Saradama looks rather comfortable in her spotless white apron and her chef’s hat as she stirs the “avial” in the fancy kitchen of the luxurious Taj Vivanta Resort in Bekal. She is soon joined by a couple of assistants and they rattle off in Malayalam as they discuss the various local delicacies for the day. For many, this may look like a regular day in the kitchens of any hotel, but for Saradama, a housewife who has never stepped inside a five-star resort until then, let alone eaten in one, it is more than just a dream coming true. She is yet to grapple with the fact that she cooks for the hotel guests everyday and is considered as one of the celebrated chefs here.
Saradama has always been a housewife, cooking for just her family, while her two assistants have been working in a small tailoring unit. Their lives however changed when Bekal, a humble seaside town whose only claim to fame is an ancient fort that offers fantastic views to railway passengers chugging along the Arabian coast, suddenly became a high end tourist town with a few luxurious resorts setting up base here. And tourism in this border town, nestled between Kerala and Karnataka has changed the contours of many a life of a local resident here.
Bekal was probably discovered by filmmakers long before the tourists. Saradama remembers when Mani Ratnam and his crew landed here to shoot the popular song “Uyire” for the film Bombay in the 1990s. There was hardly a resort around then. Even today, if you drive around the couple of streets that make up the town, one would hardly see many eateries or restaurants. Yet Bekal’s charm lies in its unspoilt beauty and its pristine beaches.
Walking along the estuary at the resort, where a small stream meets the sea, I watch the fishermen set sail early in the morning. The sun has a dull glow that gives the sea a white- washed look. A few cormorants and egrets bask in the light as a kingfisher flies low. I head out for a morning walk on the shores, only to find the waves for company.
It was a sudden whim that took me to this town. Many a train journey had brought me to its shores earlier but I had never explored it on foot. It was always the view from the window seat that had stayed with me. However, this time I decided I would take the road from Bangalore. Driving along I passed landscapes that changed like a three-dimensional painting. Every time I looked out of the window, I saw something different. An indifferent montage of sleepy villages suddenly morphed into hills carpeted by coffee and cardamom plantations and then, suddenly, the world looked blue. Backwaters, rivers and the ocean competed with spotless skies as my journey took me through crowded towns, silent temples and traffic logged bad roads to enter Bekal.
Bekal is always in a deep stupor. And therein lies its charm. The white pristine sands of the beaches are family-friendly as some picnickers come here to spend a quiet evening. Rows of coconut trees raise their heads everywhere, as they stand like guardians, watching over the seaside town. I head out to explore Bekal Fort, apparently shaped like a giant keyhole and one can see the secrets of the sea unfolding along the waves.
Standing on the shores of the Arabian Sea is Kerala’s largest fort spread over 40 acres, beautified by the Kerala Tourism Board. I am early for sunset and a lone gardener is watering the plants. A goat sits at the entrance, oblivious to the beauty around it. Built in the 17th century, the fort seems to have risen from the seashore itself, as you can see the waves gently stroke the citadel. Attributed to Shivappa Nayak of Bednore, one wonders if the ramparts were built here earlier, as Bekal was probably a significant port in ancient times and some scholars identify it with the old Vekkaloth Fort. It is believed that many rulers, including the Europeans had probably made some modifications to it, while Tipu Sultan who used it as a base to conquer the Malabar region built the observation tower here.
I look around to see cannons, towers, observatory, water tanks, tunnels .There are no palaces here, indicating that the citadel was built purely for defence. Climbing up the steps to the central tower, I see the towns of Kasaragod and Kanhangad spread out before me. Through the curved arches of the fortress I see the sun, a tiny golden dot in a colourless sky, preparing for its descent. Looking down, there are some tourists sitting on the rocks on the beach waiting for the sun to call it a day. We bend our heads and go down on our knees to descend a flight of steps to reach the beach. The waves joyfully hit the rocks as the winds blow in the faces. The shutterbugs are all here. And so we do the touristy thing - capture that mandatory sunset shot on camera and wait patiently for the dusk to dawn.
Bekal Fort is located on the Malabar Coast in northern Kerala between the towns of Kanhangad (8 km) and Kasargod (18 km). The nearest airport is Mangalore (60 km).