A temple town, bound by mythical mountains and an ocean, with serene, pristine white sandy beaches, Gokarna, less than a hundred miles south of Goa, has fast emerged as a backpacker’s hotspot. Abhijeet Deshpande shares an experience.
Dawn at Om Beach
Om beach, resembling the Hindu spiritual symbol, flanked by tall green mountains, had a lazy sun rise. The overnight ocean had slapped the shores in to a soft, flat surface. A tranquil breeze stroked the lungs and cool water waves submerged the ankles. The feel of sand was relaxing, almost therapeutic. The granules pressed against a million points on the soles. Alert and playful dogs came running to greet, gentle cows walked their daily route, the odd dolphin jumped out of water once in a while and flocks of birds kept landing on and taking off. Few fellow travelers, who did not find a room the previous night, slept in bright bags stretched out on the beach. Morning-walkers and joggers offered smiles. Photographers, with their equipment, were perched on the rocks of Parvati point (from where you can see both crescents of Om beach) to shoot the elusive dolphins.
As the day matured, vacationers entered shoreline waters, and an occasional lone swimmer could be seen deeper inside. Backpackers kept trickling in, asking for rooms, and old ones, who have had enough, left for newer pastures. Besides solo travelers, there were families too. Young couples made their infants familiar with dips in the sea. Some, in groups, preferred to play water-kabbadi or throw-ball.
Backpackers living at the beach, either hiked or rented scooters to go shopping for cheaper supplies of bottled water, alcohol, cigarettes, or other essentials at Gokarna town. A few times, I accompanied our shack owner, Honnappa Bira Gouda, to help him open a savings account at the local branch of State Bank of India (SBI). At a time when government’s programs made headlines, Gokarna’s beaches had remained elusive to the financial inclusion drive. The narrow lanes of the heritage temple town were abuzz with traditional businesses like clothing, spices, crafts, traditional musical instruments, and restaurants. Colorful sarees, printed cotton vests, shorts, and skirts made it the fashion list, tablas or stringed instruments lured many, while the aromas of curry powders, compelled some to order a custom combination of freshly ground spices.
Gokarna is the seat of Shiva’s Pranalinga, similar in stature to Brahma’s seat at Pushkar in Rajasthan. Like Brahma Sarovar in Pushkar, the holy lake of Kotiteertha is a central landmark. The town is dotted with temples, each peppered by related mythological stories from the two legends of Atmalinga and Shatashrunga (check out this travel guide to learn more). Mahabaleshwar Dev Temple, the biggest and most popular of all, dedicated to Lord Shiva, faced the main religious beach of Gokarna.
Travelers to Gokarna
While hostels in the pilgrim town of Gokarna attracted mostly the older, the hippies’ generation, the beaches attracted millennial travelers. Young tatted travelers, sporting the evergreen Rastafarian dreadlocks or the now popular Jedi hair-dos and beards, wearing Ali Baba pants, swim trunks or bermudas, made Om and Kudle beaches their home for months together. Some in search of meaning or a purpose, some on a sabbatical, some exploring the world – one beach at a time. Then there was a set of travelers who practiced yoga and performing arts on the sands. To them, India was a training ground. Many complete their Yoga Teacher Training to become certified instructors. Once they gained enough skill, they moved to places that are more expensive to sustain and earn money by either working as a busker, as a trainer, or performing at concerts. All this, for the love of travel.
Over a lunch of a prawn thali at Om Sagar Café, we met Laurent, a solo French traveller in his early to mid-thirties and, an English couple in their late forties. As the conversation centered on food, the English couple posed a curious question about the tradition of eating frogs in France. I have heard this one before and knew that it is used by fellow Europeans to poke fun at French travelers. But this time, the response was unique. Laurent wasn’t the one to get offended. Rather, he explained laughingly that it is something that people in France never ate themselves but offered only to the tourists. He went on to compare the alleged French tradition of eating frogs with the tradition of wearing Ali Baba pants in India; since Indians rarely wear these pants themselves but sold it to backpackers.
Laurent was in a job until a few months ago and was now on a sabbatical. As I asked him about how do so many Europeans afford to travel for long durations without a source of income, he offered another first. In France, he said, jobless people could get a monthly social security package equivalent to US$ 1,000. During this time, they are required to hunt for jobs on the government employment portals. However prospective employers do not view such people favorably since it is presumed that they goofed up in their previous job to be in this situation. Its kind of a Catch-22. It forces some to go back to universities to re-skill themselves and look for better opportunities. On the other hand, some use the social security money to travel. While away, they ask their friends or family in France to log in the employment portal (using a local computer) to dodge the monitoring agencies of their whereabouts. Interesting jugaad. Indeed, a US$ 1,000 per month could practically keep you forever in some countries of Asia, Africa or Latin America.
Nightlife at Gokarna’s Beaches
Later in the evening, a faint but haunting sound of the Australian aboriginal instrument Didgeridoo and drums echoed against the mountains. A group sitting around a bonfire, sipping on tetra-packs of Old Monk dark rum, kept a trance beat going through the night. Yet another group shot fireworks in to the starlit sky over the vast, dark ocean. Shacks played the usual house, trance or EDM music to their patrons. This was beach-night-life at its best – a familiar routine for the residents of shacks, whether on Om beach or the adjacent and the more popular Kudle beach. Mind you though, Gokarna is not your usual high-decibel party destination!
Sleep in Beach Shacks
Most shacks here have a standard format: a café facing the beach with rooms in the back. Both Kudle Beach and Om Beach offer a variety of shacks for different budgets and styles – from classic thatched huts with a sandy floor to cemented ones; from shacks with fans hung low enough that its blades to come for the jugular, to air conditioned ones; from shared Indian-style toilets in the backyard to ensuite western commodes; from shacks with toilets offering salty sea water that glows in the dark (much like fireflies in a drum) to shacks with clean water supply for everyday use. If you are concerned about a salty butt, choose the upscale ones, or carry your own bottle of mineral water to the restrooms!
After nearly two weeks, our feet had begun to grow roots in Gokarna. The dips in to the calm ocean, the sea-food, the chilled beer, made us comfortable. After a fortnight, it was time to move on. Just as we checked in to a hostel in Goa, Honnappa called with news. He got himself a new interest-paying savings bank account, a passbook and a life insurance coverage. Though a zero balance account, he had deposited ₹ 1000 to start with. Meanwhile, the British couple had reached Nepal and was moving towards the Annapurna trek-circuit.
Things to do in Gokarna
- Dips in the Ocean: Given the crescent shape, the water at Om beach is relatively calmer. Kudle beach, on the other hand, choppy at times, boasts a longer shorline and is more popular.
- Beach Volleyball: If traveling solo, meet up with fellow travelers to enjoy a team sport at Kudle beach’s volleyball net.
- Water Activities: Few businesses on Om and Kudle beaches offered boat rides to Paradise beach or rides to view dolphins. To bring down costs, it is best to do these rides as part of a group. Besides, you could rent a kayak too.
- Hikes: The main beaches of Gokarna are along the Shatashrunga mountain range. From Om beach, you could trek southeast to the rocky, but serene Half-moon and Paradise beaches. Though without shacks, a few travelers preferring isolation, are known to pitch tents on these. On other days, you could hike northwest to the popular Kudle beach and all the way to the religiously significant Gokarna beach in the main town.
- Gokarna Temples: If you are living the shack life, you could hike or ride a scooter to visit the legendary temples or simply roam the streets of this heritage town. (For some reason, most of these temples prohibit foreigners’ at the time of this writing)
Must Try Food in Gokarna
The town and the many beach cafés offer a delectable menu to choose from. Be it rice-based biryanis or dosas and idlis, to the north Indian cuisine of daal makhani or be it pizzas or pastas. However, when visiting Gokarna’s beaches, you must try its popular coastal seafood – prawns and fish thalis!
Best Season to Visit Gokarana
During monsoon, the rising water level make it impossible to access the beach. Barring a few locals, who use the higher ground to cross the mountains for supplies, everyone leaves the coast for drier lands and, except Namaste Hotel on Om beach, most shacks remain closed. The best time to visit Gokarna is between October and April.
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