Island of Chorao

BLESSED BACKWOODS

ISLAND OF CHORAOBeautiful Diamond

bb The island of Chorao, cast in natural splendour wrought by gently flowing Mandovi and Mapusa rivers, was known in the olden times as Chuddamani, which in Sanskrit means “the most beautiful diamond”. Legend says that the island emerged from the diamonds thrown away by Yashoda, Lord Krishna”s mother. The island was later known as the Ilha dos Fidalgos (Island of Noblemen) because Portuguese noblemen lived on this largest of Goa”s seventeen islands.

The islanders preferred to call it Chodan and Chodna; the Portuguese conquistadores christened it Chorao. Abundant beauty lurks in the undulating topography made up of very little flat horizon, except for the lush mangrove region harbouring the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary. Motorboats maneuver through the mangroves with tourists, who come looking for birds, particularly the Siberian crane. From the wooden watchtower, shielded by the mangroves, one sees, beyond the birds, a ravishing sight of the sprawling Ribandar landscape across the Mandovi waters.

bb1The Mandovi river and its Mapusa and Naroa tributaries envelope the emerald island, spraying inland nine silvern rivulets with plenty of fish. “Kurleo khatolo zalear Caraim voch (Go to Caraim if you wish to taste crabs),” they say. Caraim is a northern ward where a ferry-boat once connected Chorao to Bicholim (now replaced by a bridge). Where there is fish, a quaint taverna serving ur”rak and feni can”t be far in a Goan village.

Picturesque Aldona, Corjuem and Calvim in the North, Ribandar in the South, Mayem, Vanxim and Divar in the East, and Olaulim, Pomburpa, Ekoshi and Britona in the West, are the island’s aquatic neighbours.

Cut off from the mainland on all sides, bereft of bridges either to reach Bardez in the West or Ilhas in the South, the island remains largely undeveloped. The drawbacks, however, help retain the pristine environs by holding up congestion beyond the ferry-points.

Until the Rs.3.5-crore Chorao-Pomburpa bridge materialises in some distant future, the Pomburpa-Chorao and Ribandar-Maddel ferry crossings will keep company with Chorao.

Approaching the island from Pomburpa, one sees two-wheeler-borne boys and girls heading for the famous Mayem lake. By the time the ferry turns to face Chorao, it”s time to alight. The mad rush is when people head for work and return home. Otherwise, a few locals hurry down the ferry and begin the longish trudge home along the field-fencing road. Frequent inundation by saline waters gushing through breaches in the protective bunds damage the island roads.

In this connection, environmentalist Nandkumar Kamat makes some startling observations in a recent article “Mandovi”s Islands in Peril”. Kamat claims that the five islands of Chorao, Capao, Divar, Jua and Cumbarjua face a bleak future. Only a comprehensive, integrated, ecological security plan will ensure that the Mandovi estuarine complex occupying 50 sq km, will not be erased from the map of Goa in the next century.

bb4 The islands divided by creeks and backwaters of Mapusa and Mandovi rivers, form a fragile ecosystem. Embankments girdling the low-lying, fertile khazans and the bio-fencing of mangroves protect the five islands, which are serviced by six navigable channels and seven points of confluence of tributaries. The Portuguese used to fortify the girdling system from time to time. But post liberation development within the villages has led to the beginning of the erosion of the embankments. Barge traffic in the Mapusa and Mandovi channels is also responsible for the tragedy. The State government spent almost Rs.2 crore on plugging the breaches in bundhs at Divar, Chorao and Jua in vain.

For the moment, let’s explore the emerald island. One road snakes northwards to Mayem and Bicholim. The other moves uphill to pass by the 16th century church of St Bartholomew. The magnificent landmark was erected in 1569 and remodelled in 1649. On 28-5-1649 there was a grand feast, graced by the Goa Bishop and the Patriarch of Ethiopia Dom Afonso Mendes. (Mitr. Lusi.)

Goud-Saraswat Brahmins comprising 66 families settled in eight villages of Goa. Ten of these chose Chudamani (Chorao), giving the place their distinct ethos, according to J Patrocinio de Souza and Alfred D” Cruz (Saligao: Focus on a Picturesque Goan Village). The very language that Goans speak appears to be the survival of the languages which the Saraswats originally spoke, and this appears very true in the case of Chodankars.

Today the nine-ward panchayat accommodates a fairly large population of about 18,500. The Jesuits christianised Chorao as they did Divar and the entire taluka of Salcette. But Christians form only about 40 per cent of the population now, and they mainly dwell in the northern section called Chorao. The southern section is called Maddel and here live mostly Hindus.

Grand mansions with lovely gardens and orchards graced the island in the past. The Portuguese officials working in Panjim used to live in Chorao. They used to be ferried across the Mandovi by 32 luxury boats manned by negro slaves. Hence the island came to be called “Ilha dos Fidalgos” (Island of Noblemen). But the epidemics of 1570 and 1675 left Chorao a deserted place. Jose Nicolau da Fonseca (An Historical and Archaeological Sketch of the City of Goa, published in 1878) says that most of the affluent houses were in ruins.

Though the roads are not really smooth, a drive through Chorao is nothing short of thrilling…the undulating, riverine landscape and the long shot views it affords of the towers of Old Goa Convents (painted light yellow now) and virtually every other neighbouring village in the periphery. Besides the natural grandeur, even the vastness of the island overwhelms a visitor.

The serpentine rivers bestow on it a serene atmosphere and an unhurried lifestyle, which gives the feeling to folk across the river that Chorao moves at snail space. But when one encounters industrious, scholarly Chodnekars like DCM Abreu, they usher you down the memory lane into the island”s vibrant past.

Says Abreu, “Prior to the advent of the Portuguese colonials, almost around 800 BC, our island was said to be blessed with a branch of a University teaching Sanskrit and old literature. There was also a college, affiliated to the Benares University, at Mahalevaddo, from where hails Dr Kashinath B. Mahale, the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Manipur. Somehow, we never got the chance to meet the soft-spoken and erudite educationist while on the island.

bb2 He says that Maddel, Deugim and Soroti had one huge gate each. But the colonials didn’t find them useful and destroyed them as along with the ancient temples. According to Hindu Temples and Deities by Rui Gomes Pereira, the ancient temples included Ganesha, Ravalnatha, Bhaukadevi, Mallinatha, Bhagvati, Devki, Santa-Purusha, Barazan, Narayan, Cantessor (Kanteshwar?), Chandeussor (Chandeshwar?) and Dadd-Sancol. When the Portuguese began decimating all the signs of Hindu worship, Chodnekars shifted their gods via Mayem to Naroa and Marcela, where they are held in great reverence.

The presence of splendid edifices made Chorao great. At the tip of the Grace hillock was the residence of the Patriarch of Ethiopia Dom Joao Nunes Barreto. It ended being a Jesuit novitiate. And when the Marquis of Pombal banned the Jesuit Order in Goa, the superb edifice was converted into a minor seminary for the training of the clergy.

Research scholar Dr Teotonio R de Souza says in Oratorians of Goa (1682-11835), “More light needs to be shed upon the life and activities of the Oratorians in Goa, particularly upon their handling of the academic responsibilities entrusted to them in the seminaries of Chorao and Rachol in the wake of the suppression of the Society of Jesus.”

The majestic seminary known as Real Colegio de Educacao de Chorao, established on April 2, 1761, was the most impressive building of that time. Man made landmarks, however grandiose, are known to suffer from their own limitations. Similarly, the once throbbing centre of religious learning kissed the dust after being abandoned by the rector, professors and seminarians on May 28, 1859.

The moss-covered polygonal dome, which remains till date, has been nicknamed Comfro. One expects the path leading to the Comfro to be well beaten but in vain. Neither does any name-board appear at the foot of the hill to marks its location or presence. Naturally, even the islanders around the foothills are oblivious of the Comfro. They advised us to visit the adjacent peak to see the statue of Christ the King. The hilly site is definitely worth a visit. A tarred pathway splits the caju groves, brambles, kanttam and churnam bushes.

bb3 One gets a ravishing birdseyeview of the lay of land across hills, dales and rivers until the view melts in the blurring hilly distance, behind a church or a convent or cathedral dome. A masonary arch, erected in 1937 in honour of St Matheus Evangelist, leads to the larger-than-life statue of Christ the King, reigning from an altar built on a square platform.

“Till the arrival of the Portuguese, Christianity known in Goa was through the missionary work of St Bartholomew. Those who were converted to Christianity did not sacrifice their local traditions and costumes and they were never treated as incompatible with the general social milieu,” says A D Furtado in his book “Goa: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow. This seems true because Chodnekars have preserved their Goan culture pretty well. Moreover, one of the two churches on the island bears the name of St Bartholomew.

The second church–Church of Our Lady of grace–built in 1559, lies in Maddel. This church was rebuilt in 1860. Chroniclers record that large fairs would be held on the feast of Our Lady of Grace. Even overseas merchants would sail down with rich stocks of textiles, horses and camels.

During those day the village Comunidades played a leading role in the village economy. The island of Chorao has three Comunidades–Chorao, Paco de Ambarim and Caraim–and virtually all castes combine to make up the gaunkars.

Chorao had her own ethnic social mores in the olden times. According to “The Church and Society in 16th Century Goa” by P. D Xavier, the Devadasi system might have originated from the widows who ran away and took shelter in the village temples to escape Sati, the inhuman practice of burning the widow on her husband”s pyre.

bb8Afonso de Albuquerque abolished Sati on humanitarian grounds but it reared its ugly head after his death. “In 1559, some leading residents of Chorao village had requested the viceroy to allow them to take the widows with their dead husbands to the main land and burn them there on the pyre,” Xavier adds. The Viceroy didn”t comply with the request but proclaimed Draconian measures in 1560 against Sati.

Charles J Borges says in “Jesuit education in Goa, “An edict of 1556 saw that all the lands, gardens and immovables like gold and silver of the temples on the islands of Chorao, Divar, Vanxim and Jua, move over to the college. The ganvkars were warned to do all this under oath, failing which they would forfeit their properties.”

The vehicle travels past the Saude Chapel and the Government Primary school. The Saude ward was known for its salubrious setting on the island before the exodus. This spot is gaining in importance gradually. A plant nursery has also come up, where the brother-in-law of veteran tiatrist Rico Rods grows teak tree saplings for Mehna Plantations.

bb6As the road negotiates more turns mostly Hindu houses and a couple of Hindu temples greet the sight. The largest probably is the Shri Devki Krishna Bhumika Mallinath temple rebuilt on 11-1-1934. In March, we witnessed the anniversary of the installation of the idol. Virtually the entire village was there for the community meal which was going on until late in the evening.

Eventually one reaches the Maddel-Ribandar ferry-crossing considered to be the most lucrative in the entire State. Mini-buses continuously transfer passengers from the Chorao-Pomburpa ferry-crossing to the Maddel-Ribandar one and vice versa.

A sizable part of the village income comes from the sale of cashew nuts, ur”rak and feni. Of course, many islanders work in the Gulf and Bombay. With the repatriated earnings Chodnekars have put up exquisite villas in recent years but unfortunately they lie vacant. Though agriculture and horticulture form the primary occupations, in recent years these have been totally neglected.

bb5Chodnekars are highly enterprising and hardworking folk. Abreu, who has been conducting his Abreu”s Classes at Fontainhas in Panjim for over forty years, is a fine example. When he returns to the island, Abreu plunges into activities like politics, social work and fighting to extricate the Comunidade from government stranglehold.

Chorao has nine primary schools, two high schools and one higher secondary school. Two schools are ideally located at a higher altitude, highly conducive to learning. But one does not understand why the St Bartholomew”s High School and the Dayanand High School huddle up so close to one another. It, however, signifies the communal harmony traditionally found among the Hindus and Christians. Here the Chorao Education Society runs the Raghuvir & Premavati Salkar Higher Secondary School of Arts and Commerce (1994) and the Jr College of Arts & Commerce.

For its defence, the island had the Fort of St Bartholomew, situated to the North-East. According to Sketch of the City of Goa by Jose Nicolau da Fonseca, it was probably erected at the same time as the Fort of Naroa, which was built by the Muhammadans on the Divar island. The St Bartholomew Fort was abandoned in 1811 and now lies in total ruins.

The best known islander is perhaps Lucas de Sa, who was chief tax collector. He was Locu Sinai before his conversion. Locu had to submit to conversion due to financial difficulties. His conversion , however, opened the floodgates to Christianity in Chorao.

bb7There were erudite persons like the father-son due of late Lourenco Alvares and Fr Simao Alvares, who had authored a Portuguese-Konkani-Spanish vocabulary. Fr Simao also wrote Arte de Grammatica da Lingua Brahmana. The late Lucas de Lima was a theologian, jurist and canonist. The late Rev Dr Vincent Alvares was a medical practitioner and a chemist and the late Rev Dr Manuel Caetano Alvares the first Goan graduate of the Faculty of Medicine in Portugal.

In the pretty long list, Augusto da Penha Gonsalves was a High Court Judge in Angola, Renato da Penha Gonsavles was a scientist, Dominic J M Colaco, a painter and artist, Dr Chicot Vaz, a neurophysician, Dr Dino Manguesh Salkar, FRCS, and the late Luis Xavier Correia da Graca, a scholar and jurist.

Veteran theologian Fr Anastasio Gomes, OCD, with hair as white as snow, and who regularly participated in the Batim religious services, comes from Chorao. Late Francis Fernandes was a finger-print expert and a former Police Inspector in North America.

On the island itself, the 64-year-old Afonso was a prominent all-India athlete. He still runs at the advanced age and also distributes the daily newspapers every morning. Nancy Rodrigues was crowned Miss Universe (1990-91) at the International Contest among the Indians of New York. In 1991 too, Anthony Colaco bagged a gold medal at the Special Olympics for the Handicapped in the USA.

In Goa to Me, Teotonio R de Souza, writes about Rogerio de Faria, who “had been riding quite high on the crest of the opium wave” in 1938. Faria also aided the aborted plan aimed at restoring to power his friend Bernardo Peres da Silva, who had been ousted by the Goan mestico-dominated military from his job as Prefeito of the Estado da India.” Rogerio de Faria is referred to as a native of Chorao. The island also witnessed a few incidents during the freedom struggle. For example on 18-6-1955, the Rejedor of Chorao was beaten up and his fire arms seized by the freedom fighters. Again on 5-2-1956, two policemen were disarmed at a fair in Chorao and their weapons captured by the underground workers of the Dal commandos. (Goa: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow). As one bides adieu to the magical sights of Chorao, one wonders why a place embedded in natural grandeur and a rich heritage, should remain a mere corridor for the traffic to Bicholim from the talukas of Bardez and Ilhas.

JOEL D’SOUZA