From the east coast to the west, India is surfing like never before. We visited one of the country's biggest surfing events to find out what's behind the wave
At first I see nothing but the Arabian Sea—an undulating cyan expanse with murky undertones, topped by froth as light as the sort found in a cup of good cappuccino. I move closer, wading through shell-studded puddles of water (offshoots of the Shambhavi river nearby) to reach the sliver of beach beyond, a narrow isthmus haloing the waves that sweep up to it. There are photographers clustered there already, gazing through their long lenses at what seems like endless blue.
Then I see it: a bobbing head first, followed by a blur of red and azure. The surfer rides the wave with aplomb, sledding his way down the churning mound of water till it gets the better of him and tosses him off the waxed board.
“Surfing is not a controlled sport," laughs Rammohan Paranjape, vice-president of the Surfing Federation of India (SFI). “Out there, it is just you, the surfboard and the ocean. You need to take what nature gives you and make the best of it," he says.
Nature is in a temperamental mood at the Sasihithlu beach, a virgin stretch of sand on the outskirts of the port city of Mangaluru, in Karnataka. It’s 29 May, the last day of the All Cargo Indian Open of Surfing competition. The sky is slightly overcast, and a soft drizzle, accompanied by cool winds, falls steadily on the sodden surfers as they walk back to shore.
Surfers are easily identifiable by their neon shorts, tousled hair and tanned skin. The surfboards can be plain or have psychedelic artwork on them—what is universal is a dorsal fin and the signature of its maker on the back.
Damien Pollet, a 22-year-old student at Manipal University, is one of them. “I used to bodyboard (riding waves, usually in a prone or drop-knee position, on a different sort of board called the bodyboard) back home in Toulouse, France. But I learnt how to surf here in India, at The Shaka Surf Club (at Kodi Bengre beach, in Karnataka)," he says, flicking back a long dreadlock, the colour and consistency of straw.
The first edition of this surfing contest, recognized by the International Surfing Association (ISA) and the SFI and held from 27-29 May, drew more than 100 surfers from all over the country and beyond. Open to both men and women, the contest, the first of its kind in Karnataka, was supported by the Karnataka tourism department and organized by the Mantra Surf Club in association with the Kanara Surfing and Water Sports Promotion Council.
“Surfing contests like this are vital for the improvement of local surfers, as it is only in competition against international surfers that the local boys and girls raise their performance," says former South African cricketer Jonty Rhodes, SFI’s brand ambassador, over email.
Surfing has now become popular enough in India to spark a fledgling board-making industry. Samai Reboul, a 30-year-old Spaniard who has settled in Auroville, won the open category at the All Cargo Indian Open of Surfing. He is one of the few surfboard shapers in the country. “The basic component of our surfboards is EPS foam, wood, fibreglass, carbon fibre and epoxy resin," he says, adding that he researched for about six months before he started shaping boards. “Before that, we did what everyone else did: try to buy boards off tourists, or import and repair old, dinged up boards."
Jack Hebner aka “Surfing Swami", one of the pioneers of the surfing movement in India, is encouraged by its progress. The tall, bearded 70-year-old ascetic has been riding the waves for over half a century now. Dressed in board shorts and a vermilion, floral-print Aloha shirt, with a string of rudraksha beads around his neck, he talks about how 50 years ago you couldn’t even bring a surfboard into India. In 1966, while making The Endless Summer, a documentary that followed the lives of two surfers, Mike Hynson and Robert August, on an epic journey across the world looking for surf spots, producer-writer-director Bruce Brown had to skip India as the customs authorities didn’t allow surfboards in.
By the time Hebner, who grew up in Florida, US, came to India, in 1976, “to study Bhakti Yoga, learn Sanskrit, the Vedas and meditation", boards were no longer seen as a security threat and were allowed into the country. He meandered from coast to coast, seeking places that offered an opportunity for his two biggest passions, surfing and spirituality. He travelled to Mamallapuram, Kanyakumari and Rameswaram, among other places, before setting up a surfing school (and ashram, where yoga, meditation and philosophy are also taught) called the Mantra Surf Club, in 2004, at Mulki, near Sasihithlu beach in Karnataka. Today, he is also a mentor at the SFI.
During one of his surfing trips, in 2001, Hebner met Murthy Megavan, then 21, a former fisherman who now runs the Covelong Point Social Surf School, on Tamil Nadu’s Covelong beach. In his childhood, Murthy had taken to bodyboarding on a broken door. “I come from a fairly poor family," says Murthy, wearing shorts, navy blue reflector sunglasses and a winning smile. “But because I am a fisherman, I am in touch with the ocean." Which is perhaps why he picked up surfing so fast. “I learnt how to surf in 20 minutes," he grins.
Impressed, Hebner gave him his contact number and told Murthy to get in touch with him. “But I didn’t know how to make calls, so I stopped trying after a couple of attempts," says Murthy. “An Australian guy gave some children from my village a surfboard. They didn’t know what to do with it so I bought it off them for ₹ 1,500," he says, adding with a laugh, “I met that same Australian man two years later and he recognized the board." Thrilled, he practised on it every day. “The local children would laugh at me," he says. “But I loved it, so I kept practising." In 2008, he met Israeli music producer and film-maker Yotam Agam, another avid surfer, who gifted him a new, expensive surfboard. Murthy soon started taking part in surfing contests and teaching local children. “All my instructors are local boys. I trained them, making it very clear that when they were with me, they would not drink or smoke," says the 36-year-old, who started his surf school with the support of Arun Vasu, chairman and managing director of TT Logistics, a subsidiary of the TTK Group. “I started teaching surfing back in 2009—most of my students were village kids, and sometimes a few tourists would come to learn too. I owned only five surfboards and I kept them at home. It was a slow process, but I finally got some help and was able to open a proper school in November 2012. I now own 100 boards," he says.
India now has several surf schools (a dozen are recognized by the SFI) and several festivals and competitions. Today, there are almost 50-60 professional surfers and a few thousand vacation ones (surfing tourism is witnessing a surge and drawing foreigners), says Paranjape. “He (Murthy) made it happen on the east coast and we made it happen on the west coast," says Hebner.
When Mark Twain, the great American writer visited the Sandwich Islands (today known as Hawaii) in 1866, he came across an interesting sight.
“In one place we came upon a large company of naked natives, of both sexes and all ages, amusing themselves with the national pastime of surf-bathing. Each heathen would paddle three or four hundred yards out to sea, (taking a short board with him), then face the shore and wait for a particularly prodigious billow to come along; at the right moment he would fling his board upon its foamy crest and himself upon the board, and here he would come whizzing by like a bombshell," he writes in his 1872 semi-autobiographical travelogue, Roughing It. Twain goes on to say that he tried surf-bathing too but made a mess of it, ending up “with a couple of barrels of water in me".
Surfing is believed to have originated with the people of the Polynesian islands, says Hebner. “They say it was the sport of kings. Only a king had a surfboard, and when a wave came he rode the wave."
Records of the sport have been made by the flurry of newcomers who visited the island around that time. In a journal entry made in the late 1770s, explorer and navigator Captain James Cook says of surfing, “The above diversion is only intended as an amusement, not as a trial of skill, and in a gentle swell that sets on must, I conceive, be very pleasant—at least they seem to feel a great pleasure in the motion which this exercise gives."
The 19th century, however, saw colonial powers—the French, American, British and German—making their way to the Polynesian islands. That changed things drastically. “When the colonial powers introduced the cash economy, soon they (locals) were working on sugar plantations and had much less time to surf. Above all, they suffered from a devastating demographic collapse from the diseases that Westerners brought in," said Peter Westwick, science historian and co-author of The World In The Curl: An Unconventional History Of Surfing, in a 2013 interview in the National Geographic.
From Thomas Jefferson to drug kingpins, surfing has influenced many lives, over several generations. By the early 20th century, there seems to have been a resurgence. Author Jack London, on a visit to Hawaii in 1907, seemed quite taken with the sport. “He is Mercury—a brown Mercury. His heels are winged, and in them is the swiftness of the sea," writes London, watching a surfer at the Waikiki beach tackle. He tried it himself. “The whole method of surf-riding and surf-fighting, I learned, is one of non-resistance.... Yield yourself to the waters that are ripping and tearing at you," he wrote.
But the man believed to be really responsible for introducing the sport to the rest of the world is Duke Kahanamoku, says Hebner. Born in Honolulu in 1890, the firstborn son of a delivery clerk, Kahanamoku took to the water with gusto, excelling at every water-related activity he undertook.
The champion short-distance swimmer, an Olympic gold medallist, was also an excellent surfer, says Hebner. Kahanamoku “travelled everywhere with his surfboard", taking it to Australia, New Zealand and, of course, California.
And it wasn’t just men—women were part of the subculture too. One of Kahanamoku’s first students was a young Australian schoolgirl. Isabel Letham was all of 15 years when Kahanamoku visited Australia and asked for a volunteer to ride in tandem with him. And she was “hooked for life". Other women took up the sport: Ethel Harrison, Mary Ann Morrissey, Keanuinui Rochien and Aggie Bane, among others. Novelist Agatha Christie, the queen of crime, was a surfer too—in the early 1920s, on a visit to Hawaii, she picked up the art of stand-up surfing, one of the first Britons of her time to do so.
“There are still not enough women in the surfing community," says 14-year-old Sinchana D. Gowda, who walked away with several prizes at the All Cargo Indian Open of Surfing, which saw eight women participants. She hopes to change that. “I want to surf in Hawaii one day, but I need a lot more training before I get there."
What really caused the surfing community to expand, says Hebner, was Hollywood. Gidget, the 1959 surf movie, sparked an interest in surfing all over the world. “The number of surfers went from maybe about a few thousand to millions," says Hebner.
Surf apparel, movies and music, along with a shift from heavy wooden boards to ones made of lighter polyurethane foam, all possibly fed surfing’s growth. The surfers of that time were beach-bums, grins Hebner. “A bunch of boys who drank beer, smoked cigars and whistled at pretty girls on the beach."
Professional surfing took off in a big way in the 1970s and continues to grow all over the world. And the industry, which started off as a fringe movement, is today valued at close to $13 billion (around ₹ 86,580 crore), says Paranjape.
The 5km-long stretch between National Highway 66 and the hitherto unknown Sasihithlu beach is a scenic one, fringed by coconut and casuarina trees, through which one can catch a glimpse of tawny sand and tumultuous ocean.
Houses crowned with deep red tiles and Sintex water tanks are nestled along it too, fishing-boats stationed outside them like cars in a driveway; a peacock’s iridescent tail clashes horribly with the gaudily-painted wall it is perched on; a cat hisses angrily at a rooster, which responds in similar fashion.
Shuttle buses organized by the state tourism department and cars with surfboards strapped on their roofs trundle past, en route to the beach.
This is the beach where it all began, says Paranjape, adding that he hopes initiatives of this sort will bring more tourists to the beaches of Karnataka. “People don’t even know about the beaches here," he complains.
India’s coastline offers plenty of such undiscovered beaches, says Hebner. “We have warm water along the entire stretch, with hundreds of rivers meeting the ocean, which means many surf spots. There must be over a thousand such spots between Mumbai and Kanyakumari. Even California doesn’t have so many. And yes, you don’t worry about sharks here either."
While they still form only a small community, India’s surfers have big dreams. Murthy hopes to involve more fisherfolk in the activity. “Fisherfolk have a good connect with the ocean—they understand the wave power and climate," he says.
Rhodes, who frequents India both for surfing and cricket, was introduced to the beaches in India by Paddy Upton, who used to be the mental conditioning coach of the Indian cricket team. Rhodes believes surfing in India still has a long way to go. “I believe the best waves in India are yet to be discovered," he says.
The surfing hot spots around the country
Covelong Point Social Surf School
Started by Murthy Megavan, a former fisherman, and located at Covelong, off the East Coast Road in Tamil Nadu, the school offers not just surfing lessons but also scuba-diving, wind-surfing, stand-up paddle surfing and boarding facilities. Most of the staff employed there are from the local fishing communities.
Ashram Surf Retreat
Started by Jack Hebner aka Surfing Swami, the Mantra Surf Club is India’s first. Located in Mulki, Karnataka, the ashram offers surfing, yoga, meditation and healthy vegetarian food in a serene and quiet environment.
Kallialay Surf School
Started by the brothers Juan and Samai Reboul from Spain, who are now settled in Auroville, near Puducherry, the Kallialay Surf School in Auroville offers surf packages—both short-term and long-term—surfboard rentals and boarding.
Started by the first female surfer in India, Ishita Malaviya, and her partner, Tushar Pathiyan, in the small fishing village of Kodi Bengre, near Manipal, the club offers surfing lessons, surfboard rentals and beach camp-outs. They also help people get more attuned to the Arabian Sea and engage local communities by teaching the local children how to surf.
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