Sojourn in Summer

KERALA IN MARCH? Are you out of your mind? You might as well head for a holiday in Rajasthan, my closest friends said last month as I revealed my plans to take off on a much-needed holiday with my family. The relentless pace of life has meant that our three-member family - my spouse, teenage daughter and myself - hardly ever even find time to have a relaxed meal together and suddenly I was thirsting for some bonding with the two of them. When it comes to taking a holiday, all three of us are on the same page and this time, thankfully, all of us happened to have a week free. If it happened to be in March when the Indian summer has already arrived, so be it, we decided.

Why Kerala? For no other reason than that we had been told recently about a delightful beach holiday destination, Bekal in Kerala’s northern tip, that is as yet undiscovered and I was determined to go there before the beaches got full of bodies sunning themselves, heedless of the gawkers and slack-jawed gapers. Also, I prefer my holiday to be away from the teeming millions. Mercifully, so does my significant other and my daughter was more than thrilled when we decided to pamper ourselves by checking into the spanking new Taj Vivanta, a lovely villa property inspired by the Kettuvalloms (houseboats) of Kerala, with flourishes of Balinese architecture.

It worked out perfectly for all three of us. The spouse and I, early birds, were up at the crack of dawn every morning and enjoyed long walks on Bekal’s quaint Kappil beach. We re-discovered the children that we once were, kicking off our shoes to run along the water’s edge, stopping to watch the fishermen go off for their daily catch and lying on the chaise lounges that the hotel had thoughtfully scattered on the beach. Our daughter, meanwhile, woke up late and lolled all day on the luxurious day-bed-on-a-swing, only getting up to slide into the private plunge pool in our villa or to get herself a drink of chilled coconut water. ‘The closest thing to heaven,’ she remarked, every time she sipped from her tall, cool drink.

Bekal beckons

Our week-long holiday in the Kasargod district was one of the most memorable ones we have had in a long time. A two-hour flight from Mumbai to Mangalore and a couple of hours by car - the hotel sends a comfortable sedan outfitted with a picnic basket and even a play station for restless kids - and we are in the picturesque village of Bekal with its swaying coconut and areca nut palms, mango trees laden with plump green fruit and jackfruits waiting to be brought down to be polished off. The journey itself is enormously enjoyable as picture perfect homes with red, Mangalore-tiled roofs zip by interspersed with huge stretches of emerald green fields in which women and men are busy at work. You pass Kumbala village, hometown of India’s famed former cricketer, Anil Kumble and you get to marvel at hoardings on which beauteous, buxom, south-Indian actresses flaunt kilos of gold jewellery on their bodies, tempting you into visiting here and there to procure some for yourself.

If you like your vacations fast and furious and full of action, adventure and shopping, Bekal would be a one-horse town for you, with nothing to do on offer. But if your idea of a holiday is to unwind, relax and bond with the family, then look no further than this tiny fishing village to quench your thirst for a relaxing break.

At Bekal we did a lot of things that we have not done in a long time. We walked on great stretches of golden beaches, the wind whipping through our hair and whistling through the casuarinas, played hopscotch on the beach, and chased after scores of tiny crabs along the water’s edge. Early one morning as we stood on the shore watching the fishing boats bob up and down in the placid sea in the distance, my teenager squealed in wonderment, pointing out to a pair of dolphins flipping themselves high up out of the water and diving back in, just a mere hundred meters from us. The magic of the moment intensified for me as she hooked her hand into the crook of my arm and stood watching, spell bound. Just those few moments of shared joy with her on that beach that day made it a vacation that I will cherish forever. Later, we sauntered along, picking up shells of myriad colours while she kept up an incessant chatter about the dolphins and the courtship drama that we had witnessed.

Hearty food

When the beach became too hot for comfort, we walked back to the hotel’s central cafeteria and tucked into wonderful, wholesome breakfasts of crispy dosas, soft idiappams (string hoppers), golden fried wadas, puttu and kadala (steamed rice cakes with chick pea curry) all held together by a variety of chutneys and sambar. Most days, we opted for finger-licking delicious south Indian delicacies for lunch and dinner such as appams and stew, fish pollichattu, a variety of pan-fried or steamed fish specialties, prawn curries and refreshingly light vegetarian dishes such as avial, pulisheri, erisherri, all prepared by a group of women from the village, who have been appointed to give their guests an experience of an authentic Kerala meal. One afternoon we watched with amusement as a group of German guests sat through an entire Keralite dinner served on plantain leaves, tucking into the brown rice, sambar, avail and the eight or nine accompaniments that go on the leaf, with the main course. We are not sure what they fancied more, the friendly mundu and veshti clad waiters or the food that they gorged upon, not even their eyes streaming from the kick of the spices in it.

Bekal’s beaches held other memorable moments for us too. One morning, we watched in amazement as a villager walked briskly along the water’s edge, bending down at regular intervals to scoop handfuls of mud just as soon as a giant wave crashed onto the shore and victoriously holding up his booty: crabs that had been brought in by the waves and had been plucked out of the water by our enterprising fellow, before they could go back home. To our amazement, his two little boys, watching from the shore, showed no hesitation picking up the furious crabs who were tossed to them by their father and adding them to a wicker basket which held their prized catch.

Spa haven

A big part of any vacation for me is also just chilling out in the comfort of the hotel room where I do nothing but have long soaks in the tub, curl up in bed with the books I have had on my list for ages and do other stuff which I have not had the time to do, back home.

At Bekal, I discovered the wonders of having the time to treat myself to some rejuvenating spa therapies and came back convinced there is more to life than the rat race that all of us are engaged in. The Jiva Grande at Vivanta is only the fourth such premium and signature spa brand that the hospitality chain has opened in India, the other three being at the Rambagh Palace, Umed Bhavan at Jodhpur, Wellington Mews in South Mumbai. At over 1,65,000 sq ft, this sprawling temple to the mind and body when fully operational in the next couple of months, will become the largest spa in Asia and offers a mind-boggling variety of therapies for the mind and body.

I opted for a completely self-indulgent Abhisheka, which typically means a bath of milk and honey that the deities are given in temples every day. At the Jiva Grande, my therapist treated me to much the same and took me through a treatment so decadent and luxurious that I could well imagine what Cleopatra felt like, luxuriating in her legendary milk baths. Only, I suspect, my treatment was a bit more indulgent where, after a short spell in the steam room, I was bathed in sea water stored in traditional Kerala brass containers, slathered with delicious ‘panchamrut’ (a concoction of honey, bananas, ghee, jaggery and milk- a traditional offering made to the deities) and massaged it till my parched body had soaked up the goodness. A milk bath fragrant with honey, rose petals and frangipani came next and was followed by a sandalwood mask and scrub that left my body tingling fresh and silken smooth. And just when I thought I had to go back to my ordinary, real life existence, I was taken further into bliss with an hour-long relaxing massage with goodness of essential oils such as kewda, frankincense, rosewood, brahmi and awla.

Much of the therapies at the spa are thanks to Dilip Sathe, the man who spear heads spa training and new spa projects for the Taj group. I spent an interesting couple of hours chatting with Sathe and he told me how growing up in a family surrounded by family members who used home-grown remedies and therapies to adedress various health issues led to him developing a deep interest in the goodness of Ayurveda, spirituality and naturopathy. For instance, he remembers his grandmother’s simple and very effective remedy for joint pains: a thick roti (Indian bread) made out of flax seed flour, salt, turmeric, baked on a traditional iron tawa and applied on the painful joint worked wonders. And when someone in the family had a splitting headache, she prepared a paste from fresh spices – pepper, cloves, cinnamon among others, to be applied on the forehead and hey presto, the ache was history in minutes.

The Taj Vivanta itself is itself is set amidst 25 acres of verdant greenery, sandwiched between the Kappil river, lazily flowing backwaters and the Kappil beach and you can spend entire days kayaking on the backwaters, trying your hand at archery on its well-manicured lawns, walk through lush tropical gardens or sign up for a master class with chef Valentine who will take you through the ropes of making the best pineapple pulisheri, meen pollichattu, delicious prawn curry or the softest appams and idiappams.

And, if you like us, enjoy listening to the stories of people in far-off places, don’t forget to invite the hotel’s affable general manager, a well-travelled and interesting man with loads of adventurous stories from his many postings across Taj properties in India and abroad, to your breakfast table. I promise, you will not realise how a couple of hours have flown past without your noticing.

History revisited

Bekal has other interesting things to do that do not cost money but will keep you completely engaged. We went exploring the magnificent Bekal Fort, an awe-inspiring key-hole shaped laterite structure full of secret tunnels leading right into the sea, ramparts, watch towers and a beehive of holes in its wall that allowed the inhabitants to train their artillery at invaders from the sea as well as the lad. Those folks did not need hi-tech to protect themselves, just their wits about them! A magnificent observation tower in the centre gives an unrestricted view out to sea and the surrounding land. When it was built, it had great strategic significance for its builders in that a sentry or guard could spot even the smallest movements of the enemy miles away, from his perch.

For the history buff, the place is enchanting. It was built by Sivappa Nayaka of Bednore. During the Perumal Age, Bekal was a part of Mahodayapuram but with the decline of the Perumals by the 12th century, North Kerala including Bekal, came under the sovereignty of Mushika or Kolathiri or Chirakkal Royal Family. The maritime importance of Bekal increased much under the Kolathiris and it became an important port town of Tulunadu and Malabar.

For Bollywood buffs, there is an interesting aside to this fort. If you have watched Mani Ratnam’s hit movie, Bombay, you will remember A.R. Rahman’s haunting, Tu Hi Re. The song was filmed on the beauteous Manisha Koirala, from the ramparts of this very fort and even today it is a great location to sit watching the sea and exchanging a few sweet nothings with a significant other.

For the spiritually inclined, there is the 9th century Ananthapuram temple which is believed to be the ‘moolasthanam’ (original abode) of the deity of the Sree Padmanabha Swami temple. This is the only temple in Kerala that is situated within a lake which is home to a crocodile believed to be some 150 years old and addicted to the prasadam of delicious puffed rice and jiggery that is offered to devotees. Don’t forget to look for the crocodile and the colourful murals in the ‘namaskara mandapam’ of the temple. Afterwards, complete the trip with a visit to te Vinayaka temple at Madhur, with its unique three-tiered dome made of copper and a cloistered court, set against the backdrop of a river.

While at Bekal fort, visit the ancient Hanuman temple where visitors offer their prayers after which you can walk across to a mosque in the vicinity, believed to have been built by Tipu Sultan himself.

If shopping is your thing the town of Kasargod was a well-known textile centre of yore and even today, its sarees sell briskly. Also stock up on tapioca and banana chips that are fried right in front of your eyes from the bananas that are cut and cleaned outside the store. And if you like something spicy with your meal, buy the region’s specialty dried chilies that are marinated with yogurt and sun-dried.

The fish walk

If you don’t mind the smell of freshly caught fish, ask chef Valentine at the hotel to take you on one of his fish walks. Essentially you wake up early and follow the chef as he heads to the tiny fishing hamlet of Pallikara to watch the fisher folk bring in their catch. For us city folks who buy our fish from super markets, well cut and cleaned, watching the boats come in, participating in the excitement of the bidding process for the catch and choosing the fish that you want to eat for dinner that night can be exhilarating, if a little messy. The advantage for those who do the fish walk is that Chef Valentine cooks your choice according to your liking and brings it to your table that evening for dinner.

There are also other things to do in this region. Take a languid, leisurely backwater trip from Valliyaparambil, on its many houseboats and visit the islands that dot the route to Kannur. Indulge in home-style cuisine made by the boatman, on one of the islands or go for a massage. Visit the Swami Nityananda meditation centre - a fascinating network of 45 caves cut into the face of a hillock and get in touch with your inner self. Go visit the quaint and intricately designed Kovilakkams or smaller palaces in Hosdurg, known for their Nallukattus or quadrangle inner courtyards. One evening, head for a Theyyam performance where the temple deity is invoked with frenzied dancing by performers in intricate colourful masks and billowing skirts. There are some 450 types of Theyyams in Kerala and one of them is the agni theyyam in which dancers walk on fire to appease the deity. On your last evening, ask chef for dinner by the backwater and be assured it will be a memory that will remain with you for a long time. There is something about dining under the stars in a candle-lit gazebo, the gentle swish of the backwater in the background, the sound from what seems to be a very busy orchestra of crickets and a full moon that appears to have descended so it could watch you eat….

Bekal was a soul-rejuvenating break for me and something tells me there will be many more trips back there for us.

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