With its sharp divergence in terms of the backpacking and religious tourists that it draws, the beach destination of Gokarna is a beautiful example of the east meets west and their co-existence.
Gokarna’s name features prominently on milestones along the Mumbai-Goa- Mangalore-Kochi highway NH 17 in the southern India. However, one needs to be careful as the town is located about nine kilometres away from the highway on a narrow, bumpy road traversed only by infrequent rickety busses. The road gradually narrows down to enter a crowded lane. As I inched ahead, panic stricken, the human tide parted to make way, squeezing between my car and the open gutters beside the road. This is Gokarna, a beach destination in the south western state of Karnataka, and a centre for spiritual energy, set in the backdrop of a bright coloured landscape.
The small colourful town consciously resisted the threat of turning into another Goa through policing its beaches. The locals take leisure walks at the Gokarna beaches in the evenings. While Kudle beach hosts concerts on important dates, most travellers head for Om beach that promises interesting evenings around bonfires and unplugged guitar jams. During Shivratri, a hindu festival for Lord Shiva celebrated in February or March depending on the lunar calendar, the town is flooded with pilgrims who mark the occasion by pulling two decorated bulky chariots with thick ropes and visitors are encouraged to join in. The place has two facets – a pilgrimage centre drawing hordes of devotees and beaches drawing tourists seeking leisure. However, most pilgrims confine themselves to the temple town. Both neatly separated by a series of hillocks with only one beach straddling that gap, the Gokarna beach.
A backpacker’s delight
The town was a bastion of orthodox Brahmins until it began attracting nonindian visitors seeking spirituality, yoga and virgin beaches. Almost half the people seen in Gokarna are visitors from outside India. Being a hit among backpackers from all over the world, it is a good place to meet people. Because of the red rocky soil, known to emitting heat, visitors leave their shacks for beaches during the late afternoon where time is well spent sunbathing, swimming or playing volleyball. Although it does not cater to the needs of high-end tourists widely, Gokarna offers for a few luxurious wellness retreats at the Om Beach. Backpacking, however, is a popular way to explore Gokarna. Being open to connect with the beautiful sea, people and indulging in scrumptious food. For most travellers, the holiday begins and ends at beaches.
The Om Beach
The key attraction of Gokarna remains the Om beach. Although most visited by the pilgrims as it is only after taking a dip in the waters of this beach that one can enter the Mahabaleshwar temple, it is popular among the travellers as well. Renowned for its unique Om shaped appearance, the beach is located about seven kms from the town along a by-lane with thatched houses behind shrub fences. About two kilometres before the beach, a hill on the right drops away to reveal a yawning valley with the vast expanse of the Arabian Sea shimmering beneath. While the two semicircular shores forming halves of the ‘Om’ are visible, the full shape is clearly visible only after climbing up the narrow hill path at the southern end of the beach that rises upwards to an elevation amidst an array of coconut trees. This path is also the route to two other beaches, the Half Moon and the Paradise Beach. Atop the hill after a kilometre of walking through a canopy of forest cover, the path steps outdoors onto a ledge right above the sea. The crowd, the restaurants, the noises lay across the.
Being the only beach accessible by road, this place draws the maximum crowd with an interesting mix. Beer guzzling Europeans, who occupy tables at numerous seaside restaurants, sitting and chatting lazily in their loose fitting colourful outfits, is very common sight. Along the edge of the two arcs of the Om, there are shacks and cottage hotels that offer rooms for rent, with hammocks slung out in front of them. Restaurants dot the contours of Om, with boards advertising Italian, Lebanese, Russian and Israeli cuisines, presumably for the delectation of overseas tourists.
While the beaches exude a relaxed vibe, the town starts buzzing from 4 am and carries on well into the night, with all it’s activities centred around it’s narrow winding streets that resemble Goa of the early 70s. The focal point of the buzz is , however, religious with temples such as Mahabaleshwar and the Maha Ganapati. Shops selling swimwear and spaghetti tops amidst shiny brassware and devotional paraphernalia form a sharp contrast. Some locals show resentment towards ‘immorality’ that is degenerating the town. However, there is a nonchalant acceptance of foreign visitors, who are naturally sensitive towards not hurting local sentiments and attempt to blend in. Funnily, some seem more local than the locals themselves.
Somewhere between the hoards of visitors, amidst saffron temples and rainbow cafes, exists a bucolic village out of a picture book. There are paddy fields flanked by coconut trees, clear streams that reflect moonlit skies, forested knolls that open up to panoramas of the Arabian sea and red terracotta roofs only a few shades darker than the mud walls supporting them.
After sundown the town morphs into a laidback twin of it’s daytime avatar. Most locals head home while pilgrims vanish. Blackened aluminium kettles bubble away on tea carts supplying everyone’s favourite evening glassful. In the multihued dim lighting Gokarna seems to favour the vagaries of the afro hairstyle. As the temple bells ring for the last time on the day, I think to myself…am I on a beach, or a religious holiday? I seem to be constantly flitting between the two, while my experiences intertwine to form an unconventional holiday memory.
How to reach
Air: Dabolim airport in Goa, about 140 km away, is the nearest airport that is well connected to Indian and international cities.
Rail: The nearest railway station is at Ankola, about 20 km from Gokarna. Trains from cities including Mangalore, Mumbai, Thiruvananthapuram, Veraval halt at the station. From the station, taxi services are available for Gokarna.
Road: Gokarna is well connected by road. KSRTC buses ply regularly from Bengaluru, Mangalore, Hubli and other cities of Karnataka. One can also board a bus from Madgaon and other cities of Goa for Gokarna.
Where to stay
Plenty of shacks and guest houses dot the beaches and the main town with a few luxury hotels at Om Beach.
Dudhwa National Park, Uttar Pradesh