When considering various destinations for an upcoming surf trip, India is rarely at the top of the list. Lacking consistent swell, conveniently shaped reefs and coastal access, the country isn’t exactly Indo—but then again, maybe that’s the point. As far as cultural “otherness” goes, the colors, sounds and tastes of India can’t be beat. And the reality is that there are waves there—even good waves, if one knows where to look. The country demands patience and an adventurous spirit, but it gets under your skin, so don’t be surprised if your first trip isn’t your last.
The Surf: The known spots are predominantly soft beach breaks, but with thousands of miles of coast the potential is there for a little of everything. Check the East coast for righthand points and the island groups off either coast for lesser-known tropical reef barrels.
Five Waves Worth Surfing:
- Shore Temple, Mahiblipuram: One of the first spots in the country to develop a “surf scene,” Mahibs is a righthand sand point breaking off of the famed Shore Temple—one of the most scenic aquatic backdrops in the world. With a handful of local surfers and a beach resort feel, the town is a great place to ease into the culture, and boards are available for rent.
- Kovalam: Project site of one of the few semi-successful artificial reefs that have been put in around the world over the past decade, Kovalam is another resort town on the southern tip of the country with consistent beach break peaks.
- Soul&Surf Retreat, Kerala: A small yoga/surf retreat, the Soul&Surf house is centrally located in Kerala, with access to dozens of beach break and point setups in one of India’s most beautiful states.
- Rasta’s: A righthand reef barrel on an undisclosed island off the Indian coast, this wave was revealed in the film Castles in the Sky, with Dave Rastovich doing the honors. Pull out Google Earth, do some searching and you might just stumble upon India’s best wave. Or, if you’d rather let someone else do the work, book an exclusive “tour” with the “surfing swamis” that run www.surfingindia.net.
- Andamans: The Andaman Islands have been on the surf world’s radar since Jack Johnson and Chris Malloy released their opus Thicker Than Water, but access is still an issue. Most spots in the islands require a yacht, but check out Little Andaman for quality land-based setups.
The Water: Filthy. There is one toilet for every 17,000 people in India, and coastal peoples use the high tide line as their restroom. While lineups may be empty of people, they are surely teeming with bacteria. Still, on the right day, under the right conditions, watching perfect, empty waves peel by unridden has been known to motivate visiting surfers to overlook the hepatitis risk. (*Note that water quality in the nearby islands is much better than on the mainland.) As far as water temps go, expect 84 F (29 C) year round.
The Season: South swells are most consistent between April and September, but the monsoon typically hits in late May, meaning heavy rains and possibly adverse winds, depending on where you are surfing. (Monsoon typically blows from west to east, so plan accordingly.)
The Vibe: At last count there were 12 local wave riders in India—total—and virtually no traveling surfers. The only vibe in the water will be the one that you bring.
Things To Do: With such a vibrant, colorful culture, India should never be a surf-only trip. Bring a board along, but allow surfing to be a secondary consideration and open yourself up to one of the world’s few major cultures that thrives independent of the influence of the West. From the Himalaya in the north and the sordid streets of Calcutta to the grandeur of the Taj Mahal and tranquility of the various ghats along the Ganges, India has more to offer than you’ll ever be able to see in one trip—which is why many people return time after time, and some stay permanently. If you are basing yourself in the south in order to maximize water time, make sure to visit the Kerala backwaters (three-day houseboat tours are available), spend a day or two in the French-influenced city of Pondicherry and find your inner Zen through a yoga or meditation course at one of the dozens of ashrams spread throughout the region.
Where To Stay: Resort areas and towns that are squarely on the backpacker path will have a plethora of hostels at affordable prices, but in towns not frequented by tourists you’ll have to find local hotels (which can also be quite cheap, but are often dirty and less foreigner-friendly [ie. no sit-down toilets]).
What To Bring: A shortboard or hybrid fish with a lot of volume, unless you are looking for small point breaks (in this case bring a log) or going to one of the island groups (standard shortboard/step-up for hollow waves). Bring your own accessories, as you will find nothing surf-related in the country. Cold weather gear is essential if you plan to go north to the mountains. Women would do well to bring a pair of knee-length shorts, as the local culture frowns on immodesty. Also, bring along a taste for the exotic (and sometimes spicy!)—the local culinary arts are an experience in and of themselves. Finally, bring a course of the antibiotic Cipro, as a GI tract infection is pretty much guaranteed.
Getting There: If you are coming to surf, you will probably fly into Chennai (formerly known as Madras) or Trivandrum. Both airports also have flights to Colombo, Sri Lanka, making them convenient for a two-destination trip. Visas should be arranged before arrival, and it’s worth spending the extra $40 (give or take, depending on your country of origin) to get a 10-year visa, just in case you catch the India bug and want to return. Airport code: MAA (Chennai) and TRV (Trivandrum).