Finding Goa – Beyond Booze, Beaches & Bollywood Stereotypes
Not in an air-conditioned car quivering with blasting stereos and amped-up friends, or on a plane with a boyfriend in arm and a two-piece bikini in tow. I headed to Goa in an overcrowded train with my teetotaler parents.
If you follow Bollywood in a way that’s too close for comfort, your idea of Goa will not be very, well, accommodating of parents, would it? You’ll want to be sitting atop the Chapora Fort drinking with your two best friends, or getting high on an island, or getting wasted on the beach, or attending the wildest rave of your life...or perhaps, getting life-altering psychiatric help from a therapist who repairs bicycles.
So, what do you do in Goa when your Dil Chahta Hai stereotypical fun but Dear Zindagi sends your parents along, and your all plans to Dum Maaro Dum are Go Goa Gone to hell?
Simple. You throw stereotypes out the window and follow this travelogue.
The Old Monk of Goa — Basilica of Bom Jesus
On a nice, cloudless day, pack your family in a car and head to Old Goa down the smooth roads lined with coconut trees — like a picturesque scene from from any movie based in Goa. The Basilica of Bom Jesus (meaning, ‘good’ Jesus) will be just as, if not more, beautiful.
These ancient red walls saw completion in 1604 AD; the looming height built in a blend of three architectural styles: Doric, Corinthian and Composite.
Inside, the altar and columns are wrapped in golden, and the air heavy with heady incense and silence...
Think of the Basilica of Bom Jesus as a wrinkly-old monk — aged but strong, older than every human in its vicinity and filled with history beyond scriptures. Even the sturdiest of atheists are commanded into silence in its solemn presence. As if any minute now, the weathered walls would ‘ahem ahem’ in an old man’s raspy voice and start revealing the secret of the universe.
If there’s anything more fascinating than the golden interiors and the Victorian architecture of Bom Jesus, it’s the tomb of Saint Francis Xavier.
Tomb of ‘Goencho Saib’, St Francis Xavier
Anyone who knows me well knows that I have a joyful obsession of ancient graves. So, when I found myself in front of the massive ornate mausoleum of St Francis Xavier at the Basilica, the pain of not being at a Goan pub actually dipped!
A gift from Tuscany’s Grand Duke Cosmos III and built by sculptor Giovanni Batista Foggini over ten years, St Xavier’s tomb, from 1698, now stands in the corner of the Basilica in recluse glory.
From the ground up, the structure is a Florentine-inspired artwork tinkered with jasper and marble, wrapped in the middle with bronze that depict episodes from the saint’s life. Sitting atop the mausoleum, out of the tourist’s reach, is the silver and glass casket where lies the saint’s relics.
A visitor could only crane their neck and see the sunlight glinting off the glass panel on St Francis Xavier’s casket. The saint will not be gracing you with a sighting.
If you know your history, of the Goa Inquisition and Francis Xavier’s request for it, your opinion of the said saint may see threats, but for many in Goa, the man still remains ‘Goencho Saib’ — the ‘Lord of Goa’ who “protected” the land with “miracles” from beyond the grave.
Le Slut-shamers at Sé Catedral
Just across the road from the Basilica of Bom Jesus is the white marvel of Sé Catedral de Santa Catarina. Here, you may come seeking some peace and end up tripping over moral policing and slut shaming.
When I visited this chaste white church, at its doors sat a canvas that had silhouettes indexed with instructions of what length of clothes were allowed in the church and what weren’t. And my sleeveless gown did not make the cut.
I was asked by a very displeased woman to either leave or wrap a shawl over “my arms and chest” before entering the “house of god” — the same "house of Goa where men were sauntering around in ganjis and thigh-cut shorts.
I won’t be able to tell you what the inside of Sé Cathedral looked like, because when asked to put on the chastity shawl, I chose to toss it in the bin and walk away flaunting my "inappropriate" bare arms. But here’s what I learned from talking to people around:
Put together over nearly 80 years after the Portuguese beat Muslim emperors in Goa in 1510, Sé Cathedral is designed in the intricate style of the Manueline architecture. If you could make it inside, you will find fifteen altars dedicated to different avatars of Mother Mary — Our Lady of Hope, Our Lady of Anguish, Our Lady of Three Needs, etc — Corinthian columns and what I hear is a stunning altar. On the outside, hanging from the tower on the pediment's right, you can spot the famous Golden Bell, dubbed as the largest in Goa.
And as obvious, this 17th century church is dedicated to St Alexandria Catherine.
The Best Damn Beauty — Church of St Francis of Assisi
I don’t care who says what — the most spectacular church in Goa is the Church of St Francis of Assisi.
This quiet, recluse church grew from a chapel, built by the Fransican friars in 1521, to its current glory over many years, finally earning consecration in 1602. What stands next to the Archaeological Museum of Goa now is a fusion of multiple styles: a Tuscan exterior with octagonal towers on each side, with an ornate archway at the entrance that's engraved with floral details.
Inside, an ornamental Baroque altar sits at the head of the church showcasing the Four Evangelists on the sides, Mother Mary and St Francis with Jesus Christ. On the side, you couldn't miss the Portuguese Manueline-style portal in the wall, retained from the original chapel. All this, with gilded interiors that's freckled with Corinthian details.
The frescoes and paintings along the walls tell the tales of the lesser-known St Francis, wrapped in brown-and-golden floral patterns that remind you of the insides of a kaleidoscope.
Like the many statues of saints and gods stowed in the niches around the church, you could hide from your family here, behind the arched pillars in the chapel. In all its glorious architecture and emptiness, this church is a perfect cradle for some peace and quiet.
The Bollywood Cameo Star – Church of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception
Finally, the church that makes a cameo in almost every movie shot in Goa! And in the honour of all those movies, when I took out my camera to take a picture, I got an earful from a fist-shaking church keeper.
Sitting, as if in a relaxed padmasana, amid the bustling traffic of Panjim, the Church of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception peers down at the city over laps of crisscrossing staircases. At the top of it is a terrace that opens up to a rather small church dedicated to the Immaculate Mary. The sparkling white colour of its walls is said to signify that ‘immaculate’ part, although I did hear a local describe the shade as that of “toothpaste”.
Much like the Church of St Francis of Assisi, this too expanded from a small chapel in the 1540s to a parish in in 1600 and, eventually, to the church we see today, in 1619. The stairs, however, came much later in the 1800s.
The exterior of the church, in its ‘toothpaste’ white glory, is freckled with the typical Portuguese Baroque style of architecture, complete a bell tower right above the door. This, topped with a pediment and flanked by two smaller towers on each side, gives the facade a perception of a crown — hence, the church’s nicknames, ‘the crown of Panaji. The bell in the niche, legend has it, was taken from the ruins of an Augustinian Monastery in Goa, and comes second in size after the one in Se Cathedral.
Inside, the church subdues into a simple place of worship, devoid of the frescoes and architecture you find in the other churches of Goa. However, beyond the regular pews, 2-tier balconies and woodwork ceiling, the ornate gold altar dedicated to the Immaculate Mary does take things up a notch, especially with the smaller two altars on its either side, cradling Our Lady of the Rosary and Crucifixion of Christ.
If you happen to be here around the first week of December, do stop by this church on the eighth, when it celebrates the Feast of Mary’s Immaculate Conception with much grandeur.
A Walk Through Time — Archaeological Museum of Goa
If the churches waft in the scent of rich history in Goa, this museum brings the information to the table. Tucked in next to the Church of St Francis of Assisi, the Archaeological Museum of Goa houses a timeless and vast collection, ranging from its pre-historic era to the 400-year Portuguese rule, in its two-story building.
You begin the tour at the ticket counter with a towering statue of Afonso de Albuquerque, the first governor of Goa, who ushers you towards an array of old-timer maps of Goa and its sea routes. Then, you might just move on to the hallway that plays up a timeline of Goa over the years, all the way from early historic days.
A few things you cannot miss here would a 11th century statue of Lord Vishnu sculpted from basalt rock and that of Portuguese national poet Luís de Camões (photographed above), stones that marked the spot were women sat to commit Sati on their husband’s pyre, John the Baptist’s statue sculpted from wood, Crucifixion of Jesus sculpted from ivory, and even the portrait of Vasco da Gama, the man who brought the Portuguese to India in 1498.
As you come down the staircase with a bittersweet, after having checked out the stoical portraits of the many viceroys who held Goa down, you end up at this small courtyard where stands, guarded in her gazebo, a lone statue of St Catherine. While I failed to learn much about her, just sitting before the black sculpture in the shade and quiet was good enough for me.
The Old Guard — Aguada Fort
Twenty minutes at this place, what you’ll what it literally means to be ‘left out to dry’. But if you can keep yourself well hydrated and coated with sunscreen, this place has a lot to offer. Just look past the sand and rocks.
Once a sturdy stronghold and first line of defence for the Portuguese, the Aguada Fort is now an old and retired guard, left with sighs and stories of its 400 years of service. And sigh it must, especially when looks up to find, instead of marching armies and decked-up ship, tourists and makeshift shops littering its surroundings nine ways to Sunday.
The Aguada Fort was born out of need, after the Dutch disintegrated much of the Portuguese’s strongholds in an attack in 1604. The construction began in 1609 — a fort placed strategically along the peninsula to watch over the water ways via the Arabian Sea that cut into Goa. It was made from laterite stones, which has obviously stood the test of time and weather. And if its formidable height and impenetrable walls weren’t enough, the fort also came with room for several ship, over 2,000,000 gallons of freshwater and up to 200 canons.
In its days of glory, after it was built in 1612, the Aguada Fort stood guard against the European rivals of the Portuguese who took the sea route for invasion. Aguada, named after ‘water’ in Portuguese, not only gave the soldiers life literally with its storage of freshwater, but also did it figuratively against invaders.
The Aguada Fort is also home to the oldest lighthouse in Asia; a four-story tower built in 1864. Once an oil lamp-fuelled beacon for homecoming ship and soldiers, the lighthouse today shines for none.
Today, one can walk up to the edge and see a sweeping and uninterrupted view of the Arabian sea over the fort’s bulwarks. Imagine, where tourists now point their cameras and takes pictures, men once pointed guns and fired at approaching enemies. Even the Aguada jail, for that matter — once used by Portuguese Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar as a prison for political opponents, this part of the fort is now used to hold convicts of drug-related crimes.
The good news is, this fort is still stands tall, unlike its many of brothers, like the Gaspar Dias fort.
That Wall From ‘Dil Chahta Hai’ — Chapora Fort
Ah, finally, we reach that broken wall where Sid, Sameer and Akash would chill and contemplate about their lives with a view of the sea! The Chapora Fort.
If you’re flanked by your teetotaler parents too, like I was, you can always stand here (after your mum has dragged you back a considerable length from the “dangerous” wall) and enjoy the sunset and the view of the Vagator beach, with a coconut in hand instead.
Chapora, derived from the name Shahapura, was the stronghold of the Sultanate of Bijapur in some distant past — until the Portuguese defeated the Shah and took over the fort, reportedly in 1543. It was then expanded along the empire’s northern edge to hold down the fort against the Maratha rulers.
After losing it to ruler Sambhaji for a few years, the Portuguese reclaimed it in the 1700s and renovated it, with secret tunnels and all. However, over the years, it lost its purpose of guarding the empire along the north and, hence, was abandoned in the early 1800s.
Now, what remains are pieces of laterite-built bastions and broken hints to the past. And, of course, garbage littered by those who stop by to recreate the iconic scene from Dil Chahta Hai.
If you count the legends of a church that once stood on the grounds and how Sambhaji used monitor lizards to invade the fort, then there’s that too. Everything else depends on how much the wheels of your imagination can churn at the ruins of a historic fort.
Stereotypes aren’t formed out of thin air, they become common knowledge because there is some truth to them. But the offence of stereotypes is that they are information blown out of proportion and they make people ignorant and, in turn, ill-informed.
Goa, for sure, has its frisky routes to fun and frolicking — and believe me, I advocate the right to relish those. But it should not be limited to that Las Vegas-type image. Or even that of being a hot spot for short skirt-wearing Christian women and alcohol-guzzling Christian men who can’t speak in Hindi without an accent for the life of them, as unnecessarily shown in racist Bollywood flicks.
Goa, with its scarred past and rich heritage, has a lot more to offer than stereotypes present. So, if you have had enough of its sexy beaches and sea-themed activities, or are — like me — stopping by with your sober family, take a peak at all the other stories it has to tell.
And the food. Don’t forget the Goan food! Shit, I should’ve written about that...