The Rise of Surf Culture and “Super Sexy” Waves in India

5:42am when Rakhul Shyamraj throws a leg over his spearmint
scooter and starts pootling through the streets of Varkala. His
headlights break the inky shadow of palm trees, catching two stray
kittens, a man cutting ginger under a gas lamp and a few sparkly
saris shuffling towards a temple. Veering off the road he pulls up
at a boutique hotel where he’ll begin his daily routine of teaching
international travellers to ride waves.

An eight-hour drive from his family home and his father’s chai
shop, Rakhul has detoured off the traditional path and landed in
the small but evolving surf industry of India. Though surfing is
said to have made its first appearance in India in the 1970s – the
years that saw a sub-culture of travellers journeying overland on
the so-called Hippie Trail from Europe through Iran, Afghanistan,
Pakistan and onto India – it is still limited to just a handful of
coastal villages scattered along the coast. Until recently,
visiting surfers floated in near isolation off the beaches of Goa
and Tamil Nadu, with interest from locals and a culture of surf
only evolving in the last decade.

Growing up in Kerala’s tea producing mountains of Munnar, Rakhul
didn’t catch his first glimpse of the ocean until the age of 14,
and didn’t take his first swim for another four years still. It
wasn’t until then that he discovered the relationship between the
sand and the water; the gentle descent the would allow him to walk
in slowly before tackling the waves.

“I thought it was like a temple pond or a swimming pool. I
really imagined that the sand would drop down like the side of a
box,” explains Rakhul. This was the first surprise the beach had in
store for him. Plenty more followed in the years to come, as he
worked his way from washing dishes in the hotel’s kitchen, to
pushing travellers onto “super sexy waves” as a qualified ISA surf
instructor – one of less than 40 in the country.

When asked how his parents responded to the news of his career
in surf, Rakhul tells of their justified apprehension. “My family
had no idea about surfing and had never even seen a surfboard, they
were so worried,” Rakhul tells me. “My mother is still afraid. She
calls me every now and again and tells me not to go in the water
because she’s heard on the news that big waves are coming. She’s my
surf report!”

Foreigners and local surf instructors aren’t the only ones
floating along India’s 7,000 kilometres of shoreline. Akshaya Rao,
who was born and raised in the landlocked city of Hyderabad, is one
of a growing number of Indian women adding surfing to their list of
recreational passions. The prospect of furrowing the brow of more
traditional locals doesn’t cross her mind. “When I start my day
with surfing, I have so much more energy. It’s such a good
feeling,” says Akshaya.

Though India’s surf scene hasn’t attracted huge amounts of
attention over the years, a few milestones have encouraged the
community forward. In 2014, Roxy added Indian female surfer Ishita
Malaviya to its ambassador list, and in 2010 Taylor Steele released
his surf documentary, Castles in the Sky, showing the rhythmic
moves of pro-surfer Dave Rastovich in India. This evolution is
still in its infancy.

When the owners of Rakhul’s workplace, Ed and Sofie Templeton,
first arrived in Varkala almost a decade ago and dreamt up the idea
to build Soul & Surf, there wasn’t another surfboard in sight.
“Ed would surf every morning without another soul in the water. He
started off on the well-known beaches and then began exploring the
coast where he found much better waves, again completely empty,”
explains Sofie.

These days, Varkala is a mini-wave haven complete with surf
schools, board hire and a growing surf culture. And it’s not the
only town of its kind in India.

Board shorts and bikinis in Goa

Further up the west coast of India, travellers arrive to Goa in
droves. Wearing board shorts or bikinis, they’re ready to slip into
the unreserved hippie culture of the country’s most expatriate
influenced region. The waves in Goa are by no means world-class;
soft, mellow and rarely reaching much height, they’d easily
disappoint a seasoned surfer. Nevertheless, Goa has become a famed
surf town and a hotspot for travellers looking to hit the waves for
the first time or hone newfound skills. Here, the surf scene has
become so dynamic that an all-encompassing ocean culture has
evolved; travellers are almost guaranteed to spot kayakers,
paddleboarders and paragliders along the popular stretch between
Aswem and Arambol beaches.

Searching for surf in the Bay of Bengal

The east coast of India is often dubbed India’s original,
perhaps most “authentic” surf scene. Mahabalipuram, less than two
hours south of the Tamil Nadu capital of Chennai, played host to
India’s first surf competition in August 2011 and has grown
steadily in popularity and surf culture ever since. A little north
of “the Mahabs” sits another surf town called Kovalam (not to
confused with Kerala’s surf town of Kovalam) where experienced
surfers flock to capitalise on considerable swell produced either
side of the monsoon season. These east coast hotspots often serve
as a warm-up for surfers venturing to forgotten islands in the Bay
of Bengal; Andaman and Nicobar. Officially part of India despite
almost 1,500 kilometres of sea separating them from the mainland,
the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have the sort of remote paradise
connotations of places like Zanzibar, Socotra and the Galapagos.
Hard to reach and hard to leave, these coastlines were once shared
with the saltwater-loving elephants that made them famous. Since
their extinction in 2016, empty glassy waves have become the
destination’s big draw, adding another map point to the surf trail
of India.



Vaayu Vision on Ashwem Beach
Road calls those interested in sleeping in a homely coconut dome
and eating crispy nori rolls or vegan chocolate mousse between surf
sessions. Hamsa Villas and Ashiyana will prove just as welcoming, and both serve
an ample dose of the laid-back exoticism expected of Goa.


Managed by Ishita Malaviya, the pioneer of female surfing in
India, Camp Namaloha is about as authentic as surf
stays get. If camping by the seaside doesn’t rouse your enthusiasm,
try Ashram Surf Retreat where
home-cooked vegetarian meals and paddleboarding are all part of the


If Soul & Surf is fully booked –
which it often is – nest in the butterfly-filled gardens of
Villa Akasa or the centrally
located InDa Hotel. Post-surf, head to
Darjeeling Café who have mastered
the art of a perfect buddha bowl despite an unstable fresh produce
selection in the area.

Andaman and Nicobar

Even the most intrepid traveller will benefit from a package
holiday and surf guide in Andaman and Nicobar. Surfing India by
Mantra Surf Club have an eight-night trip inclusive of
a chartered seaplane to Little Andaman, accommodation and guided
surf trips. Those looking for an upmarket splurge can go ritzy at
Taj Exotica.


Find friends at Mumu Surf School and Sandy Bottom Café, where a free
masala chai is given to those willing to collect a bag of rubbish
off the beach. By night, retreat to the museum-cum-hotel of
INDeco set in a lovingly restored colonial-era

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