AFTER a pretty long sabbatical I was visited by the itch to hit the rural roads once again, before the rains. The quaint road slithered snakelike into the green, idyllic innards of a pristine village called Dhargalim.

Unlike my previous visit, I didn’t have to drive along the ramshackle steel-bridge leading from Colvale to Dharglaim across the silvery Chapora river. The steel bridge has now been replaced by a concrete bridge, after villagers had waited for several years. On top of the bridge, we stopped to talk to a lone, aging elder who preferred to walk. He could have easily travelled to hill-bedecked, water-lapped Dhargalim, from neighbouring Colvale, by any of the colourful, intermittently plying buses.

Tumim vinchartat mhunnun sangtam,” (Since you ask, I’ll tell you), the man said when we asked he why he took the trouble to walk the distance. “Years ago, I had decided that I would only walk to Dhargalim…We needed a bridge very badly. I aged while I waited for the dream to materialise. The mukhel montri (chief minister) finally inaugurated this bridge recently. Now I can walk comfortably and visit my old pals to relive our past,” said the Colvale-based, elderly Dhargalkar. He had already lost the typical Pernem Konkani accent and talked like a Bardezkar.

It’s a good 10-km drive North of Mapusa to reach the blissful isolation of Dhargalim, across the Chapora river. In serene Dhargalim, one feels distancing himself or herself from the central, more developed and densely populated talukas of Salcete, Ilhas and Bardez…virtually breaking away from familiar Goa.

The lush green countryside retains the undying charm of Goa’s native, tropical vegetation–the coconut, mango, jackfruit, tamarind trees, et al–but the architectural style transforms almost absolutely. No westernised ambience, no grand villas…here. Dhargalim sticks by the humble, unimposing, ethnic Goan habitations, which transport us nostalgically back in time. Except for the hurriedly, recently and crudely erected bungalows and houses, the land lies somberly as the rest of Goa should have always been.

The old steeel bridge offered a magical glimpse of the 18-mile silvery river, as it flows by palm-bedecked, verdant banks. In relation, the concrete bridge, a vital link of the Bombay-Goa Highway, is not only bad, bumpy and pot-holed but also takes you away from the imposing view. The river descends down the Ram Ghat and hedges the wondrous expanse of hillocks, paddy fields and coconut groves, for nearly one-third of the languid length of the sleepy village en route to Chapora.

Twelve wards and nearly 4500 inhabitants make up the largely agrarian and predominantly Hindu village. Its fertile fields of the Mahakhazan welcome you. Across the river, remain Revora, Colvale and Camurlim but Tuem, Nakzar, Chandel, Varkhand, Halarnem and Ozri make up Dhargalim’s congenial neighbourhood.

The sturdy Desais descended on the village and displaced the original inhabitants. The smarter newcomers shared the vacant land among themselves. Being excellent organisers, the Desais ensured distribution of labour in eight traditional occupations. They brought in barbers, dhobis, cobblers, temple attendants, etc. from neighbouring areas, and bestowed apiece of cultivable land on each towards services rendered.

Driving along the tree-lined roads, one misses the sight of white washed crosses and dainty shrines. The few Catholics who populate Zholurem, Bag Bhondir, Paliem, Kanturlim, Par and Arabo, have to travel a handsome distance to reach the Salesian-run Church of St Francis Xavier (1952) on the Tuem hillock.

There is a small chapel, overlooking the discarded wharf of the fort on the Arabo island, steeped in history. The Bhosle fort, captured by the Marquis of Alorna in 1746, was defended by seven guns to maintain surveillance over the Chapora river until 1812. The Portuguese had lost it once but Don Frederico Guilherme de Souza regained it in 1781. Arabo got its name because Arab dhows used to touch here once.

Khem Savant II had surrendered the 73-sq mile area, comprising Pernem, to the Portuguese along with Bicholim, Sanquelim and Alorna. Over the years, Pernem witnessed plenty of bloodshed specially at Shirgal, where several persons were beheaded (shir stands for head and gall for flow of blood). Even the Marathas had launched a pincer attack on North Goa in 1732, during the reign of Viceroy Pedro de Mascarenhas. In 1786, Tipu Sultan of Mysore conquered Pernem, but by 1801, the Portuguese had it safe in their control. There is no trace of the Muslim families who used to live in Shirgal and Arabo earlier.

Since Pernem, at that time, was under the Savantwadi Bhosles, Dhargalim provided a sanctuary for Hindus, who had fled with deities, from neighbouring Bardez and even from the island of Divar during conversion. The accumulated deities–Dhareshwar, Dhaddeshwar, Maleshwar, Ravalnath, Santeri, Shantadurga and others–have been accommodated by their devotees in nearly 40 temples and shrines. The village nomenclature comes from the village deity Dhareshwar, Lord Shiva’s incarnation. Represented by a lingam, it stands in the 450-year-old temple at the Ganvwadda hill.

The village was caught in the grip of a drought some time in the past. So the villagers invoked the benign devotee with a santat dhara ritual. Santat dhara (continuous flow) is the other name of the deity. They began pouring on the lingam whatever little water was available in the village, in a continuous flow. The prayers were answered before the flow had run out and rain came down in torrents. The Desais had brought their own gram devi (village deity) Mauli, from Sindhudhurg in Maharashtra about 200 years ago. The large Shantadurga temple was built by the Vaishya (business) community of Mapusa, about 200 years ago at Deulwadda. Attached to temple is an extensive agrashalla, which houses several families of people who used to serve the temple then. The agrashalla provided a congenial hideout for the freedom fighters of Goa.

Among those, who had come to Dhargalim from Narvem in Divar in the 16th century, was the prominent community of Shenvi Mhatmes. The Kal Bhairav Sounsthan, run by the Shenvi Mhatmes and Naiks at Tallewadda houses the Kal Bhairav, Saptakoteshwar, Ravalnath, Santeri and Mahalaxmi, which originally belonged to the Saptakoteshwar temple at Narvem.

The Mhatmes, a prominent community, first halted at Colvale and they are still gaunkars of the Colvale Comunidade. The late Vinayak Mhatme, Professor Mhatmo to many, founded the Institute of Instruction. Dr Sharad Mhatme (UK), Dr Rajan Mhatme and Dr Mukund Mhatme are famed physicians. The locals tell us that Pradeep Prabhakar Mhatme ranks among the country’s top ten chartered accountants specialising in income tax laws.

Dhargalkars love to discuss…bout their temples, gods and festivals. The most popular festival is the bhetta bhett (meeting) of the gods during the five-day Dhargal Dasserah. On the auspicious occasion they take out a procession. Though it is a pure Hindu festival, for a particular ritual they require the Catholic family of Anthony Fernandes, from Colvale.

Another spectacular event is the annual gulal (throwing of colour powder) at the Shantadurga temple during the Shigmo (Holi) season. The entire Vaishya (business) community of Mapusa travels to the temple, converting the temple corridors into a multi-coloured whirlwind for just about three hours. Powdered colourfully, beyond recognition, the participants dance to glory to the frenzied beat of the rustic dhol (large drum).

Several Dhargalkars have suffered terribly until freedom dawned on December 19, 1961. Fired by patriotic zeal, they braved the pakle’s (as the Portuguese police were called) palmatori (special sticks embedded with metal to beat prisoners). Several succumbed to the inhuman torture of the most feared, hated Portuguese cop Casmiro Monteiro. Nicknamed Agent Monteiro, the midnight raider would beat them mercillessly at the slightest sign of nationalism.They claim that Monteiro even molested helpless young women. So they hated the very mention of his name. Bala Gopal Prabhu Dessai, among others tried to bump off Agent Monteiro, but he was gunned down by a posse of pakle in the abortive attempt.

Dhargalim has several persons who fought for Goa’s liberation: Bala Gopal Prabhu Desai (1928-1956), Jaivant Vasudeo Khalap, Chandrakant Ganpat Khalap, Kamlakant Khalap, Tulshidas Khalap, Shyam Sunder Khalap, Radhakrishna Yeshwant Khalap, etc.

The fecund river basin with its coconut groves, cashew plantations and paddyfields sustained the rural populace here. The Chapora river used to be a stumbling block until the bridge arrived after a very long wait. But many had already crossed the river in search of livelihood, reaching upto Bombay. Nutan Vishundas Khalap was a research officer at the Bhabha Atomic Energy way back in 1996 and Kiran V Khalap was a creative direction and general manager of Clarion Advertising. Gilbert and Clarence Lobo (brothers) thrilled soccer aficionados, while playing for Tatas; Raymond Dias donned colours for Pfizer.

During one of my early trips there, I dropped in to see Eknath Vasudeo Khalap giving finishing touches to aesthetic images of Lord Ganesh for the Chovoth festival. Shaping the Ganesh idols has been in his family for nearly 130 years.

The people are a talented lot. The late Parshuram Kamulkar was a well-known tabla maestro, late Miss Dulari was a veteran actress of the silent Hindi movies, Raghunath Pednekar is known for his talent for drama and harmonium, and Rekha Khanolkar is aclassical dancer and an advocate as well.

The advent of the Konkan railway has spurred land rates. Otherwise, the sprawling hilly tracts were unpeopled for centuries either because of the frequent wars or lack of water to sustain settlements. Were it not for the tenancy problems, much of the land would have been swallowed by land sharks.

Other than agriculture, precious little economic activity is being seen here. But at the Don Khambe, on the Dhargalim plateau, I notice a significant change–rise of a massive steel mill called Vikas Steels. Earlier the area was just a cluster of a tea-shops and tavernas serving the NH17 traffic around the police check post. Residents around the plant have been disturbed by the development because it guzzles power and they are left with little to light their lives.

Dhargalim was known only because of the 20-acre Vikas Nursery set up by R U P Desai. In course of time, Joyce Coutinho realised the potential of the vast grazing grounds and set up a modern dairy farm…And now the giant steel plant. In February last, the people of the Talewada ward submitted a representation to Chief Minister Francisco Sardinha, demanding to stop acquiring their agricultural land for road widening.

Not many strangers stray here…to marvel at the exotic natural beauty of Dhargalim. There is one of the most majestic Hindu style palaces–the Dessai house with 24 rooms–built around a central courtyard. The upstairs comprise large halls and two tall, laterite watchtowers. These hexagonal towers command a panoramic view of the silvery Chapora river. The massive laterite stone structure was built by Jaywantaji Roasaheb Jaiwantrao Desai.

Dhargalkars are known for their special brand of hengaddi Konkani, which the popular gonvdde (masons) have taken to wherever they have settled in Goa, particularly in port-town Vasco…at Sada and Vademnagar. They are a very friendly and hospitable people. They love their curry with plenty of coconut, and richly spiced. You might have even heard that the true delight of the Goan curry, specially the chicken xacuti, can be tasted only in this rather secluded slice of Goa.

By Joel D’Souza