Old colonial houses and churches liberally dot the country-side and towns of Goa, remnants and reminders of the 450 odd years that Portugal ruled over this piece of prime Indian real estate. In contrast to the huge empires carved out in Asia by the French and the British, Portugal established small areas of rules, creating cities or small states that served to facilitate trade with one another and of course, with the motherland. The Portuguese established colonies in China (Macau), Malaysia (Malacca), Sri Lanka and what is now Indonesia (Flores and the Moluccas) as well in the present day state of East Timor, focussing on the successful and lucrative trade of spices and other raw consumables. For many of the major (and minor) European colonial powers, India was a place of interest and Portugal was no different, establishing various colonies over the sub-continent. Many of these colonies were short-lived and soon fell back into Indian or into British hands. Some, like Mumbai, were gifted to Britain as part of a royal dowry. Goa, though, remained in Portuguese hands and was the last of Portugal’s Indian colonies to be relinquished, when it was finally “recovered” by India in a largely bloodless invasion in 1961, 14 years after the rest of British India had achieved independence. Maybe this accounts for the different vibe that Goa has in comparison to other parts of India that we have visited and it wasn’t just the beach resort vibe that was different. Here, a thriving Christian population co-exists with the Hindi community, long-term foreign residents party with travellers who might be there for only a few nights. Partying co-exists with sightseeing, with Goa’s long colonial history leaving plenty of sights of interest to visit and explore.
|The Basilica of Bom Jesus in Old Goa, where the relics of St Francis lie.|
The first capital of Portuguese Goa (and of all of Portugal’s eastern colonies) is now a small town called Old Goa but at its peak, old Goa was known as the Rome of the East, a city said to rival Lisbon in its magnificence. After its founding in 1470 until the late 16th Century, old Goa was a city of over 250,000 people. In the late 17th Century, a succession of cholera epidemics led to plans to abandon the city that eventually brought about the end to Old Goa, which lay abandoned bar a few buildings that were rebranded and used as military barracks. Interest in its history led to the revival of Old Goa in the 20th Century but the scars of neglect can be seen still, with some spectacular churches now lying in ruins while others bear marks of plunder caused by material being looted for other building projects. However, enough of the splendid religious buildings remain to showcase how magnificent the city would have been in its prime. In one of the mega churches lies the body of St Francis, of Jesuit fame, making it perhaps the most revered church in East Asia. Another ranked as the largest church in Asia when it was built (it may still be the largest church in Asia, although some contemporary churches I have visited in Korea have been of a massive size and are probably bigger). Photo-shy nuns dressed in grey bustle around the streets, hustling between the convents and churches, while groups of Indians posed for photos, often wishing to involve us in their photographic escapades (one of the things that takes some time to appreciate when you are in India is that Indians really like to take their photo with random foreigners). People here seemed used to seeing curious foreigners on the prowl; we received few of the trademark stares from Indian men like those that we had experienced in Mumbai.
|The Church of our Lady of Immaculate Conception, Panaji.|
After the fall of Old Goa, the capital of the colony became Panaji and just as with Old Goa, the legacy of the Portuguese is apparent. The churches are still apparent, like the whitewashed Church of our Lady of the Immaculate Conception that stands on a hill, overlooking the city centre. But here, it’s not so much the churches but the old colonial houses that line the winding small roads and alleyways of the city that are the true guardians of the Portuguese tradition.
|Old colonial streets|
The colourful exteriors of these houses, with their cheerfully decorated window shutters and balconies, reminded me of Malacca, another former Portuguese colony that I had visited in Malaysia. As if mirroring the colourful houses, extravagantly coloured birds like kingfishers and parakeets flitted through the gardens, as if in competition with the artificial hues of the houses. From the vantage of a temple pavilion, I enjoyed the antics of fishing eagles, as they soared and caught thermals that let them glide with a minimum of effort.
|One of the fishing eagles that I admired.|
On other days, we visited some of the forts that were established on headlands along the coast-line of Goa. From our hotel (a good guesthouse called Bean Me Up attached to a great vegetarian restaurant of the same name), we walked to one fort called Chapora Fort. From here, there were great views to be had looking out into the Arabian Sea and down onto Vagator Beach but the fort itself was run down, consisting of no more than a gate and an outer wall made of volcanic-looking rocks.
|Fort Aguada, by the sea.|
We visited another more substantial one another day. Fort Aguada, unlike Fort Chapora, had never been overrun, which highlights the fact that location isn’t just important in real estate. Fort Aguada sits on a hill that overlooks the Arabian Sea and the mouth of the Mandovi River, where you can catch brightly-coloured boats that will take you on dolphin-spotting trips. The fort was once completely cut off from the mainland by a moat formed by the river, but had a regular and constant supply of fresh water, a must if you wish to survive long sieges. A lighthouse was built in the 19th Century to protect ships that were coming close to shore, another indication of the prime perch the fort enjoys.
|The lighthouse at Fort Aguada.|
Of course, most people don’t go to Goa to look at architecture or to be tested on history. The beaches here are the drawcard and while the days of the hippie trail have cooled a bit, there’s still plenty of life in this beast. Describing beaches is a difficult thing because not much really happens on tourist beaches that can’t be described by clichés-golden sands, palm trees, Europeans in speedos and ill-fitted bikinis. But these clichés really sum up the beach scene in Goa, at least on Vagator. The problem and maybe the beauty with beaches is that you could be anywhere-it’s just the vendors and what they are selling that changes. On Vagator Beach, (the one that sat below Chapora Fort), vendors tried selling sunglasses and sarongs to pasty looking Europeans who tried to fight then off, while groups of young men played games of cricket, soccer and volleyball on the beach. At the point between Vagator and Little Vagator, a small fleet of wooden outriggers sat idle, nets ready for their next fishing adventure. Cows walked along the beach, looking out of place as the surf rushed up their legs.
|Fishing boats at the ready|
The beach adjacent to Vagator is Anjuna Beach and every Wednesday it hosts the Anjuna flea market, Goa’s most famous. The market at Anjuna has been described as an anthropologist’s dream and while I wouldn’t necessary go that far (things have retreated back a bit since the heady days of the 1970s), the market is still a good place to lose yourself for an afternoon. Here, people from all over India ply their trade-refugees from Tibet, brightly attired women with elaborate jewellery and facial piercings, men selling drums and elegantly carved stone elephants and Kashmiri carpet sellers mix with guests ranging from bewildered looking foreigners on their first overseas trip to the seasoned Goa heads who once came here for a week in the 1970s and then never left, their children weaned on Goan trance.
|Vendor at a Goan market|
|Beach scene-somewhat typical of Anjuna.|
While Goa has its own special charm that makes it unlike the other parts of India we have visited, it’s still clearly part of India. People still have that peculiar head-nodding whose meaning evades the casual traveller to India. Churches may be a distinctive part of Goa but Hindus are still in the majority and temples can be seen built beside churches. Like elsewhere in India, cows still have free rein to stroll wherever they want, to nuzzle at rubbish heaps and hold up traffic.
|Cow holds up play|
A multitude of dogs room the streets, lingering on the side of the road or if they are brave enough, catching forty winks on the street itself, placing more trust in Indian drivers than I would have felt was warranted. You still stumble upon kids playing cricket, in a park, on the beach or on the street., just as you would in other parts of India. But there remains something intangible that makes Goa indescribably different from other parts of India, something in the air (and I’m not talking about the hashish) that gives Goa a unique feel, a good place to spend a few days to relax and recharge your batteries, especially if you have spent a few weeks travelling around the Indian hinterland. To paraphrase the signs you see in Goa, Goa is like a fridge, everybody chills there.