Songs of the sea


Yoginder Sikand takes off on a memorable coastal holiday that starts at Dharmasthala and ends at Padubidri, and is enchanted by the sights and sounds of Dakshina Kannada’s seaside towns.

I desperately needed a break from the maddening din of Bangalore, and so I hopped onto the first bus I spotted that morning heading out of Bangalore’s inter-city bus station, which was abuzz with activity even at that early hour.

The bus I got into was going all the way to a town along the Arabian Sea coast, I learnt as I snuggled into my seat. I breathed a heavy sigh of relief as the bus trundled out of the clamour of Bangalore—not knowing where I was going but glad to be off somewhere! Anywhere out of Bangalore was welcome!

The bus sped through miles of what were once lush fields but now gobbled up by the ever-expanding urban nightmare that Bangalore has been transformed into. Then, after we passed Hassan, we entered into stunningly beautiful countryside. It was almost just as I remember much of rural south India to have been when I was a child, forty years ago.

Gently rolling hills were draped in curtains of green—endless acres of coffee bushes shaded with slender trees planted in neat lines. Beyond Sakleshpur, the bus wove its way through a narrow valley surrounded by towering, densely-forested mountains till it stopped at Dharmasthala, one of the most popular  pilgrimage centres in Karnataka, where I decided to get off.

I did a quick round of the town—which is essentially a collection of a few temples and several enormous buildings for accommodating visiting pilgrims. The main temple was closed for the afternoon, and so I headed to the temple museum, which, I discovered, must surely be one of the finest privately-maintained museums in the entire country.

It boasted a huge collection of ancient idols, curios, coins, currency notes, weapons, costumes worn by dancers to propitiate ancestral spirits (called bhutas), and handwritten manuscripts, all remarkably well-preserved. The nearby car museum, too, mustn’t be missed—an impressive collection of vintage cars and horse-drawn carts.

It was late evening, and although there was no dearth of accommodation in Dharmasthala (in the several huge buildings built by the temple authorities), I decided to head on. And so, I got into a bus heading to Udupi, a four-hour journey away.

Pilgrim town

There wasn’t much to see in Udupi, I discovered, though one could spend several hours in and around the delightful thirteenth century Krishna temple that the town is famous for, watching the worshippers performing their rituals, feeding the temple elephant or strolling through the bustling bazaar that specialises in pilgrim memorabilia—idols, copper and brass vessels, ‘holy’ powders, conch shells, lamps and so on.

You could also visit the numerous mutts or monasteries in the vicinity of the temple, set in exquisite centuries’ old buildings with massive, carved wooden doors, their exterior walls richly decorated with paintings of a range of Hindu deities. You might, if you are lucky, as I was, even be able to hear children or women rehearsing soul-stirring classical Carnatic music, sitting in the dark, cool comfort of an inner chamber in one of the mutts. And of course, if you’ve come all the way to Udupi, you won’t want to go back without a meal at a traditional Udupi restaurant, and a quick visit to the quaint coin museum run by the local unit of a bank.

Nor should you miss an evening stroll down Malpe beach, located six kilometres out of town, and a fifteen-minute boat ride from there to St. Mary’s Island to see its curious rock formations, gaze at the sea gulls flitting about, the crabs scurrying into their holes, and the sun dipping into the Arabian Sea. You will, of course, have to ignore the mountains of trash—plastic bags, bottles, and wrappers—that have piled up on the island, and the rubbish-filled canopies supposedly built for the comfort of the hundreds of tourists who flock to the island every day.

Spotless beach

Some thirty kilometers to the south of Udupi is the little town of Padubidri. Hardly any tourists visit Padubidri, I presume, and so I found myself delightfully alone as I ambled through the paddy fields outside the town, dotted with pretty cottages and fruit trees, till I reached a spotlessly clean beach.

On both sides, an enormous arc of sand stretched as far as the eye could see. Mercifully, so I learnt, the authorities have forbidden the construction of any big buildings in the area, and so there aren’t more than a couple of resorts and shops, and almost the only buildings you can see are neat little fishermen’s huts that hug the coast. The roar of the waves, the whistle of the wind in the coconut trees, the screech of a pack of boisterous sea-gulls and the occasional cry of a team of fishermen pushing their hand-crafted boats into the sea were almost the only sounds I could hear that afternoon.

I walked along the beach for several hours, hardly seeing anyone, stopping to gaze in wonder at the enormous piles of little sea animals that the waves brought in, picking up shells and rescuing starfish that had got stuck in the sand. How I pined I could live here, in a little fishermen’s hut along the coast, never having to return to the ‘big city’!

It had been a wonderful holiday—completely unplanned and quite off the conventional tourist trail, and perhaps for that reason, particularly memorable.

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