William Dalrymple

Goa’s two cultures

Away from the beach, says William Dalrymple, is a unique mix of Catholicism and Hinduism

Goa’s two cultures
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The best view of the Goan coast can be seen from the topmost turret of the ruined Portuguese fort above Chapora. From the dark upper slopes of the Pernem hills down to the level ground of the coastline stretches mile upon mile of banana and coconut groves, the deep green of the palms offset by the white sand of the shore and the foam of the breaking rollers. In the palm groves you can just see the toddy tappers throwing ripe king coconuts down from the treetops. Further up the beach, lean fishermen are beaching their catamaran-canoes on the sandbanks. From these dugouts,a crocodile of women carry panniers of freshly caught fish to their huts.

Most people who come to Goa do so for the beaches and a bit of winter sun. The state has not only the best beaches in India but also some of the best beach hotels, such as the Taj Fort Aguada, built within the ruins of one of the most magnificent Portuguese forts. My own favourite is the small Fort Tiracol in the far north of Goa, which is less luxy but much cosier and comes with its own 17th-century baroque church. It would be a great mistake, however, not to leave the beach at least once during a trip to Goa, for the former Portuguese enclave is a fascinating place.

What distinguishes Goa from almost anywhere else in India is the subtle interplay of Portuguese Catholic and Hindu Indian beliefs that animate the lives of its people. The older generation of Goan aristos still regard themselves as Portuguese. My friend Dona Georgina Figueiredo, who died this year, once bit my head off when I referred in conversation to Nehru’s liberation of Goa in 1961. ‘Liberation?’ she said. ‘Did you say liberation? Botheration more like!’ She paused for effect. ‘Let me tell you exactly what it was the Indians were freeing us from. They were kindly liberating us from peace and from security.’

For Dona Georgina, as for much of her generation, the idea of the Goan Catholics inhabiting a Portuguese island in an alien India is almost gospel. Yet you don’t have to scratch far beneath the surface to find a more complex and interesting reality. The Catholic elite of Goa are shot through with the Hindu and Indian customs of their pre-conversion ancestors.

Caste is the most public way in which the Goan Catholics still cling to their Hindu roots. Even Dona Georgina, who had been so keen to stress her Portuguese heritage, was also proud to call herself a Brahmin. Other Hindu customs intrude more subtly, in ceremonies for birth, death and marriage: in the sixth day after a birth, for example, many Christians have a sati ceremony — a night-long puja — to the goddess Shantadurga; it is believed that if she comes and finds anyone in the house asleep during the vigil, she curses that house and takes the life of the newborn child.

Belief in Dist, the Evil Eye, also continues to be universal. I first became aware of this at the temple of the goddess Kamakshi near Shiroda. It was while looking around this celebrated shrine that I noticed a separate entrance to the sanctuary, leading off to the left of the main shrine. While most of the pilgrims did darshan facing the goddess down the main axis of the temple, a smaller stream of devotees was approaching the deity from the left. I asked one of the priests, who was sitting cross-legged at the back of the shrine, why this was. ‘That is the special entrance for the Catholics,’ he replied.

‘Catholics visiting a Hindu temple?’

‘Of course. All the people converted by the Portuguese still believe in her and know the power of the goddess.’

‘Do you mind them coming?’

‘Of course not,’ he replied. ‘The goddess is their deity and doesn’t object to them converting — that was their dharma. For that reason she still grants their wishes. She loves all her devotees — rich or poor, Christian or Hindu.’

‘But the Catholics have to approach her through a special entrance?’

‘Yes,’ said the old man. ‘Many Christians were Brahmins so we have to let them come. But now these Christians eat meat — the pig and the cow — so they must keep their distance.’ He paused: ‘Because of this we don’t really like them to come into the space immediately before the goddess.’

However, the Hindu devotees I talked to were quite clear that any distinctions between the two religions made little difference. ‘We are calling on all gods and goddesses,’ said one man. ‘Once we were all of the same faith. Now there are some small differences but here in Goa they are not important. Look at us all here. We are all of the same blood. In truth the differences in our beliefs are much less than what we have in common.’