PORTUGUESE OUTPOSTS: Our Lady of the jungle
It's famous for hippies and beach raves. But travel in to Goa's interior and you will discover the fading glories of one of the great maritime empires
Simon Calder’s career in travel started at Gatwick Airport, where he cleaned aircraft for Laker Airways and later worked as a security officer. He became The Independent’s Travel Correspondent in 1994, and is known as “the Man Who Pays His Way” because he does not accept free travel facilities. He writes across the Independent titles, as well as for the Evening Standard.
Saturday 18 December 1999
First, you need to know that the enclave of Goa is more than a town, or a county. It might be the smallest state in India, but that still means a north-south extent of close on 100 miles, and an inward protrusion of 40 miles. This gives plenty of room for hyperactive market towns and strident scenery, as well as laid-back beach life. And it also means that the pearls of Goa are untarnished by the trappings of instant gratification.
When the nearest town to your arrival airport is called Vasco da Gama, you can anticipate a rewarding time. No empire has faded so exquisitely as Portugal's. In terms of their base population, the Portuguese did better than any other colonial power in taking over chunks of the world. But the process stretched their meagre resources so much that, by the time the explorers reached Asia, they could stake only a few strategic claims to places on the spice routes. As their fortunes dwindled, the crops of empire began to decompose back into the alien lands in which they were planted.
A comfortably animated bus-ride takes you across the hills and rivers to the state capital, Panaji. (Like most places in Goa, the "Indianised" name has taken precedence over the Portuguese rendition, Panjim.) On the way, you pass under a couple of sweeps of the Konkan railway, India's answer to the TGV. For a century, Goa was only tenuously connected to the world's greatest railway network - after all, it was a foreign country until 1961. But the newly opened line has halved journey times to the north and south, and gives Goa a sense of being more assimilated into the rest of India.
Thankfully, the nation celebrates diversity. The Portuguese character of Goa, and in particular Panaji, is just another funny little annexe to the multicultural mansion that is India, standing alongside the French colonial curiosity of Pondicherry. Panaji remains Lisbon transplanted to the subcontinent. The graft has proved successful. Beside the broad, sluggish Mandovi river, all the paraphernalia of a Portuguese city has been established.
The church is the most visible symbol: Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception perches on a hill, keeping a maternal eye on the once-splendid villas that clutch at her skirts. Their pastel colours fade deliciously in the hazy sunshine, while their residents ascend for services in English, Portuguese or Konkan. The sultry climate has its effects on the commercial hub of the town, too. By noon, nothing moves behind the store fronts that bear Portuguese names. It is as though the whole town has been hypnotised. And, as luck would have it, that sinister figure crouching over the limp form of a beautiful woman happens to be the founder of modern hypnotism.
Abbe Faria was born in Goa in 1756. He used a combination of showmanship and science of questionable validity to anaesthetise his subjects. There is no evidence that he stopped anyone smoking, or helped them to lose weight, but he moved to Paris, where his skills made him a celebrity. Despite the statue to his memory that stands close to the waterfront, no discernable tradition of hypnosis remains in Goa, which is a shame - it causes fewer problems than drugs.
In Faria's time, Panaji was merely a way-station to the much more substantial capital, six miles up-river at what is now called Old Goa. In the 16th century, it was one of the most opulent places on earth; today, the wealth belongs to nature. Yet the sight of a miraculously preserved Portuguese city rising from the jungle is hallucinogenic. Take in the vision from the original church of Our Lady of the Mount, presently being refurbished. Dotted in the thick woodland below are some spectacular relics of Empire. On a far hill, the church of St Augustine has degenerated beyond the point of no return, but in the valley, a selection of grand structures remain.
The most haunting is St Cajetan's church, a lofty imitation of St Peter's that's pale only in its hue. The dome may not be quite so vast as the one in Rome, but the Vatican cannot boast Islamic masonry outside the front door.
The only remains of the palace of Adil Shah, who ruled Goa before the Portuguese arrived, comprise a lonely arch propped up in the churchyard. The rest of the stone was taken to be used in the promulgation of Christianity. The riches that the governors and merchants of Goa enjoyed is evident in the Basilica of Bom Jesus, a great ecclesiastical lump plonked right in the middle of Old Goa.
It was built to house the remains of St Francis Xavier, the Portuguese missionary charged with evangelising the Indies. He lies in a Florentine casket of solid silver. Goa's patron saint died while spreading the gospel in China, but his body steadfastly declined to decompose. That's what wholesome living does for you.
Simon Calder arrived by train from Trivandrum, but it would be much easier to fly direct on a charter to Goa (not permitted if you are an Indian passport holder) or a scheduled flight to Mumbai (Bombay). With a bit of luck, you could find a flight in January to either destination for around pounds 350-pounds 400 through discount agents.
From Mumbai, there are frequent trains on the new Konkan line to several stations in Goa. For more information, contact the helpful India Government Tourist Office, 7 Cork Street, London W1X 2LN (0171-437 3677).
British passport holders require a visa to visit India. For a six-month tourist visa (pounds 19) you can apply in person or by post to: the High Commission of India, India House, Aldwych, London WC2B 4NA; or Consulate-General of India, The Spencers, 19 Augustus Street, Jewellery Quarter, Hockley, Birmingham B18 6DS; or Consulate- General of India, Fleming House, 134 Renfrew St, Glasgow G3 7ST.
Warnings: Sex - public displays of affection are frowned upon, let alone topless sunbathing or nudity. Drugs - recent publicity shows how severe the laws on possession of narcotics are, and has given credence to allegations of local police planting drugs on tourists in the hope of securing large bribes. Rock'n'roll - one or two of the cover bands playing in more upmarket places in Goa are truly dreadful
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