India: Goa

Angkor Wat

St. Cajetan Church, Old Goa

St Cajetan Church

For the first time in two decades, I did not have to write a long blog letting the world know what I did last summer, or the summer before that, or the in the time in between. After 18 months of house arrest, I had pretty much declared defeat, found a pandemic-proof hobby of hand copying Wikipedia pages and announced my formal retirement from travel. Meanwhile, wife discovered diet, exercise and all other good things in life, lost a dozen kilos and fit back into her college jeans. Given the circumstances, clash of opposing world views was inevitable. My rational well-thought-out plan of spending the rest of our existence huddled in our 3 BHK went up against wife's inane, impulsive and imprudent decision to learn to live (and travel) with Corona. It was no contest. She won, I lost and off we went to the closest destination where she could flaunt her quarantine purchases. Off we went to the sun-kissed beaches of Goa.

Braganza House Chandor

The grumpy airport security, the indifferent stewardess, the Delhi smog induced late arriving in-flights, unseasonal rains ruining my over-researched pick of the driest possible week were all exactly where we left them last. If not for everyone's chin being snuggly covered by masks, we could have easily believed it was 2019 and we had somehow managed to travel back in time during our rickety auto-ride to the airport. Despite the obligatory flight delay and the traffic jams, we managed to check into our hotel in Panaji with enough sunlight left in the day to allow a quick jaunt to the city centre. Panaji (or Panjim) was the last (and the current) capital of Goa, the Portuguese shifting their base here (in the 17th century) when devastating plagues left their previous capital in Old Goa unlivable. Our first stop was the picturesque Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Imaculada Conceicao (Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church), backdrop of many a Bollywood movies, a church dating back to 1541 and expanded extensively once Panjim became the new capital. Anyone doubting the power of Nossa Senhora has to only hop over to Fontainhas, the famed Latin Quarters of Panaji. The route between the two has a couple of nerve wracking unmarked crossings, on blind corners where vehicles zoom past in Formula One-sque speeds and without divine intervention, it is impossible to make through it alive. Fontainhas, built in the mid-18th century and later spruced up in the mid-19th, is a neighbourhood of upscale, brightly painted houses lining narrow winding lanes and is a photographer's delight. Photography had to wait another day as we only had time for a quick dinner before calling the first travel-day in nearly two years, a night.

Palolem Beach Goa

Old Goa was founded in the 15th century by the Bijapur Sultanate who had taken over control of Goa from the Kadambas. The capital of Kadambas lay a few kilometres away and the Sultan moved it to the present (Old Goa) location as it was closer to the Mandovi river. Portuguese soon took over from the Sultanate and built a series of fabulous churches befitting the new Empire. The most important of these is the Basilica of Bom Jesus, which houses the body of St. Francis Xavier, the co-founder of the Order of the Jesuits. Rest of the morning was spent slowly checking out the Old Goan edifices - the gleaming Se Cathedral, Ruins of the Church of St. Augustine with its imposing 46 m tall tower, the fortress like Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Rosario (Our Lady of Rosario Church), the lavish interiors of the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, the pretty Convent of Santa Monica, the majestic Sao Caetano (St. Cajetan Church), and the Chapel of Our Lady of the Mount with a sweeping vista of Old Goa and the surrounding countryside. The afternoon's plan was to get back to and saunter through Fontainhas, gleaming under the late afternoon sun, but the rain had other ideas. Thankfully, it kept itself to a drizzle and gave us enough breaks to allow us some decent shots to post and brag on Facebook.

Tambdi Surla Mahadev Temple

The following day was spent rambling through South Goa. Since Goa sorely lacks by-passes, we had to wade through Margao, its second largest city, to get there. While in Margao, one may as well check out its main church - Largo de Igreja (Holy Spirit Church), built by the Portuguese in 1675. Our first main stop for the day was Chandor, the first capital of Goa founded by the Bhojas in the 3rd century AD. The only thing that remains from the Hindu period is an excavation site with a half broken Nandi and a few intriguing Vetal statues housed in the Archaeological Museum in Old Goa. The primary attractions of Chandor are a couple of lavish mansions - Braganza House (dating from the 17th century) and the even older Fernandes House (dating from the early 16th century). The interiors are very well maintained and gives you a taste of life during the Portuguese era. The rolling hills of South Goa is littered with stone age prehistoric sites, the most accessible and the best preserved of which is the Usagalimal Rock Carvings, dating to the neolithic period of (circa) 4000 BCE. Most accessible only meant the ease of access (one could drive to up to a kilometre from the petroglyphs), not the ease of finding. Hardly anyone knew of its existence, let alone its location. Thanks to Google Map and the patience of our driver, we did find the bird at the end of our Wild goose chase. Experiences like these - being able to get close to these carvings, made over six millennia ago, located in unforgettable setting, by the Kushavati river surrounded by lush greenery - are what makes travelling such an unique and fulfilling endeavour. After fighting off the goosebumps and two hours on nausea inducing hilly terrain, we finally made it to Goa's most well-known attractions - its pristine beaches, and finally they were sun-kissed after a two days of dreary skies. The beaches were simply breath-taking. That is coming from me, an avowed beacho/hydrophobe. Palolem and Agonda, the two beaches we visited that day, with lush greenery on one side, setting sun on the other, bright blue sky on top with powdery sand under our feet, were as picture-perfect as one could possibly imagine.

Shanta Durga Temple

Portuguese take over of Goa is one of the most brutal episodes of Indian history. Their destruction of pre-existing temples during the long drawn Goan Inquisition period was clinical and absolute. All that survives of the famed Bijapur Adil Shahi Palace (to sight an example) is a single gateway - barely a lintel on two pillars. Hardly anything at all survives from the earlier Hindu period. All the temples that you see around the state are later re-constructions by Marathas, at sites far removed from the original. Thankfully, there is one exception. A solitary temple survives from the pre-Portuguese period, deep in the Goan jungle, close to the Karnataka border. Just getting here is enough to realise why it did survive, it is literally in the middle of absolutely nowhere. The Mahadev Temple at Tambdi Surla, is a precious gem, a sole surviving example of Kadamba architecture. Dating to the 12th century AD, built using black basalt, the temple shows considerable influence from the contemporary and more well-known Hoysala architecture. When the Portuguese voluntarily moved to the coast abandoning Old Goa, thanks to a plague, Marathas were reaching their zenith and ensured the Portuguese never ventured inland ever again. Marathas rebuilt many of the old temples destroyed by the Portuguese in their newly conquered highland region of Goa, scattered around the town of Ponda. Although, there is little resemblance between the new temples and their ancient counterparts, two centuries and a half have passed since the reconstruction, making these temples historic in their own right. Two of the best examples of these Maratha reconstructions are the Shanta Durga and Mangueshi temples. We spent most of our time on the outside photographing these resplendent temples shining under the early afternoon sun.

Fort Aguada

The afternoon was spent checking out the forts of Goa, the most famous three lie along the coast in North Goa. The southernmost is the Reis Magos, built by the Portuguese in 1551 to defend the mouth of the Mandovi river. After enjoying the breathtaking views of Panaji and the Mandovi estuary from the upper ramparts, we headed to the Aguada fort, named so because it had the largest fresh water reserve in all of Asia. Built 50 years after Reis Magos, the fort houses one of the oldest lighthouses in Asia, the Aguada lighthouse, built in 1864 AD. The last of the three forts, the northernmost in the state is Chapora, built by Adil Shah of Bijapur - Chapora is a corruption of its original name, Shah Pura. There is very little left of the fort, except for some remnants of the outer walls. If you can stay far away from the many triplets trying to re-create the iconic scene from Dil Chahta Hai, you can enjoy sumptuous views from the fort and a even better sunset, if you happen to get here at dusk.

As the return flight on our last day wasn't taking off until late afternoon, we had some time to check out items on our driver's list whose recommendations we had been steadfastly ignoring for the previous three days. The first stop was Casa Araujo Alvarez, a 250 year old Portuguese era mansion, with lavishly decorated interiors, located in the town of Loutolim. Rest of the sights were all in the city of Vasco da Gama, the largest city in Goa and home to its only airport. The highlight was the Japanese Garden, which wasn't much of a garden, let alone a Japanese one, but it offered the best view of our entire trip - sheer verdant cliffs overlooking two pretty sandy coves with the serene Arabian Sea extending as far as the eye could see. That would have been the perfect end to the trip, but the trip, believe it or not, ended on an even higher note - with the most delicious thali that we had ever eaten at the famous Anantashram.

This very short trip to the smallest state in India did remind us of the unparalleled diversity of the country. Goa was unlike any other state we had visited. It is hard to fathom that a Goa, a Punjab, an UP, a Tamil Nadu and a Nagaland all belong to one single country. Between just these five states, there is more diversity in architecture, history, food and language than all of Europe or the Americas. To be able to experience all of these diversity in person is such a privilege. We are just grateful that we have been able to travel again, something we thought was impossible about an year ago.

Click here for more photos from Panaji and Old Goa.
Click here for more photos fromrest of Goa.
Click here for more photos from Panaji and Old Goa.
Click here for more photos from rest of Goa.