photo essay: the hidden graffiti of rishikesh

What do “Across the Universe” by the Beatles, “TM Song” by Beach Boys, “Hurdy Gurdy Man” by Donovan, and “Jesus Children of America” by Stevie Wonder have in common?

Okay. Let me rephrase it. What do Transcendental Meditation, an Ashram on the foothills of the Himalayas, the top pop bands of the 1960s, and Canadian street artist ARTXPAN aka Pan have in common?

Gotcha! 😀

The most fascinating permutations and combinations are often revealed in the most hidden places. Like the street art decorating the ruins of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Ashram in Rishikesh where the Beatles spent the winter of 1968 in search of spirituality and came up with a whopping 48 songs, a bulk of which went into their “White Album.”

The Beach Boys, Donovan, and Stevie Wonder all found inspiration within these walls as well, writing some of their most famous songs here. This period in space and experience has been poignantly captured by the soul-searching art of 32-year-old Pan who refers to himself as a “bhakti yogi and his art as “spiritual pop art.”

Pan’s art peeps through cracks, on the rooftops, and behind staircases of the abandoned Ashram, weaving stories of mysticism and music—meditating yogis, mandalas, a slinking monkey, Arabic calligraphy, hand mudras. The showpiece is the aptly named “Beatles Cathedral Gallery” where monumental neon-coloured images of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr are interspersed with Hindu mythological figures and stanzas from their all-time hits. Who can forget “Love is the answer, and you know that for sure; Love is a flower, you’ve got to let it grow.”

You never know what you will come across here. And when you do, the sight is a delight for its sheer simplicity, yet profundity.

Whilst the Beatles need no introduction, who was Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and why did his Ashram fall apart. After all, 50 years is not such a long time in a country where heritage and tradition span centuries in the least, if not millennia.

An entrepreneur and spiritual leader, billionaire Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was the Beatles and other Western celebrities’ spiritual guru. He is credited with popularizing meditation in the West. Believed to be born in 1917 [not much is known about his early life], he graduated with a Master’s Degree in Physics from Allahabad University after which he set off for the Himalayas to emerge as a Maharishi, the “great seer.” In the 1990s he relocated his headquarters to the Netherlands, where he died in 2008.

His Ashram in Rishikesh was one of many spanning the globe offering programs in Transcendental Meditation—a simple, effortless technique he founded. Practiced 20 minutes twice a day, the technique is used to reduce stress, enhance brain function, and strengthen immunity.

In the 1960s the Beatles were going through a turbulent period, desperate for stability, answers, and direction. Their ending up at the Ashram to attend a 30-participant Transcendental Meditation teacher training course was almost serendipity leading to an influx of other stars to also knock on the Yogi’s doors.

But nothing is forever. The Beatles broke up and grew old. Their fans, unabashedly fickle, shifted their adoration to brighter and newer stars. The Maharishi decided to move to the Netherlands and set up house in a former Franciscan monastery from where he ran his global spiritual empire till his death, aged 90.

In 1997, thus, the famed Ashram with the Rives Ganges flowing silently behind it was abandoned and let to fall into ruins. The walls caved in. The roofs collapsed. Trees and shrubs grew rampant, both inside and outside the various edifices which once housed the pilgrims and took care of pragmatic affairs such as printing of spiritual texts and cooking of sattvic meals. Until 2012, that is.

2012 is when Pan came up with the idea of the Beatles Ashram Mural Project. He has been returning to India almost every year, thereafter, to add to the project. In 2016 Pan was made the official art coordinator for the Ashram. He, together with acclaimed street artist Miles Toland [who he invited to be part of the project for two weeks in 2016], visitors and the local community have been transforming the dilapidated Ashram into a riot of images ever since.

How many paintings exactly are there inside the Ashram? Pan himself confesses he has no idea for they keep getting added on, repainted and recreated, much like an organic living being with a life all of its own. 😊

In ending, I’d like you to have a dekko at this video on the Beatles’ winter of 1968. As you listen to “Nothing’s gonna change my world” do have a browse through the images in the gallery below of the stunning street art which today adorns the Ashram’s facades, hidden from the casual eye. [Note: Click on an image to enlarge it and read the caption. Use the arrow keys to navigate through the set.]


Travel tips:

  • The Ashram, now under the jurisdiction of the Forest Department, is a 30-minute walk from Ram Jhula.
  • Timing: 9:00 am – 6:00 pm.
  • Ticket: Rs. 150 for Indians; Rs. 600 for foreigners.
  • Photography is allowed inside.
  • There is a photography exhibition inside the premises with some lovely candid shots titled “The Beatles Visit Maharishi in Rishikesh” by Paul Saltzman.

india travel shot: hari ki dwar – doorway to god – haridwar


How and why does one small patch of river and land spanning a mere few hundred metres become the holiest site in all of the country? The answer—faith. What else can explain the millions of Hindus from across the country who make the coveted pilgrimage to the brown placid waters of the River Ganges washing 2,100-year-old steps in a pilgrimage town nestled in the plains of Uttarakhand. Day and night. Hail or rain. Year after year. For thousands of years. Continue reading

delhi’s national museum bronze gallery: where bronzes sing tales of god and art

A babel of meditative Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist chants fills the gallery. Breaking the rhythmic loop is the tinkle of bells on a dainty anklet wrapped around a goddess’ voluptuous leg. Almost in competition, I hear the stomping of feet as Shiva, the destroyer, dances in passionate abandon, flames emanating in a fiery ring around him. Bharata, Rama’s brother from the Ramayana, a mere couple of feet away, holds up his brother’s sandals on his head to place them on the throne to rule as regent of the Ayodhya kingdom, accompanied by verses from the epic.

“Excuse me.”

The clipped British accent snaps me out of my reverie. And that of the deities too, who freeze mid-dance, mid-song, mid-chant, in sparkling glass cubicles scattered across the air-conditioned hall—lurching the room to pin-drop silence. And I wonder if I had imagined it all. Continue reading

iran 10: tehran … politics, shrines, and martyrs

tehranamericaIran has a complicated relationship with the rest of the world. Whilst on one hand it has been labeled as an “axis of evil” by the West, the war with Iraq lasted for eight years and claimed hundreds of thousands of lives as trench warfare and poison gas were used for the first time since the First World War. Yet Iran’s only retaliation to it all is a couple of banners and a handful of painted wall murals outside the now ex-United States of America embassy in Tehran, and a Martyrs Cemetery where young, impish school children sing songs and pay homage to their country’s dead heroes. It makes you wonder.

As the world ostracizes this ancient nation nestled between Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran itself carries about its own business as usual. It has a largely flawless infrastructure throughout its vast expanse, a wonderfully rich heritage, and an educated and graceful people with ready smiles and laughter. “Iran good?” is the question asked by everyone you meet. There is such an eagerness to be accepted. To be liked. To be understood. Continue reading

iran 9: nain, abyaneh, kashan—travelling through the desert


I’ll be leaving in a couple of days; I have been in Iran for two weeks now. How easily we are able to change our habits. Two weeks and I now feel uncomfortable going out in public without my hejab, kebabs have become my staple diet, and salams and merci come easily. One more week here and I would be all chadored, going na na every time someone wanted to take a picture of me.

Travelling through miles of desert is an extraordinary experience. It also teaches you not to be fussy. Bathrooms are invariably behind a sand dune, at a little booth in a caravanserai, or in a thicket. So when you emerge you learn to check your front and backside as well so that there are no twigs sticking out of your hejab. It gives a whole new angle to the “going to the ladies” ritual.

There are two main deserts in Iran—Dasht-e Kavir and Dasht-e Lut—and they are both dotted with tiny little towns built around ancient mosques. Nain is the most charming with its carpets and 9th Century Jameh mosque decorated with stunning yet simple stucco-work. Continue reading

iran 8: esfahan nesf-e Jahan, esfahan is half the world


Esfahan is like a fabled town straight out of a medieval story with its ethereal mosques, opulent palaces, picturesque bridges and fabulous bazaars, all set around the most beautiful square in the world, the Maidaan Naqsh-e Jahan.

Naqsh-e Jahan meaning “pattern of the world” owes its splendour to the vision of Shah Abbas the Great. Began in 1602 as the centerpiece of the Shah’s new capital, the square was designed to house the finest architectural jewels of the Safavid Empire. Measuring 512 meters long and 163 meters wide, it is the second largest square in the world after Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Royal equestrian arts and polo games were once put on show here for the Shah and his court. Continue reading