And Quiet Flows the Zuari

Like the rivers of take-it-easy country life cannot be hurried.

Perched on the sheer edge of a cliff that juts out into the Arabian Sea like some fairytale castle, is Raj Bhavan, the residence of Goa’s Governor. In Portuguese days this house was occupied by the Viceroy and it is thus designed and equipped for the pomp and circumstance of an imperial way of life. It also commands a spectacular view of a great arc of Goa’s coastland. From its rear windows you can see the mouths of both of Goa’s major rivers, the Mandovi and the Zuari.

As rivers go, they’re small. Neither is quite hundred miles long. But in Goa, which itself is quite a small state, they’re fully up to scale: what the Danube and Rhine are to central Europe or indeed what the Ganga and Yamuna are to Uttar Pradesh.

To be sure that there are half a dozen other rivers in Goa, and countless watercourses which during the three monsoon months swell into roaring torrents. But these two rivers, the Mandovi and the Zuari, have had a special role in shaping Goa’s history.

In Goa’s turbulent history, there are several references to some invading force or the other having failed in its attempts to ford the Banastari creek. That creek acts as an effective moat and it is a natural obstacle created by these two rivers collaborating, as it were, to carve out a channel which joins their waters while they are still several miles away from the coast.

The Banastari creek has thus transformed a section of coastland Goa into an impregnable island. That island is called Tiswadi, or the land of thirty villages. It was this Tiswadi island which in medieval times became rich and prosperous mainly because it also contained the port of Govapuri which became a vigorous centre of trade between the east and the west, an alternative to the horrendously more hazardous ‘Silk Route’ of Central Asia.

In ancient times, Govapuri was as well known as, say, Jerusalem and Rome. According to our Skandapurana which is one of the several volumes of Hindu mythological lore, Govapuri was not only a prosperous city on India’s west coast, but a centre of learning “than which there is no holier place.” And the Greek geographer, Ptolemy, who lived in the second century of the Christian era, actually mentions it by a shortened name which could not have been in use then: `Gova’.

Govapuri’s fabled wealth made it a prize target for seizure by the warlords who, from the 12th century onward, had set themselves up as Sultans of one dynasty or the other over much of continental India. The sultans, no matter how keenly they wished to swallow up Goa, were deterred if not defeated by Goa’s natural inaccessibility. One of these sultans who made a determined effort to take Tiswadi, Mohammad Gawan of Bidar, has described Govapuri as the “envy of all other Indian ports and a copy of the cistern of plenty.”

The irony was that while the Mandovi and Zuari between them made Goa, or at least Tiswadi, virtually impregnable from a landward invasion, because of their easy navigability to seagoing ships, they also made it vulnerable to a seaborne expedition.

And that was how Tiswadi came to be conquered, by a seaborne expedition sent by a Sultan of Delhi whose very name spelt terror: Mohammad Bin Tughluq. It sailed from a port in Kathiawad, in a fleet of fifty-seven ships in the mid thirteen-forties. Three days later, they had sailed into the Zuari’s channel. The aim of the expedition was simple: to bring back as much plunder as could be loaded on the ships; to put to death all able-bodied men except the artisans who were to be taken away as slaves. The women were selectively chosen as prizes of war, to serve the lust of the conquerors or as menial servants. And above all, to destroy all the idols and the places of worship of the kaiffirs.

Goa’s ordeals had begun.

Of the Goa of the Kadambas, nothing now remains in coastal Goa other than bits and pieces of temple statuary. Govapuri, the pride and boast of the Kadambas, just disintegrated and over the centuries vanished altogether. Pandits who have looked for its site will tell you that it sprawled along the right bank of the Zuari river and that a village called Goa Velha once formed a suburb of Govapuri.

Maybe, maybe not. What is true is that when, more than a century and a half later, the Portuguese took over Goa, all traces of a city called Govapuri had already vanished. It was as though the river Zuari, having served as the principal artery of trade for centuries, had decided to retire and pass on its role to the Mandovi. The same silt that came down in ever increasing amounts every year to make its channel too shallow for seagoing ships was also steadily and surely burying Govapuri; imperceptibly, no more than a few inches every year, but within a hundred years, the job was complete. The Zuari had not only decided to put itself out of business, it had actually swallowed up the city it had nourished.

From Goa’s airport at Dabolim, the road into the mainland skirts the left bank of the Zuari. In the tidal parts it is one unbroken clutter of gaunt warehouses or noisy workshops for building or repairing iron-ore barges. True, now and then there are glimpses of vaguely religious ruins on the other bank, but this stretch of Zuari has been overtaken by commerce. Then after passing the town of Cortalim, the river makes a gentle sweep to the right and the outlook suddenly changes. From here to Loutolim it is the Goa of Mario Miranda’s exuberant drawings. This is the land of batkars, landed gentry, the home of Sossegado which means ‘take it easy’ but it also means the Goan way of doing things.

A chain of low hills flank the river and their slopes are covered with plantations of Goa’s own fruit trees, the Jack, the Malcorado and Cashew. Through their foliage you glimpse the batkar houses, all facing the river. Most are built of chira, the red laterite stone that is special to the west coast.

The main feature of all these bunga-lows is a flight of steps leading to a porch which is lined on both sides with stone benches facing one another. Here the family members sit, dressed in vests and knee-length pyjamas and gossip as they munch sun-dried cashew nuts and sip vintage feni which is here prized over VSOP brandy. Indeed each batkar either has his own backyard still, or shares one with a few friends. Each year’s product is stored away in earthenware vessels called caussos in cool underground cellars and allowed to age. What they’re drinking today may well be from a causso that was first filled twenty years ago.

This is the Goa of the expatriate Goan’s nostalgia, of mando singsongs by moonlight, of sorpotel made with coconut-pulp gravy and the sannas that go with it fluffier because they have been leavened with home-made palm toddy. Here the plump, doe-eyed matrons spend hours before smoking wood fires because bebinca cannot be hurried. It is presented for Sunday lunch, an artistic creation of paper-thin brown and yellow layers thick as a loaf of bread.

This stretch of Salcette is surely the heart of Christianized Goa and, who knows, possibly its soul too.

Here the past lingers and time moves in slow motion, as does the Zuari, its other bank lined with rice paddies and, behind them, coconut palms. And beyond those palms is Hindu Goa.

In the Konkani language, the other side of the river is polttodi. It is a word charged with emotional content. Polttodi is Hindu Goa, the sanctuary of transplanted deities, of temple dancers; of caste marks and tika and chains of flower around hair buns. Polttodi is Bakibab Borkar’s Goa just as much as Salcette is Mario Miranda’s. Both have portrayed their images: Mario in drawings, Borkar in his poetry; poetry which, over the years, is quoted in everyday conversation in both Konkani and Marathi.

That word, polttodi, the other bank. To the Goans it holds other meanings too: the promised land, some unattainable yearning. It has spawned Goa’s own theme song, Hanv saiba polttodi vetam — “Sir, I want to go to the other side”. It tugs at the heartstrings of all Goans no matter where they live, whether male or female, whether they go to a temple or church or don’t believe in God at all.

But then if the Zuari accurately reflects the Sossegado or laidback lifestyle of Salcette, it has not been so placid, or indeed so well behaved in the past, but has been known to be capricious not only in pre-Portuguese days when it swallowed up Govapuri, but in more recent times: the early years of Portuguese rule. In the sixteenth century it washed the steps of the Santana church (which incidentally, is one of Goa’s must-see monuments). Nowadays you cannot even see the river from the church.

That bit of fractiousness apart, the Zuari has gone into quiet retirement. It had ceased to be the channel of entry for ships coming to Western India even before Alfonso de Albuquerque’s arrival. It was its sister river, the Mandovi, that had taken over the role. A small village called Ela on its banks, about ten miles upriver from its mouth, had been developed into a port town. It was this village that the Portuguese took to calling Goa and, later still, Velha Goa.

It was the Mandovi, then, that brought fame and fortune to Goa. Its harbour became the main entrepot on India’s west coast for ships from foreign lands. Barely sixty years later, and it was already being spoken of as being the equal of Lisbon itself. Travellers have described it in ecstatic terms, as a bustling centre of trade with spacious squares, extensive parks, ornate fountains, elegant private villas but, above all, magnificent churches.

Goa’s churches have been the most ambitious Portuguese monuments. After all, the impulse that fuelled Portugal’s empire-building drive was their evangelical fervour, bordering on fanaticism. And the competitive frenzy of the various orders of the Catholic Church gave Velha Goa its noblest monuments.

Unfortunately, Goa’s prosperity did not last long. A hundred years later it fell into rapid decline. But during that interregnum of burgeoning prosperity, around the year 1600, Goa was being called ‘The Rome of the Orient’ and even Goa Dourada, Golden Goa.

A handsome book with that very title ‘Golden Goa’ published by Marg has a double-spread picture of Velha Goa at around this time. It shows the stretch of the Mandovi beyond Raibandar, and you can make out some of the landmark structures: St. Augustine’s Church, for instance, with its twin towers which once served as a viewing stand for Goa’s Viceroy’s for watching the ‘Auto de fe’, the ceremonious burning alive of heretics.

At the centre of the picture is Velha Goa in full glory, positively crammed with buildings. Of them only the few churches and religious buildings have survived, neglected and mouldering. But of the shops and warehouses, the mansions of the merchants, not a trace. Goa Dourada had vanished. If it were not for the few structures that can be identified, this portrait of it drawn from life with such exacting detail might be thought to be an imaginary depiction.

As a matter of fact Goa’s period of prosperity did not last for even a hundred years. By the end of the seventeenth century, its owners had not only abandoned it but eviscerated it and cannibalized it for building material to be reused for their new houses at another location. In 1846 the great adventurer and explorer, Sir Richard Burton, stopped over in Goa for a few days while on a journey further south. In between his other preoccupations (such as an attempt to abduct a “black-eyed and rose-lipped young nun” from the Convent of St. Augustine) he dutifully performed the tourist’s round of Velha Goa. He writes:

“Churches and monasteries excepted, this was a dead city. Everything that met the eye teemed with melancholy; the very rustle of the breeze a dirge for the departed grandeur”.

His journey to Velha Goa was made by hired rowboat. In fact he had used the same boat to take himself to the St. Augustine’s Convent in the dead of night in his bid to carry away the pretty nun. His attendants did force their way in and seized a nun but she was the wrong woman and they had to let her go. Till well into the early twentieth century Velha Goa had to be approached by boat. Like all riverside cities the grandest buildings faced the river; in Goa, in the old days, they were meant to be visited from the riverside; the maze of mean lanes that may have provided access to servants and tradesmen are now pressed into service as thoroughfares.

Granting that the Velha Goa of Portuguese days is gone, whatever there is still left to see is best from the river which at least has not changed much. And nowadays a motorboat will take you there in less than an hour.

Perhaps the one part of Portuguese Goa that has not changed beyond recognition is the island of Diwar. You see it to your left, across the water, a low hill with, at its highest point, a gaunt white structure that is somehow in complete harmony in its setting: the Church of Piedade or Our Lady of Compassion. A gleaming white edifice against the sky, calling attention to itself in a role similar to that of the Statue of Liberty across the port of New York, as a marker of a long journey’s end, of an arrival at a destination.

But if the Piedade church serves as an enduring memorial of Portuguese rule over Goa, surely, the Tambdi Surla temple of Mahadeva stands as a marker for the ancient rulers of Goa, the Kadamba dynasty. This temple represents some sort of a miracle too, in that it has survived, almost intact, the temple-destroying fury of two waves of conquerors.

Tambdi Surla is not for the bread-and-butter tourist. For one thing, a trip to it from coastal Goa even by taxi needs the best part of a day. Nonetheless, it is what the Pyramids are to Egypt or the Great Wall to China — positively the most important monument of Goa. It has been around for close on a thousand years, yet no one even in Goa so much as knew about it till it was ‘discovered’ by a young Goan surveyor, Anant Dhume, in 1935.

It is not easy to write about the impact of the Tambdi Surla temple as it suddenly breaks into view without resorting to superlatives. Christopher Turner in his guidebook to Goa is struck by its “balance of strength and delicacy and superb craftsmanship.” But he also calls it “the most thrilling building in Goa, dramatic, romantic” and I myself have likened the experience to “walking into a cultural ambush.”

Anyhow, a few hundred yards beyond that frisky young river called Ragoda, the jungle opens up with startling suddenness to a stone temple on the only level patch of ground circled by deep valleys and, in the far distance, fortified by towering mountain peaks and ridges. The spectacle is stunning, with nothing that is out of balance to detract from your sense of overpowering wonderment.