of oriental pied hornbills (Anthracoceros albirostris) which we had seen flying around. I’m not yet good enough at identifying birds entirely by sound. Just my luck then, not to have my camera when these things were flapping about asking for their photos to be taken. I was reduced to using my phone. The result is not great, but it does allow you to identify the bird with certainty: the cylindrical casque above the beak with a black patch at its tip, the white tip to the tail and the pale blue throat patch. “Nice place,” The Family murmured, perhaps echoing the hundreds of paying customers who came here in the 60s and 70s. A rufous treepie (Dendrocitta vagabunda) cackled with laughter as it flew past us.

Hanuman

Uttarakhand is heavily forested, and forests in this region have monkeys. One of the largest is the species of the hanuman langur called the Nepal gray langur (Semnopithecus schistaceus). I saw the individual in the featured photo during a walk at an altitude of about 2400 meters, inside the Binsar National Park. The seven species of hanuman, genus Semnopithecus, which are found in India separate into distinct geographical ranges, with little overlap. At this altitude, and this far north, the Nepal gray langur is the only one that is found. As I concentrated on taking photos of this troupe of leaf eaters, I missed a photo op which will probably never recur: two yellow throated martens (Martes flavigula) pulled themselves up the cliff next to the road I was on, sat on the edge and stared at me for a long time. They were gone by the time I mentally kicked myself into swinging my camera round to photograph them. They are shy and swift, and because of that are hard to photograph, in spite of being fairly common in these forests. The longer you live the more regrets you have.

Watching the troupe I was reminded of the graffiti I’d seen in Haridwar a couple of days earlier, when I visited the abandoned ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. I found a photo on my phone (above). It is a lovely piece of art, but it does not show the Nepal gray langur. This species holds its tail above, and parallel to, their bodies when they walk. The tail is long, and the tip can project forward ahead of the head. The drooping tail that the artwork shows belongs to the southern plains gray langur (Semnopithecus johnii) whose range is far to the south.

Once upon a time

Apollo 8. The Mexico City olympics. Martin Luther King Jr. Prague spring. The My Lai massacre. Dakar and Minerva sink. Mauritius becomes independent. The Baader Meinhof gang. Daniel Cohn Bendit. The Beatles learn meditation with the Maharishi. Yes, that’s the most famous yoga center of 1968, fifty three years later. This is inside the ruins of the Maharishi’s abandoned ashram. I don’t know how old these murals are. There are murals from the 1970s sharing space with at least one from a couple of years ago.

Lava bazar

My memory of Lava Bazar was quite different from what I saw this time. When I was there last, during Christmas almost a decade ago, we had walked through the town on Christmas eve after a bad day of bird watching. The little hamlet was full of lights and cheer, with wandering bands of carol singers roaming through its few roads. That sight could not fail to lift our spirit. Now it looked bigger, and more decidedly a town.

Up here it is easy to decide what is a village and what is not. Houses in a village each have their vegetable patch, and a few of them cluster together between fields terraced for agriculture, cleared from a forest which not only grows beyond the fields but straggles through the village. Houses in a town stand cheek-by-jowl, doors closed, no space for vegetable patches, no groves of trees. On these steep hillsides space seems to be at a premium even in such small towns.

The expansion was clear from this one space: a combination taxi stand and stop for regional buses. Three roads led out from this junction full of shops, restaurants, and a wall which contained an outpouring of local art (above and the featured photo). My camera batteries had run out in the morning, so I had to sit in a restaurant which allowed me to recharge it. The Family was unencumbered, and spent the wait walking around town taking photos. All photos in this post are hers.

I had the time to contemplate on how the great game in Asia had caused this change. After the disaster of the Himalayan war in the early 1960s, India fell into a policy of letting roads in the mountains deteriorate to slow future advance by China. Twenty years ago I noticed that the policy was changing, and the BRO was busy constructing roads again. The changes were imperceptible at first: more leisure activities up here, trekking, bird watching, weekenders. Local prosperity followed; the Eastern Himalayas have a variety of homestays, which we liked more than the regular hotels and resorts of the Western Himalayas. The result of this different model of development was a direct infusion of money into the local economy.

One result has been the rise of democratic politics. Now, just when a state election had been announced, certain well-used walls seemed to have received new attention. If we had come to Lava Bazar a month later, at the beginning of April, say, then many more walls would probably have had a new coat of paint. The multiple ethnicities in the hills will only be tamed with prosperity and self-determination, provided some generosity and good will is thrown into the mix.

The generational romance of the 19th and 20th century politics still shows on the walls here (Bob Dylan’s songs are anthems that local boys learn when they first start strumming a guitar). But a churn is quite clearly in the making. The locals who had the time to chat with us were quite aware of their place in the larger events of the era. Most of them were aware of the importance of conservation in the ever-expanding tourism industry. I had an illuminating discussion of the performance of electric cars on hill roads. How had he come by this information? Someone he knew, part of an extended family, had driven electric cars in Uttarakhand.

That day we were being driven by an older man. He seemed to know everyone on the road. He stopped briefly to ask a middle-aged couple whether their new house was to their liking, asked a young couple where they were off to, said hello to a couple of kids when he slowed at a turn, received replies from all, acknowledged waves from others. After a while I asked him to stop when he met someone he didn’t know so that I could take a photo of that person. He stopped at this wall, where two people were waiting for a bus. But no, he chatted with them. So I took a photo of the wall.

Street art in Rameshwaram

Pamban island was a lovely weekend getaway for us, not only the drowned town of Dhanushkodi at its southern end, but also the ancient town of Rameshwaram. The town is mentioned as a place of pilgrimage in the Skanda Puran, which is dated to the 8th century CE. So, it is a reasonable guess that the kernel of the town, the temple, existed already 1500 years ago. On our way out, I stopped the car at this orange house to take a photo of the naive painting of the religious story which the temple celebrates. According to it, Pamban Island is the place where the monkey army of Ram built a causeway to the island of Lanka, kingdom of the demon Ravana, who had abducted his wife Sita.

This other image I had captured in a street right outside the temple. Beautifully executed, the detail that drew my eye is how the drip of the black paint is incorporated into the composition. I loved this piece of art. Naive is the last word that you might apply to it. Look at the beautifully rendered lotus leaves in that delicious blue! Could the woman in the pose of supplication be a personification of a lotus flower? Then, is the goddess a depiction of Lakshmi? Perhaps it is different a religious story, maybe from the Ramayana? I do not recognize this picture. If you do, please leave an explanatory comment for me and other readers.

Jackson Porlock

Coleridge and Porlock collaborated on a wonderful work of a little more than 50 lines, which goes by the name of Kubla Khan. Knowing about the seminal influence that Porlock has had on the arts and letters, I was not surprised to find his signature (featured) on the door of an utility box.

Neither was it surprising to find an unsigned work by him on the walls of an abandoned building. You think Banksy gets around? Look for Porlock. He’s responsible for some of the best work around, and is also known to send some of the worst to their Graves. Both these canvases come from Bielefeld in Germany, a town that is as famous as Porlock.

Street art of Fort Kochi

Fort Kochi has been home to the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, a very large art exhibition, for almost a decade now. This was a deliberate attempt by the state government to renew historic Fort Kochi, with the help of some of Kerala’s best known contemporary artists. The four month long event in the winter of every even year draws several hundred thousand visitors. We visited in an off-Biennale year when hotels rates have not gone into orbit.

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The Biennale leaves a residue of interesting art on the streets of Kochi, and we had great fun spotting these commissioned works. There were pieces executed in 2018, and the remnants of works made in earlier years. Art is ephemeral, and street art is an urgent reminder to enjoy it while it lasts. The enormous wrinkled faces and the protraits of ordinary people seemed to be no more than a year old. The birds soaring over bare concrete was older and will be gone in a few more months. On other walls we saw guerilla art, unlicensed work. That will take another post.