Gokarna—Sacred Shrines & Exotic Beaches

With its exotic beaches and sacred shrines, as a tourist getaway, Gokarna has been discovered rather recently. One of the state’s lesser known treasures, this magical part of Karnataka, steeped in religious folklore has some of India’s most spectacular beaches. Located north of Mangalore and about 50 kms south-west of Karwar, Gokarna is a small temple town on the western coast of India, It was earlier a  charming hamlet with just one street, but a new road has been added some years ago.  Near the Mahabaleshwar Temple, the road is lined on either side by wooden houses—some with carving, some plain, some painted some left natural and unpainted—with terra-cotta tiled roofs. There is also a huge tank here known as ‘Koti tirtha’, which is considered sacred by pilgrims—the belief being that one becomes free of rebirth by taking a dip in its holy waters. 

The main temple in Gokarna is dedicated to Lord Shiva, also known as Mahabaleshwara – the name by which the temple is known. Pilgrims flock by the thousands to worship the ‘Atma Linga’ in the Sanctum. The temple is said to be second only in sanctity to the Vishwanath Temple at Varanasi and attracts devotees to perform puja for their departed ancestors. The management of the temple is rather interesting and is done by two Brahmin sects, who live on either side of Gokarna’s main street. Each group has a three year stint by rotation, during which they look after all the activities connected with the temple. Needless to say this leads to strong rivalry with each trying to outdo the other.  The main festival is Shivaratri, celebrated over nine days, when Gokarna attracts a huge number of pilgrims. On the last day of Shivaratri, a huge temple chariot with Shiva’s image is pulled by ropes by more than a 100 pilgrims, from the Maha Ganapati Temple, through the town’s Car Street.

Intrigued by the name Gokarna I discovered that it literally meant a  ‘Go’ means cow and ‘Karna’ means ear.  Legend has it that Brahma had sent Shiva to Pataloka (the netherworld) to perform penance and Shiva is believed to have emerged from the ear of a cow (Prithvi or Mother Earth) said to have finally returned to through the ‘Ear of Mother Earth’, blessing the spot and naming it Gokarna, which happens to be at the confluence of rivers Gangavali and Aghanashini.  A saying from an ancient text states, “A visit to this holy place is enough to cleanse one of hundreds of sins.”

Gokarna is known as one of the seven important Hindu pilgrimage centers and is located on what was once an unspoiled beach near the estuary of the river Aghanashini.   Besides the ancient Shiva Temple, there are many other temples all over this small town, most of them date back to 2 centuries ago. Among the more important ones are Maha Ganapathi Temple, Uma Maheshwara Temple (Shiva-Parvati Temple), Bhadrakali Temple (Kali Temple), Venkataramana Temple (Vishnu Temple) and Kotitheertha - a man-made tank, surrounded by temples.

The closest towns to Gokarna are Ankola and Kumta on the NH 66, while trains stop at the nearby railway stations at Bhatkal and Karwar, the most convenient is the Gokarna Road station, 6 km from the town. Now with the influx of tourists, the character of the town has undergone a change and is no longer just a centre of pilgrimage, though large numbers of devotees continue to visit the main temple to offer prayers to Lord Shiva.

Due to its laid-back, unspoiled and rustic nature many younger tourists began visiting Gokarna about two decades ago. Earlier the beaches around Gokarna were hardly used by the locals until tourists from abroad, began to trickle in. Needless to say, locals soon realised the need to build stores and restaurants and as time passed hotels also began to mushroom. At present, the area can accommodate visitors of all kinds, but for holiday makers, it is wiser to avoid visits during religious festivals. 

Gokarna has all that is necessary for a holiday destination - blue seas and beaches with clean sand, coconut palms, banana and other fruit trees. The drive up the winding path that leads to Gokarna is scenic, with the Western Ghats on one side and the Arabian Sea on the other.  It has a laid-back atmosphere, with two main streets lined with shops and traditional tile-roofed brick houses.

The four white sandy palm-fringed beaches are spectacular enough for beachcombers to die for! The one kilometre-long palm fringed ‘Kudle Cove’ with its splendid beach is closest to Gokarna and has some shacks that can be rented. It can be reached after a 20 minute walk. Beyond a jutting headland and a one-hour walk is ‘Om beach’—a cove, where the beach is shaped like the auspicious ‘Om’ symbol. Here the strip of sand is rather narrow, but the beach makes up for this by its unusual shape. The Om Beach also has a few shacks and eateries, as well as a boat service to take visitors to the other beaches. Further away are two more smaller beaches – Paradise and Half Moon, both of which have clean white sand bordering the blue waters.

Columnist: 
Shona Adhikari