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 Mangaluru. 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 Shiva was reborn from the underworld after a period of penance through the ear of a cow, or go-karna, thus giving the town its name.