The Bekal Fort lies in the sleepy and quaint town of Kasargod situated in the northernmost part of the Malabar coast of Kerala. In the last few decades, this fort, and the beautiful white sandy beach surrounding it, have shot to fame as the backdrop of several well-known films. However, the significance and antiquity of the fort lies much beyond the present era. The fort encapsulates centuries of heritage and culture that has played a major role in shaping the history of the region.
Kasargod, the northernmost district of Kerala, boasts of a rich cosmopolitan cultural heritage. It is surrounded by the state of Karnataka on the north, Western Ghats on the northeast, Kodagu to southeast, Kannur on the south and the Arabian Sea on the west. It is known as Sapta Bhasa Sangama Bhoomi or the land of seven languages viz., Malayalam, Beary, Tulu, Kannada, Konkani, Marathi and Urdu. The region of Kasargod is also well-known for the exquisite ritualistic dance tradition of Theyyam. The strategic location of Kasargod, made it a hub of commercial activity since ancient times and brought traders and invaders alike. The history of the Bekal Fort is integrally tied with this heritage city.
The region of Kasargod begins to feature in the historical map of peninsular India as a significant trading centre since the 9th century CE. Between the 9th and 14th centuries, Arab traders frequented its coast to procure spices and other precious items. The Kolathiri or Chirakkal rulers, around the 12th century CE, are said to have significantly developed the port town of Bekal situated here. They had to contend with the powerful Vijayanagara Empire for control over this region. It is believed that the dance tradition of Theyyam also has stories and narratives depicting the conflict between the Kolathiri and the Vijayanagara rulers. After the 14th century, European traders made their foray into the region. The account written by the 16th century Portuguese traveller, Duarte Barbosa, who visited Kumbla (near Kasargod) forms an important source for studying the history of the region.
After the decline of the Vijayanagara Empire, following the Battle of Talikota in 1565 CE, several feudatory rulers rose to power in peninsular India. The Keladi Nayakas or Ikkeri Nayakas rose to prominence in the Bekal region. They realized its political and economic importance and converted it into a military base for extending their domination over the rest of the Malabar coast. It is believed that the initial fortifications in Bekal were started by Hiriya Venkatappa Nayaka. The fort was later completed by the illustrious Shivappa Nayaka in 1650 CE. In fact, Bekal was a part of an entire line of defensive structures erected along the coast of the Arabian sea by the Keladi Nayakas. The Chandragiri fort, located close by, was built of laterite rocks and houses an impressive watch tower. The Hosdurg and Panayal forts are two other important forts of this defensive barrier. It is believed that the Koteyar community, still present in the region, was brought by the Nayakas around this time to defend these forts (kote).
In the 18th century, Hyder Ali, the ruler of Mysore, embarked upon an ambitious plan to extend his domination over the whole of Kerala and brought several forts, including Bekal, under his control. He, however, died in 1782 CE, whereupon Tipu Sultan took over the reins of the kingdom. Tipu Sultan developed the Bekal Fort into a strong military base and built an imposing observation tower here. In 1799 CE, Tipu Sultan was killed in the Fourth Anglo Mysore War and Bekal passed into the hands of the East India Company. Under the British, the strategic importance of Bekal, as a political and economic centre, declined and the fort fell into ruin. After Independence, the region of Kasargod was included in the newly formed state of Kerala in 1956. The Kasargod district was formed in 1984 and Bekal became a town within it.
The Bekal Fort is exquisitely designed and built with dark maroon laterite stones. Polygonal in shape and covering an area of more than 40 acres, it is one of the largest forts in Kerala. A major portion of the fort’s perimeter is surrounded by the sea. The architecture of the fort reflects its defensive character. The main gateway of the fort, however, is placed away from the sea on the land-ward side. The fort is endowed with impressive walls and ramparts which are again interrupted by massive bastions. While the bastions are equipped with several large and small openings for guns, the walls are interspersed with windows and peepholes. These were used to spot the enemy from afar in the past and offer picturesque views of the sea today. A unique and eye-catching feature is a lone bastion, projecting out into the sea.
The most prominent structure inside the fort is the observation tower built by Tipu Sultan. A wide ramp leads to the top of the tower which provides breath-taking views of the sea and the surrounding terrain. There is also a water tank with a flight of stairs. Several secret tunnels that lead to the sea through serpentine channels tickle the curiosity of the visitors. Apart from this, there are also large storage blocks for arms and ammunition. A temple called the Mukhyaprana temple, dedicated to Hanuman, is situated close to the entrance.
The Bekal Fort is a popular tourist destination of the area. All year round, it is packed with visitors who come to marvel at this magnificent historic structure as well as absorb the serene beauty of the surrounding area. It is the incredible scenic beauty of this site that has turned it into a favoured destination for filmmakers. The cultural diversity and artistic legacy of the larger region of Kasargod also draw travellers from far and near. The Bekal Fort was declared a special tourism area in 1992, and the Bekal Tourism Development Corporation was formed soon after. This majestic fort, standing tall on the coast of the Arabian sea, is a proud bearer of the historical legacy of the region.