In a lingering haze of streaking lights and the fading and flowing yawns of onrushing vehicles, a familiar, unsettling thrill had begun to soak in like a splash of cold water on a winter night.
For a month I had been waiting on a friend in Bengaluru, with a very specific skill set, of capturing light, form and soul in burnt ochre skins of celluloid, a profession that had been corrupted by its nondescript tag of photography and its amateur practitioners. A month I spent in a small room in an infinite loop of time and space, where the air stayed musty and lines of white were chop,chop, chopped and snorted with discomfiture and elan. But we were off now, travellers and troublemakers in cahoots, nestled uncomfortably in the belly of a metal beast gnawing and thundering to the whims of inconsistent tarmac, making our way to Kasaragod, the northern entrance to Kerala.
Kasaragod is buzzing by nine. The town wakes early, thrives into noon, slows down for a siesta, then buckles up again around evening until it crawls into dormancy by nightfall — a very systematic pacing typifies its clock. Tourists are scant, and have yet to influence its cycles. Fortunately for me, my companion Kunal worked like clockwork and set the pace for our journey. Our first pit stop was hallowed grounds, a mosque named after the one of the earliest followers of Prophet Muhammad who had been directly instructed to sail to our shores and spread the word of Islam. His name was Malik Ibn Dinar and the Malik Dinar Mosque was his final resting place.
Supported on wooden pillars, the reverential slant of the double-storeyed mosque’s terracotta tiled roof is typical of Keralite architecture. The original structure was no more than a humble thatched roof, which was renovated much later in the mosque’s history. Some of the original marble tiles had been brought in by Ibn Dinar from Mecca and has been retained in the innermost sanctum of the mosque. Inscribed by an expert hand in Arabic on the pillars of this ancient monument is the account of its genesis. Against a clear sky, the pristine white mosque, flanked on both sides by a graveyard, was a sparkling pearl in an azure sea. An old man stood motionless over a grave. The two looked to have found some profound symbiosis in each other’s company.
Into this atmosphere ventured us misfits, armed with a dictaphone, a camera and some loose change. The sinner’s paranoia had kicked in. A man with a worn-out forehead of piety stepped out with a cordial smile that conveyed his familiarity with malapropos tourists. He asked us for our names. I duly introduced Kunal and then myself, which is when I made the grave error of telling him I am a Nair. With the grandest of smiles, he proclaimed “Aaha! Malayali aano” (Aha! A fellow Malayali), to which I replied in the fractured diction of a man long estranged from the motherland “korachu korachu Malayalam ariyum” (little, little, Malayalam know). His smile persisted, but his eyes bore little amusement. Our discussion did not progress much further. We were politely left to our devices, as Kunal applauded my ignorance and proceeded to converse with a few children from the local madrasa who were, fortunately enough, eager to impress him with their factoids on the place, with a fortitude that only innocence can provide. I left it to him to further our cause.
The heat in Kerala has an ally in an omnipresent humidity that is generously laced with sea salt. It lends a coarse irritation that persists even when the skin is wiped dry. It is the premium charged by nature for the bounty it has bestowed on Kerala, and there was a time when Kasaragod was one of its greatest beneficiaries — trading liberally in spices, coir, nuts and textiles with Arabia. The years have dulled its sheen. Many years have gone by since those days when every dynasty south of the Vindhyas fought to stake their claim over this land. In this historic power centre that persisted through the reign of the Kolathiris, the Nayaks, Tipu Sultan and the British, lie vestiges of those days of blood and metal.
A 17th-century edifice overlooking the Arabian Sea, Bekal Fort is a monument of pure military force, raised from the floor of the sea itself. Feudal lords had flown their banners on its bastions. The British and the Portuguese had waged naval wars on its shores for control of trade. No administrative buildings, no mansions for comfort — Bekal was a man’s fort, a warrior’s home. Our walk up to its martial walls, over the surrounding moat, past the cannons at the entrance and through a gate that resembled the acrimonious strappings of a warlord, had Kunal fabricating a south Indian version of the ‘Battle of Helm’s Deep’ from Lord of the Rings. Once we walked inside, though, the emancipation of Bekal was all too apparent.
Holes carved into walls that served as gun stations, now had lovers peeking out of them to film their version of whatever song was in vogue. Grassy patches lined with manicured bushes and wildflowers had bangle-adorned hands gliding through them as videographers shot attentively, casting furtive glances backwards to avoid an unsightly fall. The largest fort in Kerala, the beacon of advanced naval warfare for more than two centuries, was now locale extraordinaire for lovers.
But we couldn’t afford condescension. We were all scavengers here. As evening settled and the whistles to announce the closure of the fort resounded, we stood on the eastern tower, gazing at the underground tunnels that led directly to the sea and the mossy shores that flowed into surf-crashed rocks. A conversation ensued that escapes my memory. Something about the wandering ghosts of fallen warriors and the limitations of human foresight. Something pretentious, no doubt.
The next morning over breakfast — a curious variety of Kerala chicken biryani which bore a striking resemblance to its Kannadiga counterpart — a local professor we befriended at the restaurant, told us about a mythical, primordial creature. It resided in a temple of Lord Vishnu, he said
Were we interested in visiting it, he wondered.
Oh boy were we! “Is a crocodile a reptile?”
Ananthapura lake temple is like a terracotta-coloured jewel box that nestles inside an emerald green lake and is flanked on all sides by laterite walls. The tales of its origin, as narrated by the pujari, were steeped in myth and thus have questionable veracity, but the temple is definitely very old. We awaited patiently for the pujari’s tale to meander towards the legend of Babia — the human-friendly crocodile who had lived in the lake for centuries, and the guardian of the lake temple.
“Oho-ho for that you have to be verrry lucky. Verrry few people have seen Babia, and if you do, it is considered a blessing from Go-”
“There it is,” shouted Kunal, interrupting the pujari’s monologue.
At the temple’s western periphery, floated the head of a mugger, a salt water crocodile. And just as suddenly it had appeared it submerged again without a warning, frustrating Kunal’s attempt at getting a shot of it. In silence we waited for an hour for it to reappear. But Babia was gone.
We couldn't fathom what drove such a magnificent creature to live in isolation, behave completely contrary to its natural predatorial instincts and survive on rice balls and fish, for the perpetuation of a temple’s myth. But given a choice between believing in a miracle and a dastardly act of man as the explanation for the existence of an anomaly like Babia, we unanimously presumed it was the latter. We unanimously hoped we were wrong. A small hotel perched dangerously close to the backwaters of a river was to be our home for the night. A place that, in Kunal’s words, “at least gave crocodiles a shot at getting one back.”
We woke up at dawn the next morning with the singular intent of getting baked next to the backwaters. A boatman and his young apprentice rowed by. We asked them if we could join them to wherever their destination was.
Together we rowed silently, into the heart of the river. Cold winds flowed into our nostrils like invisible sheets of satin while we lay surrounded by a glorious loneliness that is not easy to find even in these parts. The boatman, Raghu, told us that if there was one place that he would want us to see before we left, it was a bridge, the longest footbridge in the country that connected his village of Kottapuram to the mainland. With no particular destination of our own, and with the river flowing in just one direction, the Kottapuram bridge was the last that we saw of Kasaragod.
From a distance the bridge seemed like a straight line that had been drawn on the grand canvas of the horizon, a few millimetres above the waters. The closer we got, the more the simple efficiency of its construction became evident to us. But hardly ‘the one place’ on any list. The slashing clicks of Kunal’s camera as it suddenly went from stasis to overdrive alerted me that I was probably missing something that had captivated him. I glanced backwards and realised that Kunal was entranced by the pride that the bridge had invoked in the boatman, who was now beaming from ear to ear with a dazzling smile that was so infectious that I reciprocate to it, even now as I type these words.
I felt an unrestrained feeling of elation and needing to manifest it in an act of physical affirmation, I stripped down to my shorts and dived into the water. Maybe this was the legacy of these structures — the stubborn residues of finite lives, providing chapters in an infinite tale that nobody knows or understands, but which reveal themselves suddenly through an inexplicable moment of pure emotion — the world’s most beautiful smile.
“For the crocodiles?” asked Kunal, uncertainly.
Sure, why not! “For the crocodiles!” I shouted, pumping my fist in the air.
Getting there: The nearest airport is Bajpe Airport in Mangalore, about 69km away. Calicut International Airport is about 200 km away. Taxis from Mangalore airport to Kasaragod cost about Rs 1,500. Pre-paid taxis and autos are available at the airport. Kasaragod’s railway station is well connected.
Getting around: The local bus service is cheap, and charges Rs 4 per km. Private and KSRTC buses are also available. Autorickshaws are a cheap and quick way to get about between close locations and have a minimum fare of Rs 15 for the first 3 km and an additional Rs 5 for every extra kilometre. Local taxis are also available at cheap rates (without a meter) and your negotiation skills will determine the extent of your costs. At places like Bekal, Kottapuram and Valiyaparamba, you travelon river-boats. Be well aware of your destination as jetty points are not always easily accessible through other modes of public transport.
Where to stay: Hotel City Tower (from Rs 750 doubles; citytowerhotel.net) is cheap and a no-frills affair. It’s ideal if you are looking for a hotel in close proximity to the heart of the city. The manager is an affable old man who can help you with your way around. For a mid-range option, you can try the excellently-located Gokulam Nalanda (from Rs 2000 doubles; nalandaresort.com). Gitanjali Heritage (gitanjaliheritage.com), an eighty-year-old, double-storeyed traditional Kerala home that has been converted into a hotel is your perfect getaway for a homestay in Kasaragod. For a luxury stay, you could opt for Malabar Ocean Front Resort & Spa (from Rs 6,000; malabarresort.com)
What to see & do: The storyed Bekal Fort (8.30am–5.30pm). The entry fee is Rs 5 for Indians and residents of the SAARC countries, and Rs 100 for people from other nationalities. The Malik Ibn Dinar Mosque is one of the oldest in the country and is located on the stretch of road between the bus stand and the railway station at Thalankara. The Ananthapura temple was constructed on the spot where Padmanabha Swamy was supposed to have rested before making his eventual ascension to his seat at the Padmanabha Swamy temple in Trivandrum. The temple is open from 7am to 1:30pm during the day and between 4 and 7:30pm. Naikap near Kumbla is the closest bus stop. Valiyaparamba is one of the most scenic backwaters as well as one of the least known. Valiyaparamba also offers the adventurous the opportunity to head to some uninhabited islands in the vicinity. You could also take a boat and head to Kottapuram, near Nileswaram, for the most prolific access point on the river, over a lovely footbridge.
Where to eat & drink: Kasaragod sits on the cusp of two different cultures, and one of the best ways to experience this confluence is to sample the biryani at the Viceroy Restaurant. It captures some of the spiciness of Kerala cuisine while still adhering to the Karnataka-style biryani’s flavours. It is located right next to Hotel City Tower. A dinner for two will not set you back by more than Rs 300. Located inside The Lalit near Udma beach, Nombili provides the best odds of drinking your choice of alcohol in surroundings that justify your visit to Kerala. They also have a great restaurant attached to the bar, which serves decent multicuisine fare. Vasant Vihar on MG Road serves great traditional Kerala fare.
Where to shop: Kasaragod saris hold an enduring appeal. The Kasaragod Cooperative Society (04994-274927) manufactures and markets them through Hanveev. Their exclusive showroom is located close to the bus stand in the ground floor of the KDC Bank Building. You can also buy the Thalankara thoppy (cap) that made Kerala famous in Arabia hundreds of years ago. It’s worn in most Muslim families, but it is a dying art. One of the oldest practitioners of this art is KM Aboobacker Musliar, which operates out of KM House (04994-224718) in Thalankara Gramam in Kasaragod.
Top tip: Winters are the best season to visit Kerala. The grandest pujas in Kasaragod’s many temples are held during the period of Ekadasi in late-November.