Between the 8th and 15th centuries, Bhatkal was a busy outpost for the spice trade on the western coast, enticing enterprising voyagers, seafarers, and traders from across the world.

The blue sea meeting the lush green shore at Bhatkal in KarnatakaSusheela Nair
Features Travel Saturday, October 02, 2021 - 11:12

Bhatkal was the first halt in our coastal sojourn in Uttara Kannada district. Hailed as one of Karnataka’s oldest towns and India’s oldest ports, it is a hidden gem in the coastal circuit. Exploring the erstwhile trading port of the Vijayanagar Empire, we found it punctuated with Jain temples, Hindu monuments and mosques, along with pristine beaches. Inscriptions in a temple complex describe Bhatkal as ‘a town of palaces and shrines and as glowing with riches and splendours of the kingdom’. It was a glorious land where Queen Chennabhairavadevi reigned and Arab businessmen indulged in horse trading — though not the kind that present-day politicians do!

Bhatkal has a riveting history. It was part of the Hoysala dynasty, but was invaded several times. Several dynasties including the Vijayanagar Empire, the Saluva rulers as well as the Cholas have left their imprints on the Bhatkal landscape. The town also has a formidable Portuguese connection. Tipu Sultan ruled over Bhatkal until he was eventually defeated by the British. Many of Bhatkal’s temples and Jain basadis were built during its period of prosperity. These myriad influences have given Bhatkal a rather distinctive character.

Between the 8th and 15th centuries, Bhatkal was a busy outpost for the spice trade on the western coast, enticing enterprising voyagers, seafarers, and traders from across the world. They traded in war horses, which the Vijayanagar kings imported from Arabia, and weapons in exchange for sugar, spices and white rice. Yemeni horses would be brought from the port of Hormuz in Iran to Bhatkal, and traded. 

Over the centuries, traders from Iraq, Iran and Yemen settled in Bhatkal and formed the Navayath (newcomers) community. Some of them intermarried with the locals, many of whom belonged to the Jain community, and were influenced by their customs, language and culture. In that period of great economic prosperity, successful businessmen donated generously to construct Bhatkal’s many temples.

One of the prime attractions of Bhatkal is the lighthouse, located in the south of the entrance of the Bhatkal river, atop a hill, just adjacent to the remains of the Bhatkal fort. We learnt that it was built in 1891. It used to be a white stone masonry tower that was converted into a lighthouse when a flashing light and a storm warning signal mast were fitted here in 1936. We clambered up a narrow staircase and had a spectacular view of the small fishing wharf and the unsullied beach.

The Bhatkal lighthouse

We started our Bhatkal exploration with the Khetapai Narayana Temple, one of the six temples in this region. It is renowned for its depictions from scenes from the Ramayana. While strolling around the temple, we tarried awhile to watch the story unfold on the panels below the stone screens. The walls of the temple have exquisite carvings showing court scenes and incidents from every life. The temple was built in 1546 by Khetapai, a businessman. Its steeply sloping stone roofs, stone screens and distinctively shaped Yali balustrades are characteristics of temples in this region. Other features like carved cells and the various pillar types are common to Vijayanagar-period temples in other places.

Exquisite carvings at the Khetapai Narayana Temple

The Jain temples in Bhatkal town are equally impressive. Two interesting Jain temples face the main street of the town. The Jain Chadranatheshvara  Basadi consists of three east-facing shrines adjoining a pair of long halls. The Parshvanatha Basadi is marked by a tall lamp column that stands outside the temple compound.

No trip to this coastal town is complete without savouring the incredible culinary diversity.  At the bazaar, we tried out the two local specialties — godi (wheat) halwa, and a salted roti. But the star dish is the shaiyyo biryani, made from vermicelli (shaiyyo) instead of rice. The vermicelli adds a uniquely Konkani touch to the delicately spiced meat and a generous helping of browned onions. One should also not miss the special Bhatkal biryani, made with basmati rice flavoured with saffron and whole garam masala. What lends it a unique flavour is the mashed onions laced with garlic, a few chillies and spices littered with a dash of curry leaves. Tender pieces of mutton, chicken or prawns are cooked separately with spices. Seafood also forms an integral part of Bhatkal cuisine.

A fishermen's wharf at Bhatkal

Other Navayathi cuisine includes rice pancakes steamed in turmeric leaves, and tiny steamed rice-flour balls in a delicately spiced curry. The wide range of Bhatkali dessert reflects the cultural intermingling of communities. The Bhatkal version of kheer is called godan — it has several manifestations, but the base always comprises coconut, milk and jaggery. The saat padra navariya, a baked, layered dessert — reminiscent of Goa’s bebinca — and tariye khawras, a semolina, coconut and cashew pudding, are unique to the region.

Sadly, Bhatkal has always been in the news for the wrong reasons. Blessed with a pristine and unexploited coastline, Bhatkal has an opportunity of becoming part of a larger beach tourism landscape but quality accommodation and restaurants are woefully lacking in this coastal town. The existing old town areas, market places, places of worship and other cultural attractions are unique and highly interesting, if they were spruced up. The town must focus on the promotion of local culture, folklore, food and people, with an integrated approach to protect, preserve and proper use of the coastline.

Susheela Nair is an independent food, travel and lifestyle writer and photographer contributing articles, content and images to several national publications besides organising seminars and photo exhibitions. Her writings span a wide spectrum which also includes travel portals and guide books, brochures and coffee table books. All pictures by Susheela Nair. 

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