Spiritual Surf’s Up

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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A stay at an unusual ashram that promotes surfing
Shyam, my surfing instructor, was eight when he first visited the Sri Narasingha Chaitanya Ashram, located 15 km from Mysore where he resided. His uncle was part of the Ashram and he went to see his cousin brothers. There were eight or nine children there and what struck him most was their sheer happiness. “I had never seen anyone as happy in my life. They all lived like a family. I wanted to be part of that,” he says. His parents naturally didn’t agree. Shyam stubbornly insisted until they gave their consent thinking that he would get bored and be back in a month or so. That was 12 years ago. “My father is still waiting,” he says, “But he’s happy where I am right now. I still go and visit my parents.”

Shyam is around 20. Before his spiritual initiation as Shyama Kunda Das, his name was Shamanth Kumar. We are at Mulki, 30 km from Mangalore. In 2001, their guru, who is popularly known as the Surfing Swami, had wanted to establish another ashram in this region. He came scouting with his disciples. They took a shortcut and chanced upon this place where the river winds a bend and meets the sea. The ashram looks like any other home—one storeyed, wide along the front and painted blue. Behind, the river abuts, a jetty with concrete steps leading into it. Besides Shyam, the inmates here are Gaura Nataraj, the eldest among them in his early thirties, Druva, who is 20, and Kirtan, 25. The ashram is unlike any other that I have been to. In the front yard, there is a jet ski parked on a platform. On the opposite side is a volleyball court. In the back verandah, surf boards are stacked against a corner wall. There is a table-tennis board nearby.

But this is an ashram. A room houses a temple and all four of them wake up early in the morning to do their meditation and rituals there. The food is strictly vegetarian without onions and garlic, and all of them lead celibate lives doing good karma so that eventually after many births they can meld into Krishna. They don’t dress the part and are mostly in beach shorts and T-shirts.

The Surfing Swami is Jack Hebner, or as his spiritual epithet goes, Swami BG Narasingha. He was not there when I visited, staying most of the time at his Mysore Ashram. He was a disciple of Swami Prabhupada, the founder of ISKCON. After his guru’s demise, he left the organisation and went on his own spiritual journey, establishing the Mysore Ashram in 1995. He was also a surfer, the first to bring the sport to India. He taught his young disciples the joys of seawave surfing by taking them to assorted beaches in south India.

Shyam started surfing as a boy even before he could swim. All four of them are experts. One part of their duty is to host people for what is called a Surf Retreat. Except for a few websites (, among them), they don’t really publicise it. “Mostly only those who are interested in surfing find us,” says Gaura, manager of the Ashram. Guests can take a beginner’s lesson in surfing or do other water sports like kayaking along the river. Advanced surfers can rent boards and go on their own. There are also Yoga lessons on offer.

The beach is virgin and usually empty. The Ashram folk periodically clean it because trash thrown into the river goes to the sea, which returns it to the beach.

For some reason, one of the things that the sea coughs back are shoes. They retrieve thousands of them during their clean-ups.

There is a charge for the retreat. Two days with boarding, brunch, dinner, surfing lessons and board rent for two of us cost around Rs 10,000. The money goes towards the maintenance of the Ashram and some part to charity. Guests have to wash their own dishes and do their own laundry. Smoking and drinking is not permitted. And they like to know a little bit about you before confirming your booking.

A man who has no clue about surfing had better be fit. First, you must reach the sea, for which you have to lug a boat and your surfboards to the river jetty abutting the Ashram. The plan is to cross over to the opposite shore. And then we walk again, carrying the boards, which range from 10 to 5 feet in length. The experts use the smaller ones because they can manoeuvre these better. Beginners get bigger ones because it is easier to balance on them. The bigger they are, the heavier they are. I am told to hold mine over my head, but I find myself out of breath soon. And this, before I even start surfing. It is a short walk and the sea opens up before us, blue, wide, glorious and pulsating to the crash of waves.

Shyam puts the board down and begins his basic lesson. He tells me to lie down on my stomach over the board, my feet just touching the edge, and then act like I am paddling. I then have to jump on his shout, and to do that, I have to push my hands against the board like a push-up and land sideways in the middle, my knees bent and spaced, both hands spread straight. It doesn’t seem too difficult, and though I drag my feet a little, I do my practice jumps well.

We go out to the sea and I get a taste of what is to come when a wave splashes against me, taking both board and body along with it. A leash on my leg is tied to the board to keep it from drifting away. After a few more waves pummel me, Shyam tells me not to fight the wave but just press the board and roll over it. It works and I get a little further in. We would be at waist-level water, and that is enough. Surfing is done close to the shore because that’s where the waves gather the greatest pace.

Shyam asks me to get on the board. I climb with my stomach down. He has got his hand to the back of the board and turns it so that I face the beach. The idea is for the right wave to carry the board and then for me to jump on it. I wait in that position, until Shyam tells me to start paddling, and then suddenly I find the board being swept along at an unexpected speed. I hear him shout “jump”, I jump, land on the board on both feet as I should, and then fly off the board to fall face down in the water. “You almost got it,” says Shyam later. “You just have to keep low, but you stood up.” The truth is that I didn’t almost get anything because I had no clue what was happening.

The procedure is repeated again.

The second time round, I get thrown off even before I jump. The leash line entangles my leg and the board’s fin hits me sharply on my knee. It hurts, and, in a moment of insight, I realise that one of the main things to concentrate on is to protect myself from the board. I struggle up and we go again. This time, as soon as I jump and get up, I fly face down to get slapped by the sea and also swallow some salt water. The next time, I again fall, but put my hands over my head underwater, just in case the board hits my head as I emerge. It does not. I see it floating calmly behind me.

As we wait for the next wave, Shyam tells me that everyone he has instructed managed to stand and surf the first day. It’s an unblemished record and I think it’s about to be broken. The next wave comes and I am once again watching myself move. I jump and am not falling down. At least not immediately. I hang on for moments, and then, of course, I embrace the ocean again. I look back and he’s clapping with a happy grin. Apparently, I did surf for a few seconds.

Extraordinary success takes the edge off my ambition. The rest of my two or three attempts are failures. I leave the water to take a break. I see others who are surfing make it look easy; Shyam even does a headstand on the board. I return for a few more failed jumps, but I am spent. The next day, Open photographer Ritesh Uttamchandani gets his turn and he is jumping with precision and surfing on his first try as if he was born to it. It occurs to me that it is a little like doing acrobatics on a moving cycle. Some people can master it in a day. I am just not one of them.

In the early days of the Ashram, there must have been around ten surfers in India, all of them members of the Mantra Surf Club, which is what they call their surfing. Now there are 150-200 regular surfers in India. Because of the Ashram, many children in the village have also taken up surfing. “We also have some female surfers from the village,” says Gaura. In 2011, they created a Surfing Federation of India (SFI), an umbrella body for all surfing groups in the country. The International Surfing Association, the world body that governs surfing, recognises the SFI, which also hosts national surfing competitions now. Its brand ambassador is the cricketer Jonty Rhodes, who was also there recently.

Initially, most of those who came for the surf retreat were foreigners. Now Indians make up a substantial chunk. Like Brij Maurya, a studio owner from Mumbai, whom we met there. He is an adventure sports enthusiast and does wind surfing in Mumbai. He came to Mulki after doing some board surfing for a couple of days in Goa. He is new to it. After the first day that he went to the sea in Mulki, he was nursing a bump on his head and his body was aching all over. By the second day, he was riding easily and did not need an instructor to spot the waves for him. He was already planning to attempt shorter boards.

Not everyone gets it as easily. Druva remembers a girl from Mumbai who was there for nine days and barely managed to stand on the board a few times. “It can take time depending on how fit you are,” he says. Mostly, what you need is balance and upper body strength. If you are good at push-ups, it helps. Druva himself is a good surfer and won the under-20 contest in the SFI’s first national competition.

There is really no age bar for surfing ability. They have even taught children though it takes some ingenuity. Since kids don’t listen, they have to be cajoled or tricked with offers of chocolate to follow instructions. Shyam remembers teaching a five-year-old who stood up the first day and by day three was riding the waves with ease.

Surfing is a form of meditation because it demands complete concentration. “There is no way you can think of anything else while you are surfing,” says Shyam, “The only thing you can think of is to stand up and ride the wave.” But there is still a clear demarcation between surfing and their spiritual goal of going back to godhead through bhakti. “You do the other activities to sustain the Ashram, but that is never the main priority,” he says.