Standing at a point on the Kerala-Karnataka border, it’s easy to think of National Highway 17 (NH 17) as a giant fishbone. Like the Ishikawa schematic hallowed in management studies, it snakes between the Western Ghats and the coast, sometimes obscured by villages, towns and farmlands, but always within sniffing distance of the sea.
For close to 10 months a year, I give the road a wide berth. From Mangalore to Karwar, some 320km, the temple towns of Udupi, Murudeshwar and Gokarna draw pilgrims by the thousands; at least hundreds spill on to the beaches. Not quite the backdrop for nature communion or navel-gazing.
Coastline chronicles: A typical fishing village on the coast. Photograph: Anita Rao Kashi
Come the monsoons, though, and the crowds disappear. Hunkering down on Someshwara beach at Ullal just ahead of Mangalore as a weak sun battled dark clouds, I had only some urchins for company.
“Don’t you think you should get under the trees?” I asked them as the first splashes of rain wet the sand. They looked at me as if I was out of my mind. The rains in coastal Karnataka are a constant presence, fierce segueing into gentle without missing a beat, seeping into clothes and hair and one’s very bones. Outsiders stand out as they unfurl umbrellas; locals know they can take their time, the rains aren’t going anywhere in a hurry.
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But as the skies opened up, I was forced to scurry into town. Ducking into the nearest eatery for kori gassi, neer dosa and rava-coated fried fish, I had no idea that I was setting a pattern for the next few days. But then, whoever said the search for the perfect rain-soaked beach was going to be a predictable affair?
Snug in a cozy armchair, it had seemed like the perfect theme for a getaway. The mind’s eye had envisioned a raw, ferocious beauty and a certain je ne sais quoi that would take the breath away. The details weren’t quite clear but the big picture was.
Faith staged a comeback, naturally, at Udupi, some 60km from Mangalore. It was early in the morning as I drove into the town but the sky was overcast and the weather steamy. It’s impossible to resist joining the throngs entering the 800-year-old Sri Krishna temple, the town’s raison d’etre, with the suprabhata (Sanskrit hymns to awaken the lord) issuing forth hypnotically from loudspeakers. After the darshan, one carried on to the Mitra Samaj just opposite the temple.
Wet sands: Temple towns such as Udupi and Gokarna attract hordes of pilgrims for up to 10 months a year. Photograph: Anita Rao Kashi
An institution by itself, Mitra Samaj, locals say, is the point from where Udupi cuisine travelled outwards. I could see why. The masala dosa was crisp on the outside, soft and fluffy on the inside, the potato curry was spiced just right, the chutney was the perfect consistency and the coffee was to die for. “Is everything alright? You wanted more sugar, less sugar?” the waiter asked anxiously. I could only nod that everything was okay. Unarticulated prayers are obviously more easily answered at eateries than in temples.
In complete contrast to the early morning tranquillity of the temple town, the sea raged at St Mary’s Isles. These are surreal pillar-like rock formations out at sea accessible only by boat from Malpe, about 4km from Udupi. On this particular day, it seemed the Arabian Sea had finally lost patience with the ancient monsters as waves lashed at the rocks, with complete disregard for their age.
Fighting the unsettling feeling that I would be dashed against the rocks with as much disdain as the waves if I lingered too long, I returned to my comfort zone, the NH 17, wet but warm as it weaved away into the distance. Barely had I put the Isles’ living presence behind me when another dream-like image seized hold: a straight stretch of road flanked by the Souparnika river and the sea near Maravanthe.
Clichés and metaphors tripped over each other in my mind getting horribly entangled, as I tried to take it in: the blue-grey of the sea, the murky blue of the river backdropped by the green Western Ghats, the dark road keeping the two apart and the million shades of grey colouring the sky, enlivened by the sound of the sea and the flowing river. It took an irate motorist’s horn to shake me out of the stupor and press the accelerator again. Not my beach, no, not with horns blaring so close by.
More beachfront villages, more temple towns. I stopped, looked and drove on. Murudeshwar was too kitschy with its towering blue Shiva idol overlooking the beach. The beautiful stretch of sand at Gokarna was taken over by cows and coconut sellers and priests. Honnavar had possibilities but it doubles up as a public loo.
Only Om beach near Gokarna held some real promise. Shaped into a semblance of the mystic syllable, the beach had soft sands, coconut palms and a blue sea meeting a lowering sky. Even the rain, when it returned after a short hiatus, fell in a straight line. Too reminiscent of a mindless drawing of “A Beach”.
Just 55km short of Karwar, I began to wonder if the perfect monsoon beach was a myth. I lingered at the Warship Museum, stretched out the prawns and fish curry lunch. Then finally, having exhausted every possible delaying tactic, I headed to Devbagh, a little island around 20 minutes away from town.
The ferry sputtered to a stop and I made my way through a thick forest of pines. Emerging from the trees, my breath caught at my throat. The sun had already set but the western sky had a lingering faint glow. The fishermen were home for the day, sorting out their catch and stringing their nets out. The sea was not calm but neither was it ferocious. Dark clouds were shedding their weight on the sea but the sands were still dry.
This was the moment. This was the beach.
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Young kids might get bored with the rain-soaked beaches. Carry plenty of indoor games to keep them occupied.