Words by Evan Quarnstrom
I was told that surfing would be a waste of time in India – not necessarily for the lack of surf, but because what I would be missing out on.
People travel to India to visit enchanting temples, find spirituality in ashrams, and mingle in lively markets. Surfing, however, would just be a distraction.
I didn’t listen. In the nearly two months it took me to travel down the country’s west coast, I surfed nearly every day.
Travel Guide: India
And contrary to the advice I was given, surfing was, in fact, my key to the country’s underbelly – a pathway to an authentic experience.
Despite the hassle of hauling a board bag around on planes, trains, buses, and rickshaws, the act of riding waves, as it has repeatedly proven to be for me around the world, was a way to connect with the locals, a more intimate way to explore the country.
One way ticket to Mumbai
When I booked a one-way flight from Bali to Mumbai, I packed two boards in the hope that I could score some waves on the journey. But my expectations were low. I didn’t know if I would surf at all.
A weekend in Mumbai flew by in a whirl of honking horns, bustling streets, and colourful parades. I was surprised to find that the metropolis actually had a few waves that would have warranted unpacking my surfboard, but the chocolate tint to the murky water kept me glued to land.
So, I packed my bags and headed south in search of a more peaceful setting – the shores of Goa, which is an old, rural Portuguese colony nowadays better known for its party scene, where herds of cows can outnumber people on the palm-lined beaches.
Arriving in mid-September, the tail end of India’s infamous monsoon season was still busy wreaking havoc on the west coast, capable of dumping torrential amounts of rain at a moment’s notice. Blustery onshore winds ravaged the shores, unceasing for days on end. I had been in India for six days and still hadn’t surfed. Maybe I should have listened to the critics.
But eventually the skies parted, the wind turned offshore, and the large, chunky storm swell that remained was refined into glassy a-frames up and down the beaches of Goa.
I finally popped some fins in my board and surfed for hours and hours in empty beach breaks – particularly at Anjuna and Calangute beaches. It wasn’t big, but it was perfect; waist to chest high, good for little snaps, cutbacks, and head dips. All to myself.
The banks of the Shambhavi River
Goa’s funky Arabian Sea windswell was a good warm up, but I knew that there had to be something better further south.
My next stop was Udupi, which actually was my main destination. Through my previous work in the surf industry, I had met Tanvi Jagadish, India’s first SUP racer and 7-time national champion, who lives in Udupi.
Tanvi, a pioneer for women’s surfing in India, partnered with fellow surfer Rohan Suvarna to found Kadal Surf School. They were kind of enough to invite me to their school and into their home.
While there were a couple days of fun waves around Udupi, generally the surf was small and weak. The true highlight of my experience was living at the surf house and being immersed in south Indian culture.
Tourists traveling from all around the country to Udupi, just for surfing, was proof that the sport has gained its foothold in India
I learned the local cuisines, how to properly eat with my hands, the basic phrases of their local language, and how to properly attend a Hindu temple. Rohan, Tanvi, and their team of surf instructors, were super hosts for me, taking me to see Indian films, teaching me how to play cricket, and inviting me to their family homes to experience traditional Indian customs.
I joined them for surf lessons at their school – surprised to find that they had more demand for surf lessons than they could meet. Tourists traveling from all around the country to Udupi, just for surfing, was proof that the sport has gained its foothold in India.
Tanvi and Rohan are part of the new generation of Indian surfers, products of one of the country’s original surf communities, Mantra Surf Club, just a few kilometers down the road in the village of Mulki. Mantra was started in 2004 by a Floridian expat, Jack Hebner, locally known as Surfing Swami. The club was successful in starting one of India’s first surf scenes, as well as destigmatizing the sport, especially among women. It planted the seeds for surfing’s growth among youth like Tanvi. Those surfers have now gone on to open surf schools of their own in other villages.
I made the trip one day to join Mantra Surf Club for a session at their local break, connecting with some of the main drivers for the growth of the sport in India.
I spent the day surfing and lounging, intently listening to stories from Rammohan Paranjape. Known as Ram for short, he’s a partner of the surf school and surf entrepreneur/photographer. He told me about the origins of Indian surfing, arranging surf trips to Indian islands for Taylor Steele’s 2010 film Castles in the Sky, and how good the waves really can get in India.
I was particularly attentive to the last point: where I could discover the true potential of India surfing. My trip plans were loose and after more than a month of fun waves, but not amazing waves, I was ready to commit to finding more quality surf on the mainland.
Through tips from most people I spoke with and Ram’s stories, all signs were pointing me in the same direction; Varkala.
Searching in the South
Varkala is a small fishing village near the extreme southern tip of India in the state of Kerala. Crossing the Kerala stateline is a whole different experience: new culture, customs, language, and best of all, better waves.
The southern Kerala coast, situated more or less between the Maldives and Sri Lanka, is better situated to pull in those long-period swells marching north in the Indian Ocean.
On day one in Varkala, I arrived at my hostel too early to check in to my dorm, so I figured I would go for a surf at the beach out front.
With low expectations, my jaw dropped when I arrived at the beach.
There was some beefy, overhead wind swell. It was not particularly well-organised, but it was detonating on a shallow sand bar, spitting barrels left and right. There was a lot of side-shore current, but if you could position yourself in the right spot, you could get tubed.
For the next two weeks I got to intimately know this small section of sand bar, heaving myself over ledges, sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully, and even finding a few tubes worth writing home about.
While the swell eventually died down, those first few days of hours-long, rash inducing surf sessions have stuck in my mind. I couldn’t believe I was in India, having way more fun surfing than I had for quite some time back home in California.
Unlike the other spots that I had visited on the west coast, Varkala had a core community of good surfers. Clearly the enhanced wave quality was having its effect on the level of surfing. And all the local surfers I met in the water had one question for me: Are you selling any boards?
A quality surfboard is hard to get in these parts – most were riding beat up shortboards or soft tops. I decided to part with a semi-sentimental 5’10’’ Super at a very generous price to one of the local surf instructors – adding a small piece to the legacy of surfing in India.
Surfing with Purpose
I hate surfing in crowds. So, even though the wave quality in India did not compare with other places I have surfed, like Indonesia, I genuinely enjoyed the stress free vibes of Indian line ups. The waves were never crowded and the locals could not have been more welcoming.
But surfing is arriving in India and with 7,500 km of coast and a population of nearly 1.5 billion, the untapped potential is gargantuan.
If surfing takes over the Indian coast in the distant future, maybe I’ll look back on these years and recall the good old days when I surfed epic Varkala with just a handful of locals.
Looking back on the criticism of using a trip in India to surf, I would rebut that argument to add that surfing got me closer to India, its people, and its culture more than any other experience could have accomplished.
Surfing is present in India and, more than ever, it’s a legitimate way to experience the country.
So, if you are thinking about going to India. I recommended you pack a board or two, perhaps a third to leave with the locals. You won’t regret it.