Jarrow, Tyne & Wear, United Kingdom
December 18, 2005
Dawn in Gokarna. Behind high walls, male voices intone religious verse, a lone old woman sweeps dust around the main road while a cow plods lazily alongside, and a small fire burns inside an open fronted cafe.
Gokarna is a pilgrim town, one of the most important in South India, and though foreigners are no longer allowed into any of the main temples, you'll see signs of religion everywhere, from bathing Brahmins in the large temple tank to the many groups of shaved-head men with caste marks and chotis (pony tail shaped tufts of hair) who walk barefoot around town clad in white robes that make them look like slim, fit sumo wrestlers. The atmosphere is hard to define, foreign tourism jarring with the more traditional, devout feel of the place. There are plenty of smiles from shop owners, but I sense an undercurrent of hostility from the pilgrims and upper-caste villagers, which makes me feel like an interloper.
All roads lead to Car Street in the centre of the village. Linking Venkataraman and Ganapti temples, it’s lined with quaint wooden houses and stalls selling devotional items to the pilgrims, cheap clothes, CDs, and beach toys to the foreigners. Main Street forms a T at the top end, a left turn takes you up to the bus station, and a right leads down to the tank. The streets are narrower at the opposite side, a labyrinth of alleys passing Mahabaleshwara Temple and its phallic image of Shiva in the direction of the sea.
At the end of it all is the village beach, long, featureless, and virtually deserted a couple of hundred metres past the huddle of chai and snack stands at the entrance and the fishing boats farther north. It’s not a patch on the sand at Kudle or Om and the water is too dirty and the waves too strong for swimming, even the pilgrims-only paddle, but it’s a nice enough place to watch the sun as it dips down into the Arabian Sea.
From journal Among The Brahmins: Gokarna