High Tide

The rising aspirations of India’s first surfing hotspot

The Mantra Surf Club in Mulki hosts up to a thousand surfers every year. courtesy ravi shankar paranjpe / mantra surf club
01 February, 2019

With an old sky-blue surfboard tucked under her arm, Ishita Malaviya walked across the white sand of the Kodi Bengre beach in Karnataka’s Udupi district, towards the greenish-blue waters of the Arabian Sea. It was a cool evening. The sun was setting, with its last rays spreading across the beach. Even to my untrained eye, the foamy waves seemed unrulier than usual.

After entering the water, Malaviya, who is India’s first female professional surfer, waded deeper and deeper. Finally, she mounted the board with a confidence stemming from years of experience. For a while, she seemed to be going steady, but an unanticipated wave made her slide off the board and splash into the water. This happened a few more times. I asked her about it after she came out, and she smiled and shook her head. “It was unexpected,” she said. “The waves are somehow different these days.”

There is much that is different these days in the region, which has emerged over the past decade as the first surfing hub in India. In 2004, Jack Hebner and Rick Perry, American surfing enthusiasts from Jacksonville in northern Florida, founded the Mantra Surf Club in Mulki, a small town in the neighbouring district of Dakshina Kannada. In 2010, Malaviya and her partner, Tushar Pathiyan, formally established the Shaka Surf Club at Kodi Bengre. Tanvi Jagadish, the first woman to represent India in international competitions for stand-up paddleboarding—a variant of surfing—hails from this region. The first two editions of the Indian Open of Surfing were organised at the Sasihithlu beach, around forty kilometres from Udupi, in 2016 and 2017, drawing celebrities such as the former South African cricketer Jonty Rhodes and the Bollywood actor Suniel Shetty.

In early October, I visited the two clubs in order to understand how coastal Karnataka became an international surfing destination.

The region was bathed in hues of green and blue—ponds and lakes punctuated the paddy fields, with white egrets occasionally flying around and scarecrows popping up here and there.

Hebner, who arrived in India in 1972, to seek spiritual salvation, is known locally as the Surfing Swami. He told me that he had surfed everywhere from Puri and Kanyakumari on the east coast to Dwarka on the west coast. “Occasionally, I would get visits from friends from the West who also surfed, but for the most part I was alone.” In 2003, he began teaching other disciples at the Sri Narasingha Chaitanya Ashram in Srirangapatna, with which he is still affiliated.

Rammohan Paranjape was part of Hebner’s first batch of students. He is known as India’s first surf photographer and is the vice-president of the Surfing Federation of India. He told me that in the early days, they would go to Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu to practise. “We felt that there should be some place in our own state where we could do it. So we zeroed in on this place, as it is peaceful but still close enough to towns like Udupi and Mangalore to buy any essentials.”

Mulki, Hebner said, was an ideal location to start the club, because it “is situated at the mouth of the river Shambhavi. River mouths usually provide shifting sandbars, which make for good wave formations.” Mulki was also just a six-hour drive from his ashram.

There were several challenges to the growth of surfing in India. Barring fishermen, few communities in India engaged with the sea. Most fishermen themselves did not know how to swim. Udupi and Mangalore were not major tourist destinations. Besides, there was a deeply rooted perception that surfing, with its exposure to the sun and sea water, would darken one’s skin and, especially for women, negatively impact one’s marriage prospects.

The Mantra Surf Club was originally meant for Hebner’s students, Paranjape said, “but when the media came to know about swamis who surfed, we started getting a lot of interest from the press and the general public. They wanted to experience our lifestyle and know more about surfing. Finally, we decided to open it up to people from outside. In the beginning, it was mostly foreigners, but in the last five years there have been a majority of Indian tourists.” He said that from a hundred or so guests a year in 2006, the club now hosts up to a thousand surfers every year. To formalise the administration of the sport, the Surfing Federation of India was set up in 2011, although it is yet to be recognised by the government.

When the Mantra club started teaching outsiders in 2007, two students from the nearby Manipal University were among the first Indians to join. Malaviya and Pathiyan, who were originally from Mumbai, had been interested in picking up the sport for a while. However, Pathiyan said, when they looked for places to surf in India, “there was virtually nothing online. Even Google couldn’t find a single thing.” A German exchange student at their university told them about an ashram that taught students from as far as California. They were intrigued enough to go there immediately.

After their first few lessons, the couple practised on their own in beaches near Manipal. “We would put up posters in Manipal University inviting people to learn surfing at Mulki,” Malaviya told me, “but hardly anybody eventually came, so we focussed on our practice.” Their parents disapproved of their interest and refused to buy them surfboards, so they sold everything they did not need and used the proceeds to buy a board from a foreign surfer. They would share it, she said—“When he would practise, I would watch, and vice versa.” Malaviya added that she initially found surfing difficult, because she did not possess the requisite upper-body strength, but that she wants more and more women to take up the sport.

In 2010, they decided that the Kodi Bengre beach was an ideal spot for surfing. Like Mulki, the beach is located at a river mouth, on the delta of the Suvarna river. They found an old abandoned bar, which they bought and renovated. Pathiyan recalled that the villagers would look at them as if they were crazy when they took their boards into the sea. Communication was initially a problem, as Malaviya and Pathiyan were not fluent in Kannada, while local youth could not speak English or Hindi. “We have not learnt much Kannada, but the local youth who learnt surfing from us speak English fluently,” he said with a laugh. To build a connection with the locals, the club started offering free surfing lessons to young people in the village, and hired their families to cook simple meals for visitors.

Having started off with just the one board, the club today has over twenty boards and attracts up to four hundred students every season, which runs from October to the end of April. Three tents have been set up on the beach to accommodate visitors who cannot be housed in the club itself.

The Mantra club also provides free lessons for locals. The paddleboarder Tanvi Jagadish, a native of Kolchi Kambala village, was one of the beneficiaries. “There was a lot of scepticism from my parents and other people in the village,” she told me over the phone, “so initially, I had to take surfing lessons secretly. But I was determined to represent the country in surfing and stand-up paddleboarding. Surfing has changed my life for the better.”

Gaurav Hegde, the secretary of the Kanara Surfing and Water Sports Promotion Council, told me that as a lifestyle sport, surfing “can definitely attract high-spending moneyed tourists to this region, which would boost the economy. Also, local youth can get various tourism-related jobs, such as those of lifeguards and surfing instructors. This is important in a region like this, which traditionally has had people migrating to all corners of the world for jobs and opportunities.”

Despite its considerable success, surfing in and around Mulki still faces considerable challenges, such as the absence of good lifeguards and basic amenities at most beaches. Malaviya said that it is necessary to build a culture of surfing in India. “There needs to be strict implementation of norms to ensure that fly-by-night surf operators don’t lead to surfing getting a bad name.” She mentioned an incident in 2015, when a scuba-diving instructor at the Shiruru beach in Udupi district was accused of molesting three of his students. The incident, she said, put all water sports under the scanner for a time.

Yet, she was confident that surfing in India will thrive. “The sport will only grow rapidly in the times to come with a population of over one billion people and a coastline of seven thousand kilometres. Now is the time to ensure it grows in a sustainable way.”