Cotswold Travel: Goa, Goa, gone...
PUBLISHED: 11:43 29 March 2017 | UPDATED: 11:43 29 March 2017
There's more to this beautiful island than just golden beaches, as Katie Jarvis discovers. It's still India, but India with the sharp edges knocked off
“Hello!” waves the friendly girl riding side-saddle on a moped, beautiful and bright in her red embroidered sari, black braided hair untouched by helmet. She looks so precarious that I screw up my eyes in fear as the moped weaves round a narrow blind bend, the driver tooting his horn as their sole means of safety.
The bright yellow bus dodging out of their way has ‘Jesus Christ saves’ emblazoned across its rear. Our Lord must be kept busy overseeing mopeds on Goan roads.
Yet even the pariah dogs that loll in the steaming, streaming sun seem to negotiate these dusty highways with acumen. Even the cattle grazing on the plentiful grass, shaded by overhanging palm, seem knowing.
Between the houses (red, yellow, pink and blued by cheerful brushstrokes) with their ornate balconies and pear-shaped pillars, paddy fields stretch, dotted with strangely-elegant water buffalo wearing white egrets like Ascot fascinators. And the women, who attack the plentiful weeds between the furrows in this greenest of lands, are now lolling under the leathery leaves of banyan trees, too sleepy to bid us Namaste as we pass.
I love India. Loved it the first time I went, far up in the north. Loved it even when our bus - stopped at traffic lights – would be besieged by clambering hands and beseeching faces that snatched at my soul. Loved it like a paramour whose incessant demands I longed to meet, but whose insatiable needs meant we suffered a troubled parting.
Goa, over in the west, is a relief. India-lite. India with the sharp edges rubbed off.
Vincent, our guide, directs our driver up to the gates of the impressive terracotta-hued Shri Shantadurga Temple at the foothill of Kavalem village in Ponda Taluka. Here, on the lake beside the 18th century building, the goddess Shantadurga – mediator between Shiva and Visnu - is regally floating. Recently, her divine image has been ceremonially bathed and dressed to gird her in her constant war against evil.
The most challenging war she ever fought was on her original journey here, to this place she now calls home. It was back in the days of the Portuguese missionaries who understood nothing of her mystical powers. One moonless night, her followers secretly transported her over the Zuari River, to this site deep in the forests of Ponda, where they could worship her, unimpeded. Her temple was completed in 1728, during the reign of Shahu Maharaj of Satara.
As we make our way to its sturdy portals, we pass patient, elderly women who line the broiling path, selling coconuts and garlands of lipstick-red hibiscus for pennies to the pilgrims heading for the cool, tiled inside. Young pilgrims, who look contemporary; as if they’ve just stepped away from their office blocks for a few sacred moments.
And then we watch as these worshippers queue – men one side; women another – to give offerings to the portly Brahmin priests, who bless them with holy water.
I delicately whisper questions to Vincent – about the images of dancing girls, the depictions of Lord Vishnu and Shiva; about the mirror that reflects the faces of the faithful as they depart.
“Some of the depictions are erotic – to educate people, because that’s an important part of life,” Vincent tells me, in a voice that seems to boom in this sacred space. “Also, they’re an advert for a temple prostitute, now banned. Even recently, it was going on. Every year, more than 20,000 girls dedicated themselves, almost like nuns.”
I whisper my surprise.
Vincent eyes me sympathetically. “In a Hindu temple, you can talk loudly and shout,” he lightly corrects. “The priest might tell people to keep quiet, but they’ll gradually start talking again.”
He nods disparagingly at the mirror on the way out. “These are placed so you can look to see if the temple experience has made you different. But many pilgrims don’t know that. They use them to comb their hair.”
The history of Goa – India’s smallest and richest state - is perhaps understood best by visiting its capital: by wandering around the bustling streets of Panaji – or Panjim – where the broad banks of the Mandovi River give way to the pastel shades of a glorious Portuguese-inspired Latin quarter. Here, we’re ensconced in the popular Panjim Inn, one of the original heritage hotels of Fountainhas, named after bubbling local springs.
Our room, in this 19th century burgundy-red mansion, has a four-poster bed that looks as if it could tell its own tales of the colonial era. Up on the verandah, we dine on spicy rich fish curry washed down with salty lime soda, while watching the comings and goings in the small ‘chowk’ courtyard shaded by an aged breadfruit tree. Later, we wander through the back lanes, filled with artisan bakers and restaurants where a rich man’s dinner costs little more than £1. In the diminutive ‘city’ centre, I buy an embroidered green kurti from the Bombay Bazaar, a miniature department store that’s like an episode of Are You Being Served? – “May I offer you some reading glasses, madam?” The delightful girl who serves me, bringing out beautifully folded garments stored in old-fashioned glass-topped wooden-sliding drawers, is wearing a fitted sari of the most breath-taking white I have ever laid eyes on.
The Portuguese arrived in India in 1498, in the shape of Vasco da Gama, whose studies of the stars led him to the Malabar coast. He came in search of spices – wealth as coveted as ingots of gold – and he certainly found riches: a glorious land of coastline and greenery – one worth fighting for. Over the next half-century, the colonials battled to establish borders stretching from Chapora Fort in the north, to Cabo da Rama Fort in the south.
And then they lingered – Goa was not returned to Indian rule until 1961 – strewing their influences throughout. One of the most stately is the Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, which stands, as if spun from icing sugar, on an elevated spot in Panaji’s centre. Once, sailors from Lisbon would make this their first stopping point, thankful for safe passage over thousands of nautical miles of swelling sea.
In those days, Panaji was little more than a fishing village; the true heart of the state was at Old Goa, some 10 kilometres to the east, constructed by the Bijapur Sultanate in the 15th century. But as conditions grew increasingly overcrowded, continuous outbreaks of plague led to its abandonment in the 18th century.
And in 1843, the burgeoning Panaji was officially recognised by the Portuguese as Goa’s new state capital.
Vincent, who is as thorough as he is lightly cynical, takes us to Old Goa, to see the marvellous churches which led to its one-time designation as the Rome of the East. The city’s remains, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are stunning. There’s the mind-bending hugeness of the Sé Cathedral, the largest church in Asia, whose Golden Bell once tolled for the terrifying cruelties of the Inquisitions when the ‘faithless’ were horribly tried on the market square. The Church of Francis of Assisi, faded but still lovely, is no longer used for worship; perhaps appropriately, its pink-painted interiors are frequented by the birds the saint loved to feed.
And then there’s the famous Basilica of Bom Jesus - where a window-cleaner works on heart-stoppingly thin bamboo scaffold - which contains the incorrupt remains of St Francis Xavier, kept in a glass-sided coffin. A 16th century Navarrese-Basque missionary, this Francis was friend to Ignatius Loyola.
“When scientists examined his remains,” Vincent tells me, looking me straight in the eye, “they discovered the body belonged to an ancient Asian man.” When I ask him to elaborate, he becomes mysterious. It could be dangerous, he says, evasively.
The churches are wonderful: sad, majestic, abandoned, sacred, ruined, awe-inspiring.
So are the old mansions we see, Goa’s stately homes: the beautiful 350-year-old Menezes Braganza Pereira house in Chandor village, where its proud family loves to show off exquisite objects collected over centuries: “We have the same chairs as Queen Elizabeth has in Buckingham Palace.”
And the intriguing 17th-century Palacio Do Deão, built by the Portuguese nobleman Deão Jose Paulo, founder of Quepem town. For us, it’s an hour’s drive from Old Goa. For Jose, the only passage was via the Kushavati River, two days journey by canoe.
If the churches are divine, then so is our visit to a spice plantation – 55 acres owned by the Sahakari family; religion and spice are equally at Goa’s heart. This ancient farm is fed by water from the western mountains; plants have been cultivated here for the past millennium. We’re greeted with hot lemongrass tea, suffused with ginger, green cardamoms and saffron (“Very good for migraines); and our foreheads are marked with a red symbol of happiness.
Vincent walks us through its manifold groves, pointing out wonders: huge
(harmless) spiders that weave webs big enough to catch a man, if they were so minded; betel nuts like apricots, chewed like gum that turns the mouth red; banana trees – more than 60 varieties growing in Asia: “Each tree gives only one bunch, and then it has to be cut down and its young ones grow. When hot food is served on banana leaves, it absorbs the chlorophyll and aids digestion.”
Chikoo fruit is delicious. Whereas starfruit? Vincent scoffs. “In England, they cost £1 each. Here, no one will eat them. It’s fast food.”
We return to the cool of the open-walled restaurant, to a burgeoning buffet of lentil curry, fried barracuda, chickpeas with potatoes and cauliflower, chicken shakoti, and fried potato pakoras; followed by a pudding of saffron, cashew, cloves, clarified butter and rice, with hulks of watermelon and pineapple, and Merry Milk ice cream.
“Very few Indians are vegetarians nowadays,” Vincent says, frowning at this magnificent feast. “It is very hard to practise what you preach. A lot of Hindus eat beef on the quiet. If you catch a Hindu eating beef, he will deny it. It’s like the Jains.”
The Jains? As in, the ancient religion so strict, they won’t eat meat, eggs, or anything that grows beneath the ground?
“Nor should they shout at anyone, but they are the most aggressive people. They are very good at business,” he says, with his hallmark disapproval.
Of course, most people make their way to Goa for the 80 miles of often picture-perfect coastline, where fishermen reel in overflowing catches at 4am, ready for the plates of hungry diners at noon. In the 60s, the north was sequestered as hippy heaven; nowadays, that legacy tends to show itself in a more liberal attitude to western dress – bare shoulders and short shorts – and a tolerance of alcohol.
We stay at the luxurious Leela, with its superbly gardened 75 acres, the only property in Goa surrounded one side by the river and the other by the sea. (And we lunch beside the golden sands at nearby Zeebop on Utorda Beach, where the tiger prawns are to die for). Then we move on to the friendly Acron Waterfront Resort, where the surrounding beaches hint more at former hippy glory, with their teeming bars, cheap stalls and noisy crowds.
But I have to end by telling you about the Wildernest – one of the most fabulous experiences I’ve ever had. We sleep in a ‘cottage’ buried deep in the ghats, where a playful breeze sounds like a hurricane in the night. We follow bear tracks, marked by the scratching of claws, high up to watch the sun set over a cavernously deep valley, before dining from tables laden with fried fish, masalas and salad, garnished with chutney, pickle and dahi curd.
In the freshness of the morning, we trek along paths to a hidden waterfall, where we swirl in a coracle that we steer to the cascading water’s crashing journey’s end. Running my bare feet over its smooth stones, bathed by cool clear waters – far from anything I’ve ever known - feels like being let into a dangerously delicious secret.
The mystery of the place seems as sacred as Bom Jesus; as much of an obeisance as laying a garland at the feet of a Brahmin priest.
And I think again of Vincent, that most fantastic of guides. “The Hindus believe in reincarnation,” he told me, knowingly, as we looked around Goa’s sacred sites. “But no one comes back.
“Enjoy this life. Because that is all you get.”
Follow in Katie’s footsteps with 14-night packages available through The Goa Experience from *£2399pp, including accommodation, flights (Gatwick-Goa), in-flight meals and all transfers:
The Leela, South Goa (5 grade, deluxe rating); seven nights b&b, lagoon terrace room;
Panjim Inn, Central Goa (Unique, heritage hotel); one night, b&b, deluxe room;
Wildernest, Sahyadri Valley (eco lodge); one night, full board, forest view lodge;
Acron Waterfront, North Goa (boutique hotel); five nights b&b, courtyard room.
The Goa Experience is an independent, specialist tour operator. For information on multi-centre holidays and also single centre options, as well as its India tours and tailor-made holidays call 01489 866 986 or visit www.goaexperience.co.uk.
*(Above price is based on travel 19/11/2017)