RISHIKESH, 238km northeast of Delhi and 24km north of Haridwar, lies at the point where the wooded mountains of Garhwal rise abruptly from the low valley floor and the Ganges crashes onto the plains. The centre for all manner of New Age and Hindu activity, its many ashrams – some ascetic, some opulent – continue to draw devotees and followers of all sorts of weird and wonderful gurus, with the large Shivananda Ashram in particular renowned as a yoga centre. Rishikesh is also emerging as an adventure-sports hub, with rafting, trekking and mountaineering all on offer.
Rishikesh has one or two ancient shrines, but its main role has always been as a way-station for sannyasin, yogis and travellers heading for the high Himalayas. The arrival of the Beatles, who came here to meet the Maharishi in 1968, was one of the first manifestations of the lucrative expansion of the yatra pilgrimage circuit; these days it’s easy to see why Ringo thought it was “just like Butlin’s”. By far the best times to visit are in winter and spring, when the mountain temples are shut by the snows – without the yatra razzmatazz, you get a sense of the tranquillity that was the original appeal of the place. At other times, a walk upriver leads easily away from the bustle to secluded spots among giant rocks ideally suited for yoga, meditation or an invigorating dip in the cold water (but not a swim: fast currents make that too dangerous).
Confusingly, the name Rishikesh is applied to a loose association of five distinct areas, encompassing not only the town but also hamlets and settlements on both sides of the river: Rishikesh itself, the commercial and communications hub; sprawling suburban Muni-ki-Reti; Shivananda Nagar, just north; the assorted ashrams around Swarg Ashram on the east bank; and the riverbank temples of Lakshmanjhula, a little further north.
Most of the pilgrims who pass through Rishikesh on their way to the Himalayan shrines of the Char Dham pause for a dip and puja at what is left of the large sandy expanse of Triveni Ghat, close to the centre of town. The river here looks especially spectacular during arati (evening worship), when diya lights float on the water. Nearby, at Bharat Mandir, Rishikesh’s oldest temple, a black stone image of Vishnu is supposed to have been consecrated by the great ninth-century Hindu revivalist Shankara; the event is commemorated during Basant Panchami, to mark the first day of spring.
The dense-knit complex of cafés, shops and ashrams collectively known as Swarg Ashram, opposite Shivananda Ashram, backs on to forest-covered hills where caves are still inhabited by sadhus. The river can be crossed at this point either on the Ramjhula footbridge, or on ferries, which operate between 8am and 7pm according to demand (Rs5 oneway, Rs8 return). Swarg Ashram itself, popularly referred to as Kale Kumbli Wale, was founded in honour of Swami Vishudhanand, who came here in 1884 and habitually wore a black (kala) blanket (kumble). The most conspicuous of the other ashram-temples is Parmarth Niketan, whose large courtyard is crammed with brightly clad gods and goddesses. Gita Bhavan, next door, runs an Ayurvedic dispensary up the street, where they also sell books and khadi handloom cloth.
Around 2km north of Swarg Ashram, a path skirts the east bank of the river and beautiful sandy beaches sheltered by large boulders, en route to Lakshmanjhula. A footbridge spans the river here as it negotiates its final rocky course out of the mountains. It’s the most appealing part of Rishikesh, featuring the enormous, gaudy Kailashnanda Ashram. The attractive landscape and turquoise river are best appreciated from the Devraj Coffee Corner on the west side where travellers spend days watching daredevil monkeys cavorting on the bridge and pouncing on unsuspecting passers-by.