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Revealed: lucky break that led lovelorn traveller to a fling in India with the Beatles

Ringo Starr, John Lennon and Paul McCartney at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Rishikesh, India in January 1968.
Ringo Starr, John Lennon and Paul McCartney at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Rishikesh, India in January 1968. Photograph: Paul Saltzman/Contact Press Images

Trees and vines grow through the crumbling terraces of Rishikesh. Yet 50 years ago the former ashram above the Ganges was the fulcrum of a major shift in popular culture.

It was here the four Beatles joined other western travellers, including the Beach Boys’ Mike Love, the singer Donovan, the actress Mia Farrow, and the Beatles’ wives and girlfriends, Cynthia Lennon, Maureen Starkey, Jane Asher and Pattie Boyd, to seek enlightenment through meditation.

The trip to India is famous today chiefly because of the music that came out of it; Lennon, McCartney and Harrison each produced many songs there, including Revolution, Back in the USSR, Long, Long, Long and Dear Prudence, inspired by Farrow’s sister. But the reason the influential visit remains so firmly lodged in popular memory comes down to the chance arrival at the ashram of a lonely Canadian traveller, Paul Saltzman.

“I did not even know the Beatles were there. For me it was bad news when I was told at the gate, because it meant the ashram was closed and I might not get in,” Saltzman told the Observer this weekend. “But in the end it was an experience that changed everything.”

A 24-year-old sound engineer working for the National Film Board of Canada, Saltzman was in search of solace after a relationship break-up. But the candid photographs he was to take over the next few days have become among the best known of the Beatles. “I brought my own camera out only a couple of times over the week, but those images, along with the more famous ones I took with the Beatles’ own cameras of the group sitting together wearing garlands, have been seen all over the world.”

The Beatles and their wives and girlfriends at the Rishikesh in India with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The group includes Ringo Starr, Maureen Starkey, Jane Asher, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Patti Boyd, Cynthia Lennon, John Lennon.
The Beatles and their wives and girlfriends at the Rishikesh in India with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The group includes Ringo Starr, Maureen Starkey, Jane Asher, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Pattie Boyd, Cynthia Lennon, John Lennon. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Many of the best shots are about to be shown again in a book Saltzman has put together called The Beatles in India and published on 13 February.

Half a decade on, the dilapidated site of the commune formerly presided over by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi has opened as a tourist attraction and a museum to celebrate the Beatles’ visit is planned.

Back in Liverpool, The Beatles’ Story museum will mark the 50th anniversary of the trip with an exhibition which opens on 16 February, the day Lennon and Harrison arrived in Rishikesh in 1968. Saltzman’s photographs are to feature, as will the memories of Boyd, the former Mrs Harrison, and her sister Jenny, a model who joined her at Rishikesh and inspired Donovan to write his hit song Jennifer Juniper.

It was Boyd who in London in 1967 first introduced the Beatles to the mystical teachings of the Maharishi, prompting them to visit his transcendental meditation seminar in Bangor, Wales, in the same year. Harrison’s blossoming interest in eastern music and philosophies led to his study of the sitar under master musician Ravi Shankar.

“I went to Rishikesh because I was desperate,” said Saltzman. “I had just received a letter telling me my girlfriend was moving in with someone else. Someone in India suggested I should try meditation. I had seen the Maharishi talk in New Delhi and remembered him promising, ‘Meditation takes you beneath and below your daily worries and concerns to a place of rejuvenation from which you will come back renewed and refreshed,’ ” Saltzman recalled.

“While I was waiting to go into the ashram a man called Rag Vendra brought me some tea, telling me there was no room inside. When I asked if I could wait, he pointed to two tents. One was for a tailor who had come up to make bespoke clothes for the guests. The other was empty, so I stayed there.”

Ringo Starr shows Paul Saltzman how to use his film camera.
Ringo Starr shows Paul Saltzman how to use his film camera. Photograph: Larry Kurland, courtesy of the artist

Saltzman had seen the Beatles play in Toronto in 1964 and enjoyed their music, but had no plan to speak to them. After his first meditation session however he walked over to Lennon and McCartney who started to tease him about his “colonial” background. “John talked with that wonderful wry wit, asking me if I worshipped the Queen. His wife, Cynthia, then told them to leave me alone, as I had only just arrived.”

Saltzman sat with them as they worked on many new songs during their stay. “I watched them playing Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da and they were so playful and joyous,” he said. “Ringo also showed me how to use his film camera because he was making a film about the Maharishi and he wanted to appear in it as well. Ringo and I left Rishikesh at the same time, well before the problems at the end, when John and Paul were told the Maharishi had behaved badly and decided to go.”

Back in Canada, Saltzman put the photographs aside and returned to his career in film and television production. He began hunting for the pictures 30 years later when his daughter, a second generation Beatles’ fan, asked if it was really true he had once met them in India.

“I searched my house twice and called my dad to ask him to search his. Finally I found them in a box under a couch,” said Saltzman.

He was advised to take the images to Sotheby’s in London, but decided not to sell. Instead he brought out a book in 1999, followed by a high-end art book with better colour reproduction. These improved prints will illustrate his new book.

In 1955 Mahesh Prasad Varma, a physics graduate, adopted the name Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and founded the Spiritual Regeneration Movement, setting up transcendental meditation (TM) centres in London and Los Angeles, where pupils paid £2,500 for a five-day course.

Ringo Starr left the 1968 retreat early – some accounts say he complained about the food. TM grew and more than six million people have taken classes. The Natural Law party, based on TM, contested 310 seats in the 1992 general election. George Harrison recalled that the Maharishi asked the surviving Beatles to stand for seats in Liverpool. The Maharishi died in 2008, aged 90.

This article titled "Revealed: lucky break that led lovelorn traveller to a fling in India with the Beatles" was written by Vanessa Thorpe, for The Observer on Sunday 21 January 2018 12.05am

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