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Love gets through...

Rashmi Vasudeva, Dec 9 2017, 21:52 IST
The ramparts of Bekal Fort. Photo by author

The ramparts of Bekal Fort. Photo by author

The young man was belting out instructions: "a little left... no, no, lift your chin€ now look to your right," and his newly-wed wife was complying without complaint. Finally, she was made to stand with her arms stretched wide, and yes, chin up. It was another matter that she was standing precariously at the edge of a watchtower, looking out into the great expanse of the Arabian Sea.

It was farcical and funny. Till the rain came, grey and tender, and somehow, the boy and the girl became a poignant new love story.

Monsoons at Bekal inspires all sorts of Bollywood. Not the least because a drenched and moony Arvind Swamy waited breathlessly on a rain-lashed cliff for his Shaila, who was with a blue trailing dupatta, to run into his arms in Mani Ratnam's 1995 film Bombay. The iconic song sequence shot near the Bekal Fort nudged this hidden gem on the Malabar Coast into tourist itineraries (and many budding love stories).

And yet, Bekal remains quaint and terribly green, forever rain-kissed, the kind that makes even rotting ferns look emerald-laden. A hamlet in the northern district of Kasaragod in Kerala, Bekal has many secrets to tell you, only if you care to listen.

The secrets

The imposing 17th-century fort is undoubtedly its biggest attraction. Originally built by the Chirakkal Rajas around 1650, and later taken over by Keladi Shivappa Nayaka of Malenadu's Nayaka dynasty, it is apparently Kerala's largest fort.

Its red laterite walls are moss-covered and puckered with age, but remain thick and nearly intact. A grand gateway leads to what is now a fairly neat landscaped garden. We strolled inside and found a dark stepwell that was wide and deep enough to imagine being able to step down into nothingness.

Next to it was a huge ramp that led to the majestic observation tower said to be built by Tipu Sultan during his Malabar conquests in the late 1700s.

The tower boasts of expansive views of the countryside and the Arabian Sea. On a good day, you can see the entire glorious coastline like we did. When we first climbed up, huffing and puffing, and looked out: the sea was azure and sparkly, dotted with fishing boats. Nearly half an hour later, when we were ready to walk along the ramparts, it had turned slate grey and angry, helping us better envision the bloody battles that would have been fought here.

But Bekal is not just about the fort. The Kappil Beach at the base of the fort is ideal for evening walks. Children especially might enjoy its many chipped and colourful seashells to collect and enough sand for many castles.

Shivappa Nayaka also built the Chandragiri Fort nearby, which is in ruins. It still offers spectacular views, though. But we had had enough of forts. The tummy was calling out and we were in for a surprise.

A mesh of influences

We were eager to try all the Malabari specialities we had heard so much about. Malabari cuisine is a delicious melting pot of influences. From Arab traders who came centuries ago in search of the region's famed spices to the Dutch, the Portuguese and the French traders who came here later, every culture seems to have infused its essence into the largely meat-based cuisine, creating a unique set of dishes prepared with whole spices and different varieties of rice. Little wonder, then, that food from the Malabar, especially Moplah cuisine, has caught on everywhere else.

Even in our broken Malayalam-Kannada conversations with the townspeople, it was obvious that food was a passionate topic. At a small restaurant we went to, we were instructed knowledgeably about which dishes we ought to try.

The Thalassery Dum Biryani, a local speciality made of a shorter variety of rice, is its most famous. It could include either fish, mutton or chicken. Spice-heavy but light on the tummy, a perfect accompaniment could be the kallumakkaya roast (mussels stir-fry) made with fresh mussels and green chillies. Kunjurottis coated with spicy chicken (or beef) was our favourite, as was the tongue-on-fire mutton pepper fry. Too full to do anything else, we went back to our hotel on the banks of River Kappil. The river wound around the beautiful property quietly and unobtrusively. We sat on its banks. It was the hush after the rains, the night had just begun, and the crickets had strangely gone mute.

There were no stars, and yet, it was lit. It felt like another love story; this time, a tranquil, solid one.

Bekal is a love story; it is.

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