“No entry. Banned!” the policeman barks as he thwack-thwacks a club into his hands. “But why?” I ask. I’m not playing coy; I’m genuinely confused as to why the derelict ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh, India – the place where the Beatles famously learnt transcendental meditation in the 1960s – would be off limits.
“Crazy elephant, tiger. Dangerous!” he replies. Yeah, right. I glance at my companion; a knowing look passes between us. “Umm …” she fumbles about in her pocket, “We have … this?” She pulls a sweaty wad of rupees from her pocket. The policeman furrows his brow, thwack-thwacks his club, seems to consider the wad for a moment, until, “Banned! Crazy elephant, tiger. No entry.” He stomps his foot and we turn away knowing we’ve lost the battle, for today at least.
The following morning we rise before dawn. The surrounding Himalayan mountains are still shrouded in mist and the throngs of vendors hawking coconuts, chai tea and prayer beads are yet to set up. We follow a muddy path littered with wandering cows and mangy dogs, past a few ashrams and temples, back to the entrance of the jungle in which the ashram lies.
Along the way a lone sadhu (holy man) wrapped in sheaths of apricot and grey fabric, a wiry beard trailing halfway down his chest, joins our pilgrimage. We reach the entrance with a collective sigh of relief: our uniformed friend must still be snoring away in his bed. We follow the sadhu through the jungle for a few minutes, curse and scramble over a crumbling brick wall, and finally we’re in.
A bewitching cluster of domed, pebble-encrusted caves greets us. The sadhu tells us this is where the Beatles practised solitary meditation. We’re too chicken to venture inside – they’re filled with cobwebs and look like perfect snake-breeding territory – but happily sit beside them pretending to meditate for the camera.
Further into the six hectare jungle compound we press past the former accommodation building with its elegant Rajasthani-style archways, a creepy room filled with standing meditation capsules set into the wall, the “levitation hall” with its now-sunken roof, and eventually arrive in the hall where the Beatles were taught transcendental meditation.
We creep around, ogling murals dedicated to the Fab Four and quotes from the Maharishi, while attempting to soak up a little of the magic that led the Beatles to write most of double album The Beatles – known as “the White Album” – in this place.
“Find me in my field of grass, Mother Nature’s son,” we giggle as we chortle our favourite song from the album. “Shhh,” the sadhu whispers, suddenly alarmed. “Tigers, wild elephants, shhh!” The policeman wasn’t making it up after all. “Don’t worry,” he whispers. “Many tiger I see here, but never they hurt me.”
Unfortunately, that’s not quite enough to quell our fears, so despite the sadhu’s protests, we scuttle back down the vine-choked path, keeping one eye on the surrounding jungle for suspiciously stirring leaves.
It’s been a trip, but not one worth being stomped on by an elephant, or devoured by a tiger.