RISHIKESH 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. 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 heading for the high Himalayas. The arrival of the Beatles, who came to meet the Maharishi in 1968, was an early manifestation 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". (Due to an ongoing dispute, the Maharishi's beautifully situated ashram now stands empty on a high forested bluff above the river.) By far the best times to visit are 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.
Most of the pilgrims who pass through Rishikesh 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.
The dense-knit complex of cafés, shops and ashrams collectively known as Swarg 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. Put away any thoughts about swimming across; drownings in these swift waters are not uncommon.
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 as it negotiates its final rocky course out of the mountains. It's the most appealing part of Rishikesh, featuring the enormous, gaudy KailashnandaAshram.