The name Goa conjures up these images of golden-brown beaches and idyllic palm trees swaying in the breeze, crumbling Portuguese mansions and the sweltering heat, and those age-old edificios – the cathedrals and churches that point to the territory’s history as a small slice of Europe on the Indian Subcontinent.
The Portuguese arrived here in 1500. By 1505, they had defeated the ruling Sultanate of Bijapur and wrestled the port of Goa from Sultan Yusuf Adil Shahi, thus establishing their Estado da India. In 1530, the capital of the Estado da India was moved from Cochin to Goa. And here, the Portuguese would stay for another 450 years till 1962, when Goa became part of the Republic of India.
From Goa, the Portuguese ruled over a vast network of trading settlements across Asia. The heyday of the Estado da India, and thus Goa itself was in the 1500s to the early 1600s, when Portugal reigned supreme across the eastern seas. Goa was the western-most port in a string of ports that included Hormuz in Persia, Malacca in the Malay Peninsula, Macau in southern China and Nagasaki in southern Japan.When the Portuguese first arrived, they “set up shop” in what is today known as Velha Goa, or Old Goa. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and contains some dozen magnificent cathedrals and religious edifices the Portuguese built here in the 16th and 17th centuries. This – Old Goa – was so beautiful and held sway over such a vast empire, that it was known as the “Rome of the East”.
By the mid 1600s, Old Goa had begun to decline with the rise of the Dutch East India Company in global trade, and significant loss of territory on the part of the Portuguese in the East Indies and Japan. Old Goa lost its shine and begun its centuries-long process of decline.
By the mid-1700s, plague had forced the inhabitants of Old Goa to move en masse, further west to the mouth of the Mandovi River. To build their new capital city of Panjim (Panaji), the Goans simply demolished all buildings in the Old Goa – save for the religious edifices – and transported the blocks of stone and rubble down the river, reusing them in the construction of new civic and residential buildings.
Unlike Velha Goa, Panjim has the air of a provincial township, and is distinctly free of major monuments, save, perhaps, the iconic Igreja da Nossa Senhora da Imaculada Conceição, or the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. This church, previously a parish church, predates much of the city, having been built in 1609. From its location at the top of a small knoll, it commands a magnificent view of the city and the river just beyond.
Downtown Panjim is small, and easily taken in in a series of walks – which we shall undertake in the next few posts. While the city centre still contains a significant number of historic buildings, it is in the quaint little district of Fontainhas, the old Latin quarter, and its adjoining Altinho quarter, that one gets a feel of “old goa”, in the quotidian sense of the term.
Here in this oldest district of the city, one may walk for hours amongst dozens and dozens of old houses built in a historic Indo-Portuguese style. Here too, one finds delightful restaurants and cafes with traditional Goan cuisine.
I arrived in Goa during Carnival, and the city was a awash with colour and festive cheer. With a friend in Goa showing me the sights, I was able to get a glimpse of the best the city could offer during this period – flamenco concerts in ancient churches, parades and markets in the city, and everyday people, dancing in the streets till the wee hours of the morning.
Elsewhere in Goa, one of the most significant legacies of the Portuguese are a string of forts that they had erected along the coast. I visited one of the largest of them – the Aguada Fort – built in 1612 at the mouth of the Mandovi River to ward off a Dutch invasion of Goa.
Here, on the edge of the ocean, it was hard not to feel overwhelmed by the sheer enormity and audacity of the Portuguese overseas effort in the 1500s to gain control of the oceans; and the irony that all of that effort was motivated by a desire for those dry and aromatic bits of tree and shrub; those spices like pepper, cardamom and cinnamon that we view as commonplace today.