Published in the March issue of ‘Windows and Aisles’, the in-flight magazine of Paramount Airways
At a time when the world had long ago discovered the greens and blues of Kerala, the alluring backwaters of Alleppy and the warm beaches of Kovalam (and perhaps getting tired of the same images), director Maniratnam put a small spot in North Kerala on the map. Thanks to his evocative shots of lovers torn apart by a hostile world (in his movie ‘Bombay’), suddenly the rain-drenched ramparts of Bekal became one of the most romantic destinations within Kerala. It seemed the perfect rendezvous, hidden in the heart of Kerala and far from prying eyes. And the canny Kerala government seized this opportunity with both hands and suddenly, God’s own tiny country was officially larger on the tourist circuit.
We feel a rush of anticipation as we drive towards the fort, a visit that has been planned for many years about to materialize. At first glance, the Bekal fort is unassuming, especially after the excitement created by the plethora of signboards that guide you towards it, all the way from Mangalore to the North or Trivandrum deep down South. It sits lonely and tired at the edge of the waters. But as you make your way slowly to the top of the fort and then walk around the edges, seeing the Arabian Sea stretch out in front of you, the magic of the location sinks in.
There are groups of young girls in their bright salwar kameezes and school children in their staid uniforms inside the fort at the time we visit, adding noise and color to the otherwise peaceful scene. Still high in the sky, the sun is far from ready to call it a day and the sea is still rough though tiny boats are making their way bravely into the choppy waters. At Bekal beach nearby, crowds have already begun to troop in to watch the famous sunset on the Arabian Sea, and on top of the fort, young couples and families with small children have found themselves little corners from which to enjoy the evening breeze.
The fort seems to rise majestically from the sea itself, the waves washing over its walls the way they have done for centuries now. Bekal fort is made of the stuff that signifies unfulfilled romance, secret yearnings and patient waiting. Looking at the way it stands tolerantly weathering the torrid rains of August and the white heat of May, it makes me wonder how many such lovers the fort by the sea has seen.
A short history of the fort
The fort in Bekal is considered the largest in Kerala, spread over 40 acres, and certainly the best preserved. It was built by Sivappa Naik sometime in the 1650s and is known for its defence architecture, which includes cunningly placed holes in the walls of the fort that aim at different points and distances; the holes at top meant for aiming far into the sea while the ones below to catch the enemy as they approach closer.
The fort was later captured by Hyder Ali of Mysore in the late 18th century and then Tipu Sultan, under whom it served most as a defence citadel, especially during his march down South to capture the Malabar province. Recent excavations at the fort have brought to light different kinds of religious structures within the fort from the time of Tipu Sultan’s reign, including a darbar hall and temples, revealing the secular nature of his regime. Once Tipu Sultan fell, the fort passed into the hands of the British, when Bekal became the headquarters of the newly created Bekal taluk in the South Canara district. The decline of the fort began when South Canara district came under Madras province, and Kasarod taluk was established as the regional headquarters in place of Bekal.
Today, the Archeological Survey of India maintains it, along with the Kerala Government which is doing a lot to promote the fort, and the region itself as a major tourist attraction. To this end, the Bekal Resorts Development Corporation (BRDC) has been set up by the government and the entity takes care of developing the surrounding areas including Bekal Aqua Park and Pallikare beach.
Apart from Bekal fort which is today the most popular spot in the region, there are several other attractions in Kasargod which make it one of the more interesting regions in Kerala for tourists today. Kasargod is the northern-most district of Kerala, just South of Mangalore and culturally, has the feel of both Karnataka and Kerala. Similarly, there is also a lot of remaining influence from the Muslim rule, which flourishes peacefully with the rest of the Hindu and Christian communities who are part of the region. The entire area has a charming laid-back atmosphere which is not yet exposed to the overwhelming crowds of the rest of the state.
Water, water, everywhere…
If Bekal is Kasargod’s most famous landmark, I would say Nileshwaram is its best kept secret. There is nothing spectacular about the town itself; it lies 30 km to the South of Bekal by the banks of the Nileshwaram river. The town seems to have sprouted organically along the National Highway 17, with houses and small shops lining both sides of the road. We stayed at Nalanda Resorts in Nileshwaram, with rooms facing the placid river. It was early in the morning, on a boat ride on the river that we discovered the magic of life on and by the river.
Cruising slowly down the shallow river, only the steady hum of the motor boat to break the silence of dawn, we watched the town come to life, lazily stretching its arms towards a new day. A man walks, lonely and thoughtful on the bridge, the sun just climbing high in the sky just behind him. Fishermen are at work, busy in their own worlds, while other men in similar boats scout the river for silt. Our boatman explains that the sand from the shallow river is used in construction all over the region. Tiny birds are sitting on electric wires stretched across the river, flying away noisily at the sound of our approaching boat.
In a sense, Nileshwaram feeds all the clichés that Kerala is known for and at the same time, the peace and quiet of the unpolluted surroundings offers a layer of freshness to the scene that makes it a magical experience. Apart from the pristine scenic beauty of the area itself, Nileshwaram is also the ideal base to explore both the areas to the North and South of it, located somewhere at the centre of the tiny region of Kasargod.
Talking of secrets, I anticipate that some would insist that Valiyaparamba with its stunning backwaters qualify as the region’s foremost surprise package. Valiyaparamba is about 30 km South of Bekal, and is being promoted actively by the Kerala government as the most scenic backwater stretch in Kerala. That backwaters stretch is fed by four rivers and has several little islands that make a cruise in the waters an unforgettable experience. And if small rivers and scenic backwaters are not enough to excite you, Kasargod has several neat beaches stretching out in a line; Kappil, Bekal, Pallikra, each of them secluded and clean with calm waters and views stretching into the distance on either side.
Other attractions in Kasargod
Although we were there for only a day and did not have the time to explore the rest of the Kasargod region, here are some of the local attractions that were recommended to us. In the north of the district is Ranipuram, a verdant hill station situated 750 m above sea level. Ranipuram is also being developed as an adventure tourism destination, ideal for both nature lovers and amateur trekkers. The forests of Ranipuram run contiguous with those of neighboring Karnataka, with wild elephants and other animals roaming freely in their depths.
And to the South is the ancient Ananthapura Temple, in a secluded corner of Kasargod. This is the only lake temple in Kerala and is believed to be over a thousand years old and the moolasthala (original seat) of the deity Padmanabhaswamy. And to compete with Bekal is the Chandragiri Fort, also to the South of Kasargod town, situated by the Chandragiri river. This fort is supposed to be one of a chain of forts built by Sivappa Naik in the region and offers a great view of the Chandragiri river and the Arabian Sea.
Thankfully, even today, Bekal fort or even the region of Kasargod is not as crowded with tourists as the South of the state is. Add to this good infrastructure and facilities, a combination that spells holiday heaven. For those tired of the well-publicized image of swinging palms and kettuvallams of South Kerala, here is the ideal getaway solution. This is the perfect place for anyone with a secret in his / her heart. And that is you and me and everyone else.
Paramount Airways flies to Cochin and Bangalore, both roughly 350 km away from Kasargod. From Cochin, Kasargod which is about 15 km from Bekal and 45 km from Valiyaparamba is well-connected by trains on the Kozhikode-Mangalore-Mumbai route. And from Bangalore, Kasargod is a six hour drive on the Mangalore highway.
There are several good stay options in the region; we stayed at the moderately priced Nalanda Resorts at Nileshawaram, situated just on the banks of the river. Bekal also has hotels and resorts to suit al price ranges, including the option of tents on the beach from Bekal Beach Camp resort.