Monday, 20 March 2017

In Search of the Elusive Nirvana – Beach Hopping in India

To a geologist, a beach is a narrow and sloping strip of land along the edge of sea covered with sand, pebbles and remains of sea shells. To a traveller like you from North India, who saw the sea for the first time in your twenties, the meaning of beach is something more simple and esoteric at the same time. To you a beach is a creation by God to offer a slice of nirvana to lesser mortals like us who caught up in their daily grind of life have no chance of ever attaining the elusive moksha. To you just the thought of a secluded beach, with swaying palm and suru trees, the unending rhythmic dance of waves playfully teasing the silken sands even as the sun and clouds create magical light shows in the skies is enough to transport you to this transcendent state where there is only bliss and ecstasy.

Ganpatipule Beach in Konkan Maharashtra

So while God has done His part in creating these pieces of paradise right here on land, it is now up to us to go seek them. And no, finding these pieces of ephemeral beatitude does not involve penance or meditation over long periods of time. All you need to do is to pack your backpack and follow the simple directions given!

The good news is that India’s glorious coastline offers plenty of these sandy jewels guaranteed to deliver you to the blissful state. You can take your pick of beaches from beyond the white marshes of Kutch to the verdant beaches of Konkan; from the ‘discover a new beach every day’ in Northern Kerala to chasing red crabs on the beaches of Andhra Pradesh. In Odisha, let the setting sun bless you just beyond the magnificent Sun Temple of Konark.

Let’s go find our own slice of paradise!

Munakkal Beach – Heart of Spice Route in Kerala
Munakkal Beach at Kodangallur, Kerala
You don't have to go to Fort Kochi to see the Chinese Nets. Here the Periyar river is lined with them as fresh catch is pulled up. Muziris the lost port city comes alive

Anglers braving drenching waves

Chinese fishing nets line up on the either side of Kerala’s longest river Periyar as it tiptoes softly into the Arabian Sea. You are in the ancient lost seaport city of Muziris or the modern day Kodangallur, an hour north of Kochi, that was the heart of Spice Route about 3000 years ago. Walking along the river, you hop aboard the Chinese fishing net and try your hands pulling the ropes to haul up some fresh catch. Just beyond, angry sea waves crash against the tetrapods where anglers brave the drenching towering waves trying to reel in fish.
Sunset at Munakkal Beach, Kerala

On the right, a long stretch of sparkling sand beckons. The lap of waves, the rustle of breeze through the suru trees and the pink sphere of sun dropping over the sea all come together to offer you an unexpected piece of heaven. When serendipity comes calling, drop anchor. You can feel calmness washing over your entire being.  The knots inside seem to dissolve, the edges smoothen and the brows relax. The last rays of sun makes the face glow. The mind has inexplicably come to a rest and feels joyous. You can actually sense your being and listen to the breath. This is salvation. This is Nirvana in God’s Own Country.

Ganpatipule – Beyond the Soaring Cliffs of Konkan

The road going north from Ratnagiri in Maharashtra cuts through hills and soars over cliffs. This stretch of the road provides the most exhilarating coastal drive in the country. As the car negotiates another hair pin bend, it seems you are suspended in the air for a moment. Did you just get airborne? Wait a minute – are those goose bumps on your hands? The road has disappeared on the left. It seems you have risen high against the sky even as the furious waves lash against the vertical cliff working up a fine mist that carries across the road.  India surprises every day - you had never imagined a road snaking high over the cliffs as waves roar below.
The road high on the cliff provides dramatic views of the sea below - Ganpatipule, Maharashtra

Getting off the car, you are provided with dramatic views below all round. The sea seems to be layers of rich grey silk with beautiful white delicate lace sewn lightly on it. This is ecstasy.

Few kilometres ahead, driving through the famous Ratnagiri orchards of Alphonso and Hapus mangoes, you arrive in the temple village of Ganpatipule. Ganpatipule is a village famous for its Swayambhu or self-originated Ganesh Temple. Legend has it that Ganpati angry by the remark made by a local woman moved to Pule or Sand Dune from His original abode of Gule few kms away. After paying obeisance in the temple, you emerge out of the temple and right on the beach.

Ganpatipule Beach is known for its Light Shows over the sea - so find a seat and enjoy
Ganpatipule Beach is famous for its stunning light show in the skies witnessed by only few lucky beings. Today is your lucky day. Walking among the few devotees enjoying the waves, you take a seat on the red sand. The overcast sky has started to open up. Sun peeps through the openings creating dancing spotlights on the waves. The clouds, the streaming lights and the rippling waves create dazzling views. You are in heaven. God had orchestrated this celestial spectacle just for you. You offer a silent prayer.

Om Beach – Gokarna’s Antidote to Goa
Find your Nirvana at Gokarna Beach, Karnataka

If you are tired of the party scene and the boisterous beaches of Goa then head south to Gokarna in Karnataka for some solace and intimacy. Ringed by hills, Gokarna offers a bouquet of beaches each more secluded as if offering their membership to select few lucky souls. 
Om Beach looks like the auspicious symbol ‘Om’. As you descend from the hill to the sands, there is an unmistakable gentle and calm vibe all around. It is as if the nature is whispering to you. Rocky outcrops, some red streaked and some mossy green, provide seats to lie back onto and let the mind go silent. Further down few foreigners are playing a game of frisbee on the spongy sand. If you are lucky you can even see a melange of contorted hippies and sadhus in various yoga poses – everyone in their common pursuit of Moksha.

The gently sloping sands on the two crescent shaped beaches, and hence the name, traipse into the rolling waves. You lie down on the cool sand, soaking in the interplay of the waves and the sand. Like lovers having a tiff and then making up, they turn alternately furious and passionate intertwining and dissolving into each other. The rhythmic dance of sea and sand builds into a crescendo only to convulse into a climax. You become inextricably connected with nature, as if we are one. This is Moksha!

Vishakhapatnam – Life is a Beach

After visiting little known towns, it is time to visit a truly cosmopolitan city. Vishakhapatnam is a pretty city situated on the northern end of Andhra Pradesh surrounded with Eastern Ghats and the Bay of Bengal. In the evening, the excited citizens make a dash to the Ramakrishna Beach soaking up the chowpatty experience with ice-creams and roasted corn. The sea is turbulent so the people keep to the pavement ringing the Beach Road. As the sun goes down, spend few hours sitting on the promenade wall for some people watching.

Kursura Submarine Museum, Vishakhapatnam

Vishakhapatnam has a series of beaches which let you on some history together with sun and sand. The big surprise here is the seemingly huge whale that has apparently washed up on the shore. This is the INS Kursura Submarine Museum, the only one of its kind in the country, where the visitors can see the insides of a submarine. The cramped quarters and the ingenuity in squeezing every inch of the available space will make you marvel at what our armed forces go through to keep us safe.
View of Rushikonda Beach from Thotlakonda, Vishakhapatnam

For a true beach experience, move northwards.  Away from the city, Rushikonda Beach is the preferred choice of backpackers who swim and surf and generally do some old fashioned beach bumming here among the palms and the green hills. Do take out time to drive up to Thotlakonda, a second century Buddhist site sitting atop a wooded hill that provides panoramic views of the beach below and the Dolphin’s Nose, a hillock that looks like a dolphin’s nose.
Bheemunipatnam, Andhra Pradesh

Moving northwards, brings you to Bheemunipatnam, a former Dutch colony and trading post, and which is India’s second oldest municipality. In the neighbourhood of a Dutch Cemetery and other sadly disintegrating heritage buildings, there is a curious looking beachfront. This is the peaceful Bheemili Beach where groups of families play among a mix of colourful statues and sculptures that line up the waterfront.  Looking at a particularly serene looking Lord Buddha’s statue delivers you right at the gates of heaven - Buddham Sharanam Gacchami.

Manginipudi Beach – Going Dutch in Machalipatanam

The Coromandel Coast in Andhra Pradesh has seen glorious days as a governorate of Dutch East India Company. Today you have hard time locating the Dutch Fort in Machalipatanam. History has a way of getting lost in the sands of time.  The forlorn looking structure is seeing some much needed conservation work. This port town has seen trading with the Romans in 3rd century BC to the more recent Portuguese, Dutch and the British. We are making our way north to Manginipudi Beach. Two huge fishes’ cut-outs welcome the visitors.

Manginipudi Beach at Machilipatnam, Andhra Pradesh

Walking barefoot on the black sand, you are fascinated by the fleeting patterns of ridged sand formed by the receding waters. Families are enjoying the warm evening splashing in the water and keeping the ice cream vendors busy. You have this stretch of tranquil sand and waters to yourself. Well maybe not – these seemingly red flowers on the beach are scampering around as they see you approach. They are the fast moving little red crabs disappearing into their holes. Giggling like a kid you chase after them until you realise this is how happy people are in heaven. You feel like a child again and those carefree happy days are back for a few moments. This is not the life you know. This is actually heaven.

Chandrabhaga Beach – Majestic Splendour of Konark

The overwhelmingly beautiful images of nubile Apsaras, Shailabhanjikas and Nayikas play on your mind as you make your way east from the glorious 13th century Sun Temple of Konark in Odisha. Centuries ago the temple was built on the shore but now the sea has shifted away. The road ambles through Casuarina trees adorned with glowing amber flowers and then seems to run into the cascade of joyous waves. The road turns right here and then runs along the sea all the way to Puri. This is the picturesque Marine Drive that offers the travellers a choice of jumping off the car and revel in the water world of swimming, surfing, snorkelling, and scuba-diving.

Dashing your way from Puri, you arrive just in time to see the sun set over Bay of Bengal, Chandrabhaga Beach, Odisha

The pristine Chandrabhaga Beach is ideal for spending languid hours strolling and taking dip in the waters. Arrive in the evening when the setting sun douses the sea and sand in brilliant gold. The feel of the sea breeze ruffling through the hair, the coolness of the water, the tingling of the sand beneath the toes and the warmth of the last rays of the sun on the face transports you to a state of Utopia. A leisurely walk into the sunset here is like walking on the path to Nirvana.

Pingleshwar Beach – The Milky Kutch Secret

Just before you reach the beach, there is a surprise waiting for you or rather looms over you. Beyond Kothara and the Naliya air base, next to the road are these huge wind mills. Getting off the car you come stand below the enormous fan blades as they ominously slice the air high above. Lie down and look up – the slashing blades and the moving clouds offer an unbeatable experience. It is an eerie feeling as if the Grim Reaper is ready to strike down with his scythe. To recover from the feeling that is both nerve-racking and exhilarating, keep going.

If you drive north from Bhuj in Gujarat you will come to the marvel of white marshes of the Rann but if you drive west, you will be greeted by the most awesome sight of Pingleshwar Beach. A sandy ridge rises just beyond. The air smells of salt and the sound of the waves lapping is tantalisingly close. As you crest the ridge, the sight is staggering. 
Milky surf of Pingleshwar Beach, Kutch, Gujarat
Golden sands and milky frothy surf stretches into the horizon on both sides. Tearing off the shoes you rush down the sparkling sand into the waters. With the ridge behind you, it seems you are cocooned in this reclusive wonderland, where the sea and sand play this sweet symphony that seems to send your weary soul into raptures. This is your own little heaven under blue skies and wispy clouds.

A version of the story appears in the Mar-Apr 2017 issue of Truejetter, the inflight magazine of Truejet Airlines