Legends are something we all look up to. Why? In a legend we look for inspiration.
We hope to see in a legend something of what we ourselves might be in the distant future.
by Kishore Kumar
Legends are something we all look up to. Why? In a legend we look for inspiration. We hope to see in a legend something of what we ourselves might be in the distant future. But surfing legends are not something that India has had time enough to produce. India, after all, is the new kid on the block in the surfing world. Presently our surfing legend is Surfing Swami [now age 67] who came to India in 1976 and brought surfing with him.
Three and a half decades later, India has a surf community of about 150 surfers, numerous surf clubs, surf schools, an India Surfing Magazine, even a Surf Team India under the India Surfing Federation and Surfing Swami is at the epicenter of it all. How Swami and surfing in India got to this point is an interesting journey, possibly the only one of its kind.
Swami began his surfing career in Jacksonville Beach, Florida in 1963, a time before any surfer in India was born. Swami says that in those days the surfers were restricted to surfing in a small area just south of the pier and if they strayed out of that area they risked being arrested by police. And that happened on more than one occasion.
Swami got a job at the North Florida Surf Shop as a ding repairman in the winter of 1963/64. Some months later when Allen Surfboards came to Florida and set up a big production unit, Swami got a job glassing custom boards. That same year Swami and his surf buddies started Oceanside Surf Club and together they created the first surf culture in North Florida.
Piling as many surfers and boards as possible into a vehicle Swami and his friends would cruise up and down the coast looking for waves, sometimes camping in their car at night or just sleeping in the sand waiting for the sun to rise and catch some waves. Listening to “The Beach Boys” album “Surfing USA” on the radio — this was the surf culture of the mid-60s.
Swami recalls that sharks were a regular occurrence in Florida waters but none of the surfers ever got attacked or bitten. “It might have been the size of our boards that made the difference. We all surfed 9’ and 10’ boards in those days, so we probably looked pretty scary to a 6’ foot shark.”
In the summer of 1964 Bruce Brown’s surf film “The Endless Summer” with Corky Carol, Phil Edwards and Mike Hynson came to Jacksonville Beach and all the local surfers turned out to see it. Swami says “The Endless Summer” film was the start of his surfing travel-fever, his journey to seek out the perfect wave.
Giving up his job at Allen Surfboards in 1965, Swami set out with three other surfers for the west coast in a Volkswagen-Bug. They crossed 5000 kilometers of the United States, from coast to coast, arriving in San Diego, California in just 54 hours. From there Swami and his friends surfed all the breaks between San Diego and Los Angels, then they headed south to Mexico [Baja California].
The water was usually unpleasantly cold on the west coast so Swami decided to head out to Hawai’i. In those days Swami says that you could get a flight from L.A. into Honolulu for as little as $50 and inner island flights between Oahu and Maui for as little as $10. While in Hawai’i, Swami surfed breaks on Maui, Big Island and Oahu. He lived at Ala Moana Yacht Harbor for sometime and often surfed the Ala Moana Bowl, Magic Island, Point Panic, Waikiki, Diamondhead and Makaha. Swami also surfed the North Shore, including Waimea Bay. He recalls that when waves reached 20 foot plus that he took his seat on the beach. In his own words, “I was just too skinny a kid to handle the wipeouts and big white water. Not that I have any regrets – I just knew my limits.”
Crowds and localism eventually became a force for change and Swami was on the move again, this time to Africa. Getting out a world map and watching “The Endless Summer” yet again for the 100thtime, the next stop for Swami was South Africa. At the time the entire surfing community worldwide was talking about Cape Saint Francis in South Africa, believed to be the perfect wave. It was the dream destination of almost every surfer on the planet. But Swami says that on arrival he was somewhat disappointed in that Cape Saint Francis was just not as good a wave as anticipated – it was good, but not good that often.
There were better waves to be found and Swami wanted to find them. Close by Cape Saint Francis was a break at Jeffrey’s Bay, now known as South Africa’s most famous wave. Swami explored many surf spots between Durban and Cape Town. He surfed them all and then traveled north to surf the beaches in Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Sudan and even Lake Victoria. In 1976 after four years in Africa and a few months in Mauritius, Swami set out for India — a place he would eventually call his home.
Arriving in India, Swami met many sadhus [Indian holy men] and developed a deep interest in Krishna-bhakti [devotional yoga]. He lived in several ashrams in the Himalayas, Vrindavana and Bengal on the banks of the Ganges, learning Sanskrit and studying Bhagavad-gita and other ancient spiritual texts of India. That same year Swami decided to become a Krishna monk [an official swami] but continued his search for the perfect wave. Now Swami was able to combine the spirituality of Krishna-bhakti with the spirituality he had cultivated for surfing. Since that time he has become known as the “Surfing Swami”. Out of the tens of thousands of swamis in India he is the only one that surfs. Sometimes alone and sometimes with friends visiting from the west, Swami continued his spiritual journey, surfing from Jagannatha Puri to Kanya Kumari on the east coast and from Kanya Kumari to Dwaraka on the west coast, exploring India’s 7000 kilometers of coastline.
Over the years Swami has also traveled out from the mainland of India and surfed waves in Bali, Maldives, Seychelles, Lakshdweep and Andaman Islands.
In 2003 Swami returned to one of his favorite surf spots in India, Mahabalipuram, and rented a beach house for one year. It was here that he began to teach some young Indian boys how to surf.
It was also in Mahabs that Swami first met Vellu Murugan who had picked up surfing from some western surfers who had come to Pondi. Until meeting Vellu, Swami says that the only other Indian surfer that he had ever met was a guy in Kerala, Muthu Arland. Swami says that Muthu [now living on Little Andaman Island] was actually India’s first surfer and should someday be inaugurated into the Hall of Fame of Indian Surfers.
One day, while Swami was surfing at Kovalam Point just north of Mahabs, a local fisherman approached Swami and asked if he could borrow Swami’s board to give it a try. Swami obliged the young man and let him use his board. The stocky built young man stood up on his first wave and was stoked. His name was Murthy Megavan. Murthy went on to become one of India’s present day surf heroes.
In 2004 with the help of an old friend and surfer from Jacksonville Beach, Rick Perry [a.k.a. Babaji], Swami established a Surf Ashram in Mulki, Karnataka, and since then he has introduced surfing to dozens and dozens of people from around India, including Bollywood’s super star and action hero Sunil Shetty.
One day, a young couple from Manipal University came to the Surf Ashram to learn surfing and they were immediately changed forever. They were Tushar Pathiyan and Ishita Malaviya. Like Vellu and Murthy, Tushar and Ishita are now members of Surf Team India and operate their own surf school and Shaka Surf Club.
There can be no doubt that Surfing Swami has done wonders for surfing in India, spreading surfing to others, bringing international surf reporters and photographers as well as surf film directors such as Taylor Steele to India to document India’s surf line up. All this has given a tremendous boost to surfing in India. But when asked, Swami says that he only played a small part in what is happening and that bigger things are happening everyday. But I can tell you, as one who knows Swami very well, that Swami is a big part of India’s surfing future and he has plans to continue putting India in the headlines of surfing news worldwide. Everyday India is seeing more and more interest in surfing, from Bollywood Stars, to Cricket Stars, to IT Processionals, to kids from the village. India has got the surfing stoke and Surfing Swami is driving that stoke forward!
When I asked Surfing Swami if he had found the perfect wave in his 50-year search he told me, “The perfect wave is the one you are riding. So lets go surfing!”