At Haridwar – the Gates (dwar) of God (Hari) – 214km northeast of Delhi, the River Ganges emerges from its final rapids past the Shivalik Hills to start the long slow journey across northern India to the Bay of Bengal. Stretching for roughly 3km along a narrow strip of land between the craggy wooded hills to the west and the river to the east, Haridwar is especially revered by Hindus, for whom the Har-ki-Pairi ghat (literally the “Footstep of God”) marks the exact spot where the river leaves the mountains. As a road and rail junction, Haridwar links the Gangetic plains with the mountains of Uttarakhand and their holy pilgrimage (yatra) network. Along with Nasik, Ujjain and Allahabad, Haridwar is one of the four holy tirthas or “crossings” that serve as the focus of the massive Kumbh Mela festival. Every twelve years (next due in 2022), thousands of pilgrims come to bathe at a preordained moment in the turbulent waters of the channelled river around Har-ki-Pairi.

Split by a barrage north of Haridwar, the Ganges flows through the town in two principal channels, divided by a long sliver of land. The natural stream lies to the east, while the embankment of the fast-flowing canal to the west holds ghats and ashrams. Promenades, river channels and bridges create a pleasant riverfront ambience, with the major ghats and religious activity clustered around the Har-ki-Pairi temple, which looks like a railway station. Bridges and walkways connect the various islands, and metal chains are placed in the river to protect bathers from being swept away by swift currents.

The clock tower opposite Har-ki-Pairi ghat is an excellent vantage point, especially during evening worship. At dusk, the spectacular daily ceremony of Ganga Aarti – devotion to the life-bestowing goddess Ganga – draws a crowd of thousands onto the islands and bridges. Lights float down the river and priests perform elaborate choreographed movements while swinging torches to the accompaniment of gongs and music. As soon as they’ve finished the river shallows fill up with people looking for coins thrown in by the devout. The ghat area is free to visit, although a donation is required to visit the section at the bottom of the first staircase.

Haridwar’s teeming network of markets is the other main focus of interest. Bara Bazaar, at the top of town, is a good place to buy a danda (bamboo staff) for treks in the mountains. Stalls in the colourful Moti Bazaar in the centre of town on the Jawalapur road sell everything from clothes to spices.

High above Haridwar, on the crest of a ridge, the gleaming white shikhara of the Mansa Devi temple dominates both town and valley. The temple is easily reached by cable car, from a base station off Upper Road in the heart of town, though the steep 1.5-kilometre walk is pleasant enough early in the morning. None of the shrines and temples up top holds any great architectural interest, but you do get excellent views along the river.

The modern, seven-storeyed Bharat Mata temple – 5km north of Haridwar and reachable in shared Vikrams from next to Shivalik restaurant for Rs10 – is dedicated to “Mother India”. Each of its various floors – connected by lifts – is dedicated to a celestial or political theme, and populated by lifelike images of heroes, heroines and Hindu deities.