Magical history tour: on the Beatles trail in Rishikesh

Competing wafts of dung and dope thread through a dust-hazed jostle of holy cows, holy men and the bandanna-headed westerners who shuffle among them. Gaudy posters hang from every balcony and lamppost, promoting drop-in meditation schools, healing-quartz shops and adventure sport centres. Rishikesh has been drawing alternative visitors for half a century: bright-eyed arrivistes and red-eyed burnouts, here to cleanse body and soul by the banks of India’s sacred Ganges, and then maybe go white-water rafting down it. Knowingly or not, all follow in the sandalled footsteps of four fame-frazzled young Liverpudlians who, one faraway February, took a six-hour cab ride from Delhi to a yogi’s retreat in the hills behind Rishikesh, hoping to get away from it all and find enlightenment. As one of the most hallowed sites in the world’s oldest surviving religion, Rishikesh has a durable appeal to the Hindu faithful. Today, 51 years after poor old Ringo dragged a suitcase full of Heinz Baked Beanz into his ashram bungalow, it’s also a magnet for Beatle pilgrims of a certain age. Mine, for instance. Viewed from the vertiginous highway that follows the river up to its Himalayan source, Rishikesh doesn’t look to have changed much since 1968, or even 968, when ashrams and temples were clustered along its river banks. Garish pyramid domes line the mighty glacial waters, spanned by a creaky old footbridge. Steepling flanks of greenery form an impressive backdrop. It’s a most winsome spectacle, and those parping, chaotic streets are home to an endlessly entertaining cast of characters: bearded, orange-robed sadhus living in devout penury, garlanded yogis with rock-star manes and entourages, beatific old Europeans who came to find themselves and never left. The sort of visitor happy to share a six-hour cab ride might be equally content to camp out on the Ganges’ sandy foreshore, a widespread practice recently banned for the beloved river’s environmental good. But when the airport at nearby Dehradun was upgraded, a different breed of tourist began flying in from Delhi. And whether you’ve come to get cosmic in the birthplace of yoga, throw yourself off India’s highest bungee jump or sit on the steps where John and Paul wrote 48 songs, there’s always been a conspicuous drawback to Rishikesh: the inability to experience it in any kind of style or comfort.

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