Of gods and god­desses

The In­dian state of Goa is an agree­able mix of Catholi­cism and Hin­duism

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - WIL­LIAM DAL­RYM­PLE THE SPEC­TA­TOR

THE best view of the Goa coast of western In­dia 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 kilo­me­tre upon kilo­me­tre of ba­nana and co­conut groves, the deep­green 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 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 favourite is the small Fort Tira­col Her­itage Ho­tel in the far north of Goa, which is less luxe, but much cosier, and comes with its own 17th-cen­tury baroque church. How­ever, it would be a mis­take not to leave the beach at least once dur­ing a trip to Goa, for the for­mer Por­tuguese en­clave is fas­ci­nat­ing.

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 aris­to­crats still re­gards it­self 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 queried. ‘‘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 ap­proached the de­ity from the left. I asked one of the priests, who was sit­ting cross­legged 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.’’

But the Hindu devo­tees I talked to made clear that any dis­tinc­tions be­tween the two faiths 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.’’ Wil­liam Dal­rym­ple’s most re­cent book is Nine Lives: In Search of the Sa­cred in Mod­ern In­dia.

The Fort Tira­col Her­itage Ho­tel comes with its own 17th-cen­tury baroque church

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