Among India's most scenic sacred sites, GOKARNA (Gokarn) lies between a broad white-sand beach and the verdant foothills of the Western Ghats. This compact little coastal town – a Shaivite centre for more than two millennia – remained largely "undiscovered" by Western tourists until the early 1990s, when it began to attract dreadlocked and didjgeridoo-toting neo-hippies fleeing the commercialization of Goa. Now it's firmly on the tourist map, while retaining a charming local character, as the Hindu pilgrims pouring through still far outnumber the foreigners who flock here in winter.
Gokarna town, a hotchpotch of wood-fronted houses and red terracotta roofs, is clustered around a long L-shaped bazaar, its broad main road – known as Car Street – running west to the town beach, a sacred site in its own right.
The medieval Shri Mahabaleshwartemple, at the far west end of the bazaar, is so auspicious that a mere glimpse of it will absolve a hundred sins, even the murder of a brahmin. Pilgrims traditionally begin their tour of Gokarna with a walk to the beach, guided by their family pujari. Next, they visit the Shri Mahaganpatitemple, a stone's throw east of Shri Mahabaleshwar, to propitiate the elephant-headed god Ganesh. Tourists are banned from the temples.
Most Western tourists come here for the beautiful beaches south of the more crowded town beach, beyond the lumpy laterite headland that overlooks the town. Take a left off Car Street just past Mahalaxmi and follow the path uphill through the woods. After twenty minutes, you drop down from a rocky plateau to Kudlee Beach – a wonderful kilometre-long sweep of golden-white sand sheltered by steep-sided promontories. This is the longest and broadest of Gokarna's beaches, and with decent surf too, though the water can be dangerous. The cafés that spring up here during the winter offer some respite from the heat of the midday sun, and some offer very basic accommodation in bamboo shacks.
It takes around twenty minutes more to hike over the headland from Kudlee to exquisite Om Beach, with its distinctive twin crescent-shaped bays. Hammocks and basic huts still populate the palm groves, alongside about a dozen chai houses, many of which provide lodging, as well as food and drink.