RISHIKESH, 238km northeast of Delhi and just 24km north of Haridwar, huddles along the steep wooded banks of the fast-flowing Ganges as it exits the mountains of Garhwal to crash onto the plains to the south. 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 applies to a loose association of distinct areas, encompassing several scattered hamlets on both sides of the river. The town of Rishikesh itself sprawls to the south of the Chandrabagha riverbed, home to Triveni Ghat, the train station, bus stand and the commercial and communications hubs. A short ride north of town is the footbridge (jhula) of Ram Jhula, linking Swarg Ashram on the east bank, while 2km further upstream is a second footbridge, Lakshman Jhula. The settlements in both areas are largely traffic-free, spiritual hubs dotted with ashrams, temples, hotels and restaurants.