Gokarna is an ancient Tirtha Kshetra or a pilgrimage place. Placed uniquely on the beautiful west coast of India, it is surrounded by hills on the rest of the sides. In fact, Indian scriptures define it as Shatashringi or a place with 100s of horn-like hillocks. As I walked around the town, tracing ancient temples and tirthas, I could see the small hillocks everywhere. The sacred geography is bound by the waters of Gangavalli and Aghnashini rivers on two sides and sea on the other. Even then the town is full of water tanks or Tirthas, the biggest being Koti Tirtha that is the heart of this sacred town. Get to know a list of the places to visit in Gokarna for devotees and leisure travelers.
Legends of Gokarna
Gokarna is mentioned as a sacred space in many scriptures including Mahabharata, Gurucharita, and Gokarna Khand.
Origin of Name
The first story tells us how the place got its name. It is believed that once upon a time where there was just water and Narayana was sleeping in his Ksheersagar and Brahma emerged on the lotus emerging out of his navel to create the universe. The first creation was Rudra from his anger, whom he directed to create the universe. Rudra chose to go to netherworld or Patala and meditate. Brahma then realized that he needed the world with all three Gunas – Satva, Rahas, and Tamas, so he created Pitras, Humans, and Prakriti. This infuriated Rudra and he marched from Patala to Brahmaloka.
In the process, the earth was frightened. She headed to move slowly through her. He agreed and took a small form of the size of a thumb and came out through the ear of the earth. Go is one of the names of the earth and since Rudra came out from her ear, the place came to be known as Gokarna. The Shivalinga donating this story is called Adi Gokarna and can be seen in the main Mahabaleshwar temple.
The second story comes from Ravana, who after a severe penance was taking home the Atmalinga from Kailash Parvat to his Lanka. He was told not to keep it anywhere till he reaches the place where he wants to install it. However, as he reached Gokarna, it was time for his Sandhya Vandan or evening prayers. Ganesha appeared as a Batuk or a Brahmin boy in front of him. Ravana handed him the Atmalinga to hold till he does his Puja. Batuk though could not hold it due to weight and kept it down.
So, this is where it continues to be. This is the main temple at Gokarna called Gokarna Mahabaleshwar. Ravana was angry and he hit the Ganesha on his head. You can still see the Murti of Ganesha at Mahaganpati temple with a dent on the head.
The third story talks about king Sagar of Ayodhya, whose 60,000 sons were burnt by Sage Kapila. This is the same Sagar whose descendant Bhagirath is credited with bringing Ganga to earth. It is believed that once upon a time lot of Asuras used to live in the sea. They used to stay inside water during the day but they came out at night and troubled the people there. People prayed to Rishi Agastya and requested him to drink all the water so that asuras go away. Rishi did just that and the seabed dried.
Now the lord of the sea was worried and he prayed to Agastya rishi to restore his water. He said he has already digested it all and can not bring it back. Sea then came to Gokarna, built a Shivalinga, and prayed to Shankar. Pleased, when Shankar asked him his wish, he asked for his water. Shankar then told him that when the descendant of Sagar will bring Ganga down to earth, the sea will also get its water back. So, it happened. This story links the waters of Gokarna to Ganga making them even more sacred. The Sagareshwar Shivalinga can be seen just outside the Mahableshwar temple today.
The fourth story tells us about Parashuram, the son of Jamadagni and Renuka, who made the waters of the sea retreat and created the Konkan coast. It is believed that he stood at Gokarna and threw his axe or Parashu at the sea. Well, you hear this story at many places on the Konkan coast, but the story binds the land of Konkan together like nothing else. A Shivalinga called Jamadagnishwara can be seen inside the Mahabaleshwar temple.
The fifth story says that the divine cow Surabhi mediated here. Shivalinga that she consecrated is known as Surbheshwara.
Holy Places to visit in Gokarna
There are several temples in this small holy town. You should visit some of them at least and seek blessings.
Mahabaleshwar Temple Complex and around
Mahabaleshwar Temple is the main temple at Gokarna. It is the one that houses the Atmalinga. You can actually touch the Atmalinga through an opening in the silver cover that covers it. At specific times during the day, you can see the linga too.
The temple is the most popular and important place in Gokarna. You have to walk through many doors to reach the Garbhagriha.
There are vigrahas of Devi and Ganesha too inside the temple. I found a beautiful Veergal next to the temple. There are some even outside side entrance, with Naga sculptures on them.
Men need to wear a dhoti and no upper clothes while visiting the temple. Women can be dressed in any Indian attire.
Adi Gokarna Temple
As you walk clockwise around the main temple, the first temple you meet is the Adi Gokarna temple. You have to go down a few steps to see the ancient linga. This temple in stone has beautiful wooden panels all around it. This temple is being renovated.
This is an old Shivalinga in a small temple. The three walls have windows with a swastika on them.
Moving on you see this small temple in bright yellow color dedicated to Veerabhadra. This is the Swaroop of Shiva that destroyed the Daksha Yagna.
Tamra Gauri Temple
Tamra Gauri is the presiding Shakti of Gokarna. Her temple is behind the Mahabaleshwar temple. It is believed that Gauri came here from Tamranchal Parvat following Shankar, and hence called Tamra Gauri. Tamra means copper. They say that she holds a balance in her hand. Some interpret that she is weighing the virtues of Varanasi and Gokarna and naturally being in Gokarna, it weighs more.
Next to Tamra Gauri temple is Tamra Kund is that used only for Asthi Visarjan or leaving the mortal remains of the dead after cremation. Even a part of Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes were brought here.
This is a Shivalinga that is believed to be installed and worshipped by Gautam Rishi. It is simply placed on a platform.
A small Dattatreya temple can is located almost in the wall of the temple. It has a Paduka Peetha or a platform with footprints and a Dattatreya Murti.
Mahaganapathi Temple or Dwibhuj Ganapathi temple is located 40 steps from Atmalinga of Gokarna. It is right outside the main temple in lovely orange color and typical Konkan style.
Inside you can see a two-armed Murti of Ganapati.
On the walls, I saw few ancient sculptures depicting the scenes from Ramayana.
A lane next to the temple connects to the Koti Tirtha and here you see another Tirtha called Gayatri Tirtha.
This lies almost on the street located between the Mahaganapathi temple and the main temple’s side entrance.
This is another small temple right outside the main temple that you cannot miss when you enter the main temple. Do not miss the beautiful Brahmin houses.
The area around Mahabaleshwar temple has lovely colorful houses with paintings on their walls. Do stop by to look and admire them.
Temples on Car Street
Currently, Car Street is the main road in the town.
Ahilya Bai Holkar Temple
As you walk behind the main temple in Car street, you can see big and small temples all around. Among these, I found this simplest temple where there is linga installed. Next to it is the statue of Ahilya Bai Holder of Malwa holding a Linga in her hand.
Surya Narayana Temple
A small temple dedicated to Sun.
This is a fairly large temple with a unique Shikhara in the form of a Lotus flower. Its pillars of its mandapa have stories of Vishnu carved on it.
There are two lanes that connect the main temple area to Koti Tirtha. The first one has Naga Tirtha and the other lad lovely large houses with temples in them. If you walk here in the mornings, you will hear the chants and bells as the priests do the morning Puja.
This is located on Naga Veethi, the main road connecting the Mahabaleshwar Temple with Koti Tirtha. It is a narrow lane full of Brahmin houses. A temple here is full of Naga images – lakhs of them. You can see them under an old tree, inside the temple, on the inner as well as outer walls of the temple. The linga inside is also adorned with Naga sculptures. Wherever you see, you see a Naga.
It is believed that thousands of snakes that were burnt in the Yagna of Janamajeyan, the descendant of Pandavas, came here seeking salvation.
Close to Naga Tirtha is another small but ancient Tirtha or water tank called Durga Tirtha. There is a small temple next to it. It is a part of private property, so you need to take permission to visit it.
Koti Tirtha – Holy Places to visit in Gokarna
It is said that the Shatshrugi mountains have 200,000 Tirthas or water bodies where the sages used to meditate. 100,000 of them merged with the sea and the rest merged to form the Koti Tirtha. Koti means a hundred thousand. It is a large lake surrounded by houses and temples. This is where the last rights and Pind Dana are performed.
Another interpretation says that prayers here give you Koti-fold or huge returns.
In the middle of this tank is a Shivalinga known as Koteshwar. As you walk around it you can see Patta Vinayak temple, Vishveshwar Vithala Temple, Veer Maruti Temple, Gopal Krishna Temple, Shankar Narayana, or Harihar temple, Kali Temple, and Bhairava Temple.
Patta Vinayak temple denotes the coronation of Ganesha after he helped the devatas reclaim Atmalinga from Ravana.
Kali Temple or Kalihruda
This is an ancient Devi temple located right at the entrance of Gokarna. You can not miss it as you enter the town.
It is believed that the Devi after Killing the asuras Shumbha, Nishumbha, Raktabeeja, Chand, and Munda came to Gokarna and washed her weapons here in the water. She then mediated here as Bhadrakali.
The temple has an entrance from the main road, which is actually the back of the temple. You go around and enter the south-facing temple. There is a powerful Murti of Bhadrakali. Fridays are special at this temple.
There are smaller Devi temples close to this temple.
Kalkaleshwar temple is located on top of another small rocky hill. You have to climb a flight of stairs to reach this small little temple with bright painted walls. It houses a Shivalinga inside it.
It is believed that when Ravana could not extract the Atmalinga from Gokarna, all the gods above laughed and this linga commemorates this. Kalkal means laughter.
This is a lovely temple atop the hill that overlooks the sea on all three sides. A natural source of water here gets the water to the temple tank called Ram Kund. There is a stunning Ram Darbar inside the temple. As you take the parikrama, you see the meditative effect that place must have had before all the concrete constructions came up.
It is believed that Sri Ram did penance here after returning from Lanka, to get rid of the dosha of Brahmin Hatya or killing a Brahmin. Only then he returned to Ayodhya.
Go Garbha and Kamandalu Tirtha
Not too far from the main temple, you can find a natural cave that has a small temple inside it. Temple is usually close, but you can see the places inside these laterite ridges where the ancient sages probably meditated. Unless you stand in front of the mouth of the cave, you can not imagine that you might be walking over a huge cave.
It is said that the cave is in the shape of the womb of a cow, hence called Go Garbha. This is where the mother earth meditated after all the Kshatriyas were vanquished from the earth by Parashuram. In absence of a ruler, everything on earth became disorderly.
Kamandalu Tirtha is a small circular opening where it is believed that Brahma Ji, had kept his Kamandalu or waterpot. It is amazing to see a small water body that I was told always has water in it from an underground source, amidst absolutely barren rocky laterite surface.
This is a small cave close to the sea that is reached by trekking down the steep face of a cliff. There are steps in stone, but you still need agility to visit. The view from the cliff is simply beautiful.
Close to Jatayu Tirtha cliff is a labyrinth which no one knows when it came up.
This is a bit away from the main town, close to the Gangavalli river. You have to go through the fields to reach it but any local auto driver would take you here. It is said that in Gaya, the feet of Vishnu is worshipped as Vishnupad. In Gokarna, Shiva’s feet are worshipped as Rudra Pada. It is a small temple with a Shivalinga that has a pair of feet engraved on it.
Pind Dana or the post-life rituals for the departed are performed here.
Ashrams of Gokarna
Gokarna, with its isolated location, hills, and scenic divine beauty was the chosen land of ascetics and saints. Many great rishis made their ashrams here and meditated. Some that you can still see are:
- Markandeya Ashram on Car Street
- Vishwamitra Ashram
- Kapil Tirtha and Ashram
- Brahma Ashram
- Jahnu Rishi hermitage at Gangavalli – On Diwali evening the palki of Mahabaleshwar comes to Gangavalli for their wedding
- Gokarna Matt – located close to the town’s bus stand, there is a small temple in front of it built in an unusual way
Places to visit in Gokarna for Leisure Travelers
Gokarna is equally popular with tourists, backpackers, and even the hippie crowd, for its pristine beaches. The beaches of Gokarna are rocky. There are rocks on the beaches, in the water standing still. To watch a sunset sitting on one of these rocks is a perfect way to end the day in this beach town. The main beaches of Gokarna are:
This is located close to the Mahabaleshwar temple. You can walk to this beach straight from the main door of the temple. As you stand on the beach, on top of the hill on left you see the Ram Tirtha. All around you see happy pilgrims and tourists taking camel rides.
You can see a statue of Adi Shankracharya on this beach.
This is a beach South of Gokarna beach and is clearly demarcated by hills on either side. When you travel towards Om beach, from another hilltop, you can see this U-shaped beach. This is also popular with tourists for sunsets as well as mild trekking.
Shaped in the form of Om, the most sacred letter in India, this beach is popular for water sports, sunsets, and for its famous Namaste Café.
Om beach and Kudle beach are joined by a ridge, which is an easy mild trek, perfect for an early morning trek. We took this route to visit the Uma Maheshwar temple.
Cruise – You can take a cruise three times a day and enjoy being on the water. Since we live in Panjim, where we see cruises every day, we skipped this. There are several other activities like Kayaking, Jet sky, Banana ride, etc to experience at this beach. Weekends and holidays have better footfalls here and many vendors can be seen here. There are also beach shacks. For leisure travelers and adventure/trekking enthusiasts, these beaches are the places to visit in Gokarna.
Bohemian vibes can be seen across Gokarna with lovely street art everywhere. Some of them tell the stories of Gokarna and sometimes they just make you smile with their quirkiness.
Places to visit near Gokarna
Atop the western ghats on a day trip by road, you can visit the Vibhuti Falls, Yana Rocks, and Mirjan Fort. A monsoon wonder waterfalls, a natural giant rock formation, and a fort atop the cliffs in the region.
Gokarna Mahatmya video
Watch this video posted on our YouTube channel IndiTales. A talk by Dr. Shankuntala Gawde. Gokarṇa Purāṇa or Gokarṇakhaṇḍa tells the glory of Gokarṇa in 118 adhyāyas. It belongs to Skanda Purāna Sanatkumārasamhitā Gokarṇa khaṇḍa and is a compendium of various Akhyānas and Upākhyānas or you can call it a Sthala Purāṇa glorifying the place Gokarṇa.
Travel tips to explore the Places to visit in Gokarna
- There are a lot of small and mid-range hotels in Gokarna
- Auto rickshaws are the preferred mode of local transport in the narrow lanes of the town
- The main town and its temples can easily be covered on foot. In fact, it is easier to walk around than be in a vehicle
- Simple South Indian food is easily available
- It is a hot and humid place by virtue of being a coastal town and river estuaries around
- Carry drinking water if you are heading for long walks or treks
- Rocky patches on the beaches can be risky, avoid or do take precautions
- Protect from sunlight by using caps and sunglasses
- Explore around early in the morning or by the evenings, avoid noon times
- You can find a variety of birds if you head out early in the morning, walkable distances by the roadsides on the hills around. We sighted Peafowl, Malabar Pied-Hornbill, Golden Oriole, Asian Koels, Kites, and many more. This place can be a wonderful birding destination as well
We stayed at Swaswara at Om beach, which is a wellness resort. It is a bit away from the town but closer to the most popular beach.
For more information check this wonderful website.