Daily Telegraph: India with more than a touch of Portugal
India with more than a touch of Portugal. Stay on the beaches in a brochure idyll if you must. But for Goa at its fascinating best, says Pankaj Mishra, venture into the hinterlands. The Daily Telegraph, (UK) 12 Sept. 1998 Flying into Goa, setting eyes on its brilliantly sunlit greenness and white-sand beaches, it is easy to be persuaded that you are landing in a holiday brochure idyll. For most people the illusion persists throughout their holiday. But the resort areas catering for the package tourists and the hippies are only a small part of this tiny Indian state. Venture beyond them and you discover a different Goa. The coastal sprawl of villages, backwaters and rivers that goes under the name of Goa is some 60 miles long and 30 miles wide. What surprises one most about the place is that the usual dereliction and squalor of the Indian countryside seems not to have touched it. It is sparsely populated and has few traces of the modern world. So few that it is not unusual to come across sights that might have appeared in The Lusiads, a poem by the Portuguese poet Luis Vaz de Camoes, who was banished to Goa in the mid-16th century. Here, on a Sunday morning down a sun-shot country road, you might run into men in suits and women in bright vermilion and pink dresses returning happy from church. The sound of trumpets might precede a wedding procession – the village band playing Portuguese serenades. Travelling on a ramshackle country bus, you are likely to glimpse large families sitting out on balustraded balconies of ochre-washed, houses with red roofs. Narrow roads wriggle through densely wooded hills; and baroque churches, white and defiant-looking on their lonely promontories, seem to date the surrounding landscape – the bright-green paddy-fields that have been worked over for centuries, the lakes and backwaters still plied by ferries and rusty coal-fuelled steamers. At the 400-year-old seminary in Rachol, alma mater to some of Goa’ s most distinguished citizens, white-clad students clutching theological texts walk with swift silent steps down long pillared arcades, their robes swishing around their ankles. In Old Goa, the colonial capital, young nuns emerging from Mass gasp in disbelief at the sight of men in the visitors’ lobby of the convent of St Monica. Goa was part of the Muslim state of Bijapur when in 1510 an intrepid Portuguese soldier, Afonso de Albuquerque, arrived with 20 ships and 1,200 troops and turned it into the first Portuguese colony in Asia, ushering in a programme of forced conversion to Christianity. The Portuguese stayed on until 1962, when they were driven out by the Indian army. Over the centuries, a local nobility evolved, consisting mostly of Hindu Brahmins who had converted to Christianity. It was they who built the grand Goan mansions with their wide verandas, panelled ceilings, ornate private chapels with sculpted saints and cherubs, and window- shutters decorated with oyster shells. Adventurously painted, they glow red and blue and yellow behind the tropical foliage of banana and jackfruit trees. One famous house is in the village of Loutolim. It is owned by an old, gentle-mannered Goan-Portuguese woman called Dona Rosa. She was born here, the eldest of several daughters, but spent many years with her husband in Angola and Portugal. In 1966, she returned as a widow, and now spends her days sitting on a carved rosewood armchair, reading newspapers from Lisbon and embroidering cushion covers. A few yards away is another mansion, one of Goa’s oldest and finest stately homes, which has been in the Miranda family since it was built in the 18th century. The occupant, the Goan artist Mario Miranda, remembers the grandeur of colonial times, and how as a shy child he would watch from the sanctuary of the staircase the ballroom dances held in mansions even larger than his: the orchestras, the swirl of dancers, the shining faces, the clink of glasses. As always, feudal hedonism was accompanied by religious faith, the fierce Catholicism that is Portugal’s most successful export. Worshippers still fill the aisles of Old Goa’s magnificent religious buildings – the Basilica of Bom Jesus, the Chapel of St Catherine, the Church of St Francis of Assisi. In the countryside, it is rare to travel more than a few miles without encountering an old church with a simple baroque faade (often with a typed notice on the door announcing some important-sounding meeting). These days Goa’s hinterland is also full of Catholic cultists. Hundreds of ailing women can be seen every Friday enacting bizarre rituals which, to Western eyes at least, look distinctly unChristian. Last January, thousands of devotees waited all night in a small clearing in the middle of paddy-fields to see Christ appear in the starlit sky. It wasn’t clear whether he showed up or not; it all depended on who you were talking to.