Whether you travel the Karnatakan (Karavali) coast on the Konkan Railway or along the busy NH-17, southern India’s smoothest highway, the route between Goa and Mangalore ranks among the most scenic anywhere in the country. Crossing countless palm- and mangrove-fringed estuaries, the railway line stays fairly flat, while the recently upgraded road, dubbed by the local tourist board as “The Sapphire Route”, scales several spurs of the Western Ghats, which here creep to within a stone’s throw of the sea, with spellbinding views over long, empty beaches and deep blue bays. Highlights are the pilgrim town of Udupi, site of a famous Krishna temple, and Gokarna, another important Hindu centre that provides access to exquisite unexploited beaches. A decent inland road winds through the mountains to Jog Falls, India’s biggest waterfall, which can also be approached from the east.
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UDUPI (also spelt Udipi), on the west coast, 60km north of Mangalore, is one of south India’s holiest Vaishnavite centres. The Hindu saint Madhva (1238–1317) was born here, and the Krishna temple and maths (monasteries) he founded are visited by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims each year. The largest numbers congregate during the late winter, when the town hosts a series of spectacular car festivals and gigantic, bulbous-domed chariots are hauled through the streets around the temple. Even if your visit doesn’t coincide with a festival, Udupi is a good place to break the journey along the Karavali coast. Thronging with pujaris and pilgrims, its small sacred enclave is wonderfully atmospheric.
Hidden in a remote, thickly forested corner of the Western Ghats 240km northeast of Mangalore, Jog Falls are the highest waterfalls in India. Today, however they are rarely as spectacular as they were before the construction of a large dam upriver, which impedes the flow of the River Sharavati over the sheer red-brown sandstone cliffs. Still, the surrounding scenery is gorgeous, with dense scrub and jungle carpeting sparsely populated, mountainous terrain. The views of the falls from the opposite side of the gorge is also impressive, unless, that is, you come during the monsoons, when mist and rain clouds envelop the cascades. Another reason not to come here during the wet season is that the extra water, and abundance of leeches at this time, make the excellent hike to the floor valley a trial; if you can, head up here between October and January. The trail starts just below the bus park and winds steeply down to the water, where you can enjoy a refreshing dip. The whole patch opposite the falls has been landscaped for appealing viewing, with its own impressive entrance gate and attractively designed reception centre.
Among India’s most scenically situated sacred sites, GOKARNA lies between a broad white-sand beach and the verdant foothills of the Western Ghats, 230km north of Mangalore. Yet this compact little coastal town – a Shaivite centre for more than two millennia – remained largely “undiscovered” by Western tourists until the early 1990s, when it began to attract dreadlocked and didgeridoo-toting neo-hippies fleeing the commercialization of Goa, just over 60km north. Now it’s firmly on the tourist map, although the town retains a charming local character, as the Hindu pilgrims pouring through still far outnumber the foreigners who flock here in winter.
A hotchpotch of wood-fronted houses and red terracotta roofs, Gokarna is clustered around a long L-shaped bazaar. Its broad main road – known as Car Street – runs west to the town beach, which is a sacred site in its own right. Hindu mythology identifies it as the place where Rudra (another name for Shiva) was reborn after a period of penance through the ear of a cow from the underworld.
Gokarna is also the home of one of India’s most powerful shivalinga – the pranalingam, which came to rest here after being carried off by Ravana, the evil king of Lanka, from Shiva’s home on Mount Kailash in the Himalayas.
If you’re anywhere between Mangalore and Bhatkal from October to April and come across a crowd gathering around a waterlogged paddy field, pull over and spend a day at the races – Karnatakan style. Few Westerners ever experience it, but the spectacular rural sport of Kambla, or bull racing, played in the southernmost district of coastal Karnataka (known as Dakshina Kannada), is well worth seeking out.
Two contestants, usually local rice farmers, take part in each race, riding on a wooden plough-board tethered to a pair of prize bullocks. The object is to reach the opposite end of the field first, but points are also awarded for style, and riders gain extra marks – and roars of approval from the crowd – if the muddy spray kicked up from the plough-board splashes the special white banners, or thoranam, strung across the course at a height of 6 to 8m.
Generally, race days are organized by wealthy landowners on fields specially set aside for the purpose. Villagers flock in from all over the region, as much for the fair, or shendi, as the races themselves: men huddle in groups to watch cockfights (korikatta), women haggle with bangle sellers and kids roam around sucking sticky kathambdi goolay, the local bonbons. It is considered highly prestigious to be able to throw such a party, especially if your bulls win any events or, better still, come away as champions. Known as yeru in Kannada, racing bulls are thoroughbreds who are rarely, if ever, put to work. Pampered by their doting owners, they are massaged, oiled and blessed by priests before big events, during which large sums of money are often won and lost.