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Off the Map: Bekal and Valiyaparamba

By Anamika Mukherjee

It was three months since our last holiday, and that was just a weekend camping trip. It was almost six months since our last long break. We were dead keen to get away, and not very particular about where. Perhaps that explains it. We happened to catch a brief glimpse of a Kerala Tourism brochure, which mentioned a couple of places we'd never heard of before, and before you could say "God's own country," we had packed our bags and were ready to leave.

Having seen much of the popular tourist face of Kerala, the idea of a couple of off beat destinations seemed quite appealing to us. We were headed to Bekal Fort, and then on to Valiyaparamba, advertised as a quiet and secluded holiday resort. We knew that this holiday could turn out to be terribly uncomfortable and chaotic, but we didn't let such minor details deter us.

A growing sense of adventure was contributed to by the fact that we had neither hotel reservations for any of the nights on the road, nor any return tickets. This was Easter weekend, and also Vishu, the harvest festival and the beginning of the new year, in Kerala. Not only would the state be full of people flocking home for the festivities, but also many establishments – like bus and train booking offices - might be closed over the long weekend.

Gamely, we set off anyway, and, having caught an overnight bus to Mangalore, awoke groggily to be thrown off the bus in the wee hours of the morning. We caught the next bus to south to Kasargod and finally another bus to Bekal. Stumbling off on a highway to nowhere, we were pointed down a side road, and found a sign reading "Bekal fort, 0.300 m", which we were greatly relieved to see, since it was the only sign of anything here other than the endless highway.

Bekal, often also called Bakel, is one of the largest forts in Kerala. It is over 350 years old. It runs along the beach and has a slightly underground passage leading from within the fort, over the rocks and down to the beach. One face of the fort wall runs parallel to the beach and one sole bastion, like an errant child escaping its parents' protective guard, has run away from the walls and positioned itself atop a rocky outcrop on the very edge of the water, just out of reach of the waves thrashing and writhing in fury below. It was here we spent much of our time in Bekal, watching this raging battle with endless fascination. In the heat of the late morning and early afternoon, cooled by the constant breeze and the occasional spray of a vigorous wave, we watched a fisherman cutting open shells, attaching the worms to his hook and casting again and again; he seemed to have caught only a couple of small fish, hardly worth the effort.

It was the lean season for fishing. The fishing boats were all pulled up on the beach and upturned, and the few fishermen still active were mostly joining hands to cast a large net deep into the rushing waters and slowly pull it out again. We watched them rhythmically bending and pulling, bending and pulling, all in a line, with reels of rope coming out but no net in sight. When the net finally appeared, they all gathered around it to weed out the junk and salvage the fish. There was a whole host of junk in the net, and not too much fish. "After a couple of months, the fish will come," they explained, optimistically. "In this season, just as the monsoon is on its way in, there's not much fish to be had."

There weren't too many options for places to stay, in Bekal. The Fort Land Tourist Home was just barely acceptable to us, clean enough and with pleasant helpers. There was no arrangement for food there though, so we frequented the restaurant (for want of a better word) on the corner of the main road and the side road leading to the fort. It looked just like a small shop, but was large, deep and cool inside. The proprietor ran the show with very little help, and provided prompt and personalised service - with a smile and some small talk thrown in gratis. The food was really good, and reasonably priced, though the repertoire was rather limited, being of the carte d'jour variety rather than a la carte. Surprisingly, given that tourist presence here is virtually negligible, the restaurant always had plenty of customers. We ate at odd hours, breakfasting at eleven or twelve and on one occasion stopping in for lunch around three. Even at these hours, there were several others tucking in to fish curry, green peas masala, a spicy chicken preparation with little gravy and Kerala parathas or appams.

Kappil beach, 6 km from Bekal, was advertised as a lovely and secluded beach in our trusty (?) tourist brochure, so we hopped into an auto and headed there. The driver soon turned off the main road and twisted through narrow and quiet little inside roads. After a while, he dropped us in front of some houses (mostly still under construction) and pointed us down the road.

The beach was maybe a 500 m hike down the road and through some empty land, where we were not sure whether we were trespassing or not. It was more secluded than anything a tourist brochure would have led you to suspect, being almost entirely devoid of human life. The wind whipped up the sand and lasheed our faces. Pure, white sand, an outcropping of rock, the sweeping waves, the loneliness, all led to an irresistible temptation to get into the water. But the current was strong here, in this weather, and caution on that deserted beach kept us from attempting deeper forays into the water.

After a couple of hours at Kappil, we headed for a ninth century temple called Ananthapura Lake Temple, 30 km away. The brochure promised something exotic, but a bus journey via Kasargod and on, and a long, dusty walk later, we found it a totally unimpressive structure, and returned forthwith to Kasargod. Chandragiri Fort was next on our agenda. Another long, winding auto ride brought us to a tiny, rocky hillock, where we scrambled to the top to find a fort wall and not much else. It was a very picturesque spot, though, with the sea in front and the backwaters on one side, and a thick grove of coconut palms behind. We enjoyed a spectacular sunset, then headed back to Bekal feeling quite pleased with our little excursion.

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Copyright 2008 Amit and Anamika Mukherjee. All rights reserved.