At Haridwar – the Gates (dwar) of God (Hari) – 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 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-Pairighat (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 (in 2010 and 2022 for example), 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. 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 Arati draws 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.
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.