The holy city of Puri located by the Bay of Bengal is one of the four main Hindu pilgrimage sites in India (besides Badrinath, Dwarka and Rameswaram) and is famous for the 12th-century Jagannath Temple. The subtle fragrance of incense mixes with the salty coastal breeze and the sound of prayers from countless temples reverberate through the air here. With an aura of mysticism and bliss, Puri has always been a magnet for pilgrims. However, over the last five years, it has become a melting pot for surfers and travellers who are searching for isolation and a wild coastal surf experience, thanks to the yearly India Surf Festival held here. The beautiful beaches of Puri offer some of the best waves for surfing in India.

My first tryst with surfing occured when I volunteered to work on art projects for the third edition of India Surf Festival. That was when I got a chance to work with the Surfing Yogis, the organisers of the festival. You’d imagine them as saffron-clad ascetics who surf during their free time, but the Surfing Yogis are the only people in Odisha who provide surfing and board sports activities.

It was January and the Puri-Konark Marine Drive was blessed with greenery. The Bay of Bengal was visible through the trees on one side and beautifully-carved temples stood regally on the other. My auto rickshaw driver had to keep his foot close to the brake because we could see deer and jackals crossing the road – what an incredible experience! We finally stopped near a huge sign alongside the road which proclaimed that we were on the Surfing Yogis’ turf. I was excited to see so many people from different walks of life from all around the world working together at one place. There were tents and hammocks pitched around the venue, with beautifully-painted shacks and a garage full of surf-boards. The electric energy and the friendliness of the people there put a smile on my face!

Courtesy Surfing Yogis
A surfer rides a wave
A surfer rides a wave

After spending a few days at the festival, I realised that I had a very skewed idea of surfing, since, on television, they make it look so easy! Surfing is actually one of the most difficult and dangerous sports in the world. To be able to be even a decent surfer, you need to be an excellent swimmer. Surfing is especially hard because the exper-ience of surfing on a wave is different every single time – you’ll simply never ride the same kind of wave again. You also need to be in excellent physical condition, since surfing requires a great amount of upper body strength.

Unlike surfing, Stand Up Paddle (SUP) is a much easier surf sport, which can be performed both on flat waters as well as on waves. In SUP, you use a big surfboard – large enough for anyone to stand on and paddle for propulsion. With a leash and a life jacket, SUP is the easiest and safest board sport in the world.

I tried my hand at SUP while I was there. My lessons began with a basic introduction – I was taught the different parts of a surfboard, how to paddle, how to change directions, how to get back up on the board if I fell in the water, and other basic guidelines. I also learned how to balance on the gyroboard (a gyroscopic board with springs) on land – it’s a great way to exercise core strength and simulate move-ments that you are likely to encounter in board sports like surfing, skateboarding and snow-boarding. After the exercise with the gyroboard, we loaded our boards on top of a beautifully-painted auto rickshaw and headed straight to the Kushavadra River. Our SUP instruc-tor demonstrated with the board on the water before giving us life jackets, surfboards and paddles. Excitedly, we all stepped into the water, got onto our boards and began paddling in the sitting position. After ten minutes of understanding the current and how the board moved on the water, I decided to stand up and managed to not fall into the water and embarass myself on my first attempt, and everyone else followed suite. The moment we began paddling standing up is indescribable; it felt like we were walking on the water. We explored the beautiful river that cuts through a verdant forest, and the views were breathtaking.

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Yoga on a surf board; Lessons on a gyroboard; Stand Up Paddle; Surfing
Yoga on a surf board; Lessons on a gyroboard; Stand Up Paddle; Surfing

After paddling for about a kilometre, we reached the spot where the river meets the sea. As soon as we started approaching the meeting point, our boards began wobbling due to the waves that were forming here. Our instructor signalled for us to paddle towards the shore. By the time we made it there, our arms were completely tired as we had been paddling continuously for almost an hour.

After getting some well-needed rest, our instructor showed off his surfing skills on the waves here and I was blown away by how far he was able to paddle into the sea!

Soon, it was low tide and it was time for us to head back. We began paddling and, this time around, it was easier because the river current’s direction was in our favour – thank god for small mercies!

This experience changed my perspective on surfing. I had earlier believed that surfing was only about balancing on the surfboard, but now I understood that it involved so many more aspects. The three-hour session cost me ₹1,000 and it was well worth it. With that short session, I had gotten a taste for the waves and I was craving more. I headed back to Puri the same year in November to try my hand at surfing with the Surfing Yogis again. My lessons began with a trek into the forest, which led us to the Ramachandi Beach. My instructor taught me a few hand signals, showed me how to paddle, how to prop myself up on the board, how to position myself when I was in the sea and all the nitty-gritties involved in the sport. After several wipeouts and failed attempts, I finally managed to stand up on a wave in the whitewash (the white water which forms after the wave crashes near the shore). I quickly understood how addictive surfing can be and why people are hooked to the sport.

A Stand Up Paddle class in progress
A Stand Up Paddle class in progress

And so, my instructor asked me to follow him into sea. As we were paddling out there, I heard him yell something and all of a sudden, a huge wave crashed into me and I was thrashed around in the water like there was no tomorrow! The surfboard, which was connected to my leg with a leash, was flung in one direction and I in the other. When I finally swam back up and broke the surface, I didn’t know which way to go! Just then another 5-foot wave crashed into me! I tried my best to get back up on the surfboard, hoping either to stay afloat on the sea or to be pushed back to shore to safety. But then my instructor yelled at me, “Don’t stay parallel to the waves, you’ll just get beaten by them over and over again”. I struggled for what felt like an hour – jumping off my board and pushing it ahead of me when the waves were too big, paddling hard when they softened up. Even-tually, I managed to make my way to the point where the surface of the sea was calm. I have been in the sea before – on boats and kayaks – but never like this. The agony I felt at this bone-breaking battle to get to the point beyond the breaking waves can’t be put into words. Out there, my breathing was the loudest sound there was, but I had time to drink in the lovely view of the sea.

My instructor taught me how to catch the big waves, and after several wipeouts, I paddled back into the war zone with my blood pumping. I was already completely exhausted. All of a sudden, my instructor screamed, “Paddle!” and over my shoulder, I saw a wave approaching. I paddled with all my might and felt the wave take control. I did every-thing I was taught during my lessons and stood up. For the first time ever,

Important Tips

Always pay heed to the guidelines given by the instructor.

You don’t have to be a swimmer for SUP, whereas surfing requires good swimming skills.

Never panic when you wipeout and fall from the surfboard.

Don’t forget to pack a pair of shorts, sunglasses and sunscreen lotion.

Exercise regularly and practicing the pop-up step (which you need to use to prop yourself on the board) can be really helpful. You can look for the steps on Youtube.

I did not fall and after a few seconds, the wave died. This was the most exhilarated I had ever felt in my life! I paid ₹1,500 for the three-hour surf lesson, but it was an experience of a lifetime.

Surfing in Puri is not just about the sport itself – it’s about connect-ing with nature. As you trudge through the forest with your surfboard while making your way to the beach, you might sight a pack of jackals. The migratory birds, Olive Ridley turtles, deer and crabs will be easier to spot.

The Ramachandi beach is pristine and the water is crystal clear. Surfing is all about practice and once you learn the sport, you’ll want to hone your skills. Practicing the sport will improve your coordination, physical strength, mental focus and core strength. This highly addictive sport is definitely worth trying. So what are waiting for? The water beckons!

Where to Stay

Accommodation options in Puri range from cheap hotels to posh resorts. Toshali Sands (Tel: 0674-2547720, Cell: 09937282626; Tariff: ₹5,000–13,000), 8km from Puri on the Puri-Konark Marine Drive, is a luxurious resort. Mayfair Heritage (Tel: 06752-227800, 224242; Tariff: ₹11,000–15,000) is a top-end star hotel with its own private beach. Hotel Holiday Resort (Tel: 222440, Cell: 09861236588; Tariff: ₹3,120–9,600) offers great views of the sea from its four rooms.

For a feel of the bygone British era, stay at the heritage Chanakya BNR Hotel (Tel: 222063; Tariff: ₹3,000–4,500) which has wide veran-dahs offering spectacular sea views. Another heritage property here is Fort Mahodadhi (Tel: 220440/ 880, Cell: 09090093414, 09090093400; Tariff: ₹3,500–7,000) on Sea Beach Road, with all modern comforts.

OTDC Panthanivas (Tel: 222562, 222740; Tariff: ₹1,300–4,100), on CT Road, overlooking the beach, is a no-frills place. Puri Hotel (Tel: 222114, 223809, Cell: 0820259999; Tariff: ₹700–4,000) on Beach Road offers views of the sea. Hans Coco Palms (Tel: 230038, Cell: 090400 30952; Tariff: ₹5,000–15,000) is located close to the beach and is on the Swargdwar side. It has all imaginable modern facilities and is shaded by coconut fronds. Hotel Sapphire International (Tel: 226488; Tariff: ₹1,350–4,000) on CT Road, is a convenient place for budget travellers.

Where to Eat

In Puri, one can find culinary delights at both wayside foodstalls and posh restaurants. The local delicacy kheera (similar to rabri) is available in most sweet shops.

Savour a typical Odiya meal of rice, curries, dal (lentils) or dalma (lentils with vegetables), bhaja (fry) and khatta (sweet sour items) at Phulpatna Restaurant, which serves traditional Odiya fare. Annapurna Restaurant near Janata cinema and the Marwari bhojanalayas on Grand Road offer vegetarian thalis. If you are looking for a four-course Continental meal, place your order at the Chanakya BNR Hotel. For Chinese, Chung Wah on VIP Road is a good option, and the prawn delicacies here are recommended. Seafood at Wild Grass on VIP Road offers value for money. Bhojohori Manna on Gopal Ballav Road serves authentic Bengali vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. The restaurant in Puri Hotel too caters primarily to Bengali tourists. The small cafés on CT Road are popular. Try the fish, prawn and crab dishes sold on carts on the beachfront. At the other end are the multi-cuisine restaurants in high-end hotels like the Mayfair.

For those who are religiously inclined, a visit to Puri remains incomplete without a meal of mahaprasad, food that’s cooked by over 400 cooks at the Jagannath Temple kitchen, and served at stalls near Anand Bazaar.

Fast Facts

When to go Surfing in Puri remains closed between August and Septem­ber due to the monsoon and cyclonic weather. The rest of the year, be sure to book in advance, especially during weekends, holidays and winter

Getting There

Air Nearest airport: Biju Pattanayak Inter­national Airport, Bhubaneswar (60km/ 1.5hrs) is connected to the major cities in the country. Taxi Fare to Surfing Yogis is approximately ₹1,800

Rail Puri railway stations. Taxi costs about ₹400

Road From Kolkata, the 420-km journey will take you 10 hours Bus Overnight buses are available from Kolkata. Taxis and buses are easily available from Bhubaneswar to Puri