Ten years ago, when I first visited Gokarna, it was still the archetypal coastal Karnataka village where spiritual pursuits marked the passage of time. Its historical importance as an ancient centre of Sanskrit learning was revealed in an elegant way when you walked down the galis at dawn and observed Brahmin novitiates reciting the scriptures. Pilgrims from across the country roamed the streets of the main village, but the hippies were beginning to set up hammocks on neighbouring beaches.
Somewhere between the two groups of visitors, amidst saffron temples and rainbow cafés, 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. My recent trip there confirmed that the beaches have held up as a fine alternative to Goa, and the main village retains its calm and grace.
SACRED HEART Many magnificent myths are woven into Gokarna’s spiritual fabric. The name of the village means “cow’s ear”, alluding to the legend that Lord Shiva emerged here from the ear of a cow. Even the confluence of the rivers Gangavali and Aghanashini, where the village is located, is shaped like the organ. Legend states that Shiva gave Ravana his atma-linga (loosely translated as “the soul of Shiva”) as reward for his devotion, on the condition that he carry it from Mount Kailasa to Lanka without placing it on the ground. But the troika of Vishnu, Ganesha, and Narada decided to trick Ravana. As he stopped to offer prayers at Gokarna, Ganesha, in the guise of a Brahmin, placed the atma-linga on the ground, where it remained fixed despite Ravana’s efforts to retrieve it. The atma-linga still rests on the same spot, enshrined within the walls of the famous Mahabaleshwara Temple. This large granite structure is built in traditional Dravidian style and houses a stone idol of Shiva believed to be 1,500 years old (open 6 a.m.-12.30 p.m.; 5-8 p.m.; only Hindus are allowed inside).
Nearby is the Maha Ganapathi Temple, where pilgrims offer prayers before proceeding to the main temple. Both are located along the L-shaped Car Street, which runs through the village up to the beach. During Maha Shivaratri, the most significant festival in Gokarna, a rath yatra begins at the Maha Ganapathi Temple and proceeds along this street.
To the south of the temple is Koti Tirtha, a man-made reservoir surrounded by shrines. Removed from the main bazaar, the pond basks in a magical atmosphere reminiscent of Varanasi’s ghats. Rama Temple is perched atop a cliff overlooking the long arc of Gokarna beach. Many pilgrims come here to fill drinking water from the natural spring in the temple premises, and Carnatic music concerts are held on festival days.
SURF EXCEL A path behind the Rama Temple leads up a hill, beyond which lie the beaches that have put Gokarna on the hippie world map. Main Beach is long and beautiful, and in tourist parlance, has now been dubbed the “Indian Beach”. Walking is the best way to explore its quiet northern stretch, but if you’re up for something more active, head to Cocopelli Surf School on Long Beach. Sandeep Samuel started the venture four years ago, offering customised crash courses for beginners. He also rents out equipment to pro surfers (81057 64969; cocopelli.org; walk north for 1.5 km along Main Beach to get to Cocopelli).
A 20-minute walk from Main Beach’s southern end will take you to Kudle Beach, the first of the tourist retreats. A kilometre-long stretch of white sand and many inexpensive shacks make it a hit with long-term travellers. It is also the wellness hub of the Gokarna coast, judging by the number of yoga experts and teachers who have settled here. A yoga farm and Ayurvedic restaurant (see Stay and Eat sections) cater to the needs of this community.
Another 20-minute walk ahead is the scenic Om Beach, which, as the name suggests, is known for its distinctive Om shape. It has always been the most popular of Gokarna’s beaches, especially since a direct road connects it to the village. Om Beach’s other somewhat-dubious distinction is the availability of beer (Gokarna’s status as a Hindu pilgrim town means it is largely vegetarian and alcohol-free), which tends to give it the reputation as a displaced cousin of Goa. Most day-trippers don’t bother exploring any further on foot, which is why the two beaches beyond Om remain relatively less commercial. There’s Half Moon Beach, named for its tiny, crescent-shaped shoreline, and Paradise Beach, the far-flung section of Gokarna that’s a visual treat. Both are only recommended for those who are happy with the most rudimentary conveniences.
RETAIL THERAPY Shopping is limited to Car Street, and though there is little choice, someone with a keen eye could find interesting keepsakes. There’s the religious paraphernalia that includes rudraksh beads, conches, and incense sold at a cluster of stalls outside the Mahabaleshwara Temple, and hippie gear further down the road. A couple of shops sell classical musical instruments. However, the market is great to pick up a typical Karnataka panche-shalya (wrap-around) and cotton saris. To buy or exchange books, go to Sri Radhakrsna Bookstore on Car Street near the beach. It is an old bookshop with a good selection of spiritual literature, Indian fiction, and a number of second-hand books in European languages (open only between Oct-Mar, daily 10 a.m.-6 p.m.).
You might have heard that Gokarna offers cute straw huts for throwaway rents of ₹35. This was very close to the truth until about five years ago. The influx of tourists has added a zero or two to that figure. There are numerous shacks and homestays in the area that you can choose from, but check for seasonal discounts. Nimmu House is one of the oldest family-run guesthouses in the main village, with modest but clean rooms, a good vibe, and a location close to the beach (83862 56730; nimmuhouse.in; doubles in newer section of the hotel from ₹800).
Om Beach is the only one with luxury accommodation. SwaSwara, built as a sprawling wellness resort, believes in pampering its guests in a holistic manner. They don’t accept bookings for fewer than five nights (83862 57132; swaswara.com; doubles from `1,80,000 for five days including transport, food, accommodation, and wellness programmes). Om Beach Resort has 12 cottages and an Ayurvedic centre (080-4055 4055; junglelodges.com; doubles from ₹4,712 including food).Namaste Yoga Farm on Kudle Beach offers yoga packages, and a choice of accommodation options that include bamboo cottages and tree houses (97396 00407; spiritualland.com; doubles from ₹3,500 including yoga). Until a few years ago, Namaste Farm on Om Beach enjoyed complete monopoly, but there are now two large resorts in the vicinity. During peak season, a number of shacks spring up to cater to the tourist influx (88848 67434; namastegokarna.com; doubles from ₹1,200).
Most restaurants in Gokarna village serve vegetarian food. Prema Restaurant at the end of Car Street, near the beach, has simple, delicious fare, in a variety of cuisines. Pai Restaurant on the Main Road specialises in authentic, filling, decently priced South Indian thalis. Arya Ayurvedic Panchakarma Centre at Kudle Beach is a retreat with a Wi-Fi-enabled Ayurvedic vegetarian restaurant. From this year, it will be open through summer as well (93412 54771; ayurvedainindien.com; packages from ₹4,525). Meat cravings can be satisfied at Kudle or Om Beach where shacks serve seafood.
Beaches aside, Gokarna village holds a sweet promise, and it comes in a tall glass. Gadbad ice cream is the dessert of choice along coastal Karnataka. A glass is filled with three exotic ice-cream flavours, like coconut, black grape, and fig, and topped with dry and seasonal fruits. Prema Restaurant serves up Gadbad like an art form (try the coconut and coffee flavours); Mahalaxmi next door has excellent banana-flavoured ice cream and creamy fruit smoothies. Shree Shakti and Kamat are the other ice-cream experts. All of these restaurants also serve excellent shakes and flavoured lassis.
Gokarna is on the Karnataka coast, around 150 km/3 hours south of Madgaon in Goa, 460 km/8.5 hours northwest of Bengaluru, and 230 km/4.5 hours north of Mangalore.
Air The nearest airport is Dabolim in Goa. Taxis charge ₹3,500 for the one-way journey.
Rail Gokarna Road is a small railhead about 6 km (₹250-300 by taxi) from the main village.
Kumta (32 km) and Ankola (20 km) are better connected by train to the rest of the country. Local buses ply between the two towns and Gokarna village through the day.
Road The shortest route from Bengaluru is via Tumkur on NH4, onwards on NH206 to Shimoga, and then NH17 to Kumta. There are direct, overnight luxury buses from Bengaluru to Gokarna (approx. 10 hours/₹1,000) and Hampi (6 hours/approximately ₹1,100). There is one state transport bus daily from Madgaon to Gokarna at 1 p.m. (approximately 4 hours/₹150).
Exploring the forests and coast on foot is a leisurely option, while boats are the fastest way to get from one beach to the another (₹100-150 per head). Autorickshaws charge ₹200-300 from the village to Om Beach. Bicycles (₹5 per hour) and motorcycles (₹300 per day) can be hired on the main road.
October through March is the most pleasant time to visit. However, like Goa, Gokarna too is on its way to becoming a year-round holiday destination. There is little variation in temperatures throughout the year—the mercury hovers between 18°C and 35°C. In summer (Mar- May), visitors can enjoy the beaches in relative solitude. Boat services are suspended during the monsoon (Jun-Aug) due to choppy waters, so you can only venture as far as Om Beach.
• The main village has always been a prime pilgrimage site and it is important to treat local sentiment and conventions with respect.
• Liquor and non-vegetarian fare are not allowed in Gokarna village and Main Beach.
• Exercise caution while swimming. There are no lifeguards on any of the beaches and the currents can be strong, especially during the monsoon.
• The recent surge in tourism has left an unsightly footprint on the beaches. Avoid plastic. Several restaurants in Gokarna refill water bottles for a nominal charge.
Appeared in the May 2014 issue as “Beach Mantra”.
About seven years ago, a friend and I went cycling far out of Gokarna and found ourselves on a secluded shore called Honey Beach. Soon after, two men in white shirts showed up at the anonymous rocky turf we had staked claim to. They told us they planned to build a resort on the spot. The resort, Honey Beach Cottages, was completed five years ago (93426 74514; honeybeach.in; doubles from ₹4,200). The beach is a real paradise, the last of the quiet ones. The resort can arrange a pickup from Gokarna via Ankola (23 km) for ₹800. For a day trip, hire a bicycle in Gokarna and ride along the coast (9 km) to the beach. En route, you will need to cross the Gangavali River by loading the bicycle onto a ferry. On the other side, continue to ride until you see a sharp downward curve, which leads to the lovely Honey Beach.