Beyond the Beaches

There is much more to Goa than beaches and churches as Hugh and Colleen Gantzer have discovered while doing research for their book “Discovering Goa”.

The beaches are the most popular part of Goa. Its churches are the best known internationally: the whole complex of churches in Old Goa are on the World Heritage List. Its effervescent festivals — Carnival, Shigmo, Shivaratri — are being discovered by an increasing number of visitors. But there’s a lot more to Goa, very much more, that lies beyond all these better known attractions.

It all started after we had driven the full length of its 125 km coastline photographing and assessing its many beaches. When we came to the last beach, the northernmost one of Harmal or Arambol, we looked across the Tiracol river and saw what lay on the other side. It was a pretty little fort, almost a fairytale Disneyland fort growing out of the cliffs and bougainvillaes of a headland.

“What’s that?” we asked our friend.

“That’s Tiracol. They say it was the outpost of the Portuguese. Beyond it is our neighbouring state of Maharashtra.”

“Has the Indian army taken it over? It looks well maintained.”

“It’s a hotel now. Would you like to look around?”

The road winds up through a little settlement of comfortable Goan cottages: wild lush gardens, a dog on the doorstep, chickens scrabbling around, coconut palms throwing dappled shadows on the red tiled roofs. We kept climbing till we came to the deep moat that once protected the fort. We parked our car and walked up.

The little Fort-hotel was run by a husband-and-wife team. He is in shorts, very gracious, very dignified as many of the old families of Goa are; she bustling and motherly, eager to make us comfortable and ply us with delectable Goan fare.

The central court around which the fort rises is dominated by a beautiful little church: a living church full of light and quiet elegance. We crossed the court and walked up narrow stone stairs through short passages into split level rooms which followed the contours of the headland: old furniture, superb views over the river and the beaches and out to the blue horizon of the sea. The Portuguese had sailed in from there, established themselves in the old conquests like this one, taken over an existing outpost, converted it to a fort to repulse the latest technique of attack.

In the late 15th century more destructive cast iron cannonballs had been produced in response to more powerful gunpowder. The old, towering castles provided too large a target for the new, heavy artillery. The profiles of the forts were, therefore, reduced; the walls thickened and often built in two concentric layers with impacted earth between them to absorb the bombardment. Much of the fort was underground and the great blocks of laterite which were excavated went into strengthening the defences. Laterite turns dark on exposure to the air, gets covered in vegetation, camouflages itself in the cliffs. The typical Portuguese turrets no longer served as vantage points for firing at the besiegers: the range of small arms was no match for the attacking cannon. The slim towers now became observation posts. Walls were sloped instead of vertical: slopes deflected round shot, the old type of cannonball. Bastions, those parts that projected out from the walls, were enlarged to take bigger cannon their wheeled carriages; they were no longer rounded but were made V-shaped to deflect shot and afford a bigger field of fire for the defenders. The only exception to this new shape was when the bastion thrust out to sea and had to be circular to take the battering of the waves. And since a church as considered necessary for the staunchly Catholic Portuguese, it had to be built inside the fort. Churches outside the walls would interfere with the line of fire and could, if captured, become a critical outpost for the enemy.

All these features, typical of the ‘new forts’ of Goa, can be seen in Tiracol. And when we had finished our tour of the fort, we had an excellent Indo-Portuguese lunch in a restaurant in the old moat.

Tiracol gave us a good insight into the attitudes of the old colonials: invading Iberians determined to maintain their hold on the seemingly inexhaustible cornucopia of India. But there was also a less aggressive, a more subtle side to their 450 year rule over Goa. They influenced the mores and architectural styles of that centre of Goan life: the village.

To this day, if you ask Goans where they are from, they’ll give you the name of their village, their ‘ancestral village’ as they often call it. And since many of the villages have probably evolved from early Stone Age settlements, each Goan village has had plenty of time to develop its individual character overlaid by an Iberian stamp. All this comes out very clearly in a recreated village called ‘Ancestral Goa’. It is in Loutolim.

Do spend some time examining the furniture and other artifacts displayed in the reception cottage, including the reclining chair and the palanquin. They set the tone of the way of life that is virtually a thing of the past. The landlord of the village exercised the sort of authority that the Lord of the Manor did in England once upon a time. Here, in Goa, however, their authority was restricted by the democratic conventions that had existed for countless generations. The Goan village was a self-contained entity and if any family stepped too far out of line, the social system would put it back into its ordained place. Custom and tradition had a stronger hold than money; and the church was the great arbiter.

Thus, in Ancestral Goa, the Sant Khuris, the white cross, reminds all inhabitants that the rule of God and the authority of His church must be respected. And when you enter the Mansion of Donna Maria, the landlady, you’ll find an altar inside. Here, the family priest offered Mass, his presence also underscoring the status of the landlord. A further assertion of the landlord’s position in the village is the fact that the mansion has been clearly patterned on traditional Portuguese architecture: it bears the imprint of the overlords!

In contrast to the mansion is Joao’s House roofed with tiles and with a small verandah in front. Near it is the Taverna which served much the same function that a pub does today. Tavernas are still very much a part of the Goan scene. In most Goan villages in the past the gin-like feni was locally brewed and in Ancestral Goa visitors can walk round a mocked-up bhatti or distillery. This one, showing the family at work used cashew as it main ingredient. Cashew feni and fried seafood go well together and so you should also visit the hut of Victorin, the fisherman. His is a very humble dwelling built on a wooden frame and thatched with coconut fronds. Finally, there is the ‘downtown’ area of the village: the Tinto or market square. Here the fishwives, the farmers, the homesteaders, potters and pedlars of trinkets assembled to sell their produce to the villagers.

For all their seeming sophistication, Goans are still very involved with their green countryside. Villages with the white towers of their churches and temples seem to grow like carefully nurtured blooms out of their well-watered fields and groves of coconut and cashew, papayas, bananas and the feathery drumstick tree.

Given the burgeoning lushness of the land and its proximity to the wooded Western Ghats, the wilderness of Goa should have been teeming with wildlife. The Portuguese, however, were determined hunters and they made trophies, or banquets of most of the animals that once lived there. Today, however, the wetlands and forests ore being repopulated with wild birds and animals protected by a vigilant Forest Department.

The birds with their winged mobility were the first to return. Dedicated bird watcher, Peter Harris, has sighted 360 species of birds in the gardens, wilderness and wetlands of goa. At the tip of the riverine island of Chorao, thick with mangroves and trickling with little rivulets, is the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary. If you should ever walk in its green and shadowy depths and breathe in the float, fetid aroma of the marsh, you could see egrets, herons, teal, eagles, oyster catchers and those flying mammals, the fruit-eating flying foxes which are really bats. There is a slight chance of spotting otters and jackals and even more remote possibility of seeing a crocodile: they are very wary and perfectly camouflaged like floating, black logs in the soft mud of the sanctuary.

Then there is the little Bondla Sanctuary with its unique wild life rehabilitation centre. Here animals which have been orphaned or injured, wandered into inhabited areas where they get tender loving care. And they thrive. There has been a population explosion of porcupines who now rustle around with their usual, bad-tempered bustle. For us, however, Bondla’s greatest attraction is its profusion of birds. In twenty minutes we spotted 11 different species including a Grey Hornbill.

Few people realise that 30% of Goa is covered in dense forests and though tigers and elephants do wander into the 240 sq. km of the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary, they don’t stay for long: possibly because there isn’t enough of their favourite food available or perhaps because centuries of hunting by the Portuguese had built in an instinctive fear for these forests among the larger animals. We did, however, spot three Indian bison, the Gaur, in the forests of Molem, a part of this large sanctuary. We also saw jungle fowl, barking deer and a rather fearless jackal so, perhaps, in the years ahead, the large cats and pachyderms will also move in.

The forests of Goa interest us more than their animals. We had hardly driven out of the bright, inhabited areas when we were in dense jungles which varied from moist deciduous to evergreen. Giant trees roped with lianas and decorated with hosts of epiphytes like orchids, towered into the sky. The undergrowth was so thick that an army of wild animals could have been lurking inside hidden from our eyes. Very often, those creeper-palms entwined up the trunks of their hosts seeking their place in the sun. We felt that we were in a lost civilisation of vegetation, a vast self-perpetuating environment. We were the interlopers. And, indeed, the first humans in Goa, those of the Acheulian Age, 150 to 75 thousand years ago, must have felt this when they came here. They had trudged through these forests and established their Stone Age ‘industry’ in the Dudhsagar Valley where river-rounded stones could be picked up in abundance.

We broke out of the dense forests of the sanctuary and emerged into the dramatic valley of Dudhsagar. High above us, a tributary of the Mandovi river cascaded down for 600 metres. Its water gushed under a railway bridge and foamed white towards us. If you cross the bridge by train you will chug over the mid-point of the highest cascade and, if the wind is right, you’ll feel the spray in your compartment. But if you see the falls from below, as we did on our last visit, this ‘ocean of milk’ which is what Dudhsagar means, seems to be pouring out of the sky!

The view from the bottom is breathtaking and it held us enchanted for a long while. Sadly we hadn’t brought our towels and swimming costumes as some wiser visitors had. They seemed to be as happy as seals in a pool of water, constantly freshened by the falls.

A young couple called out to us: “Come on in; it’s invigorating.” And: “It’s better than a jacuzzi.” We thanked them and said we were heading for the beaches. They waved their hands in derision: “The beaches are for everyone; this is so special!”

Which, come to think of it, is an excellent way of describing all the wonderful things that lie beyond the beaches of Goa.

Ciaran’s River Camp

Is paradise all pleasure? Then come visit this corner that seems to have fallen off the land of paradise. Situated on Palolem beach, Ciaran’s Camp offers an experience in addition to accommodation. Little huts seat you on the magic carpet in time. But modern facilities tag along too. Tuesday night lives up at the camp with bonfire, singing and dancing. Hammocks rock you to the song of the wind while lazy reclining chairs push out that beer paunch as you gaze into the fathomless waters off the beach.

Ciarin has a river camp too where it will pick you up from your respective hotels to take you on a drive along Kuswati river. As you swim and splash water palm trees laugh all along the shores. The camp leads you to some important tourist sites like the Chandranath temple, the highest accessible point by motor, and to the largest house in Goa: that of Menezes Braganza.