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Goodbye Goa; Hello, Goa

Soumya Mukherjee | Updated on March 26, 2021

Offering a bounty: The first crop of fruit is often offered to a temple before it is taken home   -  ATISH POMBURFEKAR

A frequent visitor goes off the beaten track and revels in the syncretic life of Goans

* The density of shrines per square mile or per capita must be the highest in Goa

* For Satyanarain Puja, the Hindus lead the morning choir in the church; in the afternoon the Catholic priest participates in the puja, and he and his congregation stay for the prasad and the lunch

* I enjoyed the panas or jackfruit, and an idli-like dish called panas bhakri or jackfruit cake, another traditional dish fast disappearing

***

I visited another Goa recently. It is a state I often travel to, for it is a part of the territory I oversee for my organisation and is a popular venue for conferences. I love the scenery and ambience of this beautiful, laid-back, touristy, beach-bound state and usually stay in a hotel near the airport and as close to the sea as possible.

But the last time I was there, I decided to see Goa a little more intimately, and accepted the invitation of a Goan colleague to stay in his village home and explore the countryside.

Accordingly, once the official business of launching a new scheme with the unavoidable meetings was done and dusted, I checked out of the hotel and checked into another Goa altogether.

The first thing you notice in Goa is the greenery. It’s a vivid green backdrop dotted with cottages, some painted vividly. It is also teeming with shrines — Hindu or Catholic, depending on the population concentration, which is often mixed. The standard uniform dress code for men seems to be checked shorts and bare chests ala Sallu Bhai, and loose shifts like nightdresses for the women — just right for its climate. The ubiquitous vahana was the two wheeler; scooties and bikes, perfect for the narrow winding roads, which were often blocked by someone pruning their coconut tree or repairing a roof.

Sacred spaces

I was intrigued by the verandah-like sheds that I saw, where people at leisure lounged around. These, I learnt, are temple verandahs, an essential part of Konkan temple architecture. These areas also work as meeting places and are at the centre of social and political life. Groups of youngsters on bikes gather around village squares, but these temple yards are by far the more popular place for any congregation.

Omnipresent: In Goa every family, mohalla and village have their own deities   -  ISTOCK.COM

 

I think the density of shrines per square mile or per capita must be the highest in Goa. Every family has a family deity; every mohalla its own deity; every village a village deity. In Catholic areas, the idols of the local gods have been replaced by icons of Mary or various saints or sometimes just a cross, but their practices remain largely unchanged. They still go on processions around the village as their predecessors did before them. Just the days have changed; instead of on Dussehra or Purnamasi, the congregations are on various feast days.

The houses — far removed from the hotels I stayed in — are remarkable, too. The richer and usually Brahmin homes are built around a courtyard, with a tulsi manch at the centre. In equivalent Catholic homes, it has been replaced by a cross. Usually the village is divided into mohallas, each representing a so-called caste based profession. The house I was in belonged to the leather workers’ area and their neighbours are the washermen and women. These are poorer areas, and the houses do not have interior courtyards, but a central all-purpose hall, for gathering, dining, entertaining and pooja, as a deity grace a niche here too.

My host, who had prospered financially, had built a large cement double-storied house but kept the original plan intact, as I could see from the neighbouring cottages. The house, painted in bright colours, is shared by the extended family. The adjoiningfamily temple serves the whole clan and also the mohalla of leather workers. The verandah doubles as a council room-cum-recreation area-cum village hall.

I had a chance to examine the temple carefully. Inside the garbhagriha, or sanctum sanctorum, are three deities — the chief with horse and sword, called Vishweshswara, or Lord of the world. He is the Kuldawat, or god of the clan. He had a companion and a second in command, who sits on the earthen floor, not on the pedestal. He is called Nitkari, or the god of daily routine affairs.

Outside the temple, there is another god, who does not have a temple, but sits under a tree. He is called Rastroli. He is in charge of all mundane prayers and of villagers who have moved out. Problems he cannot handle are referred to Nitkari, and he in turn refers only the most difficult cases to Kuldawat. All matters of family, births, deaths, marriages, property, starting a new venture, planting of crops, harvesting and so on have to be necessarily referred to these deities and their permission and blessings sought. The first crop, or the first time anything new is being acquired, is offered to the temple before it is taken home. So wedding invitation cards, postcards, photos of new cars and so on were all stacked there. Everyone tries to visit the shrine at least once a year — whether they are in Mumbai, Kolkata, Lisbon, London, or Rio; cities with the highest Goan populations, in that order.

The Catholics, I learnt, did exactly the same, except that it was the family, clan or village patron saint who ruled their lives.

I also came across two beautiful examples of amity between the sects.

The first is the temple of Jagreshwara, an incarnation of Lord Shiva worshipped in the form of a flame. His feast day is the first Monday after Christmas, and his chief devotees and patrons are Catholic. Both Hindus and Christians worship him. His feast is celebrated with Dando, a morality play injected with a dose of humour, where female roles are played by men. Farmers seeking a bountiful harvest mostly take part in the play.

The other is the Satyanarain Puja in the village. In the morning, the Hindus lead the choir in the church, and lead the prayers, too; in the afternoon the Catholic priest participates in the puja, and he and his congregation stay for the prasad and the lunch.

Food treasures

Goa, I also discovered, is not just about xacuti or vindaloo. Breakfast in a Goan village is freshly baked hot pao, or buns, with a hard exterior and a soft inside like French bread. We had that with spicy lentils and veggies, and hot sweet tea. The pao is delivered by the village baker to all homes, as baking at home is now is a thing of the past.

Lunch is rice and shellfish curry, and some small fish called lepo, as well as dried shrimp sauce. In my honour a large fish called the morso and an even bigger one called chonak were cooked, but these are usuallyfestive fare. I enjoyed the panas or Jackfruit, and an idli-like dish called panas bhakri or jackfruit cake, another traditional dish fast disappearing. We also had some sour and sweet dark blue berries called kanna, which grow wild.

Another little known aspect that I discovered in Goa was its flavoured feni. The popular evening adda was at the Gadi, or village pub serving the country liquor feni, made from both cashew nut and coconut. The clear strong liquid with a pungent smell which burns the throat, however, comes in various kinds of flavours — lemongrass, ginger and other local herbs. There is also urak, the fiery semi distilled version of Feni obtained in the first crop. It is served in small glasses and you toss it in like a shot of tequila.

Most villagers have moved to the city for work, and agriculture is an indulgence; what is grown is largely for home consumption. The coconut plantations, of course, continue to be a valuable source of income. Increasingly, Goans are renting out their homes to backpackers. So the village scene is interspersed with scantily clad white skin and blond mops.

The area is also dotted with various crumbling forts no one seems to have heard about, and quite a few ancient temples, including a 1,000-year-old stone structure lost in a forest. There are many hidden waterfalls, a sweet water lake within 100 yards of the sea, and some secret coves and tiny beaches in scattered uninhabited islands approachable only by boat.

My brief vacation in the non-touristy Goa over, I returned to the grind in the maximum city, with a new outlook of my favourite holiday destinations.

Soumya Mukherjee is a blogger based in Delhi

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Published on March 26, 2021
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