Photograph courtesy: Lovell D’Soza/Creative Commons
Gokarna, a small pilgrimage town in Karnataka has grown into a tourist destination over the years, thanks to its stretch of beautiful, sandy beaches. With the advent of foreigners thronging it, it no longer remains a quaint temple town, but a thriving vacation spot that is as laidback as Goa, only less commercial. In fact, many Goa regulars have now moved on to Gokarna’s pristine beaches where the crowds are less and the beaches cleaner. In fact, this trend has divided Gokarna into two parts, one that is for the religious devotee who comes to seek blessings of Shiva, and the other of the carefree tourist looking for some peace and quiet in nature’s lap. Owing to its growing popularity, several hotels and restaurants have come up in Gokarna. The temple town is now an emerging beach destination that offers something to different types of tourists with its natural beauty and its history steeped in mythology. Here is everything you need to know about Gokarna. ALSO SEE 4 reasons to visit Gokarna
HISTORY OF GOKARNA
The name Gokarna is made of two words, gau meaning cow and karna meaning ear, translating to cow’s ear. The reason for such a name is associated with its roots in mythology and also its geography. According to one story, the reason for naming this place Gokarna is because it is at the confluence of two rivers Gangavati and Aghanashini and this looks like a cow’s ear. The other, more interesting legend takes us back to mythology. According to this one, Shiva was sent to Patal Lok (under the earth) by Brahma. He later emerged from the earth out a cow’s ear and that is why the name. Being a temple town, Gokarna has many mythological tales associated with it. It is also holds mention in the Shrimad Bhagavata Purana. When you visit the place, you will hear more stories and legends about Gokarna and how it came to be. Whether you believe them or not, they surely make for a good story.
Gokarna is easily accessible by road and rail. The nearest rail head is Gokarna Road which is about 6 km away from the town and taxis, rickshaws and buses are available right outside. You can also reach Gokarna from other railway stations like Ankola, Kumta, Karwar and Madgaon.
If you plan to take the road, you have several buses to take you to Gokarna. KSRTC has buses plying from Bangalore, Mangalore, Panjim, Hubli, etc. Some private operators also run buses from Bangalore to Gokarna. If you want to drive down, you can take NH-17. Gokarna is 583 km away from Bangalore.
Gokarna does not have its own airport but the nearest one is Dabolim Airport in Goa which is about 140 km away. You can take a taxi from the airport to reach Gokarna. Mangalore International Airport is 235 km away from the town. Again, cabs are available outside the airport.
SIGHTSEEING ATTRACTIONS IN GOKARNA
Sightseeing places in Gokarna are a mix of pristine beaches and temples with mythological stories associated with them. These beaches are one of the best in the country as they aren’t as commercial as the ones and some of them are still a bit secluded without too many stalls and shops. Temples in Gokarna are thronged by pilgrims from near and far thanks to the legend associated with it. And while one temple is more famous than the others, when here, do pay a visit to the other smaller yet significant temples in the town. Here’s a lowdown of the best tourist spots in Gokarna that you must visit when here. ALSO SEE 10 most famous temples in India
The temple of Mahabaleshwara is the main tourist attraction for pilgrims coming to Gokarna. Its significance is so high because of the legend associated with it. The temple is dedicated to Shiva and has what is called an atmalingam which is believed to be one of the most powerful lingams.
The story goes back to 1500 years when Ravana wanted Shiva to give him the atmalingam and did a strong penance to please the god. Shiva was impressed with his dedication and decided to give it to him but the other gods were not pleased. They feared that with Ravana acquiring the atmalingam, he would become so powerful that he would destroy the world. Out of concern, they approached Ganesh to do something. When Shiva had given Ravana his reward, it was on one condition that wherever he placed it, the lingam would be fixed at that spot. Ravana wanted to take it back with him but when he was in present-day Gokarna, he met Ganesha.
Ravana was very particular about his prayer and meditation timing and never wanted it be delayed due to any reason. When he saw Ganesha, he requested him to hold the lingam till he prayed. Ganesha agreed to it on one condition that he would call out Ravana three times before keeping it on the ground. Ravana agreed to this condition and started with his prayers. Midway Ganesha called out his name three times and then placed the lingam on the earth and vanished. When Ravana was done with his prayers, he was shocked to find it on the ground. He tried to pull it out but it lay fixed. In his attempt, he scratched the outer covering of the lingam and threw them in different directions in and near the town where more temples were made later. In another version, the story goes that Ravana wanted to answer nature’s call but because he had the lingam in hand he was unable to do so till he saw Ganesha. And he agreed to hold it for him with the same condition and then placed it on the ground.
Whichever tale you believe, the atmalingam is housed in this temple and pilgrims come to seek its blessings. Shivratri is celebrated with much gusto in Mahabaleshwara Temple for it being dedicated to Shiva.
Maha Ganapati Temple
The legend of the Mahabaleshwara Temple is responsible for the Maha Ganapati Temple too. Since it was a young Ganesha who tricked Ravana by taking the atmalingam from him, this temple was built in his honour. Shiva too blessed Ganesha that any auspicious ritual will begin by first praying to him. Therefore, one should first visit the Maha Ganapati Temple and then head to the Mahabaleshwara Temple nearby.
Interestingly, this is one of the few temples where you will find the idol of Ganesha in a standing position rather than his sitting form. The idol is of black stone and represents a young Ganesha who was successful in getting Ravana to let go of the lingam. The temple is pretty small and not as grand as you’d expect it to be but it is the story and the significance of his deed that draws devotees here. Another thing that is different about the idol is that is that Ganesha has only two arms and not four. This has to do with the fact that he was disguised as a young, normal boy and not the son of Shiva when he ran into Ravana. So, it was only fitting that he have two arms and not four.
Another temple to include in your itinerary when in Gokarna is a visit to the Bhadrakali Temple that is dedicated to Uma. The significance of this temple is based on the same story of Shiva and Ravana. It is believed that when Ravana prayed to please Shiva, he had two wishes in mind. When Shiva was pleased with his penance and asked him what he wanted, Ravana did not just ask for the atmalingam, he also asked for a wife more beautiful than Shiva’s wife.
Shiva gave him Uma, the most beautiful woman who Ravana carried on his shoulder. When he reached Gokarna, Vishnu disguised as a Brahmin and met Ravana. He asked him who she was and he told him the whole story. To show Vishnu just how beautiful she was, he placed Uma down so that he could see her face. Vishnu with his powers, change Uma’s face to look exhausted and old and when Ravana saw this, he was so upset he left Uma there. Vishnu then asked Uma to reside in Gokarna where she came to be worshipped at the Bhadrakali Temple as the mother goddess. You can visit the temple and seek her blessings when in this town.
Shree Venkataramana Temple
All the temples in Gokarna revolve around the same legend and the people who were part of it. The Shree Venkataramana Temple is no different. It is believed that the very reason Ravana wanted to pray after reaching Gokarna is because Vishnu used his powers to cast a shadow on the sun that make it look like it’s evening. This prompted Ravana to offer his evening prayers even though it was still noon. Therefore, the Shree Venkataramana Temple is dedicated to Vishnu for all his help to make Ravana not have the atmalingam forever. It is said that the temple is at a spot from where Vishnu can see the other temples associated with this legend and also protect the lingam. He watches over these temples to keep them safe just like he played an important part in the story.
After you’ve done temple hopping in Gokarna, it is time to visit the beautiful beaches of the town that are one of the best in the country. There are a total of five beaches in Gokarna and each one of them has its own charm. Most pilgrims head to the Gokarna Beach while other tourists on vacation prefer the others. If you are in town to visit the temples, do stop by Gokarna Beach but if you are here to have a relaxing time, you can give this beach a miss and head to other ones that are more tourist-friendly.
The beach gets its name from its shape that resembles the religious symbol ‘Om’. It is a popular one among the locals and tourists who come here to unwind. It can be reached by a riskshaw unlike a few other beaches in Gokarna. Due to this, you will find many locals also here and it can get crowded on weekends. Om Beach has places to eat and shop on the beach and there are hotels and shacks as well due to its accessibility by road. The cool breeze in the evening is refreshing but don’t stay out for too long as roads are usually deserted by late evening.
Another popular beach in Gokarna is the Kudle Beach that is both rocky and sandy. You will have to trek a bit to reach here but it is still pretty popular. Many foreign tourists also come here often. Just like Om Beach, Kudle Beach too has accommodation, restaurants and shacks. However, since it is not very easily accessible, it is best to visit the beach during the day or early evening instead of staying here till late.
Photograph courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
True to its name, Paradise Beach is less crowded than Om and Kudle because it isn’t easily accessible. In fact, you have to either trek your way to it or take a boat ride. The beach is not just sandy, it has rocks as well and it is best to tread carefully to avoid falling or slipping. Paradise Beach is also a hidden nude beach even though nudity in public places is illegal in India. Don’t be surprised if you find foreigners and locals sunbathing in the buff. Not everyone really knows about it and many visit Paradise Beach just for its seclusion. You may at times find it difficult to convince a boatman to take you here.
Half-Moon Beach again gets its name due to its shape that resembles the crescent moon. The beach is a 20-minute walk from Om Beach and there are two ways to get to it. Therefore, you will not find many people at this beach. Especially during off-season when there is hardly a soul here. But what you need to remember is that there is no electric supply here so you need to head back on time. During peak season, you may find a few shacks on the beach that offer accommodation in huts but on other days, you will not find them. Even so, it is a welcome change from the commercial beaches so do visit it if you have the time.
All the five beaches in Gokarna can be covered in a single day on foot if you are up for a trek. It will take you close to 7-8 hours to finish the stretch so start early morning so that you can finish it by evening before it gets dark.
THINGS TO DO IN GOKARNA
Gokarna is primarily known for temples and beaches but it offers a few activities also that are worth trying when you visit this town. While you may find most of these in other parts of the country too, it will probably be cheaper in Gokarna than any other popular destination as Gokarna isn’t as commercial yet. So these should definitely be your to-do list. Here’s what all you can do in Gokarna.
Holding yourself against the waves and making sure you don’t fall is an art you can master when in Gokarna. Surfing is one of the best water sports activities but unfortunately it hasn’t really picked up in India yet. However, there is a surfing school in this town called Cocopelli Surf School (+91 8105764969). They offer one-on-one training sessions on Gokarna Beach where the waves are fine for beginners as well as advance surfers. One can hire surfing gear like surfboards, wetsuits, flippers and even kayaks. Cocopelli offers courses that last a few hours for those who just want to give it a shot and longer three and six-day courses as well for beginners and advance students respectively. The school is ISA-certified (International Surf Association) and so are the trainers. Sandeep Samuel is the chief instructor.
Yoga is practised and taught at various centres in India and the most famous ones are probably in Varanasi, Rishikesh and Goa. However, Gokarna too is a hub for yoga and you will find many classes and retreats around town. Many resorts in Gokarna offer yoga classes for their patrons that are set in a natural environment overlooking the beach or lush greenery of the town. Namaste Yoga Farm and SwaSwara are two such places. Gokarna Yoga School, Gokarna Yoga Garden and Astanga Gokarna are a few other places to learn this ancient holistic fitness form.
ALSO SEE Top 9 yoga centres in India
Shopping in Gokarna is mostly in small shops on the streets where you will find trinkets, souvenirs and other items like jewellery, clothes, etc. Around temples, you will find shops selling prayer beads, incense sticks and religious idols. At most of the shops you can bargain to get a good deal. Since most of these are for tourists, make sure you don’t just buy from the first shop and check out prices in other shops as well. Chances are, you will find the same or similar things in other shops as well.
Snorkelling and banana boat ride
Being a coastal town, Gokarana offers water sports activities like snorkelling and banana boat ride on its beaches. These are about Rs 1500 and Rs 300 respectively and the price can be brought down a little if you bargain well or go in a group. While snorkelling shows you life underwater, banana boat ride involves sitting on a boat that is attached to a jet ski. The fun bit is when you fall in the water and get back up on the boat for another round. These are usually done on the commercial beaches like Om and Kundle. If you are in luck, you will also find parasailing activity on these beaches. In that, a parachute is attached to a jet ski by a 300 ft long rope. It gives you a bird’s eye view of the sea and surroundings and is worth every penny.
PLACES TO STAY IN GOKARNA
With its growing popularity as a tourist spot, several new accommodation places have emerged in Gokarna that range from budget to luxury stays. Beach accommodations are usually shacks but there are also homestays and guest houses available nearby. You will find more of budget and mid-range options than luxury resorts in Gokarna. However, it is best to book in advance during peak season as the rates go up and the rooms get booked fast. If you are going during off season, you can afford to reach the town and then find accommodation.
Kudle Beach View Resort & Spa (+91 8130967666) is a four-star property in Gokarna that is 5 km away from the beach but offers sea views from the rooms. You will need to walk uphill to reach the resort as it is on a cliff and not a plain but the view is worth the effort. It has airy rooms and a swimming pool, spa and rooftop restaurant.
SwaSwara (+91 4843011711) is another property that is known for its wellness and yoga classes. Located near Om Beach, it is surrounded by green lawns, hills, gardens and the beach. Those looking for a rejuvenating, quiet vacation can book a stay at this resort. It boasts of cottages, a swimming pool and a meditation hall.
Gokarna International Beach Resort (+91 8884741005) is a mid-range property that offers clear views of the sand and sea from its rooms that are airy with basic amenities. The resort also has a yoga centre and a multi-cuisine restaurant. The best part about this place is that it is right on the Kudle Beach.
Sanskruti Resort (+91 8386257608) is another good property on Om Beach that offers cottages and valley view rooms. The resort also has a spa that offers Ayurvedic massages, a fine-dining restaurant that serves different cuisines and a swimming pool.
Namaste Holiday Home (+91 9739600407) that was formerly called Namaste Yoga Farm has accommodation options like cottages, rooms and even tree houses. The property also conducts yoga retreats and classes giving you a holistic experience in the midst of nature. This is also an eco-friendly stay that adds brownie points in its kitty.
Patang (+91 9448302260) is another beach property offers accommodation in huts that are right on the sand. It is one of the last few resorts on the Ganga Beach before the road ends. It has an open gazebo-style restaurant that offers different international cuisines including Mexican and Italian.
Namaste Atithya is a unit that offers different types of properties to suit different budgets. From dorm rooms with shared bathrooms to rustic stone cottages, they have it all. Namaste Cafe (+91 9886466565) is for budget travelers while Namaste Sanjeevini (+91 8088777444) is for those looking for a more luxurious stay.
PLACES TO EAT IN GOKARNA
Being a coastal town, Gokarna offers seafood but that’s not all, almost all the restaurants in resorts are multi-cuisine that offer everything from tandoori dishes to Chinese and continental fare. Despite being a pilgrimage, you will easily find meat dishes at most places. Street food and staple south Indian dishes are also easily available and so are thalis that serve amazing local food.
Fresh coconut water and buttermilk are also quite popular in Gokarna and you can have these at the beach or at a local shop. Liquor isn’t very easily available and is quite pricy too thanks to the temples around town. However, there are places that stock them illegally and shady bars where local go to get drunk. It is best to refrain from going to such places and landing in trouble as they aren’t really safe. Smoking is also an offence and don’t be surprised if you find random police checks in the town. They often check bags for drugs and cigarettes and levy a heavy fine if they find it. Earlier, checking of rooms at any given point was also common but this has reduced slightly due to negative publicity of the cops. Even so, make sure you aren’t in possession of anything that can land you in trouble. If you want to party hard, Goa is more apt than Gokarna. Here are a few places that you can visit to grab a bite.
Namaste Cafe is an open-air beach-front restaurant serving scrumptious Indian and international dishes. The setting is perfect to put you in a good mood and satisfy your tummy. It is on Om Beach. If you are hitting the beach, you will find many places to eat along the road too. Shree Shakti Cold Drinks and Restaurant has been around for 30 odd years in Gokarna and is famous for its fruit juices, ice creams, lassi and Indian dishes. It is located at Car Street Main Road. Pai Restaurant is well-known for authentic idli, vada, dosa and upma that you can savor for breakfast. It is at Gokarna Kudle Road. If you are staying at any of the properties we’ve mentioned above, you will have a restaurant within the hotel itself.
FESTIVALS IN GOKARNA
Being a temple town, festivals are celebrated with great zest in Gokarna. Among the many, the notable ones that attract pilgrims from other parts of the country as well are the following. If you plan to visit Gokarna during festive time, be prepared as it can get crowded and accommodation options may get full sooner than later. However, if you want to witness the frenzy and enthusiasm of the town, festivals are the best time to visit Gokarna.
Since the main temple in Gokarna is for Shiva, it is only fitting that Shivratri be the biggest celebration in this town. The entire place comes alive during this nine-day festival. The idol of Mahabaleshwara is brought out on a chariot the ropes of which are pulled by at least a 100 people. The procession is held on the last day of the festival at Car Street. Priests chant hymns and perform rituals to please the god as Shivrati comes to an end. Pilgrims from different parts of the country come to Gokarna to witness this procession. At least 20,000 people come to the town during this time.
ALSO SEE 12 best places to celebrate Shivratri in India
The other festivals that are a big part of Gokarna are Kartika Poornima that takes place in October-November and Suggi Habba which is celebrated during harvest time by the Gowda community. While these may not attract as many devotees from other places, the celebrations are big in the town by the locals.
NEARBY PLACES FROM GOKARNA
Once you have explored the town of Gokarna, you can visit nearby attractions that aren’t too far away from it and can be covered in the same trip as they do not warrant for another trip. We list down some of these places for you.
Also in the state of Karnataka, Karwar is only 59 km away from Gokarna and should not be missed. The town is known for its seafood and natural beauty. Karwar is in fact called the ‘Kashmir of Karnataka’. It is a port town but tourism is a source of income apart from agriculture and manufacturing. Being a seaside city, it has the beach as one of its key attractions for tourists. The Rabindranath Tagore Beach is a popular one while other ones are Karwar Beach, Binaga Beach and Devbagh Beach. Karwar is also known for its hinterlands and biodiversity and you can find its share of flora and fauna at Anshi National Park. Devkar Falls, Habbu Mountain and Guddahalli Peak are its other attractions. Karwar is also famous for its historical sites like the Sadashivgad Fort, Kot Shiveshvar and Maritime Museum. When here, do try the staple food that consists of fish curry, rice, coconut and cashews. Sao Jao and Karavali Utsav are a few festivals that are celebrated by the locals with much fanfare and pomp. You can witness these if you are here during that time. You can reach Karwar from Gokarna by taking the bus, train or taxi. Since the distance isn’t much, it will not take you more than an hour or two to get here. If you are planning to take the bus, you will have to change buses at Akola while train is a direct route.
Gokarna’s proximity to Goa makes it a hop, skip and jump ride away to go to the party capital of India. Goa is also known for its beaches but it is much more than that. It is the general vibe that is both laidback yet vibrant at the same time. Despite Gokarna being a town with ample beaches, many escape to Goa for its parties and cheap alcohol. Goa is primarily divided into north and south regions. The hip and happening clubs and pubs and the commercial beaches are in north Goa while the relaxing, secluded beaches and posh resorts are in south Goa. You can cover both the regions on the same trip too as the distance between the two is bout 50-60 km. The best way to explore Goa is by hiring a scooter or car. While two-three days are enough to see the beauty of Goa, there are people who even stay for a week or more as they love the vibe of this state. Goa’s churches are known for their architecture and the forts are impressive too. Water sports are common on most beaches and so are shacks and restaurants. You will find accommodation to suit every budget in Goa as there is no dearth of hotels here. If you are visiting Goa for the first time, it is best to keep one day for sightseeing and one day for beach hopping. Goa is also famous for seafood, Feni and desserts. Make sure you try these when here. End your Goa trip with a relaxing foot massage right on the beach or go to a spa at any of the top resorts and soothe your senses with a body massage. Goa is only 144 km away from Gokarna and it will take you about three hours to reach here. You can take a taxi or drive down on your own.
Another temple town in Karnataka is Murudeshwar which is another name for Shiva and has the second-tallest Shiva statue in the world. The legend of this place is also associated with the same story of Shiva and Ravana. As we mentioned earlier, Ravana obtained the atmalingam from Shiva after a strong penance but he was tricked by the gods and the lingam got fixed in the ground. In his attempt to detach it from the earth, Ravana managed to scratch off a few pieces of the lingam and threw them in different directions. Wherever these fell, you will find temples around them. While a piece did not fall of the lingam in Murudeshwar but the cloth covering the atmalingam fell here and the Murudeshwar Temple is built around the same spot. A 20-storey Raja Gopura is also built dedicated to Shiva. The prime attraction of the town however is the 123 ft tall Shiva statue that is surrounded by sea on three sides. It is visible from far and looks very impressive. It took two years to build it and is right at the water’s edge. Murudeshwar is only 78 km away from Gokarna and is a pleasant drive that will not take you more than an hour-and-a-half. Most pilgrims who visit Gokarna also visit Murudeshwar as it is part of the same legend and dedicated to Shiva. You can cover the two places in a single trip over the weekend.
Author: Kriti Saraswat-Satpathy
BEST TIME TO VISIT GOKARNA
The average minimum and maximum temperature of Gokarna is as given below. The best time to visit Gokarna is also specified.