Gokarna was a always a stop on the way back to Mumbai from my grandparents’s home in nearby Kumta. While we made our yearly pilgrimage to Shiva’s Mahabaleshwar temple and other smaller temples nearby, it was only one of these years that we got to see the beach. Eight of my cousins, grandparents, and countless uncles and aunties crammed into three Ambassadors excitedly for the day trip to Gokarna. The beach was empty, not a soul to be seen. Odd, I thought, for an otherwise crowded town. Along with my mischievous little cousin brothers I dipped my legs in the sea, and splashed them as we walked. We were not allowed to go in to the sea – it just was not a done thing.Prashant, the little devil of the group, decided that dipping feet was not enough and he began entering the sea deeper and deeper trying to jump the waves. The ten year old had no idea that the evening tide was getting stronger and that too rather rapidly, and before anyone even knew he had gone in so far, he lost control. Some of us froze and some of us screamed not knowing what to do. None of us were a match for the strong waves. One of our drivers heard the commotion and jumped into the water, swam fiercely and pulled Prashant in from the strong waves. My aunt punished him that night, but not too much as she just happy that he was saved.

This is my memory of Gokarna – sandy, clean and empty beaches and of course no lifeguard to save you from the strong undercurrents.

Twenty five years later Gokarna is no longer exclusively a temple town – it has become a place of contrasts. A prime spot for Hindu devotees to perform certain rituals, the town has also become a haven for hippies and backpackers. Beach shacks and cafés have mushroomed along the sea after the pristine beaches were discovered by the outside world. But for parts of the town, time has stood still. Prayers, obsequies(death rites), and darshans continue on a daily basis as do age old festivals such as Shivaratri. The town continues to be an important holy site, and the Mahabaleshwar temple management along with the Gokarna town leaders are promoting it as a major place of pilgrimage.

I have never gone to a place specifically for religious purposes but if there are any temples or churches nearby I always make it a point to visit. A mystic connection, a nostalgic bond, encompasses me especially when there is a Hindu mythological story behind a place. Growing up hearing stories from my mother and grandmothers, I was never told that the Ramayana or Mahabharata was mythology but the stories of our Gods, our religion. So even today I believe the story of Gokarna’s Mahabaleshwar temple where Ravana was tricked into putting down the Atmalinga which he had received as a boon from Shiva to make him invincible (Ravana was told by Shiva to never place it down). After he laid it down on the ground and realized what he had done he picked part of the Atmalinga up and threw it in the air with force. Four other pieces reached Dhareshwar, Gunavanteshwara, Murdeshwar and Shejjeshwar and all four towns have temples with the Atmalinga. I can imagine Lord Ganesha, the one who tricked Ravana at the exact place where I stand near the temple. An instant feeling of calm comes over me. Why do they call it mythology — I can feel that it happened and the Linga itself is proof.

My reason for visiting this time however, was the beach. I love everything associated with the ocean – the smells, sound, air and seafood. Today, 25 years since my last trip, there are many hotel choices in Gokarna, hip places to eat, yoga classes and water sports. It is a mini Goa without the hustle-bustle. The main attraction of the town is the serenity it offers – quiet beaches for long walks, nearby hills for nature treks and a sense of calm. It is the ideal place to write a book, meditate, think or simply watch the ocean waves.

The five beaches are within close proximity and all should be visited during a stay. Gokarna Beach is next to the town and is the least clean. With the proliferation of plastic bags and containers and picnicking tourists much of the garbage gets strewed on the beach. The further south you go the more tranquil and clean the settings become. Kudle Beach, a few kilometers from the town is the largest. However Om, which gets its name from its shape, is the most populated beach with resorts and cafés. Paradise and Half Moon Beaches are only accessible by foot or boat and are truly secluded. Both have restaurants and basic hut-like accommodation available. If you prefer to have your own bathroom then this type of accommodation is not for you.

Hills between each of the beaches make for a perfect trekking route. The trek from Om to Paradise is straightforward and the path is quite clear. Do stop often as the beach views are spectacular. Every beach has small cafés and in the hot sun a cool drink hits the spot. You cannot set time constraints in Gokarna – it doesn’t suit the place. If you want to head into the town then the walk is an hour from Om. But after a long walk I decided to settle in the shade on the beach with a cool beer, lingering on to watch the waves.

How to Reach
By flight: Nearest airports: Goa – 155 kms, Mangalore 247 kms. There are plenty of buses from all over Karnataka to reach Gokarna.

Where to Stay: Most hotels are in town. Gokarana International, Hari Priya Residency and Shastri Guest House are options.

The beachside places such as Namaste Café are quite basic except for Swaswara and Om Beach Resort which are more upscale.

Nearby Attractions:
Mahableshwar Temple is a must see but there are so many other temples that are worth a visit including the Ganesha, Dattatreya, and Chandikeswara.

Yaana (22kms) — In the midst of the verdant mountains in this town you will find two mysterious peaks as well as several cave temples – a trekker’s delight

Kumta (26 kms) – This small coastal town is home to sandalwood craftsmanship. It is worth a trip to pick up a few items.

Published in Spice Route Magazine, April 2011

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