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Goa Festival India

Goa’s eclecticism embraces everything from Lent to Shivratri

The Portuguese did it. During their 450 year rule over Goa they in-troduced the potato, tomato, cashew, tobacco, papaya, guava, pineapple, cathedrals Catholicism.... and the Carnival. Christianity had come to India fourteen centuries before the Portuguese landed on Indian shores. It was, however, an Eastern Orthodox Christianity which adopted the customs and traditions of the land in which it had germinated. The Roman Catholicism of the Portuguese, however, drew much of its mores from the old civilisation of the Roman Empire, even to using Latin in many of its religious ceremonies. The word, ‘carnival’ can be traced to Medieval Latin: carnem levare or carnelevarium: ‘take away or remove, meat’. And if you push it even further back, it could have had its origins in the ancient Saturnalia festival of ancient Rome.

Many of the old religions have such an annual emotion-releasing festival.

For the Hindus of Goa it’s Shigmo. This, too, was originally a spring festival like Saturnalia in honour of the new year and also celebrating the burgeoning of life. Some folklorists believe that when the Portuguese colonised Goa, they gave a Christian patina to the existing Shigmo festival and merged it with the Latin Carnival. Villages still celebrated Shigmo though they called it Carnival. In course of time the two festivals evolved separate identities.

While Carnival and Shigmo are festivals of joy and abandon Shivaratri is one of austerity and penance. It is also, in all likelihood, the most ancient of the three major festivals of Goa because it is in honour of Lord Shiva, a god who had been worshipped in India for centuries before the Indo-Iranians migrated into this land.

Carnival is, however, the festival that visitors associate most closely with Goa. Celebrated just before the mourning period of Lent, it’s a bright explosion of colour, pageants, street processions with floats and bands and dances which go on all through the night. And the music from Goa’s gifted musicians is compulsive.

All this, however, is only the end product of months of dedicated work. Villages, associations, clubs and small bands of enthusiastic neighbours get together, find sponsors and set about creating the floats, costumes and choreography demanded by the Carnival. But it wasn’t always so.

“In the good old days”, a slim, grey-haired man reminisced, “it was a very personal festival. We were not allowed to eat any meat or meat products during the mourning period of Lent so we had to finish all the meat based food in our larders. But how could one family finish it all? So we asked our neighbours to help us. And they, in turn, asked us to help them. It was a very joyful time with neighbours raiding — ‘assaulting’ — is the nearest I can come to the Portuguese word — each others houses. Of course, naturally, because the honour of the housewife was at stake, everyone made extra special food so that the neighbours could say `Ah! What a feast we had in the Carvalho’s house!’ or, `Maria’s sorpotel is like the one my grandmother used to make!’ But then, you know, they commercialised it...” Restauranteur Chico Fernandes, disagreed. He told us that he had read about the Carnival in Rio in a Brazilian magazine and had reasoned that something along those lines, though more in keeping with the slightly conservative Goan ethos, would boost the economy. That, according to Chico was how the modern Carnival was born in Goa. It has given a fillip to the little state’s economy; and along with its beaches and churches, it has given Goa a unique identity. In fact, Carnival impressario, Francisco Martins, has created Carnival floats which have repeatedly won top prizes in the national Republic Day parade in new Delhi.

The Carnival opens with a massive procession through the streets of the capital, Panaji. While barricades and police hold back enthusiastic crowds, columns of colorfully dressed men and women, all depicting the theme of their float, dance to the throbbing beat of ‘disco’ music. We’ve seen floats with underwater themes, Portuguese Goa, the Stone Age, the Shipyard. There have been stilt-walkers, mummers, gigantic masks, even an enormous silver snake slithering sinuously. The themes are limited only by the imaginations of the Goans and the Goans are very imaginative.

The highlight of the procession is the float of King Momo, Lord of the carnival and his court. And when the procession reaches the steps of the Church of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception, King Momo reads his proclamation declaring that all cares and worries have ben banned for the next four days. Every evening after that there are dances in clubs, on board illuminated ferries, in hotels and, most importantly, in a barricaded street in front of the Clube Nationale. Here everyone including the bands have to wear variations of red and black. This last dance is on Tuesday night. After that, revellers, a little bleary-eyed, trudge to church where they attend the first Lenten service and emerge with the ash of mourning smeared on their foreheads. Carnival is always held from the Saturday before Ash Wednesday to Shrove Tuesday.

Shigmo, like the old Carnival, was once also a personal festival to ring out the old year and ring in the new. Falgun is the last month of the Hindu calender. These are lunar months which start on the first day of the waning moon and end thirty days later with the full moon. Curiously, the date of the Carnival is also pegged to the Christian feast of Easter which, in turn, depends on the full moon: Easter can fall on any day between March 22 and April 25. But without getting involved with the intricacies of dates, we learnt that traditionally every village celebrated Shigmo in its own unique way: some even start their Shigmo festivities on the ninth day of the waxing moon of Falgun.

Brightly dressed villagers with turbans and garlands and accompanied by musicians dance through the streets visiting every house, singing songs and reciting poems that recount their legends. There is an air of vivacious, democratic spontaneity that captures the real spirit of Shigmo. Custom decreed certain sacred rituals such as worship of the village deity and even the hypnotic throbbing of a drum which sent devotees into a trance. Increasingly, however, Shigmo is assuming the character of the modern Carnival: floats and street processions accompanied by musicians and columns of colourfully dressed dancers. There is the same spirit of effervescent joy that prevails in Goa during that great pre-Lenten celebration.

Also, during the festive days of both the Carnival and Shigmo, three different types of theatrical performances are often staged. The traditional Khell influenced by the classical Yakshagana dance of Karnataka is based on old Hindu tales and has a rather stilted style with a commentator called a Sutradhara and a jester called a Kodangi. This evolved into the Khell Tiatr with no curtains, sets or stage. Much like the plays performed in Elizabethan fairs, Khell Tiatr offers humorous entertainment. Out of Khell Tiatre was born the more sophisticated Tiatr. This is a stage performance with 6 or 7 sets of about 15 minutes each. When the Portuguese ruled Goa the themes were family disputes. Today there’s a tendency towards political satire and contemporary issues. But just so it doesn’t get too serious, there are two or three songs sung between sets: they have nothing to do with the theme of the play.

Shivaratri, however, is essentially an introspective festival. And as befits such a solemn occasion, it starts on the fourteenth day of the waning moon of Falgun. Both Shigmo and Shivaratri are, therefore, held in the last month of the Hindu calender: Shivaratri in the dark half of the month, Shigmo in the bright half.

The ceremonies that precede Shivaratri vary but, in effect, they all commemorate a legendary eon of all-pervasive darkness between two successive creations. At this time Lords Vishnu and Brahma saw a blazing tower of light rise out of the black cosmic ocean. They tried to measure its depth and height but couldn’t. The column of radiance split open and Lord Shiva appeared. He told them that he was the supreme power of the universe, Brahma was his right side and Vishnu his left. From then on, Shiva has been worshipped as an upright column, accepted as the generative organ of all creation.

During the rituals of Shivaratri a fire sacrifice is performed and after certain invocatory rites the Lord is prevailed upon to reside in eleven symbolic vessels on the altar: eleven terra-cotta pots filled with water. These rituals too depend on the traditions of individual communities of worshippers and the presence of the appropriate number of people versed in such practices. They are not spectacles the way the Carnival and Shigmo processions are. Having said that, however, we must admit that we visited five temples in Goa in the early hours of the morning to see the concluding rites of this ancient festival.

If you want to follow our example, you will have to wake up at 2 a.m. and journey to the temples of Manguesh, Naguesh, Mahalaxmi and Ramnath; and also Sri Goveshkwar in Brahmapuri. Much of the journey can be done by car but, as you approach the temples, you will have to walk: no vehicle will be able to drive through the dense throng of pilgrims wending its way to the shrines. Many of the temples will be beautifully floodlit and will stand out like glowing beacons, representations of the blazing column of light that was the original manifestation of Lord Shiva.

Within the temples devotees will worship the holy upright column, the linga, with water and other sanctified liquids and lay their offerings of flowers around it. The people of Goa, in keeping with their martial traditions, see Lord Shiva as a moustached warrior carrying a sword and with shoes and a shield. When we first saw such an idol we asked if it was indeed Lord Shiva and not one of the guards. We were repeatedly assured that this was the idol of the Lord and that his consort, the Devi, too, carried a shield and was mounted on a horse.

Then, when the devotees have worshipped their martial god and goddess, the idols are mounted on chariots or palanquins and, accompanied by musicians and priests, they are towed or carried around their temples while crackers explode, bands blare and their devotees break out into shouts of joy and even, occasionally, dance in jubilation.

Goa’s blue skies were glowing with dawn when we joined the pilgrims walking away from the last temple. We asked a young couple who were behind us: “Shivaratri is a festival of introspection, a time to seek forgiveness for one’s sins, isn’t it?” But then why were some devotees singing and dancing with joy?” They smiled, frowned, stopped a family who had caught up with them and had a quiet conversation with them in Konkani. “Oh!” they explained after the consultations. “The Great Lord has forgiven our sins. Isn’t that a reason to be happy?”