During Heather’s first full day in Rishikesh, I had planned a mini-excursion to the famous ‘Beatles Ashram’ with a couple friends I’d made while in town. The day was bright and hot, perfect for a mid-day hike into the forests of the Himalayan foothills.
The ashram sat less than a ten-minute walk from Parmarth Niketan, which provided a pleasant sunny walk full of interesting conversations as we made our way to the gates of the legendary place.
The ‘Beatles Ashram’ is no longer operational, and has since been taken over by wild overgrowth of the Himalayan jungle. Even still, a ‘guard’ sits at the gate to demand an entry fee. This person is not hired or paid by the state, and from what I’ve heard, is simply a sadhu (or otherwise) who sits at the entrance to demand bribe money to be let into the complex.
We paid the equivalent of 100 rupees, or roughly $1.50, per person to get past the gates. According to other travelers, there is a way to get inside without bribe money, but it involves hiking a bit and scaling walls, both of which are activities I’m happy to bypass in exchange for only $1.50 USD.
Once inside, the true splendor of the ashram could be felt, despite the overgrowth and the abandonment. Stone paths arched up into the depths of the establishment, lined with dense foliage. Interesting tee-pee huts made of stone dotted the sidelines as we walked further. Without a guide or any real information about the arena other than “the Beatles were here”, we were left to speculate and wonder about what much of the buildings had been previously used for.
Inside a strange, decrepit building, with ancient exposed wires hanging from the ceiling and cement walls in every stage of disrepair, I whipped out my cellphone to share a tidbit of interesting information I’d opened earlier about the general history of the Beatles’ involvement at the ashram. After a theatrical presentation about the fallout between John Lennon and the guru in residence at the time, the talk turned to an interesting tidbit included at the end of the TripAdvisor summary.
That of the wild tigers, monkeys, and elephants that can sometimes be found mingling amongst the foliage of the ashram.
Huddling in a small circle around the exposed wires in the ceiling of the building, our conversation took a turn for the fascinating and horrifying. With all the feel of a group of kids sharing stories over a campfire, my companions took turns telling tales about things they’d heard regarding the wildlife.
About the large number of tigers and elephants that are found roaming freely through the grounds of the ashram.
About the way tigers aren’t the dangerous ones, it’s actually the elephants to be afraid of.
About how elephants never forget and their long history of poor interactions with humans had led to something of a grudge being held against us all. Regardless of our intents.
About the tourist that had been squashed to death by an elephant only the week before. Within the very walls of the ashram we were currently visiting.
“Well,” I squeaked, my good mood disappearing as quickly as water droplets in the sun, “if we ran into an elephant we could take refuge in a place like this, right?” I gestured around us. Fear began uncoiling, hot and malicious, through the limbs of my body.
“Not really,” was the response. “An elephant could easily knock down the walls and attack anyway.”
Well great. We had officially entered elephant-tiger-and-monkey’s den with literally nowhere to hide.
The only thing that we could rely on was luck. Or maybe a lack thereof.
When finally we decided to stop talking about all the horrifying things that could happen at the hands of wild animals that may or may not have been stalking us since we set foot inside the ashram, I emerged shaky and watchful from the building.
I had never even considered that a surprise encounter with an elephant would be on the agenda for this bright and sunny day. I had never imagined that the terrors could go so far beyond that of monkeys tapping at my window at night.
The visit to the ashram from there on was tinged with a distinct sense of dread. Maybe this was how it would all end, I thought – coming face to face with an elephant after rounding a corner, meeting it’s enraged gaze, and finding my final breath under its wide, unrelenting foot.
I could already imagine the fodder this might provide for my hometown newspaper (“Ohio Girls Stepped On By Elephant in India, Nobody Saw It Coming”). I thought of all the things I had yet to do with my life – all the children I wanted to bear, all the summers I had left to spend with my family in Ohio, all the years left to live out at the side of my partner.
What if that was all wiped out by one enraged elephant in Rishikesh?
What if I had actually bribed a sadhu in order to find my own death?
As you can tell, this was a highly stressful existential moment in the former ashram, made alternately worse and better by the spiritual work that myself and those around me partake in. One minute I felt content with my fate – well, even if we’re squashed by elephants today, it’s happened where it’s supposed to happen, at the moment it’s supposed to occur – and the next minute completely terrified that my future children might never be spawned, that my parents and friends would never get a goodbye note, that my partner would be left mourning by himself in South America.
Yet we plunged deeper in the ashram, dodging piles of mostly-fresh elephant poop as we did so. Piles of poop that completely destroyed my rationalization that elephants probably didn’t pass through very frequently.
Talk about a head trip amongst the ghosts of ashrams past!
Every rustle and twig snap made my heart skip a beat. At one point, Heather came back from exploring a far corner with the quiet statement, “I think I heard something over there”, which nearly triggered a heart attack. Every three minutes or so, I would revise and update my Emergency Elephant Contingency Plan, which basically involved mapping a visual path to the nearest tiny space (since climbing trees were out of the question, since their Enraged Elephant Trunks can reach high spaces without issue).
When it was just us four, wandering through the ashram in the relative silence of the Himalayan foothills, we joked plenty about the possibility of an elephant showing up, maybe as a way to relieve the tension of the unknown. But after a certain point, I thought it best not to continue mentioning it by name – and therefore, we would just refer to it as the ‘E-Word’.
More tourists eventually showed up, which somehow relived the tension a bit. I’m not sure why – maybe the presence of other people made me feel less like we were trespassing in the elephants’ literal stomping ground (which we were), and more like we were just regular people at a regular, sanctioned tourist activity.
Even when we stumbled into the abandoned warehouse that had been decorated with all types of interesting graffiti and artwork, I knew that the E-Word could still ravage the building.
Enraged E-Words could do a lot of damage when they wanted to, I now knew.
On our way back to the front gates, Heather and I overheard a strange, rhythmic beeping coming from somewhere. There were scant tourists around us; nothing mechanical or even powered to be found within the confines of the ashram. So what was it?
It could only be the beeping of an enraged E-Word. Come to claim what was truly and finally his.
Luckily, the E-Word never found us or anyone else in the ashram that day. I feel very badly for the family of the visitor who was squashed to death, and I know that freak accidents occur all the time, whether during chance encounters between human and wildlife, mishaps in nature, society gone awry, and much more.
Despite the threat of the E-Word, we had a great time at the ashram. The weather was perfect, the sights were lush and beautiful, and the entire place held a calm and peaceful energy that even the E-Word couldn’t destroy.
And the acute threat of the E-Word held within it a powerful reminder, one that seemed wholly appropriate for a visit to India, to Rishikesh, to the ashram that inspired the White Album: we’re all going to die. We never know when. It’s the only sure thing in this life.
Sometimes that eventuality is easier to ignore, like when we’re safe inside our routines and familiar spaces.
And other times, that nervousness comes roaring to life unexpectedly, even when there are plenty of other things occurring in your daily life that might pose a greater risk of death (like traveling in traffic in India, for example).
The amount of impact that fear has in our life is entirely up to us. Wandering into an elephant’s den is a choice we make for ourselves (although it’s preferable to make that choice prior to entering a place known for wild e-words). But the way we let that fear affect us is within our control.
Even if it means developing lots of contingency plans, practicing calming breath, and just knowing that it’s all gonna be okay.