A hidden gem in north Kerala, Bekal is a scenic getaway with a quiet serenity that adds to its infinite charm.
By BINDU GOPAL RAO
Think Kerala and it immediately conjures up scenes of lush green coconut palms, swaying gently in the breeze as a solitary boat cruises the blue waters lapping against the shore. While this is quintessential Kerala, God’s Own Country still has some alluring, yet relatively unexplored destinations that are largely off the tourist radar. The small, peaceful town of Bekal is one of them.
If you have watched the 1995 movie, Bombay, the visuals from one of its most iconic songs, ‘Tu Hi Re’, are sure to come to mind. This immensely popular song was shot at Bekal Fort, one of the town’s most famous and important sites. The imposing circular structure, interestingly shaped like a keyhole, is more than 350 years old and is said to have been built by Sivappa Naik of the Ikkeri dynasty. The brown-laterite structure happens to be one of the largest and best-preserved forts of the state. One of its most attractive features is its location—gracing the edge of the Arabian Sea, it rises from the crashing waters in mystically alluring splendour. And if that weren’t enough, the fort’s beautifully landscaped gardens teeming with flowers present a stunning, colourful contrast against its dark façade.
As a defence structure that has stood the test of time, facing many human and natural battles, the fort is an engineering marvel. Best explored with a guide, you will be regaled with stories of secret underground passages and excavation discoveries. An Archaeological Survey of India site, the fort is home to a broad and wide flight of stairs that allows you to reach the upper level, roughly 30 feet high. It may seem like quite a climb, but the walk is a great way to get some mild exercise. And the reward is well worth it too, as you witness sweeping views of the sea, visible on three sides, and lush landscape on the fourth. The sight of frothy, white waves crashing against the rocks and the line of fishing boats that dot the coast make for quite the visual; you may be forgiven for imagining yourself as part of the famous song! The shallow waters of the Pallikere Beach are just about a kilometre away from the fort. Within the ramparts, the presence of a Hanuman temple and a mosque is testimony to the site’s religious harmony, and you find yourself experiencing a quiet sense of spiritual wellness.
Unlike the crowded backwaters of Alleppey, Valiyaparamba, located a short distance from Bekal, offers you the chance to reconnect with yourself, taking in the sights and sounds at your own sweet pace. It has one of the most scenic backwaters of the state, and is fed by four rivers, with many island clusters along its path. The best way to experience a slice of water therapy is to book a boat cruise. Floating along the 16-square-kilometre waterbody offers an insight into the simple life of the villagers. Agriculture and fishing are the main occupations of the denizens here and you can see them go about their usual routines without being affected by your presence. The post-pandemic travel lesson is all about taking things slow—cruising along the backwaters surrounded by the sounds of nature is possibly the most soul-satisfying way to achieve the stillness you desire. With birds chirping and the water rippling against the craft, all you need to do is soak in the idyllic charms of the rustic life.
Any holistic experience is incomplete without food. It connects us to the land around us by appealing to all our senses; savouring the local cuisines is the best way to do that. Like the rest of Kerala, Bekal is known for its amazing seafood. The fare here has an interestingly varied taste profile that is sure to set your taste buds tingling. A must-try is the fried calamari, a fish preparation that is a unique combination of being tender inside and crispy on the outside; the freshness of the seafood just adds to the flavours. Another dish you must sample is the prawn cooked in coconut gravy; it teams beautifully with steaming hot appams. Bekal’s cuisine has a strong Malabar influence, as well. Try the Al Fahm, which is a serving of delicious roast chicken with kuzhimanthi, a kind of biryani. The rustic bamboo biryani (semi-cooked rice and meat cooked inside a foot-long bamboo) is a unique speciality here.
There’s much to choose from for vegetarians too, including delicacies such as aviyal (a mélange of vegetables cooked in a coconut and curd gravy), erissery (a lentil and pumpkin stew), and idiyappam (string hoppers) with curry.
When here, you simply have to sample the famed sadya, an extensive meal that presents a wide spread of dishes, traditionally served on a banana leaf. This is a truly delightful experience as you get to sample traditional parboiled red rice, a variety of curries, savouries, pickles, chutneys, and desserts, all served in a specific order that dates back many centuries. Pappadams, ginger pickle, kichadi (a spicy curd-based preparation) and upperi (deep-fried banana chips) are also part of this lavish feast. For breakfast, try traditional dishes like appam, Kerala porotta, Ramassery idli, vettile dosa, kothu porotta, and idiyappam. And wash it all down with pathimugam, a traditional pink drink, made with Indian redwood soaked in water. This is believed to possess many medicinal benefits and is usually served at all restaurants. Interestingly, the cuisines of Kerala offer several versions, often of the same dish, which change based on the prevalent cultures of the state’s various districts. As a result, it is likely that you’ll end up tasting something different and unique based on where you are staying. The only constant are the flavours.
• Explore the surangas in nearby Kasaragod. These unique water tunnels have been dug into the hillside, and make their way through the rock till they reach a laterite water reservoir. The narrow, horizontal passageways are one of the oldest water harvesting systems in the region.
• Visit a cashew factory to see how cashews are processed. It makes for a great edible souvenir to take back home.
• Sign up for an Ayurvedic spa session.
• Pick up Kerala spices from the local market.