Dust rises from the orange footpath, and chipmunks scurry along crumbling stone walls. The sun beats down, and a starving dog follows us, begging with his eyes. I feed him a piece of bread, then another. Then another. Then the whole roll. His huge black eyes stare as I spread my hands open to show him there is no more. He finally trots away, his hips jutting up through raw skin and matted fur.
As we approach the deserted ashram where the Beatles once stayed, Gwyn groans and says, “I hate this part. You have to bribe the guard at the gate, or he won’t let you in. He’ll say ‘It’s government property, you can’t come in.’ When you look bummed out, he’ll say, ‘But I’ll let you in for one hundred rupees.’ Then you have to say, ‘No, that’s way too expensive.’ He’ll say, ‘Okay, fifty.’ You say no again, and offer him twenty. He’ll laugh like you’re crazy and refuse. Then you just turn around and walk away. And then he’ll say, ‘Okay, okay, twenty. Come in.’” Gwyn shakes his head, a sour expression on his face. “It’s so annoying.”
We arrive at the rusting gates several minutes later. The guard on the other side is smiling at us, his face brown, his teeth gleaming white.
“Hello there, can we go in?” asks Danny cheerfully.
“Oh, no, it’s government property,” says the guard, shaking his head mournfully.
“Ah, well in that case, I guess we’ll have to leave,” Gwyn says, shaking his head. The guard leans forward, his hands on the iron bars. “Wait, my friends, wait! One hundred rupees each. I’ll let you in for one hundred rupees.”
Gwyn shakes his head, disgusted. “One hundred is far too much. The Beatles don’t even stay here anymore! It’s only crumbling buildings and jungle!” The guard shakes his head, and says, “Fine, my friend, I make you deal. Today, for you, only fifty!”
“Twenty,” Gwyn says flatly. “Twenty each.”
The guard scoffs and spits on the ground. “Hah! Twenty, no way! No one going to let you in here for only twenty rupees!”
“Fine then,” says Gwyn, turning on his heel. “We don‘t really need to see it.”
Danny and I take his cue and begin to follow. “Okay, okay!” the guard says suddenly, leaping forward to open the gates. “Today I give you good deal. Only twenty rupees each!”
Once inside, we climb what feels like an endless, sloping hill that winds through breathing, chirping jungle. We run into two Israeli couples perched on a crumbling stone bench, and then we never see anyone again. The heat is growing damper and damper. I feel it in my lungs, it moistens my skin. My face is glistening with sweat, and the water in my bottle is hot.
We are in a land of modern ruins. No one has inhabited these vast acres in decades, since the Maharishi died, and his disciples scattered to the winds. Ornate buildings, once majestic and rising up out of the jungle, are now faded, grown over, ghostly. Windows are broken, and the cobbled path is crumbling on both sides, giving way to tumultuous undergrowth, chirring with camouflaged creatures, life. The giant halls and stone arches are empty, our hollow shouts echoing back bleakly. Monkeys swing from the branches overhead, lords of these avenues of destruction.
We pass crumbled hut after crumbled hut, and I wonder who lived there, what they practiced, where they are now. Are they dead? The bigger buildings must have once been dorms, but now the glass windows are shattered, and birds make nests in the eaves. At the top of the long, curving path, the ground flattens out, and we find our way to the grandest of all the arched, stone structures. It looks like something out of ancient Rome, rotting in the jungles of India. Gwyn is pretty sure that this is the stone temple where the Beatles stayed. We walk right in. The doors have long since corroded away, and the stairway is open, echoing our voices. It’s a bit eerie climbing the staircase, looking down the empty, concrete halls. Every room is deserted now, the stone walls stained and tagged with graffiti. Who were the students? Where are they now?
Near the fourth floor, on a stone wall, I see that someone has written “John, Paul, Ringo, George.” It looks like it was done in red lipstick. Beneath the names is a scrawled heart. We climb to the top of the roof, and emerge into the baking, humid twilight. From this vantage point, I can see that there are four, five, at least six other buildings exactly like this one, lining the ridge of the sloping hill. They descend back toward the distant iron gate, the corrupt Indian guard. On top of each building is a huge, egg-shaped dome.
“You can crawl into those,” says Gwyn, nodding towards the dome on our roof. And indeed, there is a rusted ladder attached to the stone egg. The egg itself is covered in chipped tiles, a mosaic of opaque white glass. I take Gywn’s bait and begin to climb the ladder. It is safe, but nerve-racking for a moment. The dome is atop the concrete roof of a ruin rising six stories out of the jungle. I reach the top, and pause for a moment to catch my breath. “Go in!!” says Gwyn. “I’ll follow you.” I climb down into the egg, and find myself in a cylinder shaped room. It’s tiny. It’s hot. Only the roof is open. Gwyn’s big feet are just coming into view over the ladder. “Hello!” I say, tripping out over the strong echo of my voice. “Hello, hello, hello!” My voice bounces back, instant, powerful. The heat in that space is too much to take, so after reading the walls- “Hari Om! Beatles forever! Sapna…”- we climb out.
Once back on the roof, I sit down and gaze out over the treetops. In the distance, the Ganges flows by, cold, uninterrupted. I am so thirsty, but my water is hot, and I cannot bring myself to tip it down my throat. It is tinted orange with electrolytes, and it glows in the setting sun. In the treetops, I watch monkeys swinging from the vines and perching on the branches, glancing from side to side, nibbling on nuts. Some of them hold babies to their stomachs, tiny pink paws gripping the mother’s matted fur.
Suddenly a flash of light catches my eye. I follow it with my eyes, and see a parrot swooping high on the invisible currents of air. He is iridescent green, and the underside of his wings is red, purple, pink. He disappears into a distant tree, swallowed up by the shifting leaves. I stand up, shield my eyes, and watch. The trees rustle in a breeze that doesn’t reach our rooftop, and the sound reaches my ears like whispering, layered voices.
Moments later, I see another parrot dip out of a tree and take flight, his brilliant wings spread wide. “Look!” I say, pointing. “Look at that parrot!” There is a flurry of movement, and now a whole family of parrots is flying, dipping on the breeze, cutting sharply to the left. They disappear into the branches of another tree, and green melts into green, obscuring them from sight. All that is left are rippling leaves, a humid breeze. The sun is setting behind the hills, turning them yellow, dusky where the shadows fall.
From those rolling, chameleon hills, the sound of a trumpet floats to our ears. Where is it coming from? There is no sign of human life, no houses, no huts, not even a winding dirt road. It is just endless, climbing acres that turn to blue, and become the sky. Yet the golden music continues to unfurl, rolling down to where we sit with our backs pressed against the hot, concrete eggs. Naïve to its source, we stop trying to understand. Our palms pressed flat to the hot stone roof, we drink the air and strain our eyes as the parrots paint the sky.