Still the world is wondrous large,—seven seas from marge to marge—
And it holds a vast of various kinds of man;
And the wildest dreams of Kew are the facts of Khatmandhu
And the crimes of Clapham chaste in Martaban.
Here’s my wisdom for your use, as I learned it when the moose
And the reindeer roamed where Paris roars to-night:—
“There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
Rudyard Kipling, In the Neolithic Age
Peter Jump was withered, hunched and riddled with nervous ticks. When lucid, he claimed to have worked at Abbey Road Studios in its heyday and to have produced the finest records of psychedelic rock. In the same era, he had drunk what he called a 4M cocktail, mixing mescaline, MDMA, methylated spirits and milk in a blender before knocking the whole concoction back, to be found days later, naked and in the grip of a psychosis from which he never completely recovered. Jump muttered to himself in spurts, intoning agreement and disagreement in a garble of difficult-to-hear words. His favourite gesture was the shrug, and he used it in conversations with himself as well as other people, extending his right hand out, with palm open and fingers wide apart, while uttering a nasal “Aaaa”.
I met Jump at the Belsize Tavern, a pub in a fashionable part of North London with a fashionable chef-owner to match. Its pretentions were not entirely equal to its appearance: the Bell was ragged in places, with frayed carpets covering holes in its wooden floor and a trail of dents and stains across the surface of its antique bar. I worked there near the end of my year in London, in 2005, serving drinks to an admirably egalitarian band of celebrities, tabloid journalists, musicians and working people, who would come in for a meal at lunch time, when other customers were just surfacing for the day’s first drink. The Gallaghers stopped in occasionally, as did Kate Moss, Pierce Brosnan and Sean Bean, but it was the regulars that I got to know – and Jump was one of them. He drank gin and tonics without fail, but always took time to ponder his order. If I ever second-guessed him, Jump would call me an importunate young man and make a show of ordering something else. He did not like to be predictable, even if he was.
I didn’t know what importunate meant when Jump first used the word and asked if he had invented it, like he had invented so much else. “Importunate? Im-por-tew-nate, im-porrr-tu-nate, im-por-tuuune?” he replied, cocking his head from side to side to better hear himself sounding out the words. “It means annoyingly, intrusively per-sis-tent. Look it up!”
Jump was the battered product of an English public school. Other than his stint at Abbey Road Studios, he had not had any discernible career and I assumed he was drinking his way slowly and deliberately through a sizeable inheritance, which also paid for his drug habit, a nearby bedsit and the prostitutes from Eastern Europe he occasionally took back to it, in twos and threes. He had a head too big for his reedy frame and pink, fleshy ears, which stuck out sharply from his close-cropped grey hair, like satellite receivers on a stubble-covered hill. When he walked, his head and body moved independently, giving him the appearance of an oversized bobblehead doll, rolling and bouncing down the road. He wore tiny spectacles, which he peered through myopically – or over, with a look of beady clarity, reminding me that he was not as far gone as most people assumed.
Jump also had a grin of pure mischief. It was always the same – neither innocent nor wholly sordid – whether he was propositioning the pub’s manager, who called him granddad, or remembering a night on Primrose Hill, in the company of Jim Morrison. Although he struggled to make conversation, I sometimes joined Jump on the other side of the bar, and watched as he wavered between grinning observations of literature or music and panicked apologies for imagined slights, which made him crumple up into himself as if in physical pain. He was proud, and pretended to have found virtue in his vice, but he was also desperately lonely and – like the Bell’s carpets – did a bad job of hiding his drug-piqued sense of shame.
Jump was an anachronism. He had drunk so deeply of his hippie past that he could not exist fully in his hungover present, and I saw in him an embodiment of the whole movement’s soiled idealism. Like a hero and a fool, he had tried to make it through to the other side – but he had only fallen into the chasm in between, and it was from Jump that I first heard Kipling’s line, when he said one day out of the blue,
The wildest dreams of Kew are the facts of Kathmandu
A year later, I was working at another pub, plotting my overland journey from London to Shanghai. The Spotted Cow was in the English countryside, a half-hour walk from the nearest town. It had a different class of regulars, with different rhythms, and my life became a simple, happy succession of work and long walks through the nearby woods, with slow-paced drinking at the end of both.
Claire and I had stuck a world map onto the wall of our room above the bar. It gave us a sense of our route’s vast uncertainties but not its details, and we rarely looked at it for practical information. It was a symbol of what lay ahead, while we busied ourselves with pouring pints and washing dishes, as well as a reassurance: Shanghai was not impossibly far away, it was there on our wall, connected to us by a series of cities represented as dots. We were travelling through Western Europe in summer and needed to book our accommodation in advance, which we did, giving the first part of our itinerary a comfortable shape. China loomed large in our imaginations, because it was our destination and the focus of so much news, but between Athens and Lhasa, our plans were as vague as our expectations and we naïvely predicted that after taking three months to reach Greece, we would only need another three to reach our new home, at the far eastern end of Eurasia.
I had come across Lonely Planet’s Istanbul to Kathmandu: A Classic Overland Route while looking for guidebooks online. It was second-hand: the title covered the same ground as Across Asia on the Cheap, the 1972 progenitor of Lonely Planet’s guidebook dynasty – “designed, laid out, hand-collated, stapled and trimmed in a basement flat in Sydney” – but it was out of print. The last edition had been published in 2001, in the year of 9-11, and I assumed that the route was closed, overgrown with the weeds of Islamic extremism, which American foreign policy had done so much to nourish.
We were novice travellers. In preparation for our overland journey, we had visited Oxford, where we slept in hostel beds for the first time, with new backpacks tucked carefully underneath our bunks. While there, we visited an exhibition on pilgrimage at the Ashmolean, and in its Tibetan prayer wheels, illuminated Korans and archaic maps of the Holy Land, I discovered undertones of pilgrimage in our own passage to the east. “As we wandered past these artefacts of pilgrims past,” I wrote, in my first post on Old World Wandering, “I expected Lonely Planet guides, backpacks and a Eurail pass to appear, amongst the artefacts of pilgrims present.” Neither of us had ever heard of the Hippie Trail. We didn’t know it had inspired the first Lonely Planet or that we were about to travel along it, and we couldn’t know that we, like the hippies before us, would find ourselves mesmerised by the Indian Subcontinent, or that we would emerge from it – after nine months of confused looping, living cheaply on vegetarian thalis, in grim hotels – with different ideas of not just travel, but life and how we wanted to live it.
We flew into India from Jordan, over Iran and Pakistan. It was a mistake, but Claire and I only realised our blunder when we arrived in Syria and were overwhelmed by its hospitality. In Palmyra, we met an American woman who had travelled alone from India through Pakistan, Iran and Turkey – the route we should have taken, in reverse. She had lied along the way, telling people she was from Canada, but it was in India that she felt most vulnerable. In Iran, strangers had paid for her lunch. The lesson came too late: to satisfy Turkish visa requirements and our worried parents, we had bought aeroplane tickets before setting out from London, and we didn’t think we could afford to miss our flight.
After three months in the Middle East, with our itinerary already starting to stretch, we landed in Mumbai. It was a revelation. The city had been described to us as not properly Indian, because there were no cows roaming its streets, but there were cows in our neighbourhood, and like so many who had come before us, Claire and I found ourselves intoxicated by India. Four years later, when we returned to Mumbai, we stayed in the same neighbourhood, at the same hotel, in the way that lovers revisit the place where they first met.
From Mumbai, we made our way south to Goa, an old terminus of the Hippie Trail. Although price-gouging guesthouse owners insisted it was high-high season, the restaurants in Vagator were empty and teenage girls cried “Yes yes! Have a look please!” desperately from its shops. The police were cracking down on trance parties, or at least demanding extortionate baksheesh, and rumours of an attack by Pakistani terrorists had scared off the Israelis, who flocked to Goa after the army for its illusions of flower power and peace and love, but in an old fishing village called Chapora, we found a vestige of the scene. There was tie-dye and dreadlocks and people passing chillums with “boomshanka” and a knock of their fists. There was insufferable arrogance too, with a Byzantine hierarchy of time served and badge-wearing. The hippies flew in now and, like a civilisation cut off from its trade routes, the freak culture of Goa was in decay. It was incestuous, isolated by cynicism and decadence from the gene pool of wider ideas, and like incest it produced stunted people with malformed beliefs.
I knew something of the old Hippie Trail by the time we arrived in Goa, but only as much as I had read in Paul Theroux’s Great Railway Bazaar. Theroux had encountered the freaks making their way out east – “like small clans of tribesmen setting out for a baraza or new pastures” – on a train from Istanbul to Tehran. He thought “the majority of them, going for the first time, had that look of frozen apprehension that is the mask on the face of an escapee,” and had “no doubt that the teenaged girls who made up the bulk of these loose tribal groups would eventually appear on the notice boards of American consulates in Asia, in blurred snapshots or retouched high-school graduation pictures: missing person and have you seen this girl?” Theroux, propped up on his first-class berth “like a pasha,” consulting Nagel’s Encyclopaedia-Guide, or lying down in the heat, “like a Hindu widow on a pyre, resigned to suttee,” was too much of a prig to characterise the hippies as anything but wastrels and strays, and it seemed a pity that the Hippie Trail had never had a Kerouac to document it, to tell us as he did that “somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.”
Without an enduring literature, it is guidebooks that evoke the memory of the Hippy Trail best. Across Asia on the Cheap is well known, and in its description of Kabul – that “fly-in, fly-out tourist trap” – it captures how long ago 40 years can seem, but it was the BIT Guide that best captured the Hippy Trail’s spirit. “The Bible of the East” was compiled in a London office from letters sent at way stations along the overland route. It initially cost nothing, but as demand grew and costs spiralled, a £0.50 minimum donation was introduced; when that went up to one and then two pounds, BIT’s idealistic rabble issued an apology:
We know this guide costs lots of money and you really can’t afford it but we gotta get money from somewhere and this guide is our main source of income. We’re open every day of the year from 10am to 10pm (telephone 24 hours) and we give free help and information about anything to anyone who wants it. Dirty, untidy office; friendly, sometimes exuberant atmosphere, inefficient staff, confused clientele, aggressive cat. Free information, free bogs, free bath. Free duplicator and typewriter, free kittens and puppies, free clothes, free food — cheap at other times but free if you’re really starving, free people to talk to, free alternative library, free day-room to freak out in or sleep in, free crashpad, lots of other free floor space depending on the season, free optimism, free ecstasy, free lots of other things plus expensive travel guides to pay for it all.
It was an idealism I could recognise, because it had been handed down to me by my parents. My mother, a brilliant student in Zimbabwe, had matriculated with the second highest results in the country when she arrived at the University of Cape Town in 1968, at the age of seventeen. The upper campus – set above the city, on Table Mountain’s eastern slope – was called “Moscow on the hill”; it was a focal point of white opposition to Apartheid and my mother involved herself in student politics, but only as a participant in a wider movement, in a general questioning of authority and normative ways of life. Two years later, with her head full of philosophy and far-out mysticism instead of the theorems and formulae of her degree, she recognised that she would fail her exams and dropped out. My father played rugby at Wits in Johannesburg, but grew his hair long anyway, well aware that it would be pulled at the bottom of rucks. Wits was another liberal university and an opposing team was once reminded, in the changing room prayer, that “the Jews had killed Christ.” It was the rhetoric of the time, which mixed religion with Cold War politics and race, and the English-speaking students of Wits – viewed with suspicion by Afrikaner nationalists – were labelled communists or Jews or kaffir-lovers, with varying degrees of accuracy.
My parents had both outgrown their hippie pasts by the time I was born, in 1983. They had good jobs, and I was raised in an upper middle-class suburb with a maid, a swimming pool and holidays to the coast, but I listened to their records and CDs as I grew up, and in Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Led Zeppelin I thought I had found as much meaning as they had, thirty years before me. It was my mother who pestered me to read Kerouac’s On the Road and Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, and when she realised I would soon try it on my own, it was with my mother that I smoked my first joint.
Hippie rebellion was a blithe, unruly chase after utopia, when the concept had already retreated from the West. Hitler and Stalin had been sustained by utopian ideologies too, and most of the young men and women looking for hope in the sixties and seventies knew it would be hard to find within their own culture, in a West weighed down by the atomic bomb. The search would have to begin elsewhere, and where better, or more obvious, than in a nebulous East.
It is difficult to dig up the roots of hippie fascination with Asia and Asian religions; they are various and intergrown with the roots of other trees. Timothy Leary, with his call to “turn on, tune in, drop out” and the book he co-authored in 1964, called The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, is one place to start. Leary’s book was a guide for initiates, to help them find and follow “the Clear Light of Reality” through a trip on hallucinogens like mescaline, psilocybin and LSD. It was Tibetan Buddhism put through the prism of psychology, in which Leary had earned a PhD, but the man who Nixon called America’s most dangerous was only expanding on what had already been written, and The Psychedelic Experience was dedicated to Aldous Huxley, “with profound admiration and gratitude.”
On a summer morning in 1952, Huxley took a dose of mescaline. He examined its effects methodically, with a patient, careful insight, and recognised its potential for delusion and paranoia when he was intimidated by his own garden chairs. The dedication in The Psychedelic Experience includes an extract from Huxley’s account of the experiment, which he called The Doors of Perception; it is of him talking to his wife, saying that if he had somebody with him, to tell him about the Tibetan conception of Clear Light, it might be possible to steer clear of a bad trip. The book gave Jim Morrison’s band its name and inspired Leary, along with countless others, to repeat the experiment, often with The Tibetan Book of the Dead close to hand, but Huxley’s interest in psychedelic drugs came long after – and grew out of – an older fascination with Indian spirituality.
In 1945, Huxley described Hinduism’s Bhagavad Gita as “the most systematic statement of spiritual evolution of endowing value to mankind.” He was a Vedantist as well as a friend of Jiddu Krishnamurti, the Tamil brahmin groomed by the Theosophical Society to be a World Teacher, and Swami Prabhavananda, a monk of the Ramakrishna Order, whose disciples were just starting to chant, drum and chime down the streets of Los Angeles. He travelled to India in the 1920s, and the name of his travelogue, Jesting Pilate, is a hint that it was on the subcontinent that Huxley began his hunt for truth.
In his fascinations and the impetus of his work, Huxley had a German-Swiss doppelgänger. Hermann Hesse was almost twenty years older than Huxley, with a literary career that took off in 1904, but his work was not translated into English until the fifties and sixties, after he won the Nobel Prize. It was read with delight by the beatniks and hippies, who saw their own aching for spiritual authenticity and direct experience reflected in Hesse’s protagonists, like Harry Haller of Steppenwolf, who “smoked loose ‘long, thin yellow…immeasurably enlivening and delightful’ cigarettes and then zoomed around the Theatre of the Mind,” and Siddhartha, who set out to find enlightenment in the time of the Buddha, but reached his own conclusions, along his own path.
Leary learnt about Hesse via Huxley, when the latter was Carnegie Visiting Professor at MIT. Huxley’s assignment, wrote Leary, in an essay titled Huxley, Hesse and the Cybernetic Society, was “to give a series of seven lectures on the subject ‘What a Piece of Work is Man.’” According to Leary, “about 2,000 people attended each lecture,” and, “Aldous spent most of his off-duty hours hanging around the Harvard Psychedelic Drug Project coaching us innocent novice Americans in the history of mysticism and the ceremonial care-and-handling of what he called ‘gratuitous grace.’” In the same essay, Leary mentions The Journey to the East, another of Hesse’s novels. It “was a biggie,” he writes, and “it inspired armies of pilgrims (yours truly included) to hip-hike somewhere East of Suez, along the Hashish Trail to India. The goal of this Childlike Crusade? Enlightenment 101, an elective course. Cosmic unity, a sophomore year abroad course, familiarly referred to as The Big Brain Ride, the Orient Express.”
Hesse was described as “the poet of interior journey”, but he travelled in the exterior world too, reaching India not long before Huxley, on what Leary calls “the obligatory mystical pilgrimage to India,” where he “picked up the micro-organisms that were later to appear in a full-blown Allen Ginsbergsonian mysticism,” somewhere along the Ganges. There was a distinct irony in Hesse’s journey: his parents had been Protestant missionaries in India before he was born, but he arrived a sceptic, and encouraged more godfearers in the West to stray than his mother and father could ever have hoped to achieve in reverse, among the heathens of India.
Dig past Hesse and the roots of flower power’s eastern faith remain firmly planted in German-speaking Europe. Jung read The Tibetan Book of the Dead like a bible. He called it “his constant companion…of unexampled superiority,” to which he owed “not only many stimulating ideas and discoveries, but also many fundamental insights.” There had been a proto-hippie movement in Germany too: Der Wandervögel, The Wandering Birds, who rejected Germany’s stuffy clubs and the social conservatism of the Kaiser Reich before the First World War. They went hiking together, sang folksongs and liked to be bizarrely dressed. It was a youth movement that the Nazi’s hijacked and inverted with the Hitler Youth, just as they hijacked and inverted the swastika, which is used all over Asia as a symbol of good.
Near the bottom of the Hippie Trail’s German roots is the nineteenth century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. He was among the first Europeans to take the philosophy underlying Indian religions seriously, when translations started to arrive on the continent from the Mughal court, and he reformulated Vedic and Buddhist teachings in his concept of will – along with desire – as the basis of human experience. It was Schopenhauer who inspired Hesse to travel to India, and his philosophy is woven into Siddhartha, but it was Huxley’s admiration of The Bhagavad Gita that most closely echoed Schopenhauer, who described the Hindu Upanishads as “the most satisfying and elevating reading…which is possible in the world; it has been the solace of my life and will be the solace of my death.”
Flower Power grew out of other movements too, particularly Romanticism, whose poets revered nature and found their own east in the paganism and philosophy of ancient Greece – and travelled, in some cases, to find what remained of it in the Ottoman Empire. The Doors of Perception was a line borrowed from the Romantic poet William Blake,
If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite,
which was written in the years after the French Revolution, in the context of another rebellion, and the hippies are perhaps best understood as just one more mixed-up outpouring from the societies being remade by modernity in the West. They seem larger than life to me, not only because of their proximity to the present, nor even because of the movement’s scale, but because since the hippies fizzled out in inertia and frustrated decadence, no movement has considered being burning mad an ideological act. In On the Road, the proto-hippie Kerouc looks for a way to describe himself by asking what young people were called in Goethe’s Germany, in the Storm and Stress of German Romanticism:
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’ What did they call such young people in Goethe’s Germany?
Like the Romantics, the hippies were opposed to a rational ordering of society and nature, and like the Romantics, they identified a hole in modern man’s soul. The hippies went further east in search of something to fill it, but they emerged from societies as mixed up in colonialism as writers like Blake and Byron, who was in Athens when Elgin “snatch’d” the Parthenon’s marbles. The hippies arrived in independent India preaching peace and love, but not far away bombs were whistling down on the Buddhists in Laos and Vietnam, and the dreamers on the overland trail to Kathmandu couldn’t help but inherit some of colonialism’s distortions.
In a collection of interviews titled A Season in Heaven: True Tales from the Road to Kathmandu, an Englishman recalls leaving home under the impression that in India, “you could live in the forest, eat berries, meditate in a cave, wander around naked or do whatever you felt like and nobody would take a blind bit of notice because everyone innately understood what you were doing.” His concept of India was a Quixotic mirage, of the sort found in medieval travelogues, with their reports of unicorns and grotesque races with feet in place of a head, but it was probably passed on to him like a ragged BIT Guide, by veterans of the Big Brain Ride. Although it is just one, admittedly extreme impression, it is emblematic of the schizophrenic mix of reverence and disdain that informed the hippie’s attitude to India. Just as spiritual searching grows most often out of a feeling of emptiness, the hippies were more interested in what was absent in the West than what was present in the East, and for some it was just a placeholding other, a utopian mirage that later travellers would inherit, and thirstily travel towards.
After a muted New Year celebration in Goa, Claire and I continued south into Kerala. We stayed in Cochin for nine days, drinking beer out of teapots and exploring the nearby backwaters, where the origins of human language are said to be preserved in mantras that resemble birdsong. While watching sinewy men operate the levers and weights of Fort Cochin’s Chinese fishing nets, we met a mother and daughter from England; they suggested Claire and I visit an ashram further south, near Trivandrum. Neither of us had done yoga before, nor had we visited an ashram, but we were planning to stop in at the Gandhian community at Sevagram. It was established by the Mahatma, and the routine for visitors closely resembled the routine he had set for himself, including a 4:30 rise and spinning on a hand loom. Gandhi, with his links to South Africa, was a way for me to think through the confusion of India when I first arrived, but Sevagram was in a flyblown village in the northeast corner of Maharashtra. The ashram described by the mother and daughter was less intimidating; it was popular with foreigners, they said, and visitors were not expected to share the religious zeal of staff.
Two weeks later, we arrived at the Sivananda Ashram at Neyyar Dam on a decrepit bus. It had heaved its way up into the foothills of the Western Ghats, stopping as it went to collect tiny rural people toting vast bundles of spices, flour, toiletries, clothing, electric fans and other purchases made at the market towns en route. When the roof was overladen and the aisle full, people clutched on to the bus’s sides, and as we wove our way up and down the winding road they remained content enough to gaze in at us, the exotic foreigners, and waggle their heads approvingly.
We registered at the ashram’s reception desk, where we exchanged our valuables for sheets, pillows and mosquito nets, along with an outline of our yoga vacation’s mandatory schedule:
05:20 WAKE UP BELL
07:30 TEA TIME
08:00 ASANA CLASS
11:00 KARMA YOGA
12:30 COACHING CLASS (optional)
13:30 TEA TIME
16:00 ASANA CLASS
22:00 LIGHTS OUT
Claire was dispatched to the women’s dormitory and I made my way, with the receptionist, to the men’s. My bunkmate was a Keralan Christian called Thomas, who shared his name with Doubting Thomas, the saint and apostle who established India’s first Christian community after crossing the Arabian Sea in 52 CE. Thomas was tall and well-built; he was dressed in white cotton trousers and a pale yellow t-shirt, with Sivananda Yoga Teachers Training Course printed on its front. It was a uniform, he said, used to separate the two groups of people at the ashram: yoga vacationers, like Claire and I, and a group studying to be yoga teachers, whose lives were governed by an exacting, month-long schedule.
The ashram was in a sprawling, walled compound. The dorms and a scattering of private rooms were at its edges; in its centre, a two-tiered hall functioned as a temple as well as a space for asana yoga classes and meals, observed in silence. A small room with a pointed roof was perched on the hall’s top; this, I learnt, was a sattvic library, stocked with only pure books. The food at the ashram was sattvic too: it was not just vegetarian, but cooked with ingredients that grew in direct sunlight. Roots vegetables like garlic and potatoes were not sattvic, but unpasteurised milk and its products were, because they were gifts from the sacred cow. Beyond the hall, there was a small, ceremonial temple, staff quarters and an Ayurvedic clinic, where Claire and I would go for massages later, when our bodies ached from doing four hours of yoga each day. There was a ramshackle structure outside the compound, beside the cool, clear water of Neyyar Dam, with a packed earth floor and a roof of woven palm fronds. It was used sporadically for asana classes and lectures on Vedanta, but on other occasions visitors needed to request permission to leave the ashram, and to sign in and out with the security guard who idled at the compound’s gate.
The ashram’s senior acolyte was an Italian monk who wore bright orange robes as a symbol of his celibacy, but its day-to-day management was handled by a Zimbabwean doctor. He had studied at the University of Cape Town, like Claire, my mother and I, and it was difficult to imagine what path had led him here, to the life of a Hindu ascetic. On our first visit, he too wore the orange of Brahmacharya, but when we returned four years later, he was dressed in white cotton trousers and a yellow t-shirt, like his students, and had obviously abandoned his vow.
The reputation of the ashram was a constant concern. The bohemian rabble of Goa, Gokarna, Hampi, Pushkar and other places on what remained of the Hippie Trail visited it in large numbers, and on our first day, when the chores of karma yoga were being assigned, there were questions about where we could smoke. The answer – nowhere – came with instructions forbidding us to eat meat or drink beer at any of the small restaurants and chai shops in the vicinity, because locals would struggle to reconcile our easy excesses with traditional ideas of religious hermitage. Women were only to swim in the dam fully dressed, and when Claire broke this rule, by swimming in her bikini a few hundred metres from the ashram, in the seclusion of tall trees and thick scrub, an Englishwoman – and senior figure at the ashram – came crashing out of the bushes to reprimand her.
Visitors who wanted to continue self-indulgent holidays soon left, but most chose to stay, and gave their lives over to the ashram’s routine. I was almost broken by satsang, the congregational service with hymn singing and dull sermons that dragged three hours out of every day, but I took a novel with me, secreted in my chant book, and after a week of asana classes I could do a headstand and comfortably touch my toes. I had stopped smoking too, without much effort, and was waking up refreshed at 5:20, with the morning bell. It was an orderly, repetitive existence without the anxiety of choice, and it made a number of people exceedingly happy. They stopped using English words if Om namo Shivaya – In the name of Shiva – or just Om would pass as substitutes, and went about with sparkling eyes and wide, mirthful grins. Two women from Brighton, whose eyes sparkled especially bright, learnt from Claire that I would be at the ashram during my birthday. They told the ashram’s staff and, on the day I turned 24, I was summoned up in the front of the few hundred people assembled at satsang and presented with a book called Meditation and Mantras, written by the order’s deceased guru. Everybody was then told to pray for my moksha – my release from the cycle of reincarnation – which they did, while my cheeks glowed red in front of them.
The ashram had not one but two gurus – an elder ascetic, named Swami Sivananda, and his disciple, Swami Vishnudevananda. Sivananda, born in 1887, was a doctor whose spirituality was said to have grown out of his medical practice. He spent most of his life in Rishikesh, where the Beatles found their own guru, and in the story of the ashram’s founding it was there that he first encountered his young disciple. Vishnudevananda had travelled to meet the sage, after reading one of his 296 books, but when he saw the elder man ascending the stairs after a ritual immersion in the Ganges, with the pilgrims and sadhus of Rishikesh prostrating as he passed, Vishnudevananda hid. Sivananda noticed, found him and, in what is described as the guru’s first lesson, prostrated himself at the feet of his embarrassed junior. The younger man took a vow of chastity soon afterwards, in 1947; ten years later, Sivananda gave him ten rupees and, with the words “people are waiting,” told his disciple to take what he had learnt to the West.
It was perfect timing. In 1959, after passing through Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Australia and the US, with people in every place paying for him to move on, the Flying Swami set up his first Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centre in Montreal. In 1961, he held his first yoga camp; in 1962, he opened his first ashram in the forested hinterland of Quebec; he met the Beatles in the Bahamas in 1965 – “I can’t even stand on my legs, let alone my head,” said Ringo Star – and opened an ashram on the country’s Paradise Island in 1967. In 1971, he opened a third ashram in California and in 1974 a fourth, in New York. It wasn’t until 1978 that he opened an ashram in India, at Neyyar Dam, and in some ways the retreat Claire and I were on, in spite of its rituals, was not traditionally Indian at all.
None of the yoga vacationers were Indian. They were from North America and Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, or, in an example held up to us as evidence of yoga’s power to bring people together, Israel and Iran. The group studying to be yoga teachers was mixed, but like my Christian bunkmate Thomas, the majority of Indians were not overly interested in ascetism or the finer points of Vedic philosophy. The Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres taught a recognisable brand of postures and stretches, and with the qualification they would receive at the end of the course, after completing a test, they could hope to find well paid work. They could teach tourists in Goa or go overseas, to London, Dubai or Shanghai, where a yoga school with an Indian teacher was the equivalent of an Italian restaurant with a Neapolitan chef.
The ashram was, in its way, an outpost on the Hippie Trail, as well as a transplant onto India from the West. Swami Vishnudevananda had adapted the teachings of his guru to Western devotees, and it was only after his incredible success that the model was exported back to the country of his birth. After Vishnudevananda died, in 1993, his devotees were left to run the organisation, under the supervision of the Italian monk, and the organisation’s Western roots explained the awkward worry over its reputation in India, because try as it might, the ashram didn’t completely fit in.
Although they were happy away from the decadence of Goa, the yoga vacationers wore the same uniform I had noticed there, on more dissolute members of the same tribe. Women had to adapt their dress to conservative India, but instead of saris or a salwar kameez, they wore the outfits hippies had cobbled together between Istanbul and Kathmandu before them, which were sold now in bits and pieces at the tourist markets of India’s seaside towns. The look was described in another of A Season in Heaven’s interviews, by Carmel Lyons. “The fashion was prayer shawls,” she said, and “pyjamas and beads and drifting fabrics and waistcoats and bare feet and harem pants,” and it still was, on sweaty bodies after an asana class, or during early-morning meditation, when a shawl protected against the cool morning air.
Our yoga vacation lasted two weeks, but after ten days most people were ready to move on, including Claire and I. Instead of dispersing, everybody shared taxis to the beach at Varkala, where the only Indians were guesthouse owners, shop attendants or waiters, and bikinis were very much allowed. For some, Varkala was where their holiday ended; they were flying out of nearby Trivandrum in a few days’ time. The ashram and the beach would be the whole of their Indian experience. Others were moving doggedly on, to places along the well-worn trail, and I watched an Israeli couple book themselves onto a 50 hour train to Pushkar, which would carry them in sweltering sleeper class, without pause, across the whole length of the country. Nobody spoke enthusiastically, like we did, about getting back into the thick, confusing, revelatory mess of Indian cities, and it seemed that most of the yoga vacationers had borrowed a narrow view of India from their hippie predecessors, along with their clothing.
On his way into Tehran, Paul Theroux bribed his way into a cabin with “a large bald Turk” named Sadik. “It was Sadik who pointed out to me that the hippies were doomed,” Theroux later wrote. “They dressed like wild Indians, he said, but basically they were middle-class Americans. They didn’t understand baksheesh, and because they were always holding tight to their money and expecting to scrounge food and hospitality they would always lose.”
Time, I think, has proved Sadik wrong. The hippies emerged from the baby boomers, from a socio-economic moment peculiar to the West, when there was a safety net of well-to-do parents, easy jobs and welfare at home. They were never doomed, they just grew up, but their spurt of vibrant, iconoclastic counterculture gave the West a way of seeing India at least as pervasive as the British Raj, and established backpacking as an industry. The original Hippie Trail is closed, but young people have continued to travel east of Suez, without worrying about baksheesh, and for better or worse they have been welcomed. They travel cheaply, and some scrounge where they can, but most don’t need to: in India and Nepal, on Southeast Asia’s Banana Pancake Trail, and elsewhere, a sprawl of guest houses, restaurants and markets has been set up to cater to their penny-pinching needs. Many choose to adopt aspects of a hippie identity, but they do so with the wisdom and perhaps the cynicism of hindsight. They do not expect to change the world, and know that they too must grow up, but without the idealism of the sixties and seventies, all that is left to them is debauchery, clothing, and a narrow view of Asia.
Veterans of the Hippie Trail in Goa and Gokarna have mournfully told me about how their paradise was lost. When they first arrived, they say, there was nowhere to sleep but the beach, and bananas, eggs and peanut brittle were the only things they could safely eat. They complain about the convenience of email, Facebook and Skype; when they went off in search of Kerouac’s pearl, telephone calls were expensive and the best way to communicate with home was by poste restante. They return year after year anyway, to bemoan without irony the decreasing distance between East and West. It is surely time they realised that the facts of life in prosperous Kew have long been the wildest dreams of Kathmandu.
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