Hello Goa, the tiny Indian state famous for the beaches that stretch along its Arabia Sea coastline, the legacy of World Heritage architecture left by the Portuguese and its hippy past. Behind its other charms and its welcome to visitors lies a love of life summed up in the word “sussegad” - a belief in making the best of every passing moment.
“We are a very tolerant and hospitable society,” says Maria Aurora Couto. “Our liberal, open-hearted ways are misunderstood. Many visitors don’t realise that Goans are deeply religious and quite conservative in many ways.”
Maria lives in the lush green village of Aldona, north of Panaji, and has written two autobiographical books about Goa in the last century. After a busy professional life, the Coutos retired to Goa, where Maria has lovingly restored her husband’s family home, a 200-year-old house which combines traditional Goan architecture with Portuguese influences.
Goa is India’s smallest but best-known state, spreading for 100 kilometers along the picturesque coastline of the Arabian Sea. The Portuguese ruled here till 1961, well after India won its independence from Britain in 1947, giving this little enclave a unique character that is part of its charm.
Maria is the typical bridge generation between Portuguese and Indian rule. Her name, like that of all Goan Catholics, is Portuguese, since the community was converted 400 years ago and each individual baptized with a Portuguese name. Yet many families, including that of Maria, know their original names and temples. “Goan identity is not Portuguese,” she says. “It is derived from a person’s village and religion.” Roughly 65 per cent of the population are Hindus, while 26 per cent are Catholics and seven per cent Muslims.
Goans first and Portuguese next
However, there are those among the older generation, belonging to the landed Catholic elite, who would firmly declare they are Goans first and Portuguese next. Unlike Indians, who were British subjects before independence, Goans were Portuguese citizens and Goa was cut off from the mainland for 450 years. Those born after the 1960s have not been educated in Portuguese and are comfortable speaking in English and Konkani. It would seem they view themselves as Goans first and then Indians. As with anywhere in India, the regional identity is always placed first. During the 2014 World Cup, Goans bet their money on Portugal, even knowing that they would lose it. Soccer is a sport that holds Goa in an emotional frenzy, unlike the rest of cricket-crazy India.
Goa has been open to foreign influences since ancient times, due to trade (with Greeks, Arabs and others) and later colonialism. Mainstream India sees Goans as modern, since women dress in western clothes, social conduct is more liberal, and the culture and cuisine have strong Portuguese influences. But the links to the Catholic Church and, at the same time, to their original Hindu caste are very strong, and govern the rules of social interaction. The onslaught of the brash modernity that globalization has brought to the rest of India, has taken its toll on Goa, eroding many of its older values.
This “liberal social conduct” is at the root of Goa’s attraction for the millions of tourists, foreign and Indian. Intertwined with the notion is the much-used term “sussegad” – a broad generalisation that encompasses the Goan way of life. The term is derived from the Portuguese word sossegado (meaning “calm, peaceful”) but refers to the unhurried pace of life here. “Those who understand the word in its positive sense choose to make the best of every passing moment and enjoy this magical destination for what it is,” says Maria. “But it is a highly misunderstood term, opening Goans to labels such as laid-back and even lazy.” Having witnessed some Indians loudly expressing their impatience when they found shops closed during siesta time, I have to agree with her.
A woman with a red umbrella stands out starkly
Goa’s capital of Panaji divides the state into the north, which is happening, touristy and developed; and the south, which is calm, slow-paced and unexplored – the essence of sussegad. Driving from the airport, I pass emerald green paddy fields, lined by coconut palms silhouetted against a cloudy sky. A solitary woman with a red umbrella stands out starkly, bending over to plant saplings in her little field. In places the road has overhangs of red laterite rock, which colors the Goan landscape so prominently. There is a dockyard with anchored ships on the Zuari River, while rusty barges haul in manganese ore headed for the nearby port of Marmagao.
The former Portuguese rulers have left their mark everywhere in Panaji. Impressive heritage structures line the boulevard along the Mandovi River, while the Latin Quarter of Fontainhas is a colorful jigsaw of brightly-painted, Iberian-style houses, dotted with shops and eateries, leading to the imposing Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. This grand white structure, with wide stairs leading up to the entrance, stands testimony to the deep-rooted Catholic faith of the region. Rising above on a wooded hillside is the residential area of Altinho that houses the Bishop’s Palace as well as homes of the rich. Most are century-old, Portuguese-style villas, with the famous oyster shell windows and grand balcaos. In stark contrast are the garish, neon-lit casino boats docked at the Mandovi River - a novelty for Indians since it is restricted activity anywhere on land. Bishop’s Palace on a hill and casinos on the river below… Goan tolerance in a glance.
At the heart of Fontainhas is a cluster of heritage buildings, among which rests the 180-year-old Panaji Inn, an atmospheric contrast to the city’s many other characterless hotels catering to a corporate clientele. Panaji is about an hour’s drive from anywhere in Goa, making it possible to stay at a beach resort but drive here to enjoy the nightlife and numerous fine-dining options.
I head north to Assagao, one of many equally pretty villages in the interior or along the coast. At the Gunpowder restaurant, run by Satish Warier, I enjoy a spicy South Indian lunch. Satish’s restaurant by the same name in Delhi had a cult following, but he chose to relocate to Goa. “I couldn’t stand the hustling that goes with managing a restaurant in Delhi anymore,” he says. “Bribes had to be paid and officials kept happy. So I decided to give it up and move to Goa. I’ve partnered with a designer couple who ran a boutique close to my Delhi outlet, and we’ve rented this old cottage that came quite cheap. It’s early days in Goa, but I love living here.” The collaboration has resulted in an unusually chic and creative setting, and people drive out of their way to visit. Eclectic restaurants such as this, or villas set in hideaway surroundings, are part of the changing, more upmarket face of Goan tourism.
The original haunt of flower children from the West
The old cliches of hippy shacks and yoga on the beach started on North Goa’s beach trifecta of Candolim-Baga-Calangute, a broad swathe of continuous sand now bristling with hotels, restaurants and seasonal pop-up eateries. Once the original haunt of flower children from the West, and still the choice of British package tourists in winter, this stretch is the favorite for Indian visitors. They come during the summer holidays and in the week of New Year, with ringing in the year at Goa having become very cool indeed.
In season, visitors are the target of constant badgering by souvenir sellers, small-time watersports operators and hotel touts, pushing wiser travellers further north or south. But, during the monsoon season, the beach is beautifully desolate and I find a quiet hotel in Calangute. The high waves reflect the grey monsoon sky and, as I walk along the soft sand, a red Coast Guard jeep drives past, keeping an eye out for brash swimmers who should not be out at this time of the year. As I am barefoot, I keep a look out for broken beer bottles and other debris that has washed up, including the blue plastic bags and mineral water bottles of which no Indian tourist destination is free. I stroll up to the end of the gently curving bay and back, with a black dog to keep me company. He is a part of the friendly pack of strays that co-exists here with the tourists and souvenir sellers.
My hotel’s owner, Manoj Chodankar, joins me for a coffee at his little restaurant overlooking the sea and shaded by casuarina trees. We talk about the burden of tourism on his tiny state. Although he has a prime location, he prefers to keep his hotel low-key and limited to 16 rooms. “I don’t want to overstep the boundaries of need, to be tempted by greed,” he says.
Other resort owners have not been so wise and the result is pollution on the sands and the garbage strewn all over the streets that I saw on my drive to the hotel, a cruel sign of the future facing Goa. Along with this is the in-your-face presence of large, distasteful concrete structures: hotels and condominiums sold as holiday homes to Indians from other states.
Successive governments have been corrupt
Like many other tourist destinations, Goans face the sad quandary of being dependent on “outsiders” for their income but at the same time resenting their loud and inconsiderate presence. “The only way out is stricter regulation by the government and improved infrastructure,” says Manoj. A constant refrain I hear from most locals is that successive governments have been corrupt and turned a blind eye to evils such as the drug mafia (run mainly by Russians, they claim), indiscriminate development and mining. As a temporary respite, the activist group Goa Foundation went to the Indian Supreme Court to stop mining activity in the state in 2012.
“We have just over three million visitors every year in Goa, 2.6 million from elsewhere in India,” says Manoj. “And that makes our GDP about two and half times the Indian average – which is good for the Goans – but the price is the loss of that special something that drew people here in the first place.”
I drive further up the coast to Morjim Beach, whose breath-taking beauty is complemented by the fact that it is at the mouth of Chapora River. This setting is a common one in Goa, with Mobor being another such lovely bay in the south.
At Jardine d’Ulysse, I meet local Gilbert Fernandes and his French wife Fleur. They met on this same beach when Fleur was backpacking in India and Gilbert ran a shack called Café del Mar. Now they have two kids and run a popular boutique hotel with seven rooms enjoying a lovely view of the bay, where Olive Ridley turtles come to lay their eggs every November. Volunteers stand night watch to guard the turtles from insensitive intruders.
“I do go back to France every year, and delivered both my children there,” says Fleur. “But it wasn’t very difficult to decide to live in Goa. Gilbert proposed to me just a few weeks after we met, and we got married in a couple of months. Now I’m obsessed with our resort and spend all my time with the architect and workmen. There are renovations each season, and I’ve tried to give each room a distinct look, using ethnic textiles and furniture.”
Goa is a magnet for many foreigners such as Fleur, who seem to settle in with ease to live out their dreams. Some well-known couples are the Indian writer Amitav Ghosh and his American wife Deborah Baker, and psychoanalyst and author Sudhir Kakar and his German anthropologist wife Katharina.
The view gives way to pretty villages again
Once past the busy town of Margaon, the view gives way to pretty village scenery once again as I head south towards Benaulim. Traditional houses painted in yellow, blue and purple, with the mandatory balcao and tiled roof, hide among tropical gardens. Village squares are shaded by enormous banyan trees and are marked by a chapel or cross, sleepy shops sell the bare essentials, and the occasional backpacker cycles past. The road towards the coast opens up and I can hear the ocean and smell its salty air.
The southern stretch of beaches starts with Colva, crowded and touristy, giving way to the calm, wide sands of Benaulim and Varca. Next come the smaller beaches of Cavelossim and Mobor; and then, far down south, the New-Age Palolem Beach. Apart from a few large, five-star resorts, the hotels here are small and character-filled. Most offer yoga classes, ayurvedic massages and warm personalized service.
South Goa has a distinctly different vibe from the north. The people here have a certain disdain for the other side, which they feel has sold out to tourism. I find a fierce pride in the locals, as in my taxi driver, who walks right into the heritage mansion where he has driven me the next day, to have a look-see himself. We have driven down leafy village lanes, to arrive at Loutolim, to see the 400-year-old Figueiredo Mansion owned by Dona Maria de Lourdes Figueiredo de Albuquerque. There are several more heritage mansions in Goa, but this is probably the one with the best-preserved collection of furniture and crockery. The vast “sala” and ballroom that could accommodate 1,000 people is crammed with period furniture, including some exquisite pieces of Indo-Portuguese design, displaying inlay work in wood and ivory.
Dona Maria de Lourdes is even more interesting than her mansion. “I believe that Goa was invaded by the Indian government in 1961, rather than liberated,” she says. “Although I grew up in Goa, I moved with my family to Lisbon, where I had a flourishing business and was later a member of parliament in the Salazar government. I know people called him an autocrat, but it was his sycophants who made him so. I could always stand up to him and tell him what I wanted.”
There are no servants to help me anymore
A gracious hostess, she receives me with tea and crepes, and takes me on a tour of the mansion, absolutely brimming with energy. “My family has no interest in maintaining this house,” she bemoans. “My elder sister kept the flag flying, and I was forced to return from Lisbon when she passed away. But there are no servants to help me anymore. I single-handedly host meals for groups who want to have a typical Goan banquet in these settings.” I see in her an isolated person from a past era, precariously holding on to a legacy that will fade with her. Luckily she has had the good sense to form a trust that will continue the upkeep of this slice of history.
On my last few days in Goa, I drop by the home of Wendell Rodricks in the village of Colvale. Wendell is known internationally as India’s “New Age renaissance designer” but takes deep satisfaction in being rooted in Goa. Trained in Paris, and having enjoyed a successful career in Mumbai, Wendell returned to his village to set up home and a workshop. “I once again came close to nature in Goa,” he says. “I reaffirmed what I had subconsciously gained from my state: a sense of minimalism and an eco-friendly approach. I feel I have now become an environmentalist by accident.” Known for his eco-friendly resortwear, and subtle designs in white and lighter colors, Wendell has spent time with the Kunbi people of Goa to revive their sari textiles. He also plays an active role in the campaign against mining and environmental degradation.
Goa stands at the crossroads, torn between opening its doors to outsiders and protecting its environment and heritage. Tourism, mining and the real estate boom seem to be battering it from all sides. How can this tiny state, occupying only one per cent of India’s land mass, stand up to the strain? Talk to any Goan, and they say that they hate outsiders. But ask if they want development to stop, and they admit that it is their livelihood. The average person cannot articulate the demand for sustainable and responsible growth, while those in power seem to have no commitment to it. Probably the lesson will be learnt the hard way. It is the only route to survival for this tiny, idyllic state, whose myriad charms will never stop attracting visitors.