5 mins

Goa goes back to its roots

David Abram hunts for hints of chilled-out, pre-hippy Goa

You can still discover the back waters of Goa (dreamstime)

There’s a great barfly’s yarn I’ve been told a fair few times in Goa, concerning the 'liberation' of the colony from the Portuguese in 1961. Exasperated by the dictator Salazar’s refusal to hand over the territory, the then Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, ordered an invasion. The assault was preceded by a low-level reconnaissance of Goa’s Dabolim airport by a squadron of fighter jets. On the first fly-past the aerodrome seemed deserted, but during the second sweep one of the pilots noticed two old men lurching drunkenly across the runway. One was carrying a half-empty bottle of the local tipple, feni, while the other waved a long stick to the end of which was fastened a large pair of pants.

The story may well be apocryphal, but it epitomizes many Goans attitude to their ‘liberation’. The Y-fronts-flag-of-truce tale also hints at the impoverished state of the colony after 450 years of Portuguese rule. For decades, Portugal’s own economic woes ensured that Goa was forced to fend largely for itself. Left to their own devices, its inhabitants drifted unhurriedly along, growing ever more self-absorbed and culturally isolated from the rest of the country – which is pretty much how things remained until 1970, when the overland hippy trail wriggled its way south to discover this tropical, easy-going enclave midway down peninsula India’s south-west coast.

Since then, of course, Goa has well and truly lost its backwater status. Banking steeply on our final approach to Dabolim (no drunks on this occasion, only a couple of pi dogs and women patting dung cakes on to the tarmac to dry), the most conspicuous feature on the ground was a red-dirt scar scything south across an endless patchwork of palm trees and vivid green rice paddy. The Konkan Railway, which has made Goa accessible from Bombay in around eight hours, was inaugurated only in 1998, but already time-share complexes have mushroomed along the coastal belt, and waves of economic migrants from the poorer neighbouring states of Karnataka and Maharashtra have started to pour in.

The other conduit of change in Goa has been the daily charter flights full of people like us, limping grey-faced and jet-lagged with our Bahrain duty-free bags towards the terminal building. The scramble for tourist dollars (or UK pounds, more accurately) has, in a little over a decade, transformed whole stretches of the Goan coast beyond recognition. Sleepy fishing settlements, where until recently pigs outnumbered people today throng with an incongruous mix of young euro-clubbers, British middle-aged sun seekers, and Israeli ravers on a short fuse after three years of national service.

This sudden transformation from forgotten colonial outpost to boom state has left many Goans wondering what happened to their famously laid-back homeland. “Now there is such heavy rush,” drawled my taxi driver, gesturing towards the ranks of roadside hoardings advertising the latest IT courses, savings schemes and insurance deals. “Before times, Goa is, you know, susgad. Slowly, slowly”. Susgad, from the old Portuguese expression sosse garde, literally “without cares”, has become a Konkani term emblematic of the region’s pre-Liberation past, when life was paced by the rice cycle more than by the vagaries of the Indian rupee.

But not all traces of Goa’s traditional susgad past have disappeared; at least, not quite yet. Enough remain for it to be possible to gain a sense of what life must have been like in this idyllic corner of the subcontinent. With a couple of days' slack before I had to move on, I decided to revisit as many as I could. Experience has shown me that you just can’t bank on them being there the next time you come.

Fontainhas!” announced my cabby, squirting a long jet of expectorated betel juice out of the taxi window. Clustered at the foot of leafy Altinho Hill, on the edge of the state capital, Panaji, or Panjim, the former Portuguese quarters of Fontainhas and Sao Tomé still ooze old world charm. The first time I came here in 1983, arriving after a long journey by rusty steamer from Bombay, I felt as if I had walked into a Marquez novel. The old men wore fedora hats in the bars and the women would dress for evening passear in knee-length silk dresses with puffed sleeves.

The fedoras have disappeared, but little else has altered in this time-warp end of town. Roads with names like Rua Armada Portuguesa and Avenida P Agnelo are still lined with terracotta-red, pale-blue and ochre-washed houses whose rococo mouldings and pilasters are lovingly picked out in limewash, streaked in places with monsoon mildew. Nodding to me as I passed, a couple of elderly ladies chatted in Portuguese across their covered verandahs, swathed in pink bougainvillea, while caged canaries emitted streams of siesta-stopping song from inside gloomy sitting rooms.

The best place from which to soak up these quarters’ lingering Latin ambiance is the Panjim Inn, in the Rua 31 Janeiro. It is almost unique among Goa’s countless hotels for having maintained a traditional feel, with carved period furniture, old family portraits and mosaic floors. Ajit Sukhija, its garrulous, Hemingway-esque owner, inherited the building from his mother. “She was a doctor,” he told with a twinkle in his eye, “and an avid biker who used to ride around town on Goa’s only Harley.”

Aside from Dutch cigars, Ajit’s great passion is renovating old buildings in Fontainhas. His latest acquisition was a handsome 18th-century Hindu house across the street, which now takes the overspill from the hotel. “It took me three years to track down all 28 members of the family that co-owned the place, which was on its last legs. So many wonderful colonial-era houses are falling apart because of these old inheritance laws,” he said, leading me across a beautifully restored inner courtyard to my room. Minutes later I was finally horizontal for the first time in 24 hours, beneath a headboard carved with the words “Maria, 1875”. I fell asleep wondering who Maria might have been, while a gang of mynahs in the bread-fruit tree outside my window tried their hardest to stop me.

They were still squawking insanely at 8am the next morning when an old friend of mine, the Goan painter Frederick D’Souza, poked his head through the shutters and announced, palms together and head wobbling in best mock-chauffeur manner, that the car was ready. We were off to catch morning mass at Old Goa, the former colonial capital, 10km upriver.

The road out of town hugs the south bank of the Mandovi, Goa’s most famous river, up which the tyrannical Afonso de Albuquerque first sailed with his bedraggled fleet of caravelas in 1507. At the waterside village of Ribandar, a flat-bottomed ferry disgorged its contents of scooter-riding commuters and fisherwomen dressed in dayglo-coloured saris. Soon after, the Baroque facades of Old Goa edged into view above the tropical treeline.

No matter how many times I visit Old Goa, I’m always staggered by the colossal scale of its churches, which can but hint at the awesome size of the city over which they once presided. Early in the 17th century, when the French chronicler and traveller François Pryard arrived here after being shipwrecked in the Maldives, he was astonished by the rows of “lapidaries, goldsmiths and bankers” lining the Rua Direita. For this was one of the largest and richest cities in the world in its day, bigger even than London or Lisbon at the time. Merchants from across Europe, Asia and Africa flocked here for a share of the trade in Arab horses, Chinese silk and porcelain, and precious stones and metals from the colonies of the New World.

But a combination of port-blocking silt, disease (25,000 people perished here in the first 30 years of the 1600s), and the Portuguese inability to fend off their European rivals eventually put pay to Goa’s prosperity. By the end of the 18th century, the capital had been moved to the mouth of the Mandovi (present day Panaji), and the old city was engulfed by jungle. Now, only the massive cathedrals and churches remain, flanking an expanse of manicured lawns patrolled by navy-blue-uniformed 'Heritage Police' (whose job it was, presumably, to ensure that the visitors respected the signs asking 'couples' to refrain from 'committing unholy acts').

Aside from its role as a major historic site, Old Goa is still an important place of pilgrimage for Goa’s 450,000 Catholics (who comprise around one third of the state’s total population). Fred and I watched from the rear of the Basilica de Bom Jesus as a huge congregation celebrated mass before an appropriately vast gilt reredos. Afterwards, we joined the queue to view the most sacred relic in Christian India, the Incorruptible Corpse of Saint Francis Xavier, which is housed in a raised silver and marble casket in an adjacent hall. Having evangelised hundreds of thousands of Hindus, Asia’s most prodigious missionary was assured saintly status even before the amazing discovery, three months after his death in 1552, that his corpse had not decomposed. The ‘miracle’ continues to attract thousands of worshippers every day, although judging from the ghoulish profile poking above the rim of the casket, the process of decomposition is in fact now well advanced.

Resisting the temptation to purchase a ‘St Francis Xavier: I Love Goa’ ballcap from the gewgaw stalls outside, I followed Fred back to the car. We’d made an appointment to visit the Menezes Braganza house in Chandor, a trip of around an hour which took us through a string of post-card pretty villages. Between them, tracts of unplanted paddy were being churned up by teams of oxen and men mummified in red mud, while their wives tended the viridescent plots already underway.

Our arrival at the house was announced by an old retainer, who led us through the gigantic 28-window-wide facade and upstairs to a reception room. The Casa Menezes-Braganza is an exceptional vestige of the colony’s hey-day. Many of the high-ranking Goan officials who administered the territory at the time were rewarded by the Portuguese with land grants, and it was the revenue from these that enabled the local aristocracy to retain their power following the colony’s decline. After liberation in 1961, however, the Indian government confiscated most of the estates and parcelled them out to former tenants. Thereafter, many of the landlords struggled to maintain their rambling seats, selling off heirlooms and pieces of antique furniture to pay the mounting repair bills.

Dozens of such dilapidated mansions dot the Goan landscape, but the Casa Menezes Braganza, in his 70s, is the head of one of the few Catholic families who opposed Portuguese rule in the run up to independence. “In the end, we were forced to flee Chandor, but returned as soon as we could in 1962. You know, when we came through the door everything here was as we had left it,” he assured us, turning to admire the sumptuous crystal chandeliers and marbled walls of his great salon, the famous Menezes Braganza ballroom.

With its huge pieces of Chinese porcelain, Belgian cut glass and mother-of-pearl-inlaid furniture, the rest of the house was enough to make Sotheby’s look like a jumble sale. But the family’s finest treasure was still to come, hidden in an oratorium at the rear of the building. “And this,” said Sr Alvaro, proudly peering over the top of his outsize spectacles at what looked like a shell encrusted with gold and diamonds, “is the fingernail of St Francis Xavier, Apostle of the Indies.”

As we pulled away from the house, a convoy of iron-ore trucks pounded past trailing a cloud of red dust in its wake. I looked up to catch the rather poignant sight of Sr Alvaro and his elderly servant hurrying to attempt the impossible task of closing the 28 shutters of his house before the dust engulfed it.

By the time we arrived back at the coast, the sea was spangled with pale yellow light. We ordered fresh tiger prawns and cold Kingfisher beers from a shack café on Benaulim beach, then worked an appetite helping the fishermen heave their massive wooden outriggers into the surf. Each time, before the pushing could start, one of the men would encircle his boat with a fistful of smoldering coconut husk and incense, and place a garland of marigolds over its painted bow. “Good luck puja,” explained one of them, as he kissed his crucifix and leapt on board. The rigours of the Inquisition and ensuing centuries of Roman Catholicism may have altered the surface of religious ritual in Goa, but among the lower caste Christians – fishers and share croppers – the sacrificial essence of Hinduism still retains a strong hold.

While I unsuccessfully attempted to fend off a gaggle of hawkers (the bane of every snoozing tourist on Benaulim beach these days), Fred pointed at the long laterite promontory on the southern horizon and suggested we head there for sunset. To reach Cabo de Rama, one of the most atmospheric spots on the whole of India’s Konkan coast, you have to cross the Assolna estuary via yet another clapped-out river ferry, then press on through a series of exquisite hidden valleys lined with lush stands of areca palm and cashew groves. It’s a gorgeous ride, especially in the warm light of late afternoon.

Filling the car as we descended on the cape was the heady, quintessentially Goan aroma of ripening cashew fruit, from which the locals have traditionally distilled their rocket fuel spirit, feni. The tell-tale lolling of the head that inevitably accompanies the consumption of Goa’s national drink was all too evident among the onlookers who watched our progress through Cabo de Rama village to the fort crowning the headland. Now weed-choked and crumbling, its pitted battlements recall the era when this marked the limits of Portugal’s original territory, the velhas conquistas.

Evening mass was being celebrated in the tiny whitewashed chapel inside the ramparts, and as we clambered up them to catch the last shred of sun slipping into the Arabian Sea, chords of Konkani hymns drifted out of its candle-lit windows, accompanied by a solo violin. To the north stretched a bay lined by sea-lashed boulders and a string of inaccessible coves of honey-coloured sand, over which an 'upside down' Indian moon was now rising.

The same susgad scene, I thought, would have been familiar to the generations of soldiers who’d manned this lonely bastion: Portuguese, Marathas, Muslim Bahmanis from the Deccan, Kadambas, and perhaps Ashok’s Mauryans, more than two millennia ago. That the ancestors of the Cabo de Rama villagers singing in the church below had seen them all come and go, and returned unphased to tend their coconut trees and cashew bushes, offered some hope that the Goan way of life would survive here for another generation or two. And if the promontory’s isolation didn’t deter the real-estate wallahs from Bombay, it was reassuring to think the locals could always take to the battlements, pants in hand, and try the old underwear-waving ploy.

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