What if I told you that nestled in the heart of Panjim, you could unearth the gateway to the past: a bygone era of romance and susegaad? Now, I request you, dear reader, to conjure up in your mind, rows of baroque houses painted in a patchwork of colors, cobbled winding streets, men walking around in linen trousers and Homburg hats while the women sit in tiled piazzas, chatting away in Portuguese. Are you transported back into time? Is this image tainted in sepia tones? Well, this postcard perfect image can be found in today’s time, in the picturesque town of Fontainhas, in the state of Goa, right here in India.
Fontainhas lies along the banks of Ourem Creek, whose bridge has been recently repainted with a bright blue, and sits below Altinho, an affluent hilltop area in the center of the city. A Goan expatriate called ‘the Mossamiker’ built the town in late 18th Century on reclaimed land. The town gets its name (meaning "fountain") from Fonte Phoenix (the Fountain of Phoenix) spring at the foot of the hill. Strangely, the fountain, which was flanked by a plaster phoenix and a coat of arms, was destroyed during the ‘liberation’ of Goa in 1961.
My baby sister and I, grinning at the camera, in front of Ourem Creek. In the background, you can spot the freshly painted blue Patto Bridge. On the right, a typical Portuguese mansion decorated with traditional yellow and white tiles.
William Darymple rightly describes Fontainhas as ‘a small chunk of Portugal washed up on the shores of the Indian Ocean.’ I stumbled upon this town with my sister and a couple of friends, on our way to Café Bodega atop Altinho hill. The entrance to this quaint town is marked by ‘Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church’ and true to word; the grand walls of the church are robed in pristine white. At the top of the winding staircase, you get a panoramic view of Panjim city. The city’s vibrancy is like a swirling mixture of a fervent artist’s water pot, dipped in a myriad of colors.
Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church, sparkling white, offset by the blue brilliance of the sky.
Discovering Fontainhas was like picking up a forgotten book, running across its creased spine, dusting its cover, opening the pages and finding the flower from a past lover pressed carefully between the pages and as your fingers touch the withered petals, the flower unfurls in its full glory. This Mediterranean town beholds the secret heaven carefully preserved by Goans. Wandering through the twisting by lanes of this pristine town, it’s hard to believe you’re in India. A mosaic of shiny tiles frame overhanging balconies, the smell of bread pervades the air and the lanes surprise you with quaint art galleries and cafes. The houses are painted in bold colors with dramatic facades. Under the Portuguese rule, houses were fined for not being painted in bright hues. The color white was reserved for only churches, a sign of chastity and purity. As a continuation to this tradition, Goans still get their houses refurbished every year, even Goan Hindus. The colors are chosen from a dramatic palette and signify the economic status of its inhabitants. Also, interesting to note is that no two adjacent houses are painted in the same hue. This is because neighboring competition for a distinct personality gave impetus to such a variety. Secondly, in an effort to make each home an individual entity, one can easily spot stucco moldings, jutting corbels and other ornamental elements of style dotting each Goan residence. These elements of style have their origins in moldings of Portuguese houses where these devices helped sailors to identify homes at a distance as they made their return from the sea. This has turned each Goan mansion into a symbol of self-expression and personal identity.
This town is exemplary of the Goan spirit to preserve Goa’s rich Portuguese culture. Of gentlemen playing the violin, slumbering cats, tiny church altars lined with mother-of-pearl shells, this place evokes a sense of nostalgia. The roads are lined with rusted Volkswagen cars, hibiscus trees and wooden doors nailed with calligraphic nameplates of exotic names. Few mansions have been converted into artsy restaurants and cafes. But if it weren’t for the presence of cars passing by, it would have been easy to believe that we’d found a ticket to the past.
Left to right: Rusted Volkswagen cars marked the entrance to Fontainhas. The enchanting lanes of Fontainhas. Clicked in October 2015.
As you climb up the Altinho hill, you can spot the swanky residences of the Chief Minister and former archbishops of the state. Crowning atop the hill is the Goa Center for the Arts – Sunaparanata (meaning ‘Golden Goa’ in Konkani) which is a palatial Portuguese mansion, with a high plinth and a grand staircase, glistening in deep purple, housing traditional and contemporary works of art, poetry, literature and the lovely Café Bodega. The café attracts writers and artists seeking solitude, baked goods and cups of coffee. The art décor here changes every month and the gallery provides a platform to various local artists to showcase their work.
Sunaparanata, home to Café Bodega.
Fontainhas stands for the collective effort by Goans to preserve a slice of Portugal and protect the Goan heritage that is consistently being corroded and pigeonholed. Sadly enough, despite the efforts by Goans, the state is synonymous for being the party capital of the country and not known for its rich culture, the art, the architecture or the bounty of natural beauty found here. Conversations about the place I’ve lived in for four years are marked by suggestiveness to the life of stupor rather than of heavenly peace I would have enjoyed in Goa. The Ourem creek now reeks of waste and has been turned into a nallah due to improper sewage management systems. Urbanization and construction of various mega projects has increased pollution around the creek. Sprouting structures of concrete flats are an aberration to the landscape of Goa. The houses and the Goan lifestyle need to be conserved from commercialisation.
The Portuguese ruled over Goa for 400 years and 23 days. This means that Goa is completely different from the rest of India – the landscape, the people, the culture, the tradition and the food. Even years after freedom from colonisation, it’s still more connected to its colonisers than its ‘liberators’. It seems like a curious case of the Stockholm syndrome – where the state has given its heart and soul to its conquistadors. 19th December 1961 does not mark the day of ‘liberation’ but rather as ‘invasion’ for most locals. They were content with the Portuguese lifestyle, security and culture. After liberation, erosion of the distinct Goan identity steadily began. Portuguese was no longer taught in Goan schools, Indian concrete replaced colonial buildings and commercialisation led way to destruction of Portuguese architecture.
Blatant disrespect of the quiet Portuguese lifestyle had led to mishaps like vandalism. This includes tearing down of nameplates and doors. Indian politicians are to be blamed too who sell off Goan land to gather votes. Portuguese road names are being switched to Hindi names. The landscape of Goa is shifting slowly away from its Portuguese legacy.
To protect the heritage of Goa would mean to first fall in love with Goa, not just with its body but also with its mind and soul. It demands from people to discover Goa apart from its hazy swirl of ecstasy. Tourism promotion could play a major role in such discoveries by travellers, by making artsy and quaint spots in Goa more popular and accessible. If the land of Goa were protected, the Goan identity would be safe in the hands of Goans. It is the brutal commercialisation that is an obstacle to the state’s conservation of its heritage. This is the reason that a fraction of the population demands for a special status to be granted to Goa. This status would restrict sale of land and curb rampant development. Goa could culturally benefit from such a status but economic benefits are a bit doubtful. The responsibility of a state’s heritage conservation lies upon not only its citizens but also on the tourists. The rest of Goa, whose Portugal identity is slightly fading away, has a thing or two to learn from the inhabitants of Fontainhas, and their indomitable will and power to fiercely protect one’s identity and culture in a timeless and effortless way.
Susegaad: Derived from the Portuguese word sossegado ("quiet"), it refers to the laidback, peaceful, satisfied, content and optimistic attitude towards life, typical of the Goa lifestyle.
‘Lie down, reflect upon the sky, and count the stars, what’s the hurry, my child?’
Nallah: A ravine or a gully that is contaminated by sewage.
Reflected in Water: Writings on Goa, Jerry Pinto, 2006
'Goa needs special status to protect its land, culture', The Hindu, 2014