Hrishikesh is one of the most ancient pilgrim places. It is an abode of the Gods, a place of worship and penance of the sages and saints. The celestial stream Ganga descends down here from the foot-hills of the Himalayas making it the most pious pilgrim place. The mystical powers of the earth and water, the spiritual effect, the penance of the sages and Gods make Hrishikesh the supreme holy place.
There are many stories about this holy place in the scriptures. Lord Vishnu appeared before Raibhya rishi in penance, leaning against the mango tree and asked him for a boon. The great sage prayed to Lord Vishnu to dwell in this place for ever. Lord Vishnu was pleased and granted him the wish saying that He will be present here forever as Hrishikesh and will be known as Bharat in kaliyug. Adi Guru Shankaracharya will re-install me here in the due course of time.
The root words "Hrishik" and "ish" join together to make "Hrishik+ish, Hrishikesh; "Hrishik" means "senses" and "ish" means "master" or "Lord". Hence the word means the one who has mastered his senses. Raibhya rishi conquered his senses and attained Lord Vishnu. Hence the place is known as Hrishikesh. However, later on in due course of time it was started pronouncing as Rishikesh. In Skand Puran, this area is also known as kubjamrak as Lord Vishnu appeared here leaning against the mango tree. In religious rites this name is still used even today.
Another legend says that a fierce fire broke out here so Lord Shankar got angry with Lord Agni and cursed him. Agni then prayed here for the expiation of his sins therefore this place is also known as Agni Tirth-The holy place of penance of Lord Agni or Fire God.
According to the Puran Kedarkhand Lord Hrishikesh Narayan pleased with the tapasya of the sage Som Sharma granted him the boon and even gave him the darshan of his Maya. In medieval period very few people lived here. Only a few poets and sages resided in the area. The pilgrims visited the place only during the pilgrimage season. It was surrounded by the mango grooves and shrubs of bamboo and Ber.
There are signs that there were many temples here during eighth century but were destroyed due to the floods in the Ganga, earthquakes and iconoclasts.