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Spirited & spiritual

On the coast of South India beach-bound tourists mix with Hindu pilgrims

Email|Print| Text size + By Ethan Gilsdorf
Globe Correspondent / November 9, 2003

GOKARN, India -- The baby cow munching on our trip itinerary as Isabelle nursed her foot and I jogged to find an auto-rickshaw was the final, karmic coincidence that endeared me to Gokarn.

After all, hadn't someone smudged a red dot on the calf's forehead? Hadn't it ambled over to offer us a blessing? To ensure a rapid recovery from the sprain?

The Tuesday of Isabelle's injury was auspicious. We had spent the day on beaches named Om and Paradise. We had seen wild monkeys and a pod of dolphins. And, 10 days into India, we still had not gotten sick.

Ever since arriving in Gokarn, one of India's holiest Hindu pilgrimage towns, on the Arabian coast south of Goa, we had been lulled into a reverential state of mind. We started to connect insignificant details of our trip into meaningful patterns. The layers of nuts, muesli, and yogurt in our morning cereal, the scrap of newspaper that wrapped our jaggery-infused sweets, even the hurt foot seemed laden with hidden purpose: to make us pause, reflect, take stock.

After spending several days here, who could blame us for seeking wisdom in the oracle of the calf? For Hindus, Gokarn is a place to be cleansed of one's misdeeds and put back on the right path. For non-disciples, it is a place to soak up some of the residual spirituality from a beach hut hammock.

But who were we kidding. We were no followers of Shiva, Ganesh, or Vishnu. The cow, indifferent to our caresses and spiritual questions, only wanted food. Trying to tug the papers from its mouth, we watched as a chunk of our travel plans went down its throat.

. . .

In early December, two months after the rainy season ended, my wife, Isabelle, and I began a three-week trip to South India at the country's southernmost tip, Thiruvananthapuram (also known as the less-polysyllabic Trivandrum). About midway into our rail, bus, and ferry journey up the western coast, we passed through the state of Karnataka and stopped at Gokarn.

It is here that the elephant-headed god Ganesh is said to have tricked the demon king Ravena, who had stolen a lingam, a black stone phallus endowed with holy power. Ganesh offered to hold the lingam so Ravena could pray. Ganesh cleverly plunked down the lingam and the gods quickly filled it with the ''weight of three worlds": heavy stuff. Ever since, the immovable lingam has rested in Gokarn's Mahabaleshwar Temple. Repenting Hindus travel here from thousands of miles away, for one glimpse of it is said to wash away all sin.

In this respect, Gokarn resembles a small-scale Lourdes, full of faithful transients hoping to be cleansed and souvenir vendors profiting from the flurry of religious activity. Yet Gokarn remains a humble settlement. With its mix of wooden, mud, and brick buildings with balconies and low-pitched roofs lining the town's three streets, Isabelle likened it to a 19th-century American Western frontier town. Withered, white-mustached men drive wooden-wheeled ox carts. Stray dogs and cattle rummage through the gutters of the main street, looking for trouble.

Only here, the shops don't sell chaps, ammunition, and hardtack, but bronze idols, flower garlands, and masala dosas. And it's not cowboys and gunslingers filling saloons, but Hindus thronging three ancient temples set within a small maze of shaded streets.

Protected by coastal headlands and slightly complicated to get to, Gokarn and its beaches are spared the massive tourist exploitation to which Goa and its endless sands some 96 miles to the north have succumbed. No high-rise resorts or thudding club music spoil this shoreline. Rather, half a dozen basic hotels and guesthouses blend well into the ancient settlement, sparing the main beach. At dusk, as snack carts begin frying up their evening meals, children play makeshift cricket on the sand. Worshipers dip into the waves under sunsets of smudged saffron and smoky eggplant.

Gokarn reveals its second, secular side to hardier travelers. Accessible only by boat or an overland hike, a few secluded beaches attract small bands of Brits, Germans, Australians, and Israelis. Each day, backpackers amble down Main and Car streets as merchants beckon, selling yoga pants and orange-colored fabrics. Competition is intense. One vendor was so thrilled we bought a shirt and some cloth, he kissed the 300 rupees ($3) -- loads of cash for many Indians who get by on 10 or 20 rupees a day. No wonder they all call out, ''Sir, good madam, just take a look!" and are all smiles.

If Westerners are politely if incessantly targeted by shopkeepers, none of the attention is meant to make them feel unwelcome among the generally tolerant and curious South Indians. Though 90 percent of the tourists are Hindus on religious holiday, the region is known for its mix of Muslims, Christians, Buddhist, and Jains. Even enclaves of Jews and Zoroastrians exist.

Although some foreigners dress like bare-chested ''pujaris" (pilgrim-guiding priests), non-Hindus are still not allowed in the temples (because of incidents of disrespectful behavior). By treating us differently in this one respect, the town reflects its tacit goal of guarding its sacred side from exploitation. To our eyes, Gokarn was a safe and worshipful place and the locals seem committed to keep it, first and foremost, a pilgrim site. Scantily-clad sunbathers, especially on the town beach, are not tolerated. On a police registration form, tourists are reminded to ''Look Smart in Full Dress."

Despite its restricted religious sites, Gokarn still offers the outsider plenty. The action in front of the main temples, Mahabaleshwar, which houses the lingam, and the two others, Mahaganapati and Veukatarama, is a show in itself. Bundles of incense burn into the air, flowers litter the ground, and cows bellow as if in protest, their moans a cross between a bullfrog and a burp. Two massive wooden raths, or ceremonial chariots, are parked on Car Street; during religious festivals, these tall, cylindrical towers on wheels are installed with the appropriate gods and hauled with thick ropes down the street by men wearing nothing but orange ''dhotis" (cloth wraps).

The narrow streets around the temples lead to residential quarters of traditional homes framed in massive timber. Grannies sweep the dust with stubby brooms, and wash the doorsteps with cow dung and water. Families scrawl ephemeral designs in white chalk on the street to show the household is devout for when deities pass by. But foot, animal, and vehicular traffic quickly wear the symbols away and the markings are replaced the next day.

In this contemplative neighborhood is the huge ''koorti teertha," or temple tank, where Brahmins perform their daily ablutions in the murky water. People descend the ''ghats," or steps, leading into the water, where ''dhobi-wallahs," or laundry washers, smack their clothes on the rocks. At the foot of a nearby shrine under a rain tree stand dozens of stone cobra idols, said to bestow fertility to childless couples (if a woman gives birth, the baby's name and birth date are marked beside the idol).

The day of Isabelle's foot injury, we see a sign beside the temple tank -- ''Yoga and spiritual consult" -- hoisted halfway up a palm tree. We go around back to a shady courtyard and are directed into a coconut and banana grove, where we are told we will find the yogi's home. We knock on the door frame. A skinny man fulfilling the ''yogi" stereotype -- scraggly beard, barefoot, loose cotton clothes -- descends a ladder from the loft (our image thrown off only by his horn-rimmed glasses). He hands us his brochure: ''Adopt YOGA for Utmost Material & Spiritual Happiness of Healthy Long Life span."

He's also an astrologist and physiognomist (face-reader). He goes on to explain, in halting English, that his teachings will '' 'elevate' any childhood troubles, boyhood troubles." Bingo. I wouldn't mind a long life of happiness, but Yogananda Govinda Swamy only takes on students for one-week stints. Alas, our schedule doesn't allow it.

. . .

There's very little to do in Gokarn. But that's its main attraction. We quickly fall into a routine. By 9 or 10 p.m,, after dinner (for us, always at the restaurant Prema, our twice-a-day habit), the town shuts down. More disciplined pilgrims might tuck in early. In the Hotel Gokarna International, we stay up till 1 a.m. watching ''X-Men" and ''Look Who's Talking 2" on Star TV. In the morning, we creak open the room's slatted shades and take in the balcony view: palms, telephone wires, and the glint of the Arabian Sea. After a breakfast of papaya porridge, we buy bottled water and a snack for lunch, then hike out to the lesser-known beaches.

The 20-minute walk through the rust-red, volcanic landscape on the way to the first beach, Kootlee (Kudle), is hot. Under the sole shade tree, you are likely to meet beggar children -- one sadly outfitted as a monkey king, with ears, tail, and scepter -- singing hymns and playing a harmonium for a few spare rupees. Grizzled guru-types carrying staffs and greeting you with a sincere ''namaste" (the traditional Indian salutation that translates roughly to ''I bow to the divine within you") also make the trek.

At Kootlee, the atmosphere changes, as does the demographic. Here, the sunbathers are nine-tenths Western, not counting the odd long-horned bull. College-aged young people roll out prayer mats and bust out lotus moves at sunset. The beaches have their share, too, of single, middle-aged men, seemingly working through midlife crises while lounging on pillows under palm-frond canopies. They all stay at several clusters of rustic bamboo- or cement-walled huts, each with its cafe invariably named Gandhi or Nirvana.

The outlying beaches of Om, Half-Moon, and Paradise are each reached via coastal walks over grasslands parched in the dry season. On a hike our second day, Isabelle suddenly calls out, ''Look!" There is motion in the trees. One huge monkey leaps down the hillside to a leafy vale. It hoots. Another hoots back and explodes out of the trees to join its pal. Then a third. At this moment we spot, below us in the water, the unmistakable backs and fins of cresting dolphins.

More adventuresome travelers find shady places along this shoreline to hang their hammocks and set up tents. The prevailing laid-back vibe should last hopefully a few more years before bigger roads, running water, and sewerage are brought through the jungle to these far-flung beaches.

We pass three neo-hippie types who had been living in the bush for weeks. Rather recklessly, they even drink water from a local stream. ''Just watch for snakes," they warn, and march off, barefoot, to Paradise: its small arc of sand, its tilting palms, its terraced cafe built into the crumbly rock -- clearly a shrine to one of the sun-worshiping, ganga-smoking deities unknown to Hindus.

. . .

Our last night in Gokarn, heading back from Prema to our room, a slight Brahmin man with big glasses and a jutting smile of black-edged teeth walks up to us and asks, ''Want see kali temple?" We wonder what kind of scam this is. But it's no trick.

Despite being unable to comprehend most of what he's saying -- he speaks in fragments of English, French, and Italian -- he leads us through the temple gates. There, behind a meshwork grille, is the sacred lingam: a cylinder of black stone about 3 feet high, knee-deep in spring water. The man flicks his flashlight over it. ''Very strong."

We are then led on a whirlwind, just-before-closing tour of hidden shrines and white marble figurines. We are told how to bow down on bent knees, which Sanskrit vedas (sacred scriptures) to chant as our hands are joined in prayer, and how to ring the bells -- ''like doorbell," he says. ''God knows you're home."

He smears our foreheads with vermilion powder called kumkum. Our worship, or puja, complete, we are honorary Hindus, if only for the evening. ''Respect," the man says. Then points to his heart: ''Remember." We hand him some change, and he's gone.

It all begins to add up. The yogi. Isabelle's foot that healed overnight. Finally laying eyes on the forbidden lingam. That sacred cow ingesting our itinerary of plane reservations, e-mail addresses, and associated worries, that calf was an omen: Stay on in Gokarn, pilgrims.

Ethan Gilsdorf is a writer and poet who lives in Paris.

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