Gokarna is known as one of the seven important Hindu pilgrimage centers. It is on what was once an unspoiled beach near the estuary of the river Aghanashini. Recently, due to the influx of tourists, the character of the town has changed, it is no longer just a centre of pilgrimage. Gokarna is a small temple town on the western coast of India in the Kumta taluk of Uttara Kannada district of the state of Karnataka. The drive up the winding path that leads to Gokarna is scenic, with the rocky mountains and Western Ghats on one side and the Arabian Sea on the other. Gokarna is known for the beaches.
Gokarna's famous 'Mahabaleshwar Temple' is a 4th-century CE 'Lord Shiva Temple' which is built of granite in the classical Dravidian architectural style. This temple houses what is believed to be original image of Lord Shiva's linga (Atmalinga). The deity, a carved stone image of Lord Shiva, is seen in a standing position with two arms. The stone image is said to be 1500 years old.
As per legend, Ravana was given Atmalinga by Lord Shiva and instructed that it would stay permanently where it is first placed on the land. But Lord Ganesha came in the form of a boy and planted it in Gokarna while Ravana was performing rituals. Once placed Ravana could not remove it from the ground, but he removed some pieces of the Linga and threw them in different directions. It resulted in his throwing the coverings of the Linga to Dhareshwara, Gunavanteshwara, Murudeshwara and Shejjeshwar temples. Ravana was unable to lift the linga from the ground again and called the Shiva linga as Mahabala, one with great strength, and ever since, the linga illustrious as Mahabaleshwara. Shiva learned all these from Vayu Deva, the god of wind, and came on to Earth with Goddess Parvati devi and his train of Gods, he visited these five places and worshipped the linga which had now taken five forms. He acknowledged that these five places would be his "Pancha Kshetras" (Five Holy Places).
There are many other temples all over this small town. The temple faces the Karwar city beach on the Arabian Sea in which Hindu pilgrims cleanse before visiting the temple for worship. The temple is considered as holy as the Shiva temple at Varanasi or Kashi in North India on the banks of the Ganges River. Foreigners, including practicing Hindus of non-Indian (Western) origin are not allowed to enter the sanctum-sanctorum and see the Shivalinga.
According to another legend believe, Lord Shiva emerged from the ear of a cow (Prithvi, the Mother Earth) here. It is at the ear-shaped confluence of two rivers Gangavali and Aghanashini. The legend story is that Lord Brahma who out of arrogance arising out of his power to create the universe, sat penancing to redeem himself from curse of Shiva, Lord Shiva appeared in front of him from the ears of a cow. So the place came to be known as Gokarna or ear of the cow. Hindu Puranas says that when Lord Parashurama, the sixth avatar of Lord Vishnu created Kerala, it was from Gokarna to Kanyakumari.