Gokarna is an increasingly popular getaway, especially among locals of Bengaluru. But not many have the good fortune of going astray and stumbling upon unique experiences like this traveller did. By Barkha Kumari
It’s been six months since my trip to Gokarna, a quaint town in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, which is blessed with sun-kissed beaches as well as windswept hills. And yet, every time I look back on that road trip, I pinch myself. How did I see what I saw and how did I meet whom I met in just six days, without a plan and in the midst of a pandemic? It was 4.15 am on January 17, 2021. My partner and I hit National Highway 48 from Bengaluru, the city we live in, also the city that speeds off to Gokarna any chance it gets. I am not a ‘sun, sand, and sea’ person, so why was I heading to Gokarna for six days? One, because I had been to most hill stations in the state already, and two, what other options did I have given the travel restrictions? This internal monologue came to a screeching halt at 7.30 am, when our car rammed into another, divesting the vehicle of its rear bumper and us of thousands in ‘fine’.
We stood on the expressway shocked, wondering if this was a sign to call off the trip. But I’m glad we didn’t overthink. We fired up Google Maps instead and looked for attractions ahead of us. The town of Mundgod stoked our interest at once. It’s a massive Tibetan settlement dating back to 1966. We had heard of the Bylakuppe Tibetan colony in the state, in the hills of Coorg, but never this.
NEVER SAY NO
After cruising on the expressway for an hour, we turned into Hosur, a village of wobbly paths but also charming fields in the Uttara Karnataka district. An elderly farmer went past our car in his bullock cart, and my partner stuck out his head to ask him if I could hitch a ride.
The farmer obliged, and I jumped on. In an attempt to make small talk, I enquired, in broken Kannada, about the crops he grows. He thought I was asking for an eatery and invited us over to his house. The Uttara Kannada lunch his wife had prepared—jowar roti, saru, palya, and omelette—had us licking our fingers clean. As we were leaving, she stuck a rose in my hair and packed badam puri and chakli for the road, while her son dropped us off to a neighbourhood where the Lambadis live.
Also called Banjaras, Lambadis were traditionally a nomadic tribe, known for wearing tattoos and colourful attire done with lepo, or mirrorwork embroidery. Even today, older women wear traditional backless cholis and long lehengas even as they perform house chores like washing the dishes. I don’t know how they manage it, because these attires are hot and heavy. I can state this confidently because when I entered one of their homes in a crop top and a Japanese trouser, the local girls insisted I try on a velvety bridal costume that weighed at least 10 kilograms. The revelry and photo-op ended abruptly and awkwardly when my blouse, which was hanging by a thread, came undone.
I changed and we vroomed off to Mundgod. It’s an uphill drive from the entrance of the town, and we drove leisurely around the sprawling monasteries, Buddha statues, manicured parks, educational institutions, and monks wearing boots and sunglasses. To take a break from the unforgiving sun and to sample authentic Tibetan dishes, we stopped at Tore Deen Lhaphing Restaurant, which is akin to a hutment. The shop sells only lhaphing, and I understood why. The cold jelly-like noodle dish smeared with spices is simply stellar. Why would you want anything else?
As we were paying the bill, we got the news we’d been waiting for—we were about to meet the Siddis. The Siddis are Indians with African ancestry who live in certain pockets of Karnataka, Gujarat, and Andhra Pradesh. Some records indicate that their forefathers were brought to the country as slaves by the Portuguese and the British at least 300 years ago, while other reports put the first arrivals further back in the third century CE. Although we hadn’t fixed too many things on our itinerary in advance, the one experience we knew we both wanted was to meet the Siddis and hear their personal stories. I had contacted an NGO to arrange a meeting, and now we were pulling into a jungle, seven kilometres before the town of Yellapur, to meet Bennith Siddi and his family. Dressed in pant- shirt, saris, and frocks, and speaking flawless Kannada, they clearly belonged to the place. There was nothing that set them apart from the rest of the locals except their appearance. “But that is why we are discriminated against,” the farmer-turned-pastor-turned community leader told us. He added that Siddis continue to be denied jobs, schooling, and dignity.
With a heavy heart, we raced against the setting sun to reach Gokarna and call it a day.
For the next two days we were footloose. We strolled on beaches like Kudle, Om, Half Moon, and Paradise, with the sparkling blue Arabian Sea for company, and hired an ‘autorickshaw with doors’ to get around. We took a kayak into the tumultuous waters knowing well that it would capsize. We slept on the golden sand that swallowed my partner’s phone. I almost lost my phone at the 16th-century Mirjan Fort, 21 kilometres from Gokarna, which was once the seat of Queen Chennabhairadevi of the Saluva dynasty. She was also called the Pepper Queen, a moniker traced back to the Portuguese who traded heavily in the spice. Another 30 minutes of driving took us to Yana Caves. Soaring up to 90 metres and 118 metres high, the two vertical rock formations made of black crystalline karst limestone shone in the sun, a stark contrast against the soft greenery of the Kumta forest.
The night before we left Gokarna, we got up at 3 am and dodged aggressive dogs and groggy cows to reach the Kudle beach again. We surveyed the shoreline for bioluminescence, because a young couple had seen the eerie blue glow on the previous night. But let’s just say time, tide, and bioluminescence wait for none.
Day 4 began on a bumpy note. On Google Maps, somebody had wrongly marked Murudeshwara, the coastal town that boasts of the second tallest Shiva statue in the world. And so, we found ourselves in a hamlet called Sanikatta. We spotted brownish-white salt fields that it’s apparently famous for and mangroves standing in the water as if on stilts. It was idyllic. In hindsight, I’m happy about this inadvertent detour, because when we finally reached Murudeshwara, we were put off by the mighty crowds. Remember, it was and still is the COVID-19 era.
Next, we crisscrossed the college town of Manipal and the temple city of Udupi as typical tourists. We gorged on the famous bun masala on the streets, gadbad ice cream at Hotel Diana, and goli bajji at Mitra Samaj, popular as the birthplace of the masala dosa. We checked the Hasta Shilpa Heritage Village Museum off our list. But we also did the less-obvious. We spent an afternoon sleeping under the palm trees next to the Kemmannu Hanging Bridge, which doesn’t get the attention it deserves. It’s a great place for cycling, photoshoots, and picnics— just 15 minutes away from Udupi.
HILLS, HERE I COME
Tired of the blazing heat on the coast, we headed to the cooler climes of Agumbe in the Shimoga district but were stumped to see the crowd on hairpin bends that even cops could not diffuse. They were waiting for the sun to set. And when it happened, it was the most magical sundown I had seen in all my trekking life. It was exactly why the late Kannada filmmaker Shankar Nag fell in love with Agumbe and chose it as the setting for his pathbreaking TV series Malgudi Days.
Every home, shop, eatery, person, and junction in Agumbe has a connection to this show about little Swami and his friends. Our own homestay possessed a skeletal cart that was used to ferry Swami. Then, there is Dodda Mane. More than 150 years old, this house was spun as Swami’s home on celluloid and now doubles as a free homestay, thanks to the generosity of its matriarch, the late Kasthuri akka. Alas, it was closed to us because of the pandemic!
But if you want to see the natural beauty of Agumbe, wake up early as we did for our 18-kilometre trek to Narasimha Parvatha, the tallest peak in Agumbe Ghats at 1,150 metres. We were walking across a carpet of dew and a blanket of fog. It was fairyland. When our final day arrived, we set our Maps destination to Bengaluru, because what more could be in store? For one, our car was stopped by a cop. Thank god, he just wanted a lift! In exchange, he regaled us with his investigative exploits and love story. The policeman got down at Shimoga while we made a last-minute detour through Mattur, which occurred to us on the way. The locals of this village converse with each other in Sanskrit, I had read, but this tradition is on the decline, a scholar lamented to me.
At a time when we had given up all hope of travelling, this unhinged trip was full of pleasant surprises, blessing us with new experiences at every ‘wrong’ turn we took.
You can drive from Bengaluru, or fly to Mangaluru or Goa and hire a cab. Gokarna is 135 km from Goa, 230 km from Mangaluru, and nearly 500 km from Bengaluru.
Kudle, Om, and Half Moon beaches have everything from INR 900-a-night shacks and pitch-your-camp facilities to rustic homestays and premium villas. If you’re looking for modern comforts, Kahani Paradise (from INR 17,000) is a six-suite private villa in the south of Gokarna with a view of both the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats, and CGH Earth – SwaSwara (from INR 12,600) is a wellness retreat designed to provide holistic, transformational experiences on Om Beach through Ayurveda and yoga.
Gokarna is like Goa but a lot cheaper and much less crowded. You can trek the beaches (even at night); play volleyball; ride an ATV; take a banana boat ride; go kayaking, jet skiing, parasailing, and snorkelling; and if you are in luck, spot bioluminescence at night. You can also drive to Yana Caves, Mirjan Fort, Mahabaleshwar Temple, and several cascades.