With fewer crowds and limited commercialisation, the coasts of Karnataka are blissfully serene, concocting a rich experience of forgotten history, diverse culture and pristine blue waters.
A road trip along the Karnataka coast offers pristine beaches, spectacular scenery, superb coastal food and rich cultural experiences. We flew into Mangaluru Airport, outside the city of Mangalore, now officially called Mangaluru. Mangalore is one of the largest cities of Karnataka, an important port and a centre for industries – from manufacturing to infotech – it also offers good scenery because of its location along the backwaters of Netravathi and Gurupur Rivers, with the Arabian Sea to its west and some of the wettest sections of the Western Ghats to its east. Amid the bustle of the city, we could see rolling hills, coconut palms, streams and old-fashioned red tiled-roof buildings.
Known for its pepper, Mangalore had trade links with the middle-eastern and western countries from the sixth century. It grew to become a vital port city in the 14th and 15th century when it was visited by merchants from Arabia and the Persian Gulf. Mangalore, then better known as Manjuran, was a land rich in rice and spices, exporting to middle eastern and Mediterranean countries, and visited by overseas traders in large numbers. As tales of the port's riches spread, the Nayaka princes of Mangalore found their kingdom coveted by foreign powers. The Portuguese succeeded in conquering Mangalore in the 16th century and the Sultans of Mysore laid siege on Mangalore in the 19th century and it was ruled for sometime by Tipu Sultan. Finally, the British took Mangalore and since then it remained a colony of the Raj until India's independence in 1947 AD.
Thanks to its eclectic history, Mangalore is cosmopolitan in more ways than one. Not only does it have diversity, with a Hindu majority and a healthy population of Roman Catholics, several Muslim families, and a Jain Basti – its buildings draw from various architectural styles, and it also has streets bearing names influenced by centuries of Portuguese, British, Muslim and Hindu influences!
We started our city tour at the St Aloysius Chapel, built in 1885 AD on the Lighthouse Hill. The interiors of the chapel are painted in fresco with a variety of scenes by Italian priest Moscheni. The museum also has an interesting set of utensils and household implements, and a number of other exhibits that offer an insight into life in Mangalore in the 1930s and '40s. From here, we went to the Father Muller Hospital, which has a rehab unit for patients and produces beautiful block printed bedspreads, silk shawls, wall hangings with batik work, handmade toys, and letterheads, invitations, envelopes and stationery, all printed at the hospital. Nearby, is the Rosario Cathedral, originally the 16th century church belonging to the old Portuguese factory which was reconstructed after being devastated by Tipu Sultan's invading army. In 1851, the Church of Our Lady of Rosary, Mangalore, was declared a Cathedral. In 1910, it was beautified and today it is an impressive building with a dome, columns and arches.
We drove out of the cathedral to see Shri Manjunath Mandir, one of the oldest temples of Mangalore. The temple has a lingam, a 10th century bronze sculpture and 11th century Buddhist images. The temple is built in Kerala-style with a tiled roof and pagoda-like shape though recent renovations impinge upon the original architecture. The temple grounds have nine water tanks, subsidiary shrines and a hermitage. We drove to the Mangaladevi temple, dating to the 10th century, which is named after Mangala Devi,
a princess from Mangalore.
Then it was on to Mirajkar Museum, which has an interesting collection of 15th to 18th century bronzes, 13th and 16th century stone sculptures, a 17th century Nepalese statue, and some ethnology exhibits, wood carvings, paintings and porcelain. Another important museum is the Mahatma Gandhi museum in Canara School. Its collection includes sculptures, art, coins, stuffed animals, etc.
We then travelled south to Ulal, where we saw the dargah of Sayyed Mohammed Shareefulla Madani and the Nirmala Convent. The beach at Ulal is a good place to enjoy the sunset. We dined on rava fry kanne (ladyfish), prawn pullimulli and fish curry, before heading out.
There are a number of mathas or monastic structures around the temples, most of them established by Madhvacharya, a 13th century Hindu philosopher and the chief proponent of the Dvaita school of Vedanta. Attractive arches, columns and colourful chariots can be seen around the Sri Krishna Temple which fronts a tank. The temple is most famous for its food – the cooks make more than 14 dishes daily, using local ingredients and following traditional principles. After being offered to Lord Krishna, the food is then served to devotees in the community hall. There are also restaurants that serve Udupi cuisine on a plantain leaf. Typically, a meal would include pickle, kosambari (a seasoned salad with gram or pea), a spiced rice dish called chitranna, happalla, Saaru (curry), Rasam, Menaskai, Koddelu, Majjige Huli, Puli kajippu, sweets like laddu, holige or Kesari bhath, fried snacks like bonda, chakli or vada, paramanna, payasa or milk pudding, and other dishes. After lunch, we continued to Bhatkal, which has the Khetapai Narayana Temple, an excellent example of the 17th century west coast architectural style. The temple has a front wall with beautiful latticed stonework and a magnificently sculptured Vjayanagara style entrance, but uses a profusion of wood in the construction, distinct from most other temples of Karnataka that are made entirely from stone.
Bhatkal taluka also has one of Karnataka's popular beaches at Murdeshwar. The Murdeshwar Temple is built on the Kanduka Hill, which is surrounded on three sides by the waters of the Arabian Sea. It is dedicated to Shiva, and a 20-storied gatehouse called Raja Gopura is at the entrance. From the top of the gatehouse, you can witness the 123-feet Shiva idol which is one of the largest Shiva statues in the world.
The coastal stretch from Mangalore to Murdeshwar has become famous for its surf spots, specially after an ashram near Mangalore started promoting surfing. From Murdeshwar, the Shaivite trail continues to Gokarna. It has
a stunning beach.
We travelled along the beaches of Gokarna to enjoy the sunset views. Om Beach is named for its twists and turns that form the revered Om sign. Kudle Beach, Half Moon, and Paradise Beach are all worth visiting. A regular nominee among foreign travellers' favourite beaches in India, Gokarna attracts the crowds for its low-key, chilled-out beach experience and not for the full-scale parties of its neighbour, Goa. Most accommodation is in thatched bamboo huts along its several stretches of blissful coast and are facilitated with cafes, relaxed hippie hangouts, and quaint budget accommodation.
After a night stay in a small resort at Gokarna, we took the road north to Karwar. A centre for farming, industry and a naval base, Karwar also has some lovely beaches. Its popular beachfront is associated with Rabindranath Tagore, who eulogized it in his writings. On Rabindranath Tagore Beach, the ship, INS Chapal (K94), stands as a Warship Museum. Beaches here offer scuba diving near wrecks and snorkeling, and popular dive sites include Devbagh island and Pigeon island.
After a long ocean ride from Karwar, we reached the rocks of an uninhabited island in the middle of the sea, home to the ancient Oyster Rock Lighthouse. With great pride we climbed right to the top of this lovingly preserved structure. It was thrilling being totally alone, on top of the world, with a blindingly blue sea unfurled around you.