Another guide to Goa? Not. In the spirit of meaningful travel, let’s wander into Goa’s historic and idyllic heart to discover two distinct flavours: Heritage and Authentic Cool.
This article was originally published in the Intelligent Traveler section of Open Magazine. The article’s been updated here with additional images & coordinates as a three-part series : Historic Goa, Contemporary Goa and Cool Hunter’s list to Goa six most unusual experiences
Exploring ‘real’ Goa
“You haaaaaaave 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.
But, 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 in 1510. In its pre-Portuguese avatar, Goa’s society and trade were as different as some of its ancient names – Aparantha, Sindapur, Sandabur, Mahassapatnam, Gomanchala amongst others.
Part 1 : Goa’s Heritage
Could such ancient history really exist in Goa? Yes, indeed. Like every wise old lady, Goa too has hundreds of treasures & 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 Skanda Puraana aside, a detailed archeological study has shed light on the first evidence of human life in Goa between 20,000 – 30,000 BC 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 AD) 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 rather than reflecting only the culture of its previous rulers.
That being 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 a 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 mega-cities and lose themselves in the jasmine-scented gardens and carefully curated experiences. The key for the discerning traveler 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 wellbeing and you’ll have your hands full.”
Goa’s Indo-Portuguese Architecture
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 & 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. In the last two centuries of Portuguese direct rule, its rulers were constantly at war with the Dutch and the British over the trade-routes, leaving local Goans to practically ruled themselves.
Best places to experience Goa’s hybrid architecture
Houses of Goa Museum in Bardez, curated and privately funded by Goa’s leading architect Gerard De 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 for a first-hand experience of this unique cultural fusion.
Heritage homes and experiences / South Goa
18th century Palacio do Deao, one of the finest mansions of its time, was built by Jose Paulo – a Portuguese nobleman and Founder of Quapem. Its current owners, Ruben and Celia Vasco da Gama recently restored it from a near ruin and allow pre-arranged visits to their home. With prior notice Celia puts together a delicious 5-course Indo-Portuguese feast, served on the gorgeous verandah of her manor.
Amongst several other beautifully restored & privately owned homes is the 16th century Braganza House, a magnificent mansion with east & west wings run by two different branches of the family boasts an enviable collection of 350 year old Ming Vases, 5000 vintage leather bound books and a jewel-encrusted fingernail of Saint Francis Xavier. Grandest of all homes, and a jewel in the crown is 400 year old Figueiredo House in Loutolim, which has been turned into a museum by the Xavier Center of Historical Research and is superbly maintained. The main appeal of Figueredo House, however, is its charismatic, outspoken and formidable grand dame Dona Maria de Lourdes de Figueiredo de Albuquereue who’s lived a fascinating life and witnessed India’s 1961 annexation of Goa bringing an end to the Portuguese rule in the state.
For a totally immersive experience, stay at Vivenda Dos Plahacos – a 100-year-old restored home, one kilometre away from the beach, which is run as a heritage inn by its current owners – Simon and Charlotte Hayward. Set in the heart of South Goa’s Majorda village this boutique property is thoughtfully appointed, stylish and cozy. Chef Fernando’s Nostalgia in the old village of Raia is considered one of the best restaurants in the state. Its classic Goan and Portuguese-Goan dishes, fofos, sopa de betalha and prawn almondegas are rarely found in other restaurants and a great favourite with local & insider Goans. The area is also home to Seminary of Rachol which is surrounded by the remains of a moat of an old Muslim fort with unending vistas of rice fields atop a hillock where the monks brew the best feni in Goa. In Litoulim, Big Foot Cross Museum has an unusual collection of 1458 crosses collected by Maendra Alvares. Further south in Benaulim is Goa Chitra Museum founded by Victor Hugo Gomes, has a collection of 4,000 objects of cultural heritage — art, crafts and tools of agrarian practise.
Heritage Hotels & Authentic Cuisine / North Goa
In the North, Casa Palacio Siolim House in Bardez is a 17th century governor’s mansion which was restored to perfection by Varoon Sood and recognised by UNESCO in 2001. A relaxed manor with formal sitting rooms adorned with old Portuguese tiles and surrounded by a huge pool, Siolim House and Sood practically started the trend of luxury heritage hotels in Goa. There is a smattering of wonderful boutique properties in the North but the other note-worthy restoration, albeit a smaller villa property, is Quelleachy Gally in Candolim. Restored by Marie-Christine Rebillet, a Parisian antique dealer, who once made chandeliers out of ping-pong balls for Jean Paul Gaultier and drove from France to India in a Volkswagen bus in 1973, has appointed each of the six bedrooms with splendid antiques and created a house which is in equal parts idiosyncratic and fabulous.
In Calangute, Pousada at the Beach serves authentic and delicious Goan food in a refined setting, which is quite rare for a standalone beach restaurant. For Goan Catholic delicacies, a simple taverna Bhatti Village, is tucked inside a tiny lane in Nerul and a go-to joint for the state’s best chefs.
Further north, almost at the edge of the Maharashtra border, is a personal favourite — the secluded and splendid 17th century Tiracol Fort Resort. Its well appointed and decidedly non-ostentatious rooms and colonial grandeur are a study in understated luxury and have breathtaking views of Tiracol River meeting the Arabian Sea.
In the heart of Goa’s old Latin Quarter
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 sport wood framed projecting balconies and red-tiled roofs. Patterned along the lines of Lisbon’s Bairo Alto and akin to a Mediterranean city, author William Dalrymple calls this neighbourhood a “small chunk of Portugal washed up on the shores of the Indian Ocean”.
In the heart of Fontainhas are Goa’s oldest heritage hotel properties — the original Panjim Inn which over the years added Panjim Pousada and most recently Panjim Peoples – an all together 37 room offering run by WelcomHeritage. Panjim Peoples is the smallest but nicest of the three old homes and thoughtfully appointed with four-poster beds, colonial-era furniture, tiled mosaic bathrooms and private balconies which allow a picturesque view of the old quarter. Take a Heritage Walk of Fontainhas with the knowledgable Jack Ajit Sukhija, a descendent of the original owner and builder of Panjim Inn.
Next to Panjim’s post office is Venite – one of Goa’s oldest restaurants. Louis, the owner, is a passionate environmentalist who cycles 11 kilometres each way from Divar Island to his restaurant. Perched above one of the old Portuguese homes, Venite’s high ceilings, little wooden tables and tiny balconies are charming. While the chef prepares Goan delicacies with fresh catch of the day I spend my time deciphering layers of messages which visitors have been leaving on Venite’s walls for decades. I don’t eat red meat but the pork chops and steak at Venite’s are apparently legendary. Around the corner is Viva Panjim, yet another simple restaurant where owner Linda keeps a keen eye as her staff serve some of the best Portuguese food I’ve eaten in Goa, in particular, the Prawn Pappad which is fantastic. Velha Goa Galeria specialises in azueljos (tin-glazed ceramic tiles) and has a large variety of ceramic objects reproduced in the old style by Portuguese artist, Anabela Cardosa. Most of the objects are still imported from Portugal and can be pricey. For those who want to bring back a piece of authentic colonial grandeur (not replica), drive north to Saudades in Saligao – home to exquisite colonial antique furniture and vintage textiles, porcelain and lights.
Reviving Goa’s Heritage Crafts
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 finally hit home when in a recent conversation with Poonam Pandit, of Label Kalakar, who’s spent the last 7 years working with the last living (one and only) artisan of Goa’s very own weaving technique Kunbi.
Pandit’s Kunbi journey started when Goa’s famous fashion designer Wendell Rodericks decided to revive the almost-extinct, ancient weaving tradition of Goa which became an instant hit in 2009. Pandit, an urban weaver and NIFT graduate, whose initial task required her to trace the most authentic artisans of this craft, started an extensive research and finally traced Pernem-based Baburao Babaji Tilve and his two sons to create a collection of Wendell’s Kunbi sarees . Since then, father weaver – fondly called Kaka – has been ailing and his sons who have day jobs, have made the logistics of saree weaving near impossible. Pandit, determined to not let this craft die, persists and continues to design and create limited edition scarves which are embellished with herbal yarn dyes rich in Ayurvedic properties. She has managed to create a niche for these Goan weaves which are now sold in high-design stores in Goa as well as internationally.
This commendable story of Kunbi’s revival is an exception to the otherwise empty landscape of Goan ancient crafts which currently fail to transcend borders and appeal to the modern sensibility. 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 ancient crossroads
Since time immemorial, India’s tiniest state Goa has been it’s window to the world. Ancient Mesopotamians, Greeks, Arabs amongst others have come to Goa’s shores to further their trade or simply seek harbour. It’s key location on the ancient spice route made Goa an international crossroad. But, that on its own doesn’t make Goa unique (Rajasthan too enjoyed a similar advantage albeit for merchants who were traveling via the ground route). Unlike the rest of India, Goa was ruled by Portuguese for 451 years making its history and culture different from those in the rest of India. Combine that with Portugal’s vision of making Goa a symbol of their great empire and success of catholic religion turned their tiny colony into a treasure house of grand churches, homes and history. A unique melting pot of different cultures, religions, people and sensibilities for close to a millennia, Goa & its heritage is a treat for history buffs and design lovers.
Curating the best of Historic Goa
While every experience in this post checks all the boxes for a discerning traveller, here is my pick of the absolute best in Historic Goa – both in terms of heritage value as well as love for design
For those who want to mix the pleasure of a heritage home with the proximity of contemporary Goa : Casa Palacio Siolim House
For those looking for heritage experiences and white sand beaches : Vivenda Dos Palhacos
For those seeking quiet seclusion at a luxurious heritage boutique property : Fort Tiracol
In South Goa : Chef Fernando’s Nostalgia for lunch or dinner. For breakfast head to Jila Bakery (+91 832 277 7224) for utterly delicious eclairs
In Fontainhaas : Viva Panjim (+91 832 242 2405)
In North Goa : Upmarket beach restaurant with authentic Goan food : Pousada at the Beach or simple but fabulous dining at Bhatti VIllage (+91 982 218 4103)
In South Goa : Rachol Seminary (resident monks brew the best feni in Goa) followed by a lunch or high-tea at the stunningly restored Indo-Portuguese home Palacio do Deao.
In Panjim : Visit Fontainhas and take a heritage walking tour of Goa’s old Latin Quarter, if able.
In North Goa : Artist Subodh Kerkar’s artworks which tells the story Goa’s journey through time in a permanent exhibition at Museum of Goa
For Antiques : Saudades in Sangolda
For Portugese ceramics and Mario Miranda memorabilia : Velha Goa Galeria in Fontainhaas
Kunbi Weaves : Sarees at Wendell Rodericks and Scarves at Label Kalakar, Poonam Pandit (+91 955 299 4780)