Much of Goa seems like a place that’s not quite India--and yet is. Massive white churches with typically Latin curved facades and a huge bell hanging from the centre stand amidst lush green fields of new rice. Roadside shrines with plaster or tile crucifixes or a painting of Jesus are bestowed with incense sticks and garlands of marigolds--just like thousands of Hindu temples all across India. The names on the houses along the streets are Fernandes, Menezes, Gonsalves, Gomes, Lobo, Mascarenhas- and the houses themselves have terracotta-tiled roofs, and coconut trees standing sentinel in the backyard. The food and the drink include ingredients fairly uncommon in other parts of the country, from Goan `port’ wine to local vinegar. Even the place names--Benaulim, Panjim, Sanquelim, Querim--don’t sound Indian (although their local names- Banahalli, Panaji, Sankhali, and Keri- are definitely homegrown).
There’s an almost all-pervasive veneer of the West, although it disappears almost completely the further you head inland. But where it exists, it dominates. And not surprisingly, for Goa, after all, was ruled by the Portuguese for five hundred years- about three centuries more than the British could manage- and the Portuguese took Goa very seriously indeed, saturating it with everything that was Portuguese- from religion and architecture to music, food and clothing.
The event that ultimately brought Goa under the rule of the Portuguese occurred in 1498, when Vasco da Gama arrived at Calicut (in modern day Kerala), worn out by the ten-month long voyage round the Cape of Good Hope. Although da Gama didn’t get a warm welcome--the Moors goaded the Zamorin of Calicut against him, and he was literally hounded out of the port, and had to return to Portugal with a few spices and the consolation of having discovered the sea route to India. (It’s a different matter that he actually managed to make a profit of 3,000% on the spices he brought back with him).
Vasco da Gama’s voyage opened the way for his more ambitious compatriots, eager for the wealth- mainly from spices- that India offered. Goa was a tantalising destination, an excellent port that, if captured, could rake in millions. On February 28, 1510, a fleet commanded by Afonso de Albuquerque invaded Goa (more precisely Bijapur), but were driven back within six months by the local armies of the Adil Shahi ruler and the prevailing monsoon winds. They came back- with reinforcements- in November 1510, and this time they stayed.
Goa became the first territorial possession of the Portuguese in Asia, and Velha Goa- today’s Old Goa--was made the capital of the Portuguese empire in the East. It soon acquired a large Eurasian population (a result of intermarriages between the native women and the Portuguese men who’d arrived with Albuquerque) and was granted the same civic privileges as Lisbon. The state’s senate was granted the right to direct communication with the king of Portugal, and Goa Dourada- Golden Goa--became the place to be in.`Quem viu Goa, dispensa de ver Lisboa’--`He who has seen Goa, need not see Lisbon’-- became a popular proverb of the era.
The fifty years between 1575 and 1625 saw Goa reach its peak: splendid mansions, magnificent cathedrals, bazaars overflowing with Portuguese velvet, Chinese porcelain and spices from the islands of the Far East, pearls and coral from Bahrain. Estado da India- the Portuguese empire in India- basked in the limelight.
The good times didn’t last, however: the arrival of the Dutch in the early 17th century brought one disaster after another. Goa was first blockaded by the Dutch, and then hit by an epidemic that wiped out hundreds. Goa didn’t quite recover its splendour after that- and attacks by the Marathas did nothing to bolster the prosperity of the state. However, Goa managed to hang on and remained a bastion of the Portuguese against the rest of British-dominated India.
Anti-Portuguese feeling had already begun to build up in Goa by the 1700s, and the Pinto Revolt in 1787, led by a group of priests supported by a clique of military officers, was a sign of things to come. By the 20th century, Goa was- like the rest of India- pushing to be free of colonial rule. The rest of India became independent in 1947, but Goa continued under Portuguese rule till 1961. The Indian government’s negotiations with Portugal’s Prime Minister, Antonio Salazar, collapsed and India finally resorted to military action. The Indian army entered Goa on December 19, 1961, and Goa was declared part of India.
Goa today is not as magnificent as it once was--but there are memories that endure. In the imposing churches and convents of Velha Goa; the exquisite Menezes Bragança Mansion of Chandor; the lilting tunes played by Goan singers with their guitars and their drums; the flavour of chourisso sausages, the 20,000 or so people estimated to still speak Portuguese. Yes, there’s more than a mere hint of the West here.