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.