A forlorn emerald isle

vroadFew had heard about a sparsely populated island called Vanxim in Tiswadi until Jerry Fernandes began mailing letters to dailies in Goa, from Vanxim. In one letter, Jerry wondered why people wax eloquent on every other village in the State except Vanxim.

With Jerry’s query as the sole reference point, we rode to Divar, past the extensive paddyfields, the bulk of which has lay fallow. At the ferry point, stands a cottage type accommodation with an attached landing point hard by the ferry wharf. Probably the place has been designed for western tourists, who will definitely lap up the languid beautify of the land laced with aquatic borders. The ferry-boat chugged lustily taking us from Divar to Vanxim, an island which formed a panoramic backdrop for the rusty, old and flat-bottomed ferry-boat.

During the early period of the Portuguese conquest, when Goa was several times tinier than it is today, the Tisvadi taluka formed the centre of social whirl. From 1510 to 1543, Goa was confined to the islands of beautiful and fertile Tisvadi, Chorao (Choddne), Divar, Vanusim (Vanxim) and Zuve (Sto Estevam), covered with verdant orchards and lush palmgroves.

In “Society in Goa”, S R Phal says that the Mandovi and Zuari rivers provided a natural protection to the islands, whose captivating scenery attracted people from the surrounding regions. Tisvadi accommodated a population of nearly 40,000 souls, with Velha Goa or Old Goa being not only the capital city but one where Turks, Persians, Ethiopians and Chinese traders thronged with their rich wares.

Phal also claims that on the scenic islands, at any auspicious occasion, the village elder was honoured first with a betel nut and a garland of white cloth called ‘Pachodi’. At harvest time too, the chief elder gave the lead. Even the village dancers began their rituals at the chief’s house.

Vanxim was known as Capao (the word used for castrated dogs and pigs) during the colonial times. Its neighbours comprise Chorao to the North, Divar and part of Chorao to the South, Divar to the East and Naroa and Dessaichi Muddi of Bicholim to the North-East. The island is accessible only from Divar by ferry. The motor launch which used to make trips to and from Panjim stopped way back in 1987.

Vanxim has merely 78 houses with the majority of the inhabitants being Catholic, but only about 10 per cent of the houses are occupied on the forlorn island now. After alighting from the ferry, we got glimpse of a small cluster of houses near the river bank. A temple, dedicated to goddess Sateri and built in 1978, indicated that the 20 houses in the area belonged to the Hindu inhabitants, who generally thrive on fishing.

Jerry’s residence lay a short drive past the vast tract, shrub-covered tract. Being a Sunday, there was no need for our host to report to his office in Panjim—the Goa Police headquarters. The soft-spoken, well-built young man with a subtle smile playing at the corner of his lips, offered us tasty biscuits and pastry.

When we congratulated him for having such an able island bakery, which produced taste pastry, which virtually melted in the mouth, Jerry laughed. He disclosed that there’s hardly any shop, forget about any bakery, anywhere on the island. The only place, which sold something, was a bar nearby.

It was the tip of a larger revelation—no telephone, no school, no doctor or healthy centre on the island proper. For any of these essential services, Vanxemkars ferry across and head for neighbouring Divar. That’s like being marooned on a beautiful island, cut off from all the urban noise and bustle we face every day, but also of every facility we are accustomed to.

Along a curving, tarred road Jerry and his neighbours led us to the chapel of the Miraculous Cross, which is quite an important landmark of Vanxim because people come here from several parts of Goa for “angonn” (to make or fulfill a vow)…especially where childless couples are concerned. With the generous donations from the devotees, they were able to convert the erstwhile cross into a lovely small chapel.

vchurchRetracting our steps, we were again on a clean grey road penetrating the overall greenery. We seemed to have reached a dead end, showing an abandoned jetty. We stopped a few yards short of the ferry, because to our left we saw the Church of St Crist, a rare name we have come across in Goa. “Sonvsarachea Taroka, Patkiamchi kaklut kor” (Savior of the World, Have mercy on us sinners.) appears in bold letters on the church façade. One couldn’t expect it to figure among the trimmest of Goa’s churches, with such a sparse population. No resident priest… the weekly mass is on Saturday evening for which a priest comes from the Divar church.

Why would Vanxemkars need palatial houses for a tiny population. But Vanxim does experience a cultural high in the months of April-May, with the feasts of the Miraculous Chapel, St Crist Church and the unique procession of St Sebastian, celebrated after one after another. The special procession, of course, is in memory of the dreaded plague, which visited the islands ages ago, reducing an island of 3,000 to a mere shadow of what it was. The survivors ran helter-skelter to evade death. In course of time, another large slice of the people were involved in another exodus because this time the saline waters had destroyed all the cultivable area, robbing them of the basic means of livelihood.

Summers, however, brings back all the sons, daughters and in-laws to the native island, which again resounds with life and laughter. Around this time the village, Youth Association put up a beat show, tiatr, football and cricket matches, making homecoming a memorable experience.

Among the few traditional events, which had trickled down to the present generation, was the “Tol’lachem Fest”, which the village elders claim have strong links to the conversion rites of centuries ago. This festivity too has not been celebrated for the last two decades.

Prior to 1992, the wondrous picnic spot with the lowest level of economic activity, could be accessed only via canoes. Commissioning of the Amoi-Vanxim ferry in 1992 reduced the travelling time and woes for the hapless population, whose water wells have been destroyed along with the agriculture, by saline waters. The breached bunds have not been repaired for the last 20 years. The island, however, has the privilege of being the only other place, besides Divar, to be connected to an under water pipeline.

Electricity arrived in the village in 1973 with the connecting lines from Bicholim-Naroa, even before it reached Divar. Vanxim is serviced by the Piedade Post Office and the postman delivers the mail thrice a week. They did set up a school in 1996 to teach English but it had to down shutters since there were not even 15 students to fill a classroom.

vjoaoSays Joao Baptist Vaz (73), “The legal owner of the vast tracks of land in Vanxim is the Archbishop of Goa. The land was given in dowry to the island girls, who had joined the religious orders at the Old Goa-based Santa Monica Convent.”

Recalling the past, Vaz adds, “During the plague, which struck the island in the sometime in the nineteenth century, there were nearly five death per day. Since the cemetry had run out of graves, the dead were buried in the church compound. The fleeing islanders went and settled in Divar and elsewhere at that time… Most of the Vanxim inhabitants bear the surname ‘Silveira’.”

Some of the islanders also believe that about 75 years ago, the Portuguese authorities attempted to shift the Ribandar hospital to Vanxim. But the move was opposed tooth and nail, and eventually stopped by the Desai’s of neighbouring Naroa in Bicholim because they feared that it could spread sicknesses like tuberculosis, which was incurable at that time.

Another landmark pointed to us by the villagers, was a cross built in the Mandovi, 20 meters mid-stream. “The islanders strongly believe that whenever the water level rises above the pedestal of the cross in the Mandovi, entire Goa will be submerged,” says Jerry Fernandes, who is quite well versed about the place.

vjerryAmong their illustrious folk, Fr Bosco D’Mello, a Salesian, is the sole priest from Vanxim to be ordained so far. There was none to beat the late David Pinto at repairing violins in Bombay. David’s grandson, Joe Pinto, is a member of the musical troupe of celebrated international conductor Jubin Mehta. The late Rozu Pinto was a pilot in the Portuguese air force. Late Pedro Joaquim Furtado was a famous tiatrist of yester years. Late Reginald Fernandes, a gifted musician, is believed to have scored music for Hindi films. He even played for the Konkani films, “Amchem Noxib“, “Bhuiemrantlo Mhunis” and “Nirmon

Sixty-year-old Chandrakant Volvoikar, a former sarpanch of St Mathias Panchayat, under which Vanxim comes, foresees a grim future for the island. He laments, “Educated youth have betrayed agriculture during the last 20 years. There will be no foodgrains for the survival of the islanders within ten years.”

However, if you’d like to spend some quiet and undisturbed moments in the embrace of mother nature, Vanxim is the holiday place waiting for your visit…of course, with your lunch pack if your stay is more than half-day.