The holy Hindu town of Rishikesh, 14 miles north of Haridwar, straddles the Ganges River as it pours out of the Shivalik Hills. Believed to be where the God Rama performed penance after slaying the evil demon Ravana, the site has been sacred for hundreds, and possibly thousands, of years. It served as a way stage for sannyasins, sadhus and yogis travelling to and from the sacred sites of the Garwhal Himalaya, and for generations has attracted seekers on spiritual quests, among them the Beatles, who famously spent time here with Maharishi Yogi in 1968.
Rishikesh continues to be an important New Age religious centre. Numerous ashrams – some modest, others large and opulent – overlook the waterfront. When in residence, most of the local gurus and their acolytes attend the evening aarthi ceremony, when scores of floating lamp-boats (diyas) are released into the current at Parmath Niketan Ashram. A much more informal ritual than the one held at Haridwar, it’s performed by saffron-clad students from the ashrams, rather than massed ranks of priests.
The ceremony begins with the singing of bhajans (devotional songs), prayers, and offerings to Agni, the Vedic fire god. Diyas are then lit and released onto the water, accompanied by childrens’ choirs, as a huge statue of Lord Shiva rising from a bank of pebbles in the river looks on.