How many places in India can lay claim to be named after a human body part? Gokarna is one of them, taking its peculiar name from the Ear (Karna) of a cow (Go). t is believed that Lord Shiva emerged from the ear of a cow (Prithvi, the Mother Earth) here. A quaint temple town, Gokarna is a major Shaivaite pilgrimage with thousands of people visiting the Mahabhaleshwara Temple each year.

Gokarna is a beach town, but not in the way one would imagine the pristine beaches of neighboring Goa. The town beach is rather polluted and is littered with driftwood which is collected and sold. The cleaner beaches lies further south with most tourists flocking to Om, Paradise and Kudle beach.

Gokarna is one of the best places in India for photography. It has beautiful beaches, a busy pilgrimage town full of temples, bustling markets, and a very quaint neighborhood of narrow lanes and colorful
traditional Konkani houses.

The town is dominated by the great tank called Koti tirtham or a “million pilgrimages”. This lotus filled tank is lined with ghats where priests perform rituals and common people perform their ablution before visiting the Mahabaleswara Temple.

The highlands around Gokarna are a wonderful place to get lost. The town is separated from the tourist beaches by several kilometres which are a lovely stretch to walk through rolling hills. These highlands end in dramatic cliffs over the Arabian sea.

The hippest Aghori Baba I have ever seen on the walls of Gokarna,
Karnataka. Of late Gokarna has also become a cheaper,
quieter alternative for tourists escaping the crass commercialization of
Goa. The influx of outsiders has given rise to the trade of narcotics,
alcohol and petty crime. However, it has also given Gokarna some brilliant
graffiti which has added a new dimension of visual culture to the already
photogenic town.

Small stone idols of snakes installed in rows of cells on the walls of a
Naga (snake) Temple in Gokarna, Karnataka. There is a saying “keep your
friends close and your enemies closer”. This holds true to Hinduism’s
fascination with snakes. Humans are instinctively fearful of snakes, a
trait they share with their ape cousins and other simians. However, for all
the thousands of people who die in India each year from snakebites, snakes
are still deeply revered and associated with many major Hindu Gods
including Krishna, Shiva and Vishnu. The snake cult is clearly a pre-vedic
animist ritual which has been assimilated in mainstream Hinduism. In the
deep south it is not difficult to find snake temples where pilgrims make
wishes and offer snake stones on the fulfilment of the wish.

Bongs and smoking pipes being sold at a shop at Gokarna, Karnataka.
Gokarna’s Mahabaleswar Temple is the most popular pilgrimage for Shiva
devotees on the Konkan coast. The destroyer in the Hindu trinity, Lord
Shiva is the ultimate ascetic and the consumption of marijuana is integral
to Shaivism and its followers. Unlike the west, consumption of marijuana is
relatively much less controlled in India and Nepal. Though technically
prohibited, the drug is easily obtainable at many Hindu towns with major
Shiva Temples. In India it is consumed in three forms, namely Ganja, Charas
and Bhang. The first two are smoked, and the third is mixed in some
beverage like Lassi and drunk.

A woman selling fresh vegetables on the roadside at Gokarna, Karnataka.
Village belles from around the konkan coast gather at Gokarna on market
days and sell in temporary stalls or straight from the footpath. It’s a
busy bustling scene and full of life details. Note the money pouch, the
slippers kept on the road or the umbrella tucked away behind. It is a
typical Indian way of giving temporary sanctity to a workspace by keeping
footwear out of it, even if ironically that space is a footpath!