Goa's Golden Age
Published: May 2009
By Pankaj Mishra
Amid the palm trees and the rice fields on India's western shore, the Portuguese built churches and mansions fit for European royalty and for Goa's newly converted Brahmans. Five centuries after the conquerors landed, Pankaj Mishra looks at what remains.
Soon after arriving in Lisbon for the first time, I went looking for India. In London, where I now live, India seems very close; it lies scattered in the city's street names, in its Victorian-Gothic buildings, so like those of Bombay, and in the cooking smells of its Indian-dominated suburbs, Southall and Brick Lane.
I was born a Hindu and spent most of my life in India. But it was in London that I began to look at myself as a colonial, as someone shaped primarily by the metropolitan West, particularly Britain, and it was in London that I grew curious about Portugal, that other great, though much more constricted, European presence on the Indian subcontinent.
Until it was annexed by India in 1961, the state of Goa, which lies south of Bombay on India's western coast, had been held by the Portuguese for close to half a millennium—more than three centuries longer than British rule over India. Unlike the British, the Portuguese had worked hard to convert entire native populations to their faith and lifestyle; it was one reason why the Goans I met in London intrigued me.
They called themselves Goans, but they knew little about Goa. Though ancestrally Hindu like most Goan Catholics, they expressed contempt for India and Hinduism and were more Westernized in their choice of food, dress, and music, more detached from India, than any other Indian community in Britain.
Some of them knew that I was going to Portugal and gave me names and telephone numbers of relatives in Lisbon. But I arrived on a long weekend, and everyone I tried to reach was out of town. The weather didn't help. It rained hard and continuously; each foray outside my bright modern hotel—past the shuttered boutiques in decaying buildings, through the abandoned-looking squares and parks—each foray brought on a strange melancholy.
In Belém, on the western edge of the city, there was the great monastery of the Jerónimos, built to commemorate Vasco da Gama's discovery of the sea route to India in 1498; but how little it held of India itself. I would come across the odd square or street named after Alfonso de Albuquerque, the conqueror of Goa in 1510; but there was not much else. In Lisbon, Goa seemed an aberration, a distant land that the Portuguese had acquired during a time of imperialist ambition and energy and then had forgotten about.
Superficial impressions; I longed to talk to someone, to be shown something behind the city's reticent manner, and one rainy evening I went to a small Goan restaurant I had read about in a guidebook.
It was hard to find. The taxi driver didn't know the alley it was on; there was no one on the streets he could ask. When we finally got there, the little door with peeling paint didn't look promising. But, suddenly, I was in a low-lit room, animated with warm smells and laughter and the tinny sounds of forks and knives: large, happy Portuguese families clustered around tiny tables, served by smiling but overworked waiters. It was like being given another, very private, view of the city I had felt thus far to be remote and withdrawn, and for the first time in two days I began to relax.
A bald man with dark glowing skin was sitting at the cramped counter. He seemed the Goan owner, and I thought I could see in his eyes as I came in that slight hostility mixed with inquisitiveness that the colonial reserves for other colonials in the metropolis.
Was he satisfied with what he saw?I don't know. He remained distant from my table, sending a young man, who looked like his son, to take my order. I was a bit disappointed for I had hoped to talk to him, to ask him about his life.
The menu was dominated by seafood, particularly prawns, and the young man met my requests for vegetarian food with the same puzzled air and slight exasperation that I have grown accustomed to in continental Europe. He said he'd ask in the kitchen. He went away, and when he reappeared he looked even more puzzled. He said, "My father wants to know if you are a Brahman."
I was astonished. Caste! From a Christian in Lisbon, in 2001 A.D.! I diffidently said yes, suppressing that embarrassment most educated people in India feel about their "highborn" status. The vegetarian food was made available after all, and although I didn't get to talk to the owner I saw him smile at me as I went out: a shy but intimate gesture of recognition.
In Goa I told this story to Lucio Miranda, an architect and musician who belongs to one of Goa's oldest Catholic families. Miranda's gentle good looks, trimmed mustache, and deep-drilling eyes make him look like a Hindu aristocrat or aging Bombay film star, but he speaks with a faint British accent, the product of a five-year stint in London in the late 1950's as a student of architecture.
He told me that I had met a "true Goan" in Lisbon—the true Goan being someone who knew how to make caste distinctions even after nearly 500 years of Roman Catholicism. "As for the Goans you met in London," Miranda said, "they've been out of Goa and India for a long time. I used to wonder about their lack of identity, and then I realized that they are 'uprooted people.' They might like prawn curry, but that's it."
We were at Martin's Corner, one of South Goa's best restaurants—no problems with vegetarian food there. It was early January, but the air was warm and the service slow. Not that there was any real hurry. Deep in the Goan hinterland—the coconut and mango and jackfruit groves, the rice fields and meandering streams and clean ponds—you learn to surrender to a pleasurable torpor.
And when you are in the southern part of the state, the clichés of Goa seem safely distant. In the north, beyond the capital city of Panaji, where the sun is hot and you feel a bit exposed walking on the beaches with the cut-price European tourists and the sarong hawkers, where in the evening strings of electric lights come on in the seafood shacks and the rave parties begin to throb, only the lone white church in the darkening field, and the potholed narrow roads past the beer bars and surfing shops and pizzerias and tattoo parlors, remind you that you are in Goa, India, and not Ko Samui.
On the other hand, the beaches in the south stretch emptily for miles on end, and the tropical countryside with its seclusion and silence comes right up to the edge of the water—a suitable setting, it always seems, for the elaborate private rituals and mysteries of the Catholic faith.
Miranda and I had returned that morning from a tour of South Goa's posher hotel resorts: the Taj Exotica, designed by a Hawaiian architect along the lines of a Latin American hacienda, and the Leela Palace, its cavernous lobby modeled on the palaces of the great 14th-century Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar (destroyed by a neighboring Muslim power just five decades after the Portuguese conquest of Goa).
The hotels, with their various inspirations, seemed at first part of a promiscuous "international" style that outsiders had brought to Goa after its discovery as a tourist destination in the 1960's. However, Goa has been receiving the styles of the outside world for some time: Miranda's own ancestral house was designed about 1750 by Italian Jesuits, and it was where, later that day, Miranda took me.
The house lay in Loutolim, one of the many old villages in the part of Goa known as Salcete. The country road we took skirted well-tended rice fields and red-roofed bungalows with shaded balconies, and then suddenly began to climb a small hill. We went past a church with a white Baroque façade presiding over a dusty tree-lined square, and then down a dirt path. Wrought-iron gates opened onto a slightly overrun garden and a wide cream-colored house that resembled an Italian palazzo; above the main door, which led to an open, room-lined courtyard, was a cartouche with the Miranda coat of arms.
It was cool inside the reception room where we sat, the tall windows framing the dappled forest around the house. The house, Miranda explained, had been built out of the profits from the large areca plantations his ancestors owned in Goa, and it had been lived in almost continuously since then—a rare event in India, where history and weather, acting separately or together, manage to intrude upon the most secluded and well protected of domestic spaces.
Miranda's ancestors were Brahmans who had migrated to Goa from northern India at an unknown date and then had come to own large tracts of the extremely fertile land. As with all Goan Christians who have Portuguese-sounding names, they were given the name Miranda by the Catholic priest in charge of converting them.
"Why did they convert?" I asked Miranda.
"Intimidation, I suppose," he replied.
Many landholding Brahman families had indeed converted on pain of dispossession. Aggressive evangelizing by the Jesuits and the Franciscans had ended the brief period of religious tolerance that followed the Portuguese conquest of Goa in 1510. The great bard of Portugal's empire, Luíz Vaz de Camões, records, in his epic poem The Lusiads, the growing fanaticism of Vasco da Gama's encounter with a Hindu temple in the city of Calicut (now in the state of Kerala).
Da Gama had actually mistaken the temple for a church, and the image of a Hindu goddess inside for that of the Virgin Mary. But Camões, who traveled to Goa during the height of the Christian repression of Hindus, had no doubts about what Vasco da Gama had looked at and felt: "The carvings were repulsive . . . Christians, used to seeing God portrayed/In Human form, were baffled and dismayed."
Certainly, the Portuguese were dismayed and repulsed enough to attempt to destroy all the temples in the territory originally conquered by them. As a result, there are few temple buildings that date back further than the 19th century in the coastal areas of Salcete, Ilhas, and Bardez. But the Portuguese chose, for pragmatic reasons, to maintain the special caste and class status of the Brahmans. Only Brahman converts were allowed into the new seminaries; the chieftaincy of Brahman landowners in villages was left unchallenged. So the caste system continued, with its special prohibitions and rules. As in the past, the Brahmans socialized only with the converts from their own caste, and until very recently there was no recorded instance of a highborn Catholic marrying into a family of low-caste converts.
In 1623, the pope went so far as to allow the "Brahman Catholics" to wear their sacred thread and caste marks. This seems an extraordinary concession, almost an admission of defeat. But Hinduism, challenged successively by Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity, is nothing if not tenacious. When a viceregal decree in 1567 called for the destruction of all Hindu temples, and forbade the practice of Hinduism, some unconverted Hindus smuggled out the idols from the temples and set them up across the Zuari River, just outside the old conquests, so that they could still be visited by the devout.
The 18th century was a time of Hindu consolidation in what are now the neighboring states of Maharashtra and Karnataka, and many of the idols were elaborately reinstalled. By the time the Portuguese acquired the wooded valleys in the hinterland where about 50 of these the idols from the temples and set them up across the Zuari River, just outside the old conquests, so that they could still be visited by the devout.
The 18th century was a time of Hindu consolidation in what are now the neighboring states of Maharashtraand Karnataka, and many of the idols were elaborately reinstalled. By the time the Portuguese acquired the wooded valleys in the hinterland where about 50 of these "refugee" idols had been carefully hidden, the religious fervor was gone and the new temples were allowed to stand. Goa followed the rest of India in developing a syncretic culture of which both Hindus and Christians partook, one that depended not on coercion but on the unselfconscious interplay of cultures.
Of the more prominent temples built at that time, Mangesh lies north of the town of Ponda, on the national highway leading to the city of Old Goa. Like many other temples in the region, it was built by Goan masons and craftsmen trained by two centuries of Portuguese church-building. And so, instead of the tower over the sanctuary with the Shiva lingam, there is a dome; on top of the dome there is a cylindrical European-style lantern quite like that of the St. Cajetan church in Old Goa. The roof is tiled and steep. Separate from the main buildingstands a seven-storied lamp tower with multiple columns and pilasters, and it is with the same astonishment of coming across a cathedral in a temple courtyard that you recognize its resemblance to Baroque church towers. The large water tank outside seems the only wholly indigenous element in this unparalleled fusion of Hindu and Christian styles.
In the far north of Goa, beyond the beaches of Anjuna and Chapora where old hippies still hang out, lies the village of Siolim, where I went one evening to meet Remo, one of the more well-known and original rock musicians in India. Remo, a short dark man with boyish looks that conceal well his 49 years, was standing on the wide porch of his old bungalow when I arrived. There was no power; Remo hadn't been able to work on his new album that day. But he was used to these Indian deprivations, he said as we walked through the dark house to the long garden at the back; he had worked without a phone for most of his career.
Remo could remember being given a recording of Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" by a cousin from London. He started composing songs when he was just 14. The Beatles were an influence, and he grew very excited when I told him that a friend had seen Paul McCartney on a South Goa beach the previous day. It was George Harrison's interest in Indian music that first led Remo to the sitar and the fusion music he later came to produce. "This is what colonialism does to you," he said. "You discover your own traditions through the West."
Remo told me that it was also while on a visit to Europe, in 1979, that he began to think of Goa as home. "The realization changed me," Remo said. "My songs until then were all about love. Then I began to write about Goa, about emigration to the Middle East, about the drug problem, about the 'touristification' of North Goa."
I had been listening to Remo's first album, Goan Songs, and was struck by its odd mix of lyrics in Konkani, the pre-colonial language of Goa, and in Brazilian and Portuguese. As it turned out, Remo had also been greatly inspired by mando, a peculiarly Goan synthesis of musical styles from India and Europe.
For generations the Brahman Catholics were trained in religious music at their parish churches; until quite recently, Remo said, all Catholic children were expected to master either the violin or the piano. Many of them distinguished themselves as violinists, choirmasters, and composers of church music. But in the 19th century a handful of Goans from aristocratic Brahman families began to experiment with the older forms of folk music that had survived three centuries of Portuguese rule; to write songs about love and honor and the historical events of their time; and to bring together the violin and a local percussion instrument called the gumott. The result was mando, a form of dance song, which just a few years after its invention became an indispensable part of Goan social life.
One evening Lucio Miranda played a recording of the mando that he himself had made—Miranda had gone beyond his musical training at school and had become an accomplished singer much sought after at weddings. The song was in Portuguese, and it began slowly, with a distinctly Latin American rhythm. Miranda translated the simple lyrics.
You shine among the sun and the stars
My angel, my love
Because you are so perfect,
I adore you
Come, come to me my heart's angel
Give me just one little kiss.
Miranda said that the first part of the song followed the melodic line of a Gregorian chant. But the second part gradually sped up, the language changed to Konkani, the rhythms were recognizably Indian, and the song rose to an unexpected crescendo.
No family celebration, Miranda said, was complete without it. Like Western ballroom dances, the mando was danced in pairs, but without the dancers touching. The woman held a fan in her hand, the man a handkerchief, as they crossed from one side to the other. The scrupulously maintained distance between the dancers, like the ankle-length sarongs the women wore, was a compromise, Miranda said, between Brahmanical puritanism and the imperatives of European courtship.
The mando had fallen into obscurity in recent years; young people, I was repeatedly told, were too impatient to learn the somewhat complicated steps. But this isn't too surprising. The aristocratic world that produced the mando—the mix of affluence and leisure hinted at by the still very grand Salcete houses with oystershell windows and Steinway pianos and porcelain dinner sets from China and Korea—was always fragile.
That world had come about at a unique moment in Goan history, when the Portuguese, caught up in their own long decline, had turned away from Goa, and Hindu India still had a negligible cultural presence. It depended upon a small elite of Brahman Catholics who could hold the two civilizations—Indian and Portuguese—in delicate balance within themselves. It could survive neglect by Portugal; but it couldn't survive the swift transformation of identities that followed the integration into India in 1961.
After the arrival of formal Indian rule, even many Brahman Catholics, who had no reason to go so far, sought migration. Families split, and were scattered around the world. The itinerary of one Oswaldo Riberio, now a businessman in North Goa, could be that of many other Goans: he went to Portugal, where he didn't feel at home, and then to Brazil and the Middle East, both of which also turned out to be alien places. In the meantime, Goa changed very fast as more Hindus arrived from India and the tourist industry abruptly took off.
In the 19th century, the Goan emigrant could come back to Goa after a long absence and find it little altered: the stagnancy of the Portuguese era gave the Goan a sense of continuity. After Indian rule, that was no longer available to him. It wasn't just the beaches of North Goa that mass tourism altered. In the late 1970's Remo returned to Goa after two years in Europe to find hotels and cafés and beer bars on the rice fields of his childhood.
And Goa continues to be transformed. Riberio's sister, Amelita Dias, stayed on in Goa, and now lives just outside Loutolim, in a newly built house with a view of rice fields and soft green hills in the distance. All around her there are signs of hectic change: in the opencast iron-ore mines, in the naked-brick shells for new hotels and restaurants. In her late forties now, Dias still speaks Portuguese much better than English and has faint memories of the brief revival of mando dances in the 1960's and 70's. Her 19-year-old son speaks no Portuguese; and although I didn't feel I could ask him as he traipsed around the dairy farm he runs at the back of his mother's house, I could sense from the trendiness of his jeans and shoes that techno rather than mando was his thing.
Most of his friends at school had been Hindu: this was also part of the change in Goa. There was a time when only high-caste Hindus were invited to Christian homes. But the old caste and religious barriers had broken down in recent years. Intermarriage had become more common. The Hindus had grown culturally more ambitious after being introduced to the good life of the West by the Catholics. Hindu businessmen now knew, Miranda said, the names of good champagnes.
And that good life, with the arrival of the globalized economy in India, was now available in Goa itself. Amelita Dias's son belonged to the first generation of Goans in several decades that didn't want to leave Goa. Oswaldo's son had just opened a cybercafé in the city of Margao. Oswaldo himself, running a hotel near one of the busy tourist beaches in the north, intends to spend the rest of his life in Goa. Apart from emotional considerations, it made good economic sense to stay on and stake a claim, as Amelita's and Oswaldo's children were doing, on the ground that one's ancestors had walked upon.
Of course, that claim can no longer be supported by the diminished power of a once great European nation or by the faith of the ancestors—though not because Hinduism had been neglected. As early as 1851, the British adventurer Sir Richard Burton had complained that the few "good" Hindus the Portuguese managed to convert without compulsion were merely "bad" Christians. But a century and a half later, Christianity in Goa doesn't seem diminished. The churches are full for evening mass and on Sundays and festival days; several new cults of the Virgin Mary have sprouted in the countryside.
But it is also true that the larger entities of India and Hinduism now increasingly press upon Goa. Christians had been in the minority since the early 19th century—they are now fewer than 30 percent of the population. The Hindus had always controlled trade, and they are now dominant in Goa's politics, if not lifestyle or culture. In 1999, the Hindu nationalist BJP (Indian People's Party) began to rule Goa for the first time in its electoral history. Given such facts, for Goan Catholics the question of identity seems urgent, more than an academic matter.
However, Lucio Miranda isn't much troubled. As he sees it, his identity isn't exclusively Christian or Hindu; it derives as much from the Konkani language, the music and dance of the pre-Portuguese era, as from the faith and customs the Portuguese brought to Goa. In that he is like the Goan priest who in 1938 told Somerset Maugham: "We are Christians but first of all we are Hindus."
This modern Goa is what makes Sir Richard Burton's notion of good Hindus and Christians look so limited: mando and the Hindu temples of Ponda, those particular achievements of Goan culture, were, after all, the work of bad Christians and bad Hindus. And when you see it that way, when you consider the fundamentalists of today—the destroyers of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan or the Hindu nationalists attacking old mosques in India, people trying to be good and faithful and pure by scorning their own history—a bit of badness begins to look like a very good thing.
There are frequent flights from Bombay to South Goa's Dabolim Airport (the trip takes about an hour). At 1,400 square miles, Goa is small enough that you can shuttle between the fantasy world of your beachfront hotel and the colonial relics of the interior. Arrange for a car and driver through your hotel.
WHERE TO STAY
Taj Exotica Built on a grand scale, with 140 rooms. Two "presidential" villas have their own plunge pools. Doubles from $180. Benaulim; 91-832/277-1234; www.tajhotels.com
Leela Palace Large and lavish. Some of the 137 rooms—five of which are private villas—overlook the hotel's lagoon. Doubles from $250. Cavelossim, Mobor; 800/223-6800 or 91-832/287-1234; www.leelapalace.com
Nilaya Hermitage Perfect for your inner hippie. Twelve individually decorated rooms combine Eastern and Western elements, as does the hotel's restaurant. The spa emphasizes Ayurvedic treatments, yoga, and meditation. Doubles from $280, including meals. Arpora Bhati; 91-832/227-6793; www.nilayahermitage.com
Park Hyatt Goa Resort & Spa Spread across 45 acres, the 251 rooms have open-plan bathrooms that make the most of the property's tropical gardens. The spa offers Ayurvedic treatments in both indoor and outdoor pavilions. Doubles from $190. Arrossim Beach, Salcete; 800/233-1234 or 91-832/272-1234; goa.park.hyatt.com/
WHAT TO SEE
Bragança House The duke's ancestors provide separate, guided tours of the east and west wing. While the west wing is the best-preserved, with a 250-year- old library and beautifully restored decorative wood floors, the east has all the faded grandeur due a fallen empire. Chandor; 91-832/278-4201
Casa Araujo Alvares The only house that can be viewed in Loutolim, where the Mirandas still make their home. Its collection of Chinese porcelain, gilded mirrors, English prints, and Portuguese books gives the house (not yet fully renovated) the feel of a dusty, provincial museum, but the scale of its grand rooms hints at its former glory. Tours can be arranged at Ancestral Goa (91-832/277-7034), a "village" designed to give an idea of life under Portuguese rule.
Churches and Temples
The jewel-box Mahadeva Temple in Tambdi Surla is one of the few Hindu temples to have survived Portuguese conquest. The region remains deeply Catholic, and the churches of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, in Panaji, and St. Cajetan, in Old Goa (the region's former capital), should satisfy anyone looking for a Portuguese Baroque fix. Shri Mangesh Temple, just north of Ponda, on the other hand, is the best example of the fusion of Hindu and Christian styles.