Wander into Goa’s historic and idyllic heart to discover two distinct flavours: heritage and authentic cool
‘YOU HAAAAAAVE TO be kidding me!’ was the universal response when I announced my decision to move to Goa two years ago. My well-wishing friends and concerned family could not understand why an urban creature like me would leave her successful design practice in Mumbai and even consider living in India’s smallest state, generally associated with sleepy beaches, aggressive parties, laid back shacks, prawn curry and quasi-retirement.
Just as susegad, an abstract concept often associated with Goa, is understood as ‘relaxed and laid back’ when it actually means ‘a contented form of life’, Goa’s stereotypical reputation too is a classic example of half-knowledge. ‘Susegad’, which is derived from the Portuguese word ‘sossegado’, itself came to Goa after the Portuguese colonisation of 1510. In its pre-Portuguese avatar, Goa’s society and trade were as different as some of its ancient names—Aparantha, Sindapur, Sandabur, Mahassapatnam and Gomanchala, among others.
Could such ancient history really exist in Goa? Yes, indeed. Like every wise old lady, Goa too has hundreds of treasures and fascinating stories hidden within her folds once you look beyond the surface. Legend has it that Lord Parshuram (the sixth incarnation of Lord Vishnu) shot seven arrows to push back the sea and created a stretch of land which became home to Saptarishis. Let’s leave mythological citations and the Skanda Purana aside. An archaeological study has shed light on the first evidence of human life in Goa between 20,000 and 30,000 BCE and a continuous civilisation since the 3rd century when the Mauryas conquered it.
Through the centuries, several Hindu dynasties, Adil Shahi’s Deccan Sultanate and most recently the Catholic Portuguese (from 1510 to 1961 CE) have ruled over Goa. Its prime location on the spice route made Goa a major trade centre and attracted rulers, merchants, monks and missionaries alike. Unfortunately, different rulers did not just inject their own culture but effectively annihilated the earlier traditions and deprived the state of what would otherwise have been a rich and varied heritage.
That said, there is no shortage of fascinating history in ancient Goa and there is much joy to be found in discovering its unique architecture, its deep-rooted seclusion and genteel vibe. There are many hipster parties to be found, if that’s what you like, but Goa is increasingly becoming the destination for Indian urbanites looking to escape the noise and pollution of its cities. The key for the discerning traveller, however, is to choose carefully—what to do, where to go and when.
As for what to do, as Lyndon Alves of the event and experience planning company Sunset Getaways says, “There is not a single dull day in Goa. Take your pick of heritage, down-time, tranquility or well-being, and you’ll have your hands full.”
For starters, Goa may not be well known for its heritage, but its Portuguese rule created history which is unique and unlike anywhere else in the country. When Vasco da Gama and Estado da India Portuguesa first arrived in 1498, ‘seeking Christians and spices’, Goa was already a major trade centre for livestock, spices and crafts. The Portuguese conquered Goa and used their new colony primarily to further their own cultural and military prowess on the spice route and to propel Jesuit missionary work. Grand churches and mansions were erected and most of the beautiful decorations we see today were imported from Portugal. Newly converted Goan Christians were awarded with large agricultural holdings, feudal titles and earnings. They were encouraged to adopt a European stance, live an opulent lifestyle and build large manor-like homes in an effort to propagate the success of the Catholic faith. The Portuguese vision for Goa was to create a ‘Lisbon of the East’ and befitting architecture became the hallmark of Goa’s ‘golden period’.
Even though new Goan Christians embraced the Portuguese lifestyle, they did not break away from their eastern roots and ended up giving birth to a hybrid Indo-Portuguese architecture which is unlike anything in either Lisbon or India. Houses of Goa Museum in Bardez, curated and privately funded by Goa’s leading architect Gerard Da Cunha, is a ship-shaped building and a wonderful introduction to 200 years of design evolution. Design lovers and history buffs can also head south to visit one of the many lovingly restored old Portuguese mansions such as Palacio Do Deao, Braganza House, or Figueiredo House, a fine example of Hindu-Portuguese cultural fusion.
One of the most alluring and visually striking areas of Goa is its capital Panjim, where local and colonial aesthetics are keenly felt. Especially Fontainhas, an old Latin Quarter in Panjim, where narrow winding streets are dotted with independent Portuguese- style houses painted in saturated pale yellow, green or blue hues with wood framed projecting balconies and red-tiled roofs. Patterned along the lines of Lisbon’s Bairro Alto, author William Dalrymple calls this neighbourhood a ‘small chunk of Portugal washed up on the shores of the Indian Ocean’.
Amidst the euphoria of Goa’s colonial grandeur lies the distressing fact that the Portuguese dream of ‘Lisbon in the East’ did not account for its traditional crafts which perished at the hands of its then rulers. For the past two years, I looked in vain for traces of Goa’s pre-Portuguese artisanal crafts. The reality of their absence hit home when in a recent conversation with Poonam Pandit of Label Kalakar, who’s spent the last seven years working with the last living (one and only) artisan of Goa’s very own weaving technique, she told me “Goa’s ingenious crafts are barely surviving, hanging just by a few threads”. Quite literally, that is.
Pandit’s Kunbi journey started when Goa’s famous fashion designer Wendell Rodricks decided to revive this almost-extinct, ancient weaving tradition of Goa and asked Pandit, an urban weaver and NIFT graduate, to work with traditional artisans to create a collection of Kunbi saris which became an instant hit in 2009. Since then, the elderly weaver has taken ill and logistics of sari-weaving have become impossible. Pandit however persists and continues to design and create limited edition scarves which are embellished with herbal yarn dyes rich in Ayurvedic properties or sometimes neon threads which have become popular and are sold in Goa and Europe. One only hopes that other designers would take their lead from Wendell’s vision and Pandit’s passion to engage with Goan crafts before they are lost forever.
GOA’S GREATEST DRAW for tourists is its delightfully slow pace and its authentic cool vibe. A small, close-knit community of local Goans and ‘outsiders’ is carefully crafting experiences which are a blissful departure from Goa’s conventional tourism. Bhagyashree Patwardhan, for instance, curates a concept lifestyle store in Saligao called Paper Boat Collective where she handpicks organic, handcrafted products created by designers across India. She says, “In Goa, people have time. They are open to dialogue and to understand the complexity and value of artisanal design.” On most weekends, she hosts art-filled events and workshops. Another great favourite is Sacha’s Shop in Panjim—a tiny shop with a huge style and art quotient. Curated by writer and fashion stylist Sacha Mendes, it hosts edgy resort wear with laid-back elegance, including a collection of Goa’s very own cult designer SavioJon, and quirky collectibles.
A new generation of gourmet designers are creating bespoke, private dining experiences or freestyle kitchens: another unique Goa experience for epicureans. Shagun Mehra, named one of the top five craftspeople in India in the luxury edition of Fortune magazine, created Food Design Studio that uses Goa’s local produce and traditional recipes, gives them a modern twist and serves delicacies like pork vindaloo ravioli, prawn and chorizo bruschetta, balchao quesadilla at her pop-up restaurants and bespoke dinners. Further north, in a remote location in Arambol, celebrated Israeli chef Gome Galily cooks up a gourmet storm at Matsya Freestyle Kitchen. Reservation a day ahead is mandatory to tell Gome of any allergies or foods you do not eat, before he hits the markets. Matsya is expected to change its location for the coming season. Among restaurants, Baba Au Rhum as well as Shamba in Anjuna, Gunpowder in Assagao offer unique Goan settings and superb food. As for beach shacks, Elevar and Baxter’s in north are the coolest places to hang.
As for its fine arts scene, Shivani Gupta, a fine-art photographer and performance artist who recently moved from Mumbai, says, “Not just a wonderful place to create art, Goa’s growing critical audience and alternate galleries are making it a new destination for Fine Arts.” Goa’s winning mix of cultural dynamism, transnational community, space and time has created an exceptional opportunity for artists living and working in India for some time now. Yahel Chirinian, an award-winning artist, has been living and working between Goa and Paris for almost two decades. Her mirror mosaic sculptures which erupt simultaneously with energy and light are on display at Monsoon Heritage Studio in Arpora which she refers to as her ‘island’. In contrast, is the Heritage Hotel—a 100-year old Goan Portuguese villa which was transformed into HH Art Spaces. India’s leading performance artist Nikhil Chopra, who moved here from Berlin, collaborated with Romain Loustau to create an edgy and creative hub offering an exhibition gallery as well as residence for artists involved in performance, sculpture, photography and visual Arts. The pick, however, is Dattaraj V Salgaocar’s Sunaparanta— Goa Centre for Arts in Panjim which is exceptionally run and curated by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi with a strong year-round programming calendar.
Wondering where to stay? The best experiences are off the beach—inland and along Goa’s many rivers. Thanks to Goa’s booming tourism, several great boutique properties are now run as private hideaways. At the top of the list is Coco Shambhala, a luxurious four villa property with spectacular indoor/ outdoor living area and private pools. In Siolim village, Shunya Villas’ eight beautifully appointed bedrooms and an in-house chef combine the luxury of a boutique hotel with the exclusivity of private residences. For those who’d rather live with nature, Casa Colvale ticks all the boxes. Designed as a private estate near Assagao, this 12-bedroom villa property is located along one of Goa’s cleanest and most beautiful rivers, Chapora. As for beachside properties, it is rather unfortunate that Goa’s 100-plus-km beach is now crowded, especially during peak season when cheap charter flights from the West and trucks from neighbouring states deposit hordes of tourists on its coastline. An exception would be a 13-room secluded Hotel Elsewhere, on the protected island at the northern edge of the state. In Morjim, Amarya’s Paros is an enchanting beachfront hideaway on Turtle beach—one of India’s best glamping sites with eight stylish guest accommodations and a three-bedroom converted Portuguese villa. In the South, the sophisticated and beautifully appointed 75-acre resort, The Leela Goa includes a super spa, 12-hole golf course and magnificent views.
Goa may no longer be a hippie destination, but its charm carries on. This idyllic setting, however, is struggling against bureaucracy and haphazard urbanisation which is turning this historic gem into yet another poorly planned town as we’ve seen so often in the country. Throughout its chequered past, the powers that be came to Goa and abused its natural resources for their own gain, oblivious of its cultural heritage. Once again, the demon looms. The irony, though, is that this time the threat is from within.
The Ultimate Traveller’s List
Houseboat Cruise: Many consider River Chapora’s backwaters cleaner and more beautiful than those in Kerala. Enjoy the best of both with a lunch/sunset or overnight stay on board a luxurious Kerala House Boat Laid Back Waters.
Bird Watching with Rahul Alvares: With an abundance of lush vegetation, almost 420 species of birds can be seen during the cooler months in Goa. Rahul Alvares, who’s better known for his snake-wrangling skills, has spent many a winter visiting various corners of Goa to curate three wonderful bird watching itineraries.
Trekking to Dudhsagar Waterfall: One of India’s most splendid cascades, Dudhsagar offers excellent opportunities for rock climbing and swimming, or just spending a day with your very own gourmet picnic and chilled beer.
Diving in the warm Arabian Sea: For those searching for an introduction to diving, there is no greater spot in India than Goa. Dive Goa’s Ajey Patil (SSI and PADI certified) runs one-day beginner courses with international standards of expertise, equipment and safety.
Tiger-spotting and white water rafting in Mahdei: A fairly recent addition to Goa’s wildlife sanctuaries, Mahdei is quickly becoming one of the best places to spot the Bengal Tiger. In addition, the monsoon provides ample opportunity to enjoy white-water rafting, hiking and other adventure sports.
Secret Getaway: Saving the best for the last is a drive to the pine-crested, turtle-nesting Galgibag beach at the southern most end of Goa. Deserted but for two simple shacks, Surya’s is British chef Jamie Oliver’s go-to-spot in Goa. Or so we’ve been told.