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An unlikely encounter between a surfing guru and a Tamil fisherman resulted in an ancient Polynesian water sport making it big on Indian shores. Sanshey Biswas tells the story of how the surf came to be up in India, and where it seems to be headed.

Sanshey Biswas  6th Sep 2014

A surfer prepares to ride a wave off the coast of Mangalore | Photos: Rammohan Paranjape

t the height of the counterculture movement in the West, India was the place to go find oneself. Perhaps they'd had enough of the consumerism of mainstream life, perhaps it was the result of savvy marketing by globetrotting godmen like Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, but the 1960s and '70s saw an influx of hippies looking to turn on, tune in, drop out. Psychedelically painted buses ran from London to Goa. People from all over the world, both celebrities and otherwise, came to India in search of a spiritual awakening — the Beatles and the Beach Boys, Mia Farrow and her dear sister Prudence, a young Steve Jobs.

Jack Hebner made his own pilgrimage east in 1975. He had learned the rudiments of yoga and was looking for a guru to teach him more. He was initiated as Swami Bhakti Gaurava Narasingha the next year, and has spent the rest of his life "cultivating Upanisadic, Puranic and Vedantic knowledge" both here and at ashrams abroad.

India, however, also provided him ample opportunities to indulge the great passion of his life. Born in Texas but raised on the beaches of Hawaii, California and Florida, the Navy officer's son had developed a deep love for surfing over the years. He found that India had some amazing surf spots to offer, and decided to bring along some gear and try them out on his next visit.

With a coastline of over 7,000 km in length, all of it at tropical latitudes, India should, on the face of it, be an ideal destination for surfing. However, the sport is culturally alien to Indians, having evolved as part of Polynesian culture until it was observed and imitated by colonising Europeans. (George Freeth, the "father of modern surfing", for instance, learnt the sport from locals in Hawaii, where he was born and brought up in the late 19th century.) It was a similar process of observation and imitation that has resulted in the sport gaining a following large enough to merit a national federation that is a full member of the International Surfing Association, the world governing body.

It all began with the swami. Hebner explored every possible surfing spot India had to offer over the next three decades, from Puri in Orissa to Dwarka in Gujarat. He soon attracted a following of curious locals; he began teaching them the basics. They, in turn, began calling him the Surfing Swami. In 2004, he started a "surfing ashram" in Mangalore, a Krishna-worshipping commune that combines hours on the surfboard with hours of meditation every day. The Surfing Federation of India (SFI) was started by members of the ashram's Mantra Surf Club, so named because they "chant the Maha Mantra".

With a coastline of over 7,000 km in length, all of it at tropical latitudes, India should, on the face of it, be an ideal destination for surfing. However, the sport is culturally alien to Indians, having evolved as part of Polynesian culture until it was observed and imitated by colonising Europeans.

One of these trips, in 2001, took Surfing Swami to Covelong, a fishing village a few kilometres away from Chennai. Just about to call it a day after hours of riding the waves, he was interrupted by a local youth who wanted to borrow his board. Murthy Meghavan, a local fisherman, had tried body surfing with broken windows and doors, any plank of wood that would float. This was the first time he had had the opportunity to try to surf with proper equipment. With the Swami's consent, Murthy took off into the ocean with the surfboard. Within 10 minutes, Murthy was standing on the board and impressing onlookers with what was his first attempt at surfing. Before leaving for his next destination, the impressed Swami left Murthy his phone number.

That meeting awoke something in Murthy. He went on with his daily life as before, but the rush of adrenaline he'd felt while riding the waves was something he couldn't easily forget. The desire to surf again was overpowering. Unfortunately, he didn't have any equipment; nor did he possess the means and knowledge necessary for dialling an international number, so no further contact with the Surfing Swami was possible.

But help was on hand. In 2003, an Australian came to Covelong to surf the mighty waves that he had heard so much about, possibly from the Swami himself. Before leaving, he felt that the surf board would be a nice parting gift to the village kids. Murthy gathered Rs 1,500 and bought the surfboard from them. Despite his fellow villagers' doubts about his sanity, he took to the sea every day. Because every time he stood up on that board and ripped through a tide, it made him smile like nothing else did. Image 2nd

Four years later, the kids got their board back. A mutual friend — a German surfer impressed by Murthy's skills — introduced him to Yotam Agam, a music producer who co-founded the EarthSync label, which records songs featuring fishermen and classical musicians on the same platform. After talking and surfing with Murthy, Agam gave him his Green Aloha board. When Agam came back to Covelong in 2011, Murthy introduced him to 15 children who had learnt how to surf from him and shared his passion for the sport, and told him about his dream of starting a surf school.

India's first surfing festival was held at Mahabalipuram that same year. Murthy entered the contest with a couple of his students. On the beach, he saw a familiar face; the Surfing Swami had also come to the festival with his group from Mangalore. Swami was astonished by the progress the humble fisherman had made — Murthy finished second in the 20-to-30 age group, beating everyone in the field except veteran French surfer Juan Reboul, co-founder of the Auroville-based Kallialay Surf School. He caught the attention of the press, and more importantly, his newfound status as the poster boy of Indian surfing attracted funding to his prospective school. 

Surfing Locations & Festivals in India

The Social Surfing School was started in November 2012. By then, Murthy had begun representing India in surfing festivals abroad. He had quit his job, eight years spent working with Banyan, an NGO that helps the mentally ill and homeless, to give the kids of Covelong his undivided attention. It's not just the village kids any more; his students have included tourists from Israel, Brazil, Ukraine, Italy, China and Russia. He charges less than Rs 1,500 on average, and puts the entire money towards running the school and social welfare. Murthy says that every weekend at the school feels like a festival, with over two dozen people coming over to surf. There will be an actual festival next weekend, when the second Covelong Point Surfing Classic and Music Festival kicks off. Enthusiasts from all over the world will congregate for three days of surfing, yoga, food and live music.

Last month, a workshop held by the SFI trained over 20 instructors from India and more from Sri Lanka in the protocols of safety and technicalities to certify them as surfing instructors. Murthy was one of the attendees; he is now a certified surfing instructor, and trains the Tamil Nadu Marine Police as well. Image 3rd

The process of training and certifying instructors is part of the SFI's attempts to regularise the sport on a national basis. It also plans to finish the process of accreditation for surf schools in a couple of months. The aim is to organise an industry and a sport that has seen encouraging participation in the surfing festivals held so far, and holds great potential for the future. It requires little prior training; "beginners just need to be good swimmers, and comfortable in the water," says SFI Vice-President Rammohan Paranjape. The diverse geography also helps; the Bay of Bengal has ample, but not too high, waves throughout the year that are perfect for beginners, while the normally placid Arabian Sea provides monster waves in May and June for experts to pit themselves against. Paranjape says India is perfect for veteran surfers, since our beaches, especially the ones with the best surfs, aren't crowded.

Surfing is more a lifestyle than a sport. "If you surf, you build a different connection and perspective towards nature," says Rammohan Paranjape, vice-president of the SFI. "You are more concerned about the environment. You do your best to protect it." Arman Menzies, a musician from Mumbai who loves to surf, shares the same feelings and emphasises the importance of understanding nature, the wind, waves and every other element of surfing before you enter the water. He barely spends any time on the beaches of Mumbai, he says, but surfs for hours together once he finds the sparkling blue ocean water.

But it isn't just affluent musicians or itinerant foreigners who constitute India's surfer community. Like Murthy, youths in Covelong and Kovalam and many such fishing villages along the coast have taken up the sport with great enthusiasm, and have put in great showings at surfing festivals. Naturally adept in water, they can be very successful internationally if given access to proper training and equipment.

Murthy does not charge the village kids, but does lay down rules that they must follow. A student of the Social Surfing School is not allowed to drink alcohol, smoke or litter. In addition to that, whenever they see a person in need, they must help them out in whichever way possible, be it getting them clothes, food or even a shave.

Murthy and his students spend a good amount of time cleaning up the beach. "Being a fisherman," he explains, "I have always had a deep connection with the ocean. She never asks for anything, but it's our responsibility to take care of her. Keep her clean, keep her beautiful. In three years or so, I want Covelong to look like a beach from Bali."

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