India has 4,700 miles of coastline, but the last thing you are likely to see on its palm-fringed beaches is a surfboard – until now. That's changing, thanks to a group of surfers from near the port city of Mangalore known as – what else? – the Surfing Swamis.

Born under the technical and spiritual guidance of a former American surfer turned swami named Jack Hebner, the group last year set up the surfing Federation of India (SFI) and has just organized the first Indian Surfing Festival in Orissa state on the other side of the peninsula.

"In Orissa because a guy from the state who heads the Surfing Yogis has experience of organizing festivals," says SFI founder Kishore Kumar. "But we're also getting a very good response from other states wanting to set up local surfing associations, and we've been recognized by the International Surfing Federation."

"Three fishermen take on the world and win," exulted CNN-IBN TV, as surfers from the southern Tamil Nadu state came first, second and third in the stand-up paddle event – the only race at the festival – against competitors from nine other countries, including the US, Australia, South Africa, and Vietnam.

"Riding the padagu (catamaran) for a living makes us endure long stretches of stress," says Murthy Megavan, one of the fishermen/surfers. He and his team-mates were trained at the Bay of Life surfing school, where they learned stand-up paddle surfing in two months. "They have it in their blood," says Showkath Jamal, who set up the school in Tamil Nadu after watching foreigners surf at a beach near the southern city of Chennai.

"Indians respect, fear and worship the ocean, but as we propagate the idea of surfing as a sport – and also teach people how to understand currents, zips, etc – people are getting interested," he says. "Even now before we surf we say a prayer to Varuna, the god of the sea," says Kumar. "Ultimately, it's at the ocean's mercy that you catch a good wave."

India, Kumar adds, does not have "world-class surfing breaks", but there are several coastal and island beaches with good waves – up to 25ft high during the monsoon. "The number of surfers is small, but it is growing pretty fast," he says.

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• This article was amended on 22 February 2012. In the original, the quote, "Ultimately, it's at the ocean's mercy that you catch a good wave," appeared twice.

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