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. The centre for all manner of New Age and Hindu activity, its many ashrams continue to draw devotees and followers, with the large Shivananda Ashram in particular renowned as a yoga centre. Rishikesh is also emerging as an adventure-sports centre, with rafting, trekking, mountaineering, zip-lining and bungee-jumping all on offer.
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Rishikesh has one or two ancient shrines, but its main role has always been as a way-station for sannyasis, yogis and travellers heading for the high Himalayas. The arrival of the Beatles, who came here to meet the Maharishi in 1968, triggered the lucrative expansion of the yatra pilgrimage circuit; these days it’s easy to see why Ringo thought it was “just like Butlin’s”. 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.
Winding steeply through the forests from Swarg Ashram is an old, 10km pilgrim trail to the small Shiva shrine of Neelkanth Mahadev. It marks the spot where Lord Shiva once swallowed the poison that turned his throat blue, earning himself the nickname of Neelkanth, “the blue-throated one”. The road that takes a long detour through the forest has made the small settlement a less peaceful retreat during yatra season. The trail offers some stunning vantage points, crossing a spur before the final descent to Neelkanth. One or both legs are often done by shared jeep, departing from the stand south of Ram Jhula Bridge.
The small white Shakti temple of Kunjapuri, 10km west of town, stands at the sharp point of an almost perfectly conical hill 1645m high, with panoramic views into the high Himalayas to the north as well as back towards Rishikesh and Haridwar to the south. A popular sunrise and sunset spot, it gets most traffic during the Navratri (April & Oct) and Dussehra (Oct) festivals. It’s a 3–4hr hike from Lakshman Jhula, passing through pleasant countryside, or a short bus ride to Hindola Khal (every 15min from the Yatra Bus Stand), followed by a 3km (45min) walk uphill.
The motorable track running north of Lakshman Jhula passes several secluded beaches before arriving at the beautiful ashram of Phool Chatti (5km upstream), set at a bend in the river with sandy beaches including the famous Goa Beach. Giant boulders add drama, but swimming is hazardous due to strong undercurrents. Hikers can stay at Phool Chatti’s beautifully sited GMVN Tourist Bungalow.