Back in January of this year, ambassador Sam Bleakley pilgrimaged to the now familiar cultural setting of Kerala, India as part of a month long surf residency at the surf and yoga retreat Soul & Surf. This time with his family in tow and his Brilliant Corners series on the horizon, with style, grace and respect, Sam documents the very nature of travel to far off lands, all in the "name of exchange".
With nearly 1.3 billion people, India is the world’s second most populous nation, has over 7,500km (4,700 miles) of coastline, pretty much every type of landscape under the sun, is usually pepper-hot, and culturally-speaking, has to be one of the most kaleidoscopic places on the planet. Holy cows, Hindu deities, Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism and industrial post-modernism all have voices here - transient life and the permanently sacred tangle in a symbol war that multiplies on the eye. Pomp and poverty intermingle, sweat and thirst are inevitable, strict religious codes meet free will and stunning scenery, while elephants hold up the traffic. In Hindi, tomorrow and yesterday are the same - cul, and so are hello and goodbye - namaste. This tells you everything you need to know about travel – stay in the moment. And surf travel is a great wave to experience the present of India.
Both the east and west coasts of this vast sub-continent receive consistent swell from the Indian Ocean, as do two well-placed archipelagos: the Andaman Islands and the Lakshadweep Islands. Although still small, the local surf culture is vibrant, and growing fast, with clubs, grassroots surf-brands, young rippers and the Surfing Federation of India (SFI) organising surf instructor courses through the ISA (International Surfing Association). Indian surfers have a lot to celebrate. Turns out that even the word ‘surf’ has a link to India: over time, the mixing of dialects and languages through trade with India gave rise to a unique ‘pidgin’ language. The Portuguese coined the word 'surf' in the late 1600s, from the Sanskrit 'suffe' meaning ‘the coastline’. This intermingling that cultures, languages and traders shared along the Indian coastline led to a common ground in the form of the beach – where cultural habits had to be re-invented in the name of exchange.
It also turns out that an engraving by John Hassell (copied from a sketch by Charles Gold – who served with the Royal Artillery and was stationed at Madras on India's southeast coast in the late 1700s) entitled ‘Cattamarans’ and printed in London in 1800 (the original stored at the Australian National Maritime Museum) is currently the earliest known image of stand-up wave riding! One Indian fisherman rides a three-log catamaran, parallel stance, holding a paddle. Two men are further out on a second wave. A ‘masula’, a local surf boat with a crew of six, is heading over the third wave, transporting freight for the ships of the East India Company, awaiting off-shore at the Madras Roads. Although the earliest illustration of a surfboard being paddled was sketched in Hawaii, it was not until the 1830s that illustrations of stand-up rides began to appear from the Pacific. ‘Catamaran’ was the anglicized version of 'kaIfu-mar-am', meaning 'tied logs', widespread on the Tamil coast of south India and still in use in the surf zone for fishing today.
A good selection of India’s best breaks can be found along the shores of Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, on the southern tip. Most of the spots on the southwest-facing coast are beach breaks, best during the dry season (November to April) when you can usually score clean dawn patrols. Mahé, Varkala and Kovalam (Lighthouse Beach) are three of the better bets on this stretch. The southwest monsoon (May to October) brings bigger swells and southwest winds; a good time to head to the opposite coast, where you’ll find more beach breaks and a decent right point at Manapad.
The huge landmass of Sri Lanka prevents many southwest swells reaching far up the east coast, but southeast swells are regular during the monsoon season, periodically lighting up the region of northeast Tamil Nadu and Andra Pradesh. July and August are usually the best months. About 80km (50 miles) south of the city of Chennai, Mahabalipuram Shore Temple is a sand-bottom right point which peels for 100 yards alongside a 1,400-year-old Vishnu temple. On a solid swell, Mahabalipuram offers powerful, sand-sucking tubes at low tide, and softer waves at high. Beach cottages are available to rent and there’s a friendly nascent local scene. Just north of the industrial city of Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh, on a clean southeast swell, Lawson’s Bay and Mangamari offer very long right points, generally ridden only by local fishermen returning to shore in their wooden boats, loaded with tuna.
Situated 400km (250 miles) off the southwest coast of the mainland, the Lakshadweep Islands are a string of coral atolls which are part of the same undersea mountain range as the Maldives. They’re some of the most exotic and beautiful islands you’ll ever see, with flawless white beaches, swaying palms and giant turtles wallowing just a few yards offshore. The Lakshadweeps have yet to be fully explored by surfers and many new spots are sure to be found, although permits are required for travel here. Dave Rastovich scored an impressive hollow right with filmmaker Taylor Steele when they were in India shooting Castles in the Sky in 2009.
India’s other offshore territory is the Andaman Islands situated on the far side of the Bay of
Bengal, northwest of Indonesia. In 1998 photographer John Callahan became the first to document a surf trip here with Sam George (then Surfer editor), Chris Malloy and Jack Johnson, following a gruelling 70 hour dive-boat charter from Phuket, Thailand, riddled with visa hassles, to Port Blair. Callahan had researched all the potential set-ups on British Admiralty nautical charts. The trip appears in Thicker than Water (1999) shot on 16mm by Chris Malloy and Jack Johnson. Johnson at the time was studying Cinematography in California, had brought an acoustic guitar on the boat, and played songs that later appeared in Thicker than Water and his first album Brushfire Fairytales (2001). Callahan has since made two more projects in the Andaman and the Nicobar Islands (strictly off-limits to any non-Indian passport holders). “I’m probably the only human on earth, Indian nationals included, who has been from the top of North Andaman Island to Indira Point at the southern tip of Great Nicobar Island,” says Callahan. Today you can fly direct to the Andamans from India, as tourism has taken a foothold. A small number of charter boats offer trips to Little Andaman Island, home to a number of quality Indo-style reefs. The best of these is Kumari Point, a speedy righthand reef-point which will peel for 200 yards on a big south swell, with sizzling tube sections. But it’s a fickle spot, fully dependent on early season southwest monsoon swells (April or May).
For me, the great musical parallel with India is the late jazz pioneer of World music, Don Cherry, who said “free will manifests in different forms.” The spirit of Don Cherry is certainly on display here. Cherry was master of the fragile pocket trumpet, and composer and bandleader with Ornette Colemen on Symphony For Improvisers – a classic in the library of ‘harmelodic innovation’ – where harmony and melody fuse throughout improvisation. Cherry explained: “The form of jazz where you had the composition, then the sax solo, trumpet solo, piano solo, drum solo, the trade fours – that concept doesn’t open for surprises. And surprise is, to me, one of the most important things in life, for inspiration.” On the album sleeve Cherry famously traded the usual sharp suit worn by most Blue Note jazz players for a hip multi-coloured crocheted jumper and later took up full, traditional African dress. His music began to draw on extensive travel, a global quest from India to Brazil to Africa to absorb and fuse as much as possible from different cultures – a musical feast. At the same time, Brazilian artists like Antonio Carlos Jobim were merging jazz with samba. Joao Gilberto took the continuous sound of samba, where all space and silence are occupied by beats, by rhythm, a sea of sound, and opened it up. He slowed down the polyrhythmic changes, and created Bossa Nova.
Cherry’s experiments with world music arrived in the shape of the album Mu. There are flutes, shells, percussion, guitars, harps and endearingly bright, heartfelt Indian carnatic singers. Cherry puts it all together in a fluent style that is melodic and swings, but is not slave to a metronomic beat. His lifetime work came to fruition in ‘Multikulti’, an album, and a term coined to describe people living harmoniously side-by-side building from basic languages of the body and feeling. Cherry challenged the dominant mode of jazz in an ironic gesture or a sly civility, first by maintaining melody throughout, and second by amazing harmonic counterpoints between unusual instruments. Flute might meet high notes of the pocket trumpet like two birds in conversation, with a sitar drone as accompaniment. Multikulti is pulsating, undulating, like great surfing that swells and ebbs, and changes with the volume and shape of the water. “Don plays rhythm rather than time,” said the Multikulti reviewers. “When the saxes are firing, Don is slurring. When the alto is so high above the register it sounds like a whistle, Don is imitating the human voice in song. When the tenor is making some flipped out confessional, Don is making brilliantly understated jokes.” Namaste to Indian multikulti.
Photography by Halina Pokoj.