Published in the May issue of ‘Windows&Aisles’, the inflight magazine of Paramount Airways
The young man sat on the steps reading the newspaper, immersed in the news of the world, unmindful of the dust from the streets his clean yellow robes were picking up. I stopped to stare, the camera in my hand as always enough to excuse any rudeness. His robes indicated that he was a priest; a local, I thought to myself. And the way he sat still, ignoring my camera clicking away suggested a bored indifference to things worldly. And when I had finished, he rose suddenly, picking up the purple-bordered yellow dhoti, said something to me in perfect English and walked into the house behind him. That to me set the tone for Gokarna. A town of contrasts, contradictions and surprises.
Gokarna had not woken up completely at the time we drove into the town early on a Sunday morning. Shops were shut, some of them slowly coming awake as the owners raised the shutters to another day, the creaking sounds made by the metal shutters a form of protest against having to wake up so early on a Sunday. It is only as we drove past the area of the temple that we saw signs of life.
Walking aimlessly down the same street later, I learnt that the area was called ‘Car Street’, after the temple car, the juggernaut of the local god Shiva. The juggernaut sat heavy and drowsy as the rest of the village, its huge wooden wheels now stuck in the mud till the time for the annual festival when they roll slowly around the town, carrying the image of the deity within. Right opposite the main temple was a small shop, crammed with photographs and tiny images in metal and mud, of gods and goddesses. Even from that distance, I got the impression that every single god ever known (and some not that well known) was present in that shop in one form or the other! And for all that, the shopkeeper sat in the middle of the shop on a raised platform, reading the local newspaper, totally indifferent to all the divinity round him.
To begin at the beginning. We drove past the narrow car street, past the main temple and winding lanes right to the end of the road where pilgrims had already congregated for a dip in the sea before entering the temple. Parking our car there, we started walking in the direction of the temple. I kept stopping to admire the bright cheerful colors on the doors and windows of the tiny houses we passed, my camera working overtime as my husband and friends kept hurrying me along impatiently.
Till we all finally stopped short on coming across a fine unmissable photo op, a foreigner painting on a wall facing the street, the image of Radha and Krishna swinging. The Radhakrishna bookstore which was empty when we had crossed it a few minutes ago had now attracted a small crowd, adults and children staring in open-mouthed fascination as the painted forms took shape in front of our eyes. And finally the crowds lost interest and moved on; after all, how long could they stand and watch a man at work? And we found ourselves chatting with the artist.
Karl. I will call him Karl, for I do not remember his name now. He was from Germany and was in India on holiday when he reached Gokarna and found it so fascinating that he decided to stay on for a while. The bookstore, he explained, was owned by friends he was staying with, and he was painting the wall as a favor to his friends, who had also found their way to Gokarna from a distant country in the West and decided to settle down there. Although I had read about foreigners staying on for months and sometimes years in places like Gokarna, I have not been able to understand this fascination. In the North, there is Rishikesh and Puri in the East, “famous” now for visitors from the Western world who reach there and find themselves attracted to the easy calm and quiet beauty of the place. Looking around me though, I could see nothing of great charm and attraction in Gokarna at that moment. In the distance I could see the shores of the sea with its bathing pilgrims and hear their raucous laughter even at this distance. I would not understand its charm fully till later when I discovered its quiet beaches.
The temple town
Gokarna is a heady mixture of spiritualism and religion on one side, and fun and relaxation on the other. For if the devout come here for the temple of Lord Shiva and prefer to frolic in the beach inside town after worship, the other type of ‘pilgrims’, many of them Westerners are here for the sun and sand, for the inexpensive beach shacks and cold beer and hot snacks. And sunsets on the beach. And long arduous treks up the hills and views from the top worth every bead of sweat. And for walking from one beach to the other, first Kudle, then Om, Paradise and finally Half-Moon.
Leaving our footwear outside, we then entered the temple, which had become crowded by that time. Gokarna has an interesting story behind it – it is believed that lord Shiva, known here as Mahabaleshwara, emerged from a cow’s ears, therefore the name go-karna. Another legend has it that Ganesha appeared as a young boy and tricked Ravana into placing the atmalingam on the ground (which was forbidden). Ravana, with all his might and strength could not lift it off the ground but left a mark on top of the lingam giving it a shape resembling a cow’s ears! And for believers of this legend, the small, dark Ganesha temple on the corner of the road assumes more significance than the larger one of Shiva.
Although the temples themselves are out of bounds for foreigners, once we stepped out on to the main street, it is again a different world, one in which the East and West seemed to meet, if not smoothly, then effortlessly for sure. For instance, at breakfast, we found ourselves next to a young couple from Israel and their two small children tucking into idlis and upma in a manner that suggested familiarity as much as liking. And this was at one of the local tiny “hotels” on Car Street, a ramshackle building with rickety chairs and tables thrown in carelessly.
The sun and sand
The sun was out in full force as we made our way after a heavy breakfast towards the beaches that Gokarna is famed for. Though we were told about the route from behind the Ganesha temple that leads towards Kudle beach, a walk of twenty minutes in the heat did not appeal to us and we decided to drive out instead towards the beaches. We duly drove back towards the small check-post just outside town and headed up the steep hill in a picturesque route to the beaches.
Kudle was the first beach on this route, nestled between two hillocks, a pretty sight from up the hill where we stood. Although Kudle looked inviting, stretching out like a blue carpet between the lush green trees growing along the slopes of the hills, we moved on towards Om beach. Walking from Gokarna town, you need to take a short hike up some stairs and a hillock to reach this beach. And from Kudle, there is a further hike up a steep hill towards an open space on the top from where the panorama of Om beach opens out in front of the hiker who is short of breath from that thirty minute climb (but this was not a problem for us since we had cheated and driven up instead of walking!). The name Om is the product of an imaginative mind – the rocky beach curves at two points on the shore, and an inverted image of this scene resembles an ‘Om’ (letter in Sanskrit). We stood drinking in the views, the sea now a deep blue and then suddenly a shimmery silver, as the harsh sunlight played its tricks on the waters.
Descending down towards the beach, we were in dire need of refreshment and found a tiny café on the beach, waiting with chilled drinks and that mid-morning snack which a life-saver for the traveler out in the sun. The beach was filled with families with small children frolicking noisily in the water, being protected by whatever deity takes care of children out in the sun and in treacherous waters. Further away, young couples and singles sat with books or just a cold drink in their hands in whatever shade was available. We sat back watching the crabs scurry across the soft sand, as if in a great hurry to reach their destinations, leaving interesting patterns on the sand.
Further ahead of Om, again a short but tiring trek away is Half Moon beach, and then Paradise beach, both quieter and lonelier than Kudle or Om, we were told. We decided to give those a miss and reluctantly dragged ourselves out of the peaceful beauty of Om beach towards neighboring Murudeshwar where the tall imposing statue of lord Shiva as Murudeshwara greets the visitor on entry into the road that leads to the beach. As we walked away, I turned for one last glimpse of Om, in my mind imagining the shores lit by the soft light of the moon. And I promised myself that I would go back for that sight. Soon.
Paramount Airways flies to Bangalore, the nearest large airport to Gokarna. From Bangalore, you can drive or take an overnight KSRTC bus to Gokarna or any of the neighboring beach towns and take autorickshaws within town.
If you wish to stay inside the town, try to find accommodation with one of the local families that run guesthouses or rent out rooms, for a feel of local food and hospitality. Hotel Gokarna International is the largest and most well-known of the town hotels.
Else head out to the beaches (if driving, reached by a long winding road that begins near the check-post just outside the town) and stay in one of the shacks along the beach – they offer comfortable if basic accommodation. The beaches also have two fairly new hotels, Swaswara resort and spa and Om beach resort.