More about the beaches of Gokarna

Pilgrims from Maharashtra dancing on Gokarna Beach
Pilgrims from Maharashtra dancing on Gokarna Beach

Gokarna is famous for having five beaches that spread southward from the largest of them, Gokarna Beach.  Each is very different in character; we have visited four of them, not quite making it to the fifth. (You might want to read this overview post about Gokarna, which also has a bit about the temples.)

Gokarna Beach is easily five kilometers long from headland to headland. We’ve walked most of it, stopping at Namaste Garden a couple of times for breakfast or tea. This is one of many guest houses along the beach, and seems to be one of the nicest ones. It’s owned by Krishna Gouda, who started the place back in 1996 with his brothers. Today, he runs the place with his family, including his son, a young man who looks just like his father in the 20-year-old photos Krishna showed me of himself and his brothers, when Namaste Garden was just a small thatch-sided and thatch-roofed shed. Today Krishna has a large commercial kitchen, a dining area facing onto the sea, and a common area for family and guests. There are 11 rooms for guests, each with its own bathroom. I looked at the rooms; they are compact, neat and clean, with a long veranda for reading, chatting or just resting. The garden is beautiful, and the entire place is run on solar power, Krishna told me.

Tibetans on Beach.jpg

Gokarna is where you’ll see lots of pilgrims bathing in the ocean before heading up to the temples to make offerings and pray. It’s also where you’ll see lots of tourists of all nationalities, including a large group of Tibetan monks and laypeople we saw one day. Like most other visitors, these were busy taking selfies and group pictures.

 

The next beach south is Kudle (pronounced “KOOD-lee”), and it’s the largest after Gokarna Beach. Walking over the headland from Gokarna Beach to Kudle BeachYou can get there either by rickshaw or by walking up to the yellow-domed temple on the headland at the south end of Gokarna Beach, and from there, continuing over the broad, grass-covered headland to a steep path that descends to the beach. This is a beautiful way to go. If you take it slowly, it’s 45 minutes from Gokarna town to the northern end of Kudle. And you want to take it slow, at least the first time. If you walk to the little peaks and bare rocks at the edge of the headland, you can look up and down the Karnataka coastline, its beaches protected by rocky outcroppings. It all reminded me of the Oregon coast, but on a smaller scale and with tropical plants instead of evergreens.

Where Gokarna Beach is full of Indians on pilgrimage and on holiday, plus a wide assortment of other visitors, Kudle seems to be favored by younger tourists, including young families with small children, both Indian and foreign. We also see a lot of yoga tourists there, practicing their asanas and stretches on the sand.

Local Indians selling necklaces, anklets, scarves and lungis wander up and down the beach, hoping to sell something. Cafes and lodges line the beach much more densely than at Gokarna Beach.

Downward Dog Kudle
Sprawling dog and downward dog.
Kudle Beach Frisbee
Frisbee on the beach.

On our first visit here, we found the surf at Kudle much more gentle than at Gokarna Beach. But the next day, the surf was wilder, due to a cyclone moving its way north from the Kerala coast. Still, swimming in a warm sea was a real pleasure, something that’s been rare for me. I grew up in southern California, but always found the Pacific a little cold for swimming. The Karnataka coast is much more like Hawaii, with warm, welcoming water, even right now in December. Drifting in the waves, or swimming beyond the breakers to an easy patch of rising and falling ocean, looking at the rocky palm-fringed headlands, is incredibly relaxing.

Culturally, Kudle is very much a tourist beach. The guest houses and restaurants are much more tightly packed here than on Gokarna Beach, and there’s little sense of a town life that’s independent of the beach scene.

The next beach south of Kudle is Om Beach, so called because it’s shaped like the Sanskrit symbol for Om, the universal sound. You can see that shape really well only if you walk to the southern edge of Om Beach and climb up to the headland there. View of Om Beach from south headlandJust a 20-minute walk from the southern edge of Kudle, Om Beach feels quite different from the other two. It is less well suited to swimming, as the beach is much narrower, with a sharper drop to the sea, leaving less room for the badminton, volleyball and Frisbee games people play at Kudle or Gokarna. But Om Beach’s dramatic rocks are fun to scramble across and explore, though very sharp in places – you have to be careful not to graze an ankle or foot.

We made it as far as Half Moon Beach, and nearly to Paradise Beach. From the center of Gokarna, it took us three hours to get to the top of the headland for Paradise Beach, which is where we decided to turn back, mainly because it had grown hot and sunny by the time we got there, and the path down to the beach looked too steep and slippery to deal with at that point. I’m sure Paradise Beach is beautiful, but from what we could see from the headland, it didn’t seem too different from Half Moon Beach.

From Om Beach, the path to Half Moon Beach is pretty wild and tangled. You can see the pathways (there are a few), but they were pretty overgrown. We kept saying, “Someone needs to come through here with a machete.” That makes the walking a bit slower, but what really slowed us down was the steepness of some of the downward paths. We had to hang on to branches to make sure we didn’t slide.

Rocks at Half Moon BeachWe did the last part of the hike onto Half Moon Beach right at the edge of the sea, scrambling over lava rocks. It was slow, but a lot of fun. I loved the almost greasy look of the black stone, and the way the surf broke over the ragged rock edges.

The Rough Guide we have says there are no facilities on Half Moon Beach, but that’s no longer true. There are a couple of restaurants that also offer rooms for rent. I noticed that one of the businesses has solar panels located in the small patchwork of agricultural fields behind the restaurant, so clearly there are plenty of deliveries coming in by boat. I didn’t see how far the road is from Half Moon Beach, but I think carrying supplies in would be a real challenge if people aren’t making good use of their machetes.

Practical info

If you’re coming here in the winter, which is the high season, you should try to reserve a room in advance if you want to stay in a place that offers a western-hotel standard of comfort. One is the Hotel International near the KSRTC bus stand. It’s next to the Hotel Om, and it’s very new. We had to stay there the first night, when it turned out our reservation hadn’t gone through. The room was clean and beautiful, and the breakfast (included) was excellent.

We like the older hotels and guest houses, and there are plenty of these both in town and on the beaches. As you go north from Car Street along the road that runs parallel to the sea, you’ll find a succession of guest houses. You can also see them from the beach itself, as most of them have a cafe facing onto the beach. Few of these guesthouses have any kind of web presence, so it’s best to just carry your backpack or take a rickshaw, and just go from guest house to guest house until you find one that has room for you, and whose rooms you like.

Each guest house has its own character, and I think all of them are family-run. One we really liked was Namaste Garden. We had a couple of nice breakfasts there, and liked both the family that runs it and the other guests. We think we’ll stay there next time we come to Gokarna.

Kudle Beach offers a lot of guest houses at prices more suited to short-term vacationers than to long-term travellers, but that are nonetheless reasonable by European or American standards. You can find these on Trip Advisor and other travel sites.

The restaurant we ate at most often in Gokarna was Prema, on Car Street right by the beach. Their traditional South Indian menu items are always fresh and deliciously prepared. They also offer things Westerners like, such as fruit drinks, toast with various spreads, sweet pancakes, sandwiches and so on. I love their huge bowl of fresh green salad – a most unusual find in India. The family who runs this place is friendly and warm. They keep the place clean, open and welcoming, so as you can imagine, it’s usually full. But business turns pretty fast, and you might even get to sit with someone you don’t know, and make friends.

Other restaurants we enjoyed were the Pai Restaurant (there are several), which offers good thalis (full meals) and banana buns (a morning or afternoon treat) and the Sri Shakti in the eastern part of Car Street.

By the way, Car Street is a common name for streets in temple towns, indicating where the temple car (or cars) are stored. Below you can see a photo of the temple car at Gokarna. It was undergoing repairs while we were in town, so rather than being housed in its garage next to the temple, it was out on the street. During the days we were in town, the car received new axles and wheels. We didn’t get to see these being put on, which would have been interesting, as these cars weigh literally tons. (Continue to read reading below the photo to learn a little about temple cars.)

Temple car on Car Street, Gokarna
Temple car on Car Street, Gokarna

The temple car is used during big festivals. An image of the god is placed in the car, and devotees drag the car around town as part of the festival. It’s considered a great privilege to help drag the car, and so lots of people want to do it. This is fortunate, as the cars are so heavy.

Even when it’s not festival time, gods are often taken out for a procession around the temple, or around town. Usually they’re placed in a litter, which several people carry on their shoulders. We saw this happen every morning and evening in Bhadrachalam, and the procession was accompanied by loud music of wind instruments, drum and bells.

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. Back in our hotel room, the rain resumes, heavier than ever. The tops of the palms outside our window resound with raindrops, so loud I am surprised Alan can nap through it.

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.