My journey from Bangalore to Gokarna turned out to be longer than expected. I departed before an extended weekend, so every highway leading away from Bangalore was choked. The sleeper bus wasn’t particularly comfortable, but it gave me my own private space. Private space – a luxury I would both enjoy and seek in the next couple of days. My bus traveled through the rich biodiversity of the Western Ghats. I was semi-awake for most part and fully aware of my transportation from the landlocked city of Bangalore to the seaside town of Gokarna. The change in humidity was unmistakable.
The bus dropped me off right in the middle of a bustling weekly vegetable market three hours after the scheduled time of arrival. Farmers from nearby villages were screaming to grab the attention of locals. The friendly folks of Jungle Lodges and Resorts, my home for the weekend, were waiting to transport me away from the noisy town to the quiet environs of the resort. After a quick 10-minute drive, I arrived at the sprawling property of the Om Beach Resort. My room was large and housed in a spacious Konkan-style bungalow. I couldn’t complain about private space here.
Cottages at Om Beach Resort
Over a sumptuous breakfast, I asked the manager Mr. Jayprakash and the resident Ayurveda doctor Mr. Suhas about things to do in Gokarna. I had already read up about the beaches and temples and was looking for information about little-known getaways. The mention of an underground cave, a ruined fort, and salt fields excited me; I wanted to discover unconventional places.
Many visitors come here for pilgrimage. Gokarna after all, is known as the Kashi of the South. It finds mentions in various Hindu mythologies. The Mahaganapati temple in the main town has a fantastic legend behind its existence. Lord Ganesha, the main deity, is seen in an unusual standing posture. The Mahabaleshwar Dev temple houses a rare form of Lord Shiva. Fables say that the linga was placed there by the demon King Ravana. There are numerous other smaller temples spread across Gokarna and nearby villages.
If these places of worship are what gave Gokarna its identity for millennia, the compact, yet beautiful beaches of Om, Kudle, Paradise, and Half-moon have put Gokarna on the tourist map these days. Many tourists choose to drive via the scenic National Highway 17 to reach this holiday destination. Needless to say, the otherwise sleepy town started bursting at its seams as the weekend progressed.
In the evening, I walked the streets of the main town. Walking is the best way to explore any small place. My two feet led me to interesting discoveries in narrow winding roads. Almost every other house belonged to a temple priest. The doorways were small, but when I peeped inside, I noticed that these rustic houses were spacious. Children played joyously, untouched by the influence of modern gadgets. Cows were abundant, generously covering the cobblestoned roads with dung. This was the quintessential Indian village.
Narrow cobblestoned alleyways
Strolling through a serpentine lane, aptly called Nagabeedi, I reached a large tank called Kotitheertha. This man-made pond looked serene against the setting sun. Signboards suggested that the sacred water from here was used for rituals. Religious centers or maths surrounded the lake.
Kotitheertha, a large man-made pond
As the evening brought cool sea breeze, tourists started milling about the streets. I meandered through the town bazaar, restaurants, guesthouses, and temples to settle down near Rama Theertha. Situated on a cliff, this ancient temple overlooks the Gokarna beach. At the courtyard, locals indulged in casual conversation as they watched the sun go down. Nearby, a freshwater spring provided a constant supply of clean drinking water and visitors lined up to replenish their water cans. The sound of the waves crashing against the rocks, and the sight of the golden ball sinking into the horizon was picture perfect.
Rama Theertha at sunset
The next morning, I headed to Om beach in time to watch the sunrise. I had the entire place to myself. For a person like me who enjoys solitude, this place was bliss. Om beach is the prettiest of the four famous beaches in Gokarna. To the west are Kudle beach and Gokarna beach. To the east are Half-moon beach and Paradise beach. All these beaches are separated by hillocks. There are only two ways to get to the beaches on the east – a mildly adventurous trek through the hillocks, or by boat. Catamarans offer short sightseeing trips. Lured by the promise of sighting dolphins, I found myself on one these catamarans that morning. To my luck, I had ample glimpses of these sea creatures. It was delightful to watch them jump in and out of water. Around me, fishing trawlers were returning home with their morning catch. The fishing village of Tadadi is situated on the estuary where river Aghanashini empties into the Arabian Sea. From the boat, I could see the river’s outlet enclosed by land on either side.
Sunrise at Om beach
Dolphin sighting off the coast
My boatman, with whom I had struck a conversation, invited me on a fishing trip into the deep sea. I had to decline due to lack of time, but I was touched by his friendliness. I continued to meet people like him all through my trip. My memories of Gokarna do not consist of only beaches, sunsets, and temples. It includes conversations I had with locals. Like the gentleman at the bazaar who saw my DSLR and pulled out his father’s medium format camera from a dusty cupboard. I learnt from him that back in the day, this was the only camera in all of Gokarna.
Apparently, the only camera in Gokarna till the 1950s.
“On off-season days, I hardly get to meet another human being, Sir,” quipped my driver. “Look at what Gokarna turns into, during weekends.” We were driving to Kudle beach from the resort in the evening. Both Om and Kudle beach are only a 20-minute drive away. You can actually hear the whisper of the ocean from the resort. According to me, the best of view of Kudle is from the road. From a particular spot, you get a panoramic view of the beach and the surroundings. At a distance, the blue of the ocean merges with the blue of the sky.
A view of Kudle beach from the road
The motorable road ended at the top of the hill. From there, I had to walk down to the beach on foot. Well, walking down was easy, but climbing back up later left me short of breath. This did not deter other tourists from thronging Kudle beach. My experience that evening was nothing like the one in the quiet morning at Om beach. I quickly left the beach to get back to the hill and walk across the plateau between Kudle and Gokarna. This barren stretch runs parallel to the ocean and offers great views all along. A few precarious hiking paths lead you down to the rocky seaside. I explored one such route and ended up on a huge weathered rock that tapered into the ocean. The only other inhabitant that evening was a fisherman. Again, I enjoyed the sunset in privacy.
Quiet sunsets at Gokarna
The following day, I decided to venture away from the main tourist circuit. My first halt was at Mirjan fort, 16 km away from Gokarna. From there, I followed a signboard by the side of the highway and ended up in a small fishing village that was surrounded by a mangrove forest. Back in Gokarna, I rode past farmlands and salt fields. I was amazed at how much nature had to offer. The sights of farming, salt making, and fishing were like a crash course in man’s progress from being a hunter-gatherer. Maybe the techniques have changed, but our dependency on nature hasn’t. For a roving eye like mine, there was so much more to see in Gokarna than the beaches and temples.
Salt farms of Gokarna
An underground cave and temple inside.
“Malabar Hornbill, Black Ibis, White Ibis, Brahminy Kite, Honey Buzzard, Peacock,” Mr. Jayaprakash was rattling off the list of birds that can be spotted at Gokarna. I was lucky to sight a few of these birds during my stay. “Although 80% of the Karwar district is covered by forest, the wildlife here is very thin,” he added. “So what brings visitors to Om Beach Resort?” I inquired. “Temples, beaches and the Ayurvedic center here,” he replied. I didn’t have time to experience a massage during my stay, but the tranquility of the resort was enough to help me unwind. When the sun was high up during the day and it was too hot to venture outside, I relaxed at the resort. Every cottage had a huge verandah, and no two entrances faced each other. The food was extremely tasty, with most dishes chosen from the local cuisine.
Mangrove Forests Close to Gokarna
Gokarna is a town of contrasts. Close to the beach, the tourists go berserk in the sand. In front of the temples, the queues wax and wane with the darshan timings. Away from all this, the workers in the fields and the fishermen live by nature’s rhythm. Some of the backpackers stay literally waiting for the cows to come home. Most other tourists visit just for the weekend. Sometimes on my feet, and sometimes on my rented two-wheeler, I crisscrossed these different worlds. By the end of the trip, I was definitely one shade darker, but deep inside I felt lighter.