I reluctantly unpack my well-used swimwear and do two more things.
First, shiver: Bangalore is too chilly for a one-piece, however conservative. Second, pick my best moments from my latest visit to a jewel on the West coast of Karnataka – Gokarna.
On New Year’s Eve, when half the sub-continent flocks Goa, my friends and I settled instead for Gokarna, a quieter affair that’s just 130km south. We hopped into a car, and drove 500-odd kilometres from Bangalore, quite literally into the sunset.
The road to Gokarna is dotted with delights. Sunflowers nod hello along National Highway 4 outside Bangalore. Proud windmills do cartwheels on the hills of Chitradurga. Towel-turbaned farmhands thresh rice on the wide-as-a-hair-parting highway to Shimoga. Pines line the tummy-torturing hairpins to Honnavar. The road thereon smells of the sea, and becomes a straightforward ride through Kumta, over the Divgi bridge, and onto the Gokarna-Kudle Road.
Gokarna, as every travel guidebook loves to say, means the cow’s ear. Legend has it that Shiva, after being banished by Brahma from Kailasa, returned from hell through the ear of a cow. And this is the lore that has been incanted to name the abode of Shiva’s Atma Linga. How his Atma Linga came to be here is another fascinating tale. Ardent Shiva devotee Ravana was taking the very form of Shiva, his Atma Linga, to Lanka. Other gods worried that it would make Ravana too powerful. So Vishnu orchestrated a sundown, forcing pious Ravana to perform his evening rituals. Ganesha appeared as a boy and offered to hold aloft the Linga while Ravana bathed. Once Ravana went out of sight, Ganesha placed and firmly lodged the Atma Linga at Gokarna, thus preventing Ravana from taking it to Lanka – and making Gokarna a prominent place of Shiva worship in India today.
Set in the North Canara district of Karnataka, Gokarna lies in the shadow of the Western Ghats, where the hills embrace the Arabian Sea. Gokarna town with its Mahabaleshwara temple (housing the Atma Linga) opens up to the main Gokarna beach: a mess of fish hawkers, empty chips packets, and boatmen offering to take you everywhere.
A half-hour hilly walk away is beach-bum central Kudle. A boat-ride or a breathless trek ahead is Om beach with its shore shaped like an Om, a geological homage to Shiva himself. Further south comes Half-Moon, a beach that resembles a sand-filled Cheshire Cat smile. And finally comes Paradise, with its hammocks and coconut palms.
Heads filled with images of freely perspiring cocktails with tiny umbrellas, we reached our homestay just after sun-down. Rajeev Gaonkar, ex-techie turned host, opened his henchin-mane, or traditional slat-roofed home to us. A tea and a bath later, we hopped back into our car, and sought Paradise.
We discovered that by night, Gokarna is a place where streelights, road signs and GPS systems stop working. The Great Bear howled, and Polaris laughed at how lost we were. Several wrong turns finally brought us to, wait for it, a traffic jam. A barely motorable road, tucked away in the folds of hillside, most often populated by cows, was today full of Tempos and party-goers. We parked, and using our flashlights, stumbled and tripped our way to Paradise where disappointment awaited.
Authorities had banned alcohol that night, and there was no Thailand-like jamboree on. The shacks played nondescript music, and tourists made civil conversation. On New Year’s Eve, this was eerie.
So we drove to Palolem, Goa. A half-hour fireworks extravaganza and a 250km drive later, we were back in Gokarna. We woke to a traditional lemon rice-sambar-vermicelli paysam lunch that Mrs. Gaonkar plied us with. Well-fed and watered, we decided to soak some sea.
I cannot fathom why the Om, Half Moon and Paradise beaches are bigger hits than the Kudle beach. Perhaps it’s because Kudle’s easier to reach. Or that it offers few shacks and fewer things to do. To us, these seemed like the very factors that make Kudle an unparalleled beach-bum joint. So we drove along a winding off-road with moody hill vegetation, parked, and settled on the sand to turn at least five shades browner than our drivers’ license photos.
The sea at Kudle is shallow enough for a person who thinks she can swim (me), and swollen enough for everyone else. My routine was simple: whip up an appetite with some serious splashing, and polish off a Nutella pancake after. What Maggi is to Ladakh, Nutella pancakes are to Gokarna. The non-vegetarians reported that they were considering living entirely on Calamari rings and Prawn chilli. Catering to international clientele, the menus spanned Russian, Israeli, American, English, and Keralite fare. Suitably baited, I ate a lot of Paneer Manchurian.
When not stuffing my face, I found that Kudle is an autonomous adventurer’s sweet-spot. On one day, I chose to sit at the beach and write and read and get distracted by everything and do nothing. On another, I decided to stroll into Gokarna town.
Gokarna town is a little knot in the hills: a spiritual light; a decadent blackhole. Here, dreadlocked sadhus rubbed shoulders with pot-addled god-hunters and the Shabrimalai-chaste. The procession ratha, or chariot, sat outside the Mahabaleshwara temple awaiting Shivaratri for hundreds to draw its ropes, while rented two-wheelers snaked through sneaky narrow roads. Sparrows bustled hurriedly, but old men with thick cataracts sat outside shops watching tourists. Bangaloreans ate rice with spoons, and Caucasians wore tilaks and ate joladd (jowar)-rotti with their hands. Shops sold bongs and Om-printed bags. Graffiti of a pop sadhu, captioned “Videshi Sadhu” begged to be a Facebook upload. I was offered a permanent tattoo, cheap yoga pants, and some “good stuff”.
My next caper began when I walked back to Kudle from Gokarna town and took a detour at the cliff en-route to watch stretches of dry grass shift like wheat-fields. I sat at the crag’s edge, and watched the sea crash into the rocks, saw fishermen catch crabs, and spied a man in a wheelchair relish the sunset.
The nights crackled with bonfires. And once they were out, the stars burned with ferocity. We sometimes lay in the cool sand and made up our own constellations. Or we sat in bare shacks of just chairs, tables, and sand, drinking 25 Long Island Iced Teas, outdoing each other in multiplication games. Sometimes, we sat to play Taboo. Sometimes I read Dave Barry aloud.
One morning, I woke early and watched Kudle come alive – a secret global village full of unusual wonders: toddlers in baby suits meeting the sea for the first time, couples laughing at jokes in alien tongues, a line of school-children trekking the shoreline, girls twirling hula hoops, boys beat-boxing, tattooed men playing volleyball, and foreigners reading Shantaram. And in that scene sat I, watching, amazed.
A trip to Gokarna doesn’t end with the drive back.
It just begins again, with the pocketful of fine sand you bring back home.