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.

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