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In India, people, nature and God have a very close relationship. One cannot be present without the other. Having gone through forests, over the mountains and into the rivers, we continue our series on how God and nature are integral to the spirit of the people of India, with this article on the overpowering belief system in Gokarna, a temple town on the side of the Arabian Sea.

Gokarna assaults one’s senses in every way possible, seeping through every cell in one’s body – priests swathed in saffron hued fabric and sunlight, the smell of incense on one’s skin, the feel of the sand and the sea, the burn of spices on one’s tongue and the soothe of vanilla after. It is in the crash of waves, and in guitars tickling the air, weaving their way into the echoing voices and faithful drum rhythms.

Worship on the waters – Om Beach
Source: Wikipedia

Gokarna is all of this, yes, but it is perhaps a place of healing; a place that has the power to be far removed from reality, while constantly evolving on its count. As a prominent temple town, Gokarna is perhaps best known for the presence of the sacred and all-powerful atma linga (literally translated as the Soul of Shiva). Gokarna is located on the Karwar coast, in the Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka. Being located along the coast, it is characterized by the presence of five beautiful beaches (Kudle, Paradise, Half Moon, Gokarna and Om). The presence of the atma linga along with these beaches makes Gokarna simultaneously a temple town and a tourist destination. On account of this, Gokarna is characterized by the dynamism of cultures, by the influx of people from different parts of the world – each with their own agendas, and their own stories. However different they may be though, all of them seem to have one thing in common – their quest for a higher order, their journey on the path of spirituality.

In Gokarna, belief has a life of its own; though it constantly changes forms and evolves; it is all pervading and constantly present. These beliefs are reflected in rituals, mirrored in their daily routines that start with the rising sun and end with the shadow of moonlight. Their presence vital; belief acquires an almost biological reverence of a heart beat.

Fear and Awe – Goddess Bhadrakali at the Bhadrakali Temple Gokarna

Perhaps, one of the first semblances of the power of this belief is reflected in the early morning rituals at the Koti Teertha. Often known as ‘Kashi of the South’, Gokarna is constantly compared to, and in some ways aspires to be as revered as, the ancient city of Benares. Holding in common the overpowering force of the atmalinga, Gokarna fashions itself religiously along the lines of Benares. So, while Benares has the Ganga, Gokarna has its Koti Teertha. This man made pond like structure has no historical fact associated with it. Myths abound in this place, belief runs deep. A dip in this water body is said to cure any man of his sins, including brahmahatya (murder of a Brahmin). Surrounded by temples and maths, Koti Teertha is populated by Brahmins every morning. Clad in their white veshtis (dhoti) and angavastrams, the Brahmins and the locals perform their morning rituals, often following the path of the sun. Various mantras echo around the early morning environment, creating an atmosphere of the intangible, yet very real, belief. These different voices, different mantras and prayers instead of creating a cacophony, blend beautifully together, creating a wave of melodious harmony.

This entailing of rituals however does not end with the morning sun. Dusk, as it marks the ending of day and the taking over of night, is a time celebrated, venerated, or at least acknowledged in all spheres of life, but especially in that of religion. In Hinduism, it is marked by the ritual of sandhyavandanam, where a series of chants are said at this auspicious time. This ritual is referred to in the myth of Raavana and the atmalinga, which is closely associated with Gokarna. It is said that when Raavana arrived in Gokarna, it was dusk and therefore time for his daily prayers. To be able to perform these rituals, he needed to set the atmalinga down and therefore he handed it over to Lord Ganesha, who was disguised as a Brahmin boy. Ganesha, in a smooth manoeuvre, tricked Raavana and quickly placed the linga upon the ground, where it took such deep root; it could never be pulled out again.

Maharatha – the official Shiv Ratri Chariot

It is easy to underestimate the power of myths, to simply believe them to be nothing but stories people made up years ago for entertainment. Some see myths as fabrications; glorified versions of truths too boring to be told, like bad news coverage. But, it is very important to note that our myths are reflections of our ancient societies; our roots, our keys to understanding ourselves as we are today. In Gokarna, the aforementioned myth gives rise to a tidal wave of belief in the atmalinga and the Mahabaleshwara temple, which coincidentally faces the sea and is but a few minutes away from the Gokarna beach. It is this belief that brings in hundreds and thousands of devotees to Gokarna every year; that cultivates the expansion and commercialization of the temple. The atmalinga is deeply rooted in the Earth, yes, but it is just as firmly rooted in the minds of people, in the very existence of Gokarna. To some, this belief is a ridiculous notion that spurs on an old fashioned manner of living; but to others, it is a source of faith, a matter of livelihood, a reason to live one’s life. Most of the people in this beautiful sea side town say that the atmalinga was their reason for being in Gokarna in the first place – locals would have moved out otherwise, and tourists would not have sought solace there. It is, quite simply, the myth itself that birthed Gokarna – that nourished and supported it until it grew to be the kind of place we know it to be today.

Serpents in Stone – the nag temple at Gokarna

These myths and rituals often seem to extend beyond the temple, making their way to the beaches. While the Brahmins head to the beach for their evening prayers, there is a brief moment of direct interaction between them and the tourists, who primarily visit Gokarna as part of a highly spiritual journey in search of some higher truth. The calming sounds of the gushing seas combined with the blanket of a starry sky above one’s head and the formless shifting sand below one’s feet could give anyone a feeling of deeper understanding and transcendence. While the Brahmins follow their path by continuously dedicating themselves to their duties, the visitors adopt a different approach wherein they attempt to meditate by deviating from the mundane and turn their energies inwards to focus on themselves.

This quest continues through the day except in the afternoon when the sun is at its zenith. When the sun beats down with a vengeance on the backs of people and the sand pricks the feet with ferocity, most of the visitors take a break with a cleansing dip in the blue sea.

However, in the evenings, a walk down the beach could reveal so much about the different roads people walk down to find internal peace and equilibrium. Some find solace in doing yoga, some spend entire days in solitude, while other try to strike a balance in their daily routines. Whatever one’s mode of finding a soul, a meaning to life, God, peace or even just solitude may be; the sea and the beaches of Gokarna seem to be just the right catalyst or just the right signpost pointing in the right direction.

Even now, Brahmins walk the short distance from their homes and their temples to the beach, where they perform the sandhyavandanam rituals, immersed in the salty water and rumbling their chants. In doing so, they pay homage to the myth; to the atmalinga, Shiva, and the sanctity of it all. Cocooned by the flickering of dusk, the echoes of their words and the shadows of their myths, they are safe from changing tides of the world beyond. Despite being surrounded by this transformation, one can hope to see their rituals outlive trends; that their belief will outrun the speed of change in a world where nothing else matters more.

Authors: Meena Aier, Megha Thumbunkel, Swetha Murali 
Source: Heritage India Magazine Vol. 4 Issue 4 (Nov 2011)

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