It’s a small word with a big impact on the western imagination regarding travel to India – conjuring up visions of rave parties, drug-fuelled all night bliss scenes and idyllic beaches of golden sand, waves softly lapping at the shoreline.
As well as being a state of mind for many European travellers, Goa is also a state of India, located some 600 kilometres south of the booming megalopolis of Bombay. Yes, it’s Mumbai in PC speak, but only since 1996; many Indians prefer the old title – which dates back to the 16th century when the Portuguese arrived, and called the area ‘bom bahia’ – ‘good bay’.
Unknown to many, Goa was the headquarters of Portugal’s global empire – master military tacticians and navigators such as Afonso de Alberquerque and Pedro Alvares Cabral forged unprecedented maritime trade, together with cultural and religious extent – at its height the empire encompassed southern and eastern Africa, the Persian Gulf, India, Indonesia, China, Macau, the Malaysian peninsula and eventually Japan, where their sailors founded the city of Nagasaki.
Cabral was the first captain to touch four continents. The Portuguese accomplished these extraordinary feats more than 500 years ago, gaining them a near total hegemony for the better part of a century.
During the 16th century, beginning in 1510 with the Portuguese setting up their capital nine kilometres upriver at Old Goa (formerly a great Muslim city called Ela), the settlement was pivotal in everything from local power plays to geopolitical events that were intrinsic to the shaping of the modern world.
Despite the spectacular city built at Old Goa, which rivalled European capitals in its splendour and huge churches, the settlement was built on a vast estate of reclaimed land – over time the region was subject to water contamination and river silt accumulation. The swampy land led inevitably to devastating outbreaks of malaria, typhoid and cholera.
Eventually the great city of Old Goa was no more. The capital was moved downriver to Panjim (now also called Panaji) in 1843. Nova Goa, as it was then called, was a far preferable site despite having hitherto been a small sleepy waypoint for sailors to first disembark after their sea journeys from Portugal.
Just a few kilometres from the broad mouth of the Mandovi River, the Portuguese set to work building Panjim, where the Viceroy had established himself earlier, in 1759. Our thumbnail tour through the history of Central Goa ends at the evocative old colonial township known as Fontainhas, draped along a thin strip of riverside land within Panjim.
You have to come to terms with poverty when you travel in this land, and you have to learn to see past it and not to take anything at face value. Some westerners book a return flight out minutes after arriving in Bombay or Delhi.
Many are overtaken by visions of holy men and gurus and don village wear, patchouli oil and walk about barefoot, or attend ashrams. Others perceive India as a giant playground and lose all social inhibitions.
Time often stands still here – two friends chew the fat in the languid sunlight of a Goan afternoon, watching the Ourem creek flow down to the Mandovi River.
Portuguese warehouses line the riverside in the milky soft light.
Workers go about their business inside an outhouse of the Panjim Post Office. Fully functional inside but the Indian way is to accept exteriors as they are – part of what might be called benign neglect, it also means many ancient structures have survived remarkably well into the modern age. Many of the old mansions cannot easily be renovated – which would be a boon for tourism – because of the heavy hand of bureaucracy and the tangle of owners with a financial stake in each of them.
The ancient stone wall struggles to contain the effervescent, almost irrepressible undergrowth. Goa has a long growing season, it lasts 12 months each year. This passageway links Government House and its administration buildings with the town below.
Stone is in fact about the only building material that can stand against the climatic onslaught of the monsoon and the growth of mould and foliage. This finely capped pillar sits next to the small marketplace and general store of Fontainhas.
Modern amenities such as electricity and plumbing are easier to install, access and service if exposed to the open air, and so it goes across the subcontinent.
As few as 10% of people actually pay for electricity in Pakistan, for example – much easier to simply climb the pole and attach your cable along with the hundreds of others. Here, part of the wall had to make way for a new pipe – and the insects are colonising the wall, oblivious to the masonry arrangements.
Pedestrian walkways are still very much in evidence, often parallel to the newer larger roads. Most are adorned with Christian iconography and colourful explosions of ferns – these augment the Goan penchant for rich colour washes on walls.
Rising damp is part of the climate package. You imagine if humans deserted Fontainhas in an imaginary post-apocalyptic scenario, the town would become overgrown with huge tracts of dense foliage in a matter of a few years. This arch is a good example of a solid Portuguese architectural flourish, as evocative as it is romantic; and photogenic.
The climate has the effect of making people and animals quite passive and reflective. Everything and everyone moves slowly, at least outside the monsoon season when precipitation absolutely rules all lives for a month or two. This little four legged friend waits patiently but attentively for his owner to reappear from a nearby shop.
Along the streets of the old shipping warehousing area, village women sell fresh produce, sitting for hours in the hot sun. It is a subculture all its own, part of the glue that binds the society together. The narrow roadways largely prevent vehicles other than motorcycles and bicycles from interfering with this intact pedestrian town.
Beautiful plant life springs out of the ground with an astonishing life force.
Despite annual rainfall being largely confined to the summer months of June to August, when 2500mm (or 98 inches) fall on average, the humidity of the area is such that the biomass sustains itself in abundance year round.
The sun glows golden over the street life at dusk – the sky fills with giant bats, the wheeling birds head up the hill to roost for the night. Grateful old men in white singlets, content to see the end of another hot day, gather in the parks and seedy bars. The old town looks like another place entirely, an alter ego full of bright-eyed partygoers. Indians love the nightlife, and it never gets cold in Goa.