Among India’s most scenically situated sacred sites, GOKARNA lies between a broad white-sand beach and the verdant foothills of the Western Ghats, six hours north of Mangalore by bus. 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. 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.
Gokarna town, a hotchpotch of wood-fronted houses and red terracotta roofs, is clustered around a long L-shaped bazaar, its broad main road – known as Car Street – running west to the town beach, a sacred site in its own right. Hindu mythology identifies it as the place where Rudra (another name for Shiva) was reborn through the ear of a cow from the underworld after a period of penance. 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.
The pranalingam resides in Gokarna to this day, enshrined in the medieval Shri Mahabaleshwar temple, at the far west end of the bazaar. It is regarded as so auspicious that a mere glimpse of it will absolve a hundred sins, even the murder of a brahmin. Pilgrims shave their heads, fast and take a ritual dip in the sea before darshan. For this reason, the tour of Gokarna traditionally begins at the beach, followed by a puja at the Shri Mahaganpati temple, a stone’s throw east of Shri Mahabaleshwar, to propitiate the elephant-headed god Ganesh. Sadly, owing to some ugly incidents involving insensitive behaviour by a minority of foreigners, tourists are now banned from the main temples, though you can still get a good view of proceedings in the smaller Shri Mahaganpati from the entrance. One interesting holy place you can visit is Bhandikeri Math, a short way east of the bathing tank. This 300-year-old temple and learning centre has shrines to the deities Bhavani Shankar, Uma Maheshwar and Maruthi.
Notwithstanding Gokarna’s numerous temples, shrines and tanks, most Western tourists come here for the beautiful beaches to the south of the more crowded town beach, beyond the lumpy, reddish-coloured headland that overlooks the town. Many lounge for weeks, taking advantage of lax attitudes and imbibing potent bhang lassis.
To pick up the trail, take a left off Car Street beside the Shri Mahaganapati temple and follow the newly cemented path for twenty minutes uphill and across a rocky plateau to Kudlee Beach. This wonderful kilometre-long sweep of golden-white sand sheltered by a pair of steep-sided promontories is now punctuated by around fifteen restaurant-cum-hut ventures and one proper hotel. This is the longest and broadest of Gokarna’s beaches, and with decent surf too, though the water can be dangerous.
It takes around twenty minutes more to hike over the headland from Kudlee to exquisite Om Beach, so named because its distinctive twin crescent-shaped bays resemble the auspicious Om symbol. Apart from the luxury resort set well back from the beach, largely flimsy huts and the odd hammock still populate the palm groves, usually belonging to restaurants that offer a constantly expanding range of cuisine.
Gokarna’s two most remote beaches lie another half-hour walk/climb over the rocky hills. Half-Moon and Paradise beaches, are, despite the presence of a few chai shops and extremely basic lodgings on each, mainly for intrepid sun-lovers happy to pack in their own supplies. If you’re looking for near-total isolation, this is your best bet.