With unexplored waves crashing along the length of her 7000 kilometres of coastline, India is one of the last frontiers for intrepid surf adventure. Bradley Hook discovers that not all of these waves are going unridden as he meets the people who make up a fledgling Indian surf culture.
Here I am. The place. Peace on the edge of the Arabian Sea. Soft yellow sand powdering my toes. The ocean dancing in fractals of light and shadow. I open my eyes, trying not to focus upon any one thing and, for a moment, it’s all there: the light, the sparks on the blue ocean surface and the bluer sky.
“C’mon,” yells Satya.
There is movement before me as the ocean contracts, a wall growing upward from her diaphanous surface. Satya positions himself perpendicular to the approaching swell and digs deep strokes into the water with his lean, dark arms. The wave lifts him up to a feathering precipice before he jumps to his feet and slides back down the wall. He weaves around a crumbly section and finishes up on the sand, where I await.
“C’mon, you’ll miss out!” he pleads in his soft American accent, something as incongruous as surfing is in this remote part of India.
I can’t resist his enthusiasm or willingness to share waves and quickly paddle after him.
Several hours later, under the blistering morning sun, we catch our last waves. We load our boards into the white Zodiac which we left on the beach. To our left stretches sand and palm trees. To our right the ocean is subdued by a sand bank, which opens into a placid lagoon. We haul the boat into the still water and Satya jumps up beside the motor. The Zodiac buzzes to life. Weaving up the river we pass an old wooden fishing boat and an older steel trawler. The fisherman watch us pass by, expressionless. One asked me what the point of surfing is, if not to catch fish. It was difficult to explain without sounding extravagant and the best I could fathom is that surfing is a dance with nature.
Around the corner over a tangle of forest looms a giant concrete power station.
“We thought it was going to be nuclear.” says Satya, aware of my attention. “But it is coal, so we kept the ashram here.”
The power station vanishes as we angle towards a dense green bank. Satya leaps from the moving boat and lashes it to a wooden jetty. The buzz of the engine is replaced by the hum of cicadas. We walk up a shaded pathway back to our home. His permanent home and, for me, a home away from home. This is the Mantra Surf Club, also known as the “Surfing Swamis” ashram, located on the lush western reaches of Karnataka in India.
India has 7517 kilometres of coastline and much of it takes the form of sandy beaches, exposed to the Arabian Sea on the west coast and the Andaman Sea on the east. Almost all of the coast is considered a new frontier for both the 60 local Indian surfers and an increasing number of intrepid foreigners, who search for waves on the wild subcontinent. Indian people, with the exception of fishermen, are not a seafaring folk. Even when performing sacred darshan (rituals) at the beach the locals generally venture no further than waist deep, complete in saris, jeans and smart casual attire. Darshan means “seeing” and is a religious experience during which people pay tribute to loved ones who have passed. This is often received at a tirtha, or sacred crossing between worlds. The ocean, where the elements collide in such a visually explosive display, is often selected for such sacred experiences. While most surfers would agree with this sacrosanct view of the ocean, venturing out beyond the breakers remains unthinkable for most Indians, who can’t swim.
There is also the problem of increasing pollution which, in a country that produces over 15,000 tonnes of plastic waste per day, is creating dire situations in waterways and the marine ecosystem. But that’s another story.
The town of Mulki lies 22 kilometres north of Mangalore, which is the largest port in the western state of Karnataka. While Mangalore is a cosmopolitan city with shopping malls and vibrant seaside industries, Mulki rests sleepily beneath her many palms. The Shambhavi river idles down past fishermen’s shacks, rice fields and forests before delivering a layer of silt to the rivermouth. This silt is what creates sandbanks and these well-defined sandbanks provide just the right base for ocean swells to become breaking waves.
Back at the ashram ‘prasadam’ (breakfast) is served: lashings of fresh fruit, rice and spicy vegetarian dahl. Shamanth Kumar, a 21-year-old long-term Ashram resident is dishing up. There is a process at mealtimes whereby only one person touches the serving dishes and that is the person wearing just a sarong and worship attire.
A plate of food is taken by Shamanth into a room adjacent to the dining area for blessing by Krishna, the Hindu God, for whom this ashram is a devoted place of worship. Once the food is served conversation quickly turns to surfing. Who got the best waves, who did the best maneouvres and, as always, about the mythical Laccadive Islands where India’s best waves break over coral reefs in empty, tropical waters. These guys are as fanatical as surfers everywhere and yet their lifestyle, which is based around the ‘puja’ or worship of Lord Krishna, is uniquely Indian.
The idea for a surfing Ashram was brought to India by Jack Hebner (“Swami”) and Rick Perry (“Babaji”), both from Florida in the USA, in the early 1980s. With a passion for adventure and spiritual enquiry they explored India both for enlightenment and with a hunch that they would have the privilege of naming plenty of as yet undiscovered breaks. A proponent of the Hare Krishna movement, they lived for some time in Mysore, the silk and Ashtanga Yoga centre, before scouting the Indian coastline for a potential headquarters where both their religious and sporting passions could be fulfilled. Mulki fit the bill. It has consistent waves, a tranquil environment for worship and a community who welcome foreign visitors.
Gaura Nataraj, the manager of the ashram, tells me, “The beauty of the ashram is that it is so remote. You will experience real India if you decide to come here.”
The India most tourists experience is purpose-built along the coast of Goa, where upmarket restaurants and nightclubs form a jostling backdrop to the beach dogs and hagglers vying for tourist attention. To experience a small town where there is neither poverty nor chaos is a refreshing change in a country the Lonely Planet accurately describes as “bamboozling”.
It’s a new day and after an intense yoga lesson three new guests arrive. They are computer programmers from Bangalore who have decided to spend a weekend learning to surf. The surfing subculture has permeated the Indian psyche through television and advertising billboards (usually for internet services) and has piqued the interest of an emerging middle class who can afford to give it a try. Costing from 3000 Rupees ($50 USD) per day to stay at the ashram, surfing remains out of reach for the vast majority.
“We have all the equipment here from boards to wax and rash vests. We have skilled instructors. People come from all over India to try,” says Guara.
I hear stories about two other small surf groups, the crew down at Varkala in Kerala and a surf school in Mahabalipuram on the west coast in the state of Andhra Pradesh. They had the first Indian national surf competition there and one of the Ashram boys won in small waist-high waves.
“We just caught as many waves as we could. It was more fun than a real competition and boards were flying everywhere, ” says Shamanth, who dreams of being india’s first famous surf photographer. The surf spirit is strong here at the Ashram, especially during the monsoon (June to September), when the waves become more powerful. But even when the ocean is calm the residents find plenty of activities to fill the gaps between worship. They have a full size volleyball court, stand-up paddleboards and even a jetski. I fall asleep as the full moon dips between the palm trees, to the rhythm of my ceiling fan and a chirping gecko hunting a hungry mosquito.
A new day and back on an Indian train, second class, clanking down the coast toward Kerala. Passengers are curious and polite, many adding me to their Facebook on the spot using smartphones. I meet an Indian playwright who invites me in impeccable English to visit his family in Kochin, but I’m intent on my mission the white sands and palm-fringed cliffs of Varkala, the jewel of Kerala’s sandy shores.
With the humidity thick and the terrain lush and green I finally arrive in Varkala which, through sunburned eyes, could easily be mistaken for some tropical Pacific island idyll. Sandy beaches stretch forever and lonely fishing villages hidden behind the palms are only given away by the black, weathered wooden boats on the beach. Life remains here as it always has. I meet Ed Templeton from Varkala’s surf resort, Soul & Surf, who tells me how his Indian surfari led him to settle in India. “I decided to explore india for surf potential. India is closer to Europe than, say, Bali and has endless coastline facing all directions. When we discovered Varkala I knew we’d found our place.”
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A walk along the cliff is like running a gauntlet of hawkers and shop owners. From classic gemstones to meditation classes, sarongs to tacky t-shirts you can get it all here. You’ll also find some of India’s most tourist-friendly restaurants and breathtaking views over the main beach. The view today is of shoulder high waves peeling from the headland cliff through to the beach, uninterrupted and empty. This is the Indian experience I had dreamed of. Being so much further south than the Ashram at Mulki, Varkala receives more powerful swells, which wrap their way along the coast, generated by deep sea storms and wind.
I’m surfing alone at the main beach, feeling like a pioneer, when I notice a muscular, long-haired man waving to me. I worry that he is in some sort of trouble but then he swims out to meet me. I’m surprised by his skilful freestyle.
“My name is Mukesh. I saw you surfing. I am a surfer from the west coast – Mahabalipuram. I don’t have a board with me but I wanted to say hello.”
I give him my board and watch him catch a few waves. It never ceases to amaze me how the surfing spirit transcends language, culture, and even geography. In surfing we call it ‘aloha’ – derived from the Hawaiian word for peace and compassion.
While India couldn’t be further from Hawaii it certainly is home to people who are by nature deeply spiritual. In a country of over a billion people things wouldn’t work otherwise. Surfing may be a fledgling sport here but with a vast coastline and burgeoning middle class it certainly has the potential to grow. There is already a Quiksilver shop in Mumbai and people wanting to identify with a carefree, irreverent subculture will be sure to take notice. India offers waves for every level of surfer, from the beach breaks of Karnataka and Goa to the reef breaks off the Lakshadweep Islands and Kovalam. It’s not a tourist-friendly country, but it certainly is friendly. And for the intrepid, uncrowded waves and life-changing adventures await.
Mukesh catches another wave and I hear him shriek as he flies across the glassy wall. The sun is setting in flames of tangerine. I feel the warmth of the sand and the slightest ocean breeze upon my face. I hear the crash of the wave as water curls down upon itself. I try not to focus on any one thing and, for a moment, it is all there.
Notes from the Road: an audio journey into a surf trip around India
Photos by Bradley Hook except where otherwise noted.
Find out more about the surfing Ashram at surfingindia.net
Find out about Soul & Surf
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