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The Best of Both Worlds

A temple town for some and a place of pristine beaches and white surf for others, Gokarna is a study in contrasts

Aditya Sharma  

On Om Beach where eagles fly
It's so natural to be high …

The lines from 'Chai Chillum Chapati' play on a loop in my mind, as I stand on a hillock looking down at Om Beach in Gokarna, along the Karnataka coast. The curved shoreline and rock formation look like the Sanskrit syllable 'Om' to near perfection. Even the name Gokarna, or cow's ear, comes from the ear-shaped landscape created by the confluence of the rivers Gangavali and Aghanashini.

DOTTED WITH TEMPLES, both public and private, the town of Gokarna attracts the pious. It also attracts weekend escape artists, like me, to its pristine beaches. It became my hideaway after I visited it with a friend in 2009.

This time, my fifth visit in six years, I check into a shack -- a hut made from dried coconut wood and leaves -- run by Spanish Place, one of the many restaurants along the kilometre-long, palm-fringed Kudle Beach, right below two hills. It's about 6 p.m. and the beach is humming with tourists. They are strumming guitars, singing, swimming or watching the golden sun disappear into the Arabian Sea. The crisp sea breeze is exhilarating. Tired from the overnight journey, I doze off, listening to the distant murmur of the waves.

The next morning, I head to Gokarna Beach at the edge of the town, north of Kudle. Both the beaches are divided by a broad hill that's flat at the top, where local kids play cricket. From the summit, the sight of blue waves breaking into white foam is breathtaking.

STANDING ON THE BEACH, I let the waves lap at my feet and notice a flock of sandpipers hopping about, foraging for food. Sand crabs skitter into their holes, sensing my footsteps as I walk past. The nearly five-kilometre-long beach is lined with several restaurants, with thatched roofs. I pass fishermen sorting their nets, carting their catch in wicker baskets or repairing their boats.

I run into Adam Pietraszko, a 53-year-old Polish national whom I first met three years ago. He has come here via Goa, which he feels has become expensive and commercial. Gokarna is perfect for someone on a shoestring budget, he says. "With its relaxed pace of life and beautiful topography, I find it more charming."

South of Kudle, separated by a hillock, lies the scenic Om Beach. "When I come here, I think I'll write for my upcoming films, but Gokarna is so lovely that I forget all my deadlines," says Jayant Kaikini, noted Kannada writer and lyricist, who was born here. His childhood town has now become a popular destination, he says. "Because of its unspoilt beaches, ample sunshine and glorious weather between November and March, many foreign tourists stay on for several weeks," he says.

Further south are less frequented beaches, such as Half Moon, Paradise and Belekan that has an old lighthouse. About five kilometres from the town is a salt production factory at Sanikatta village that dates back to 1720.

THE TWO MAIN STREETS are lined with shops. They sell provisions, idols, puja essentials and even cow-dung shampoo! Internet cafes and travel agents have sprung up as well. There are bicycles and motorbikes available on rent.

Flanked by temples and mutts, the streets reverberate with chants of mantras, temple bells and conches through the day. The fragrance of burning camphor and incense sticks lingers in the air. Bare-chested priests -- aged 10 to 80 -- attired in the traditional dhoti and sacred thread, are a common sight, reciting Sanskrit hymns around temples.

The revered Mahabaleshwar Temple, built with granite, attracts devotees from Goa, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. On Shivratri, thousands of devotees gather for the annual procession, where an imposing chariot carries Lord Shiva's idol through the streets. It is little wonder then that this small temple town is known, among the locals, as the Kashi of the south.

I WALK OVER TO STUDY CIRCLE, a spacious library on the broad hill between the Kudle and Gokarna beaches. Overlooking the Arabian Sea, it has a collection of about 70,000 books in 38 languages. The brainchild of 85-year-old G. M. Vedeshwar, it is a culmination of his untiring efforts. He set it up in 1948, when he was 18, reaching out to publishers, embassies and authors for books and periodicals. "To make ends meet," he says, "I made Ganesha idols, painted signboards, designed costumes for plays and rented out the mandap for marriages. To keep my books in good shape, I learnt to bind them from discarded cloth and cardboard."

He ran the library from the first floor of his home for over 60 years, until old age and lack of space forced him to stop. Help came in 2001, when Elias Tabet, a French stage director, visited Gokarna and was bowled over by the collection. In Paris, he and his wife Daphné Piquet formed Pandrata Circle to help build the new library. The formidable task of raising ₹45 lakh took him about a decade. Today it is a hub of cultural activities.

THE RESTAURANTS on the beaches are a world in themselves, a melting pot of diverse cultures. Bearing names like German Bakery, Sunset Cafe and Sea View, they offer a variety of local and continental cuisines.

At night, from the veranda at Spanish Place, I can see the lights of fishing boats out at sea flicker in the distance. As I chat with Mari P. Shastri, the owner, he tells me how he met and fell in love with a girl from Spain. "We married soon after and decided to call our restaurant Spanish Place," he says with a smile.

There are those who come here and stay, yet others who return again and again. Like Paul Patrick Cullen, an avid traveller and birder from Denmark, who first came here in 1993. The quaint town with its diversity and rich fauna keeps calling him back.

Gokarna's face has changed over the years. Agni Kumar, Vedeshwar's son, remembers the '80s when there were just a handful of restaurants and lodges. Pilgrims and tourists stayed with locals. As visitors multiplied, houses turned into lodges and restaurants opened up on the beaches. Many locals and tourists now fear that Gokarna will be irrevocably commercialized.

FACING SWEEPING changes, Gokarna is caught between modern-day challenges and its old-world charm. It is a study of contrasts: Pilgrims visit Gokarna to pray in its temples and the tourists throng its beaches to party and soak in the natural beauty. Welcoming both in its loving embrace, this sleepy hamlet offers everyone a beautiful world, far from the madding crowd.

Travel Tips

Getting There

Fly to Goa; Gokarna is another 140 km by road. For train, go via Mangaluru, Karnataka or Margao, Goa to Gokarna Road (GOK) station. KSRTC runs regular bus services from Bengaluru and other cities.

Lodging Options range from Kudle Beach View Resort & Spa (₹5,445 per night) to yoga retreats (₹7,500 per night), beach shacks (₹200-900) and a Zostel (₹750 for a dorm bed).

Dining

There are many vegetarian options, some specializing in Kannada cuisine. Shacks offer a variety of fresh seafood and international fare.

 

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