Gokarna: Beaches and temples

Gokarna Beach, viewed from the south headland
Gokarna Beach, viewed from the south headland.

The cyclone that hit Kerala days ago, roiling the surf here at Gokarna, has finally arrived. We sit in the Prema restaurant, enjoying a cup of tea while we wait for our lunch to arrive. Wind drives rain against the small shops and tall coconut palms, and in sheets across the street. Deep puddles grow deeper, and even the vagrant cows huddle together under shop awnings, reluctant to emerge in such conditions. We drink tea, we eat slowly, we order more tea, as we wait for a moment when the rain pauses.

Gokarna is a different experience for me. Unlike Alan, I never spent time in Goa or at Anjuna Beach. So I have been surprised to find how pleasurable it can be to have a beach holiday. (If you’re interested in beaches, here’s a separate post about the five beaches of Gokarna and the walks between them.)

Shiva, facing Gokarna Beach. These flowers and markings are renewed by a priest every morning.
Shiva, facing Gokarna Beach. These flowers and markings are renewed by a priest every morning.

What makes this so interesting is that Gokarna is not only a beach town, but a holy town. The Sri Mahabaleshwar temple was built almost 1700 years ago. About 500 years ago, several Brahmin families migrated from the Goa area, fearful they’d be forced by the Portuguese to convert to Christianity. Today, the central part of town surrounding the Mahabaleshwar temple, Maha Ganapati temple and other temples is still dominated by these Brahmin families, which have enlarged over successive generations.

At least 30 temples are scattered across the town, from the beach itself inland and up and down the coastline. They range in size from tiny mid-street shrines to full buildings. Even the largest of them is not large at all by Tamil Nadu or Andhra Pradesh standards; they are all of modest height, perhaps because of prudent attention to cyclones, and none spread more than 100 metres in any dimension.

We enjoy rambling the narrow streets of Gokarna, where motorcycles, bicycles, rickshaws, cows, dogs, groups of schoolchildren, vegetable sellers, swamis and tourists all vie for space on busy weekend days.  But it’s just temporary. On a weekday, and especially during the three- to four-hour lull from lunch to late afternoon, the streets empty out. Shop shutters roll down, dogs curl up in a bit of shade, cows sink to the pavement to chew their cuds, and humans retreat onto verandahs or indoor beds. We know this because, unlike in the west, the front doors of private homes remain open all day. As we walk down the street, I peer unashamedly into houses, seeing families chatting, eating, reading or watching television in the wide halls that are the first indoor space, after the verandah. Beyond the hall, I can see a darker hallway leading to a bright square of light that is the family’s inner courtyard. There, I see women sweeping, or squatting and scrubbing cooking pots, or sorting rice or dal. Between courtyard and front hall, figures move back and forth between various hidden rooms.

The glimpses I gain remind me of just how communal and familial life is in India, especially in villages. And make no mistake, the center of Gokarna – what I think of as the Brahmin district – is a village. Everyone knows everyone else; everyone is related somehow to everyone else.

I think of our street in Portland, where we lived for 29 years, watching families come and go. Some neighbors we knew well, especially when our children were little and played with the other children who lived within two or three blocks of our house. Others we barely knew, either because they rarely emerged from their houses, or because they socialized only within their church, or because we never took the trouble to know them. And of course, people move a lot in America – across town, across the state, across the country. Here in India, and especially in small-town India, one family owns a house for many generations. There is very little upheaval of entire families unless something forces the issue: a disastrous tsunami, or famine, or communal violence, or war. Or for the past two or three generations, children being educated at universities far away, and settling in the cities of India, America and Europe, visiting the family home just once a year, or for weddings or funerals.

The temples of Gokarna

Mahaganapati temple, GokarnaAs I said, there are a lot of temples here. Many are forbidden to foreigners; painted notices beside entries baldly state this is so. But not all are off limits, and so one morning I enter the Maha Ganapati temple to make an offering to one of my favorite gods, the ever-cheerful son of Shiva with an elephant’s head. I like him best in his dancing posture, but wherever I find him, he makes my heart lighter. This morning I bring him flowers, which I have just purchased from one of the bare-shouldered flower ladies outside the temple. I ring the brass bell overhead, put my flowers in the offering basket, and circumambulate Ganapati’s shrine. I ask him, the remover of obstacles, to help me remove the blockages from my heart and my mind. I am thinking specifically of the blockage I’ve been suffering from lately – a stall in my blogging activity that began because I was working on paid writing, but that has continued long enough to make me really uncomfortable. There are other blockages, too, that I know need to dissolve, and I ask my cheerful fat-bellied god for his help.

I emerge from the darkness of ancient stones close around me into the daylight, where Alan patiently waits. We continue on and into the largest temple here, the Sri Mahabaleshwara temple, which houses a lingam said to be the atmalingam, or Shiva’s original lingam. This temple is forbidden to foreigners, but we are allowed into the outer precinct that surrounds the temple itself. This outer ring houses the donation office, the temple cows, a small temple undergoing repair, and, as we learn on our second or third day, a lovely Parvathi temple. Small and peaceful, this temple lies behind an entry wall flanked by four golden goddesses. Inside, we bow to the goddess and settle down with the other worshippers to rest for a quiet moment in Parvathi’s presence. Then we circumambulate her home, and I encounter a series of goddess portraits.

Deep tank with spring water on old hillside temple, GokarnaOther temples we’ve visited are high on the hills above Gokarna Beach. One has a deep tank in front of the temple with two natural springs piped into the walls. The tank is not blocked to fill up, but drains continually, so people use the piped spring water to bathe in before prayer – or to refresh themselves after a swim over at Kudle Beach.


Another hill temple is dedicated to Shiva, and has detailed images of Shiva and Shakti with cobra tails. I couldn’t get a position to take a good image of Shiva with his cobra tail, but here’s Shakti, plus a joint portrait.

One of our favorite temples was the cobra temple, buried deep in the Brahmin quarter, a short walk from the sacred Koti Teertha (“teertha” means tank, or a deep man-made pond meant for bathing before prayer, and for bathing images of the gods). A couple of long outside walls hold rows of niches, each with a stone bas-relief of a cobra (or more than one) or a god. Each is dated. I asked our landlord about them,  and he told us these are placed by families praying for a baby boy. So many tablets were placed in 1990, I figured there are a lot of 26- and 27-year-old men in the community.

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