White sands and blue seas, warmed by the sun; lush tropical vegetation; sleepy villages surrounded by bright paddy fields; leisurely lifestyles and baroque churches - Goa is all this much and much more. More than 1,000 years of Hindu and Muslim rule, followed by five centuries of Portuguese rule, have produced an unusual blend of Eastern and Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea, Goa became part of the Indian Union only in 1961.
Daily flights link Goa with Bombay, Delhi, Cochin, Trivandrum and Bangalore. Dabolim airport is a 30-minute drive from Panaji (formerly called Panjim), the state capital. Taxis are available at the airport for transfers as well as local transport. Some hotels run their own transport service.
An overnight boat service between Bombay and Panaji can be fun but is hardly luxurious. Unfortunately, the service was suspended in 1989 but should be resumed in 1990.
The peak tourist season in Goa runs from November through February, when temperatures are low enough for a light wrap in the evening. The carnival, held three days before Lent at a warmer time of the year, is also an extremely popular occasion to visit. Goa is also pleasant during the monsoon (June to September), though it is wet and fairly humid during these months.
With 130 kilometers (82 miles) of coastline, Goa offers an immense variety of superb beaches, some totally secluded, others with many facilities.
The palm-fringed Dona Paula, with its magnificent view of the Marmagao harbour, and the lovely Miramar are closest to Panaji. Across the Mandovi River are Candolim, the famous Calangute, followed by Baga, Anjuna (well-known for its Wednesday flea market), Vagator and, in the extreme north, the little-known Harmal. Siridao, near the estuary of the Zuari River, is a shell collector's dream. Still further south there are Bogmalo, Valsao and finally, around eight kilometers (five miles) from Margao, the glorious stretch of Colva, virtually deserted except for a few resorts and quietest around Benaulim and the Betul promontory. Several others are just waiting to be discovered.
When the Portuguese colonized Goa in 1510, Panaji was a tiny village on the southern bank of the Mandovi River. It gained importance in the 17th century when the governor's residence was moved there from Old Goa. By 1843, Panaji was raised to the status of a city and named Nova Goa. It became the capital of Portuguese India in 1853 following an outbreak of plague in the old city. Today Panaji has a population of over 40,000.
A Mediterranean flavour is preserved in Panaji's numerous squares, in its broad avenues edged with ornate Latin villas and in old residential areas where narrow cobbled streets meander past old homes with red-tiled roofs and over-hanging balconies. And at every corner, innumerable small cafes and bars, integral to Goan life, create a special atmosphere.
As in most Goan towns, life in Panaji revolves around a church, the church of the Immaculate Conception, one of the oldest in Goa. Its impressive entrance, well-proportioned baroque fašade and tall towers (once visible from the entrance to the harbour) dominate the square on which it stands. Along the Campal, the picturesque riverside boulevard, are some of Panaji's public buildings, including the Secretariat, once the governor's residence, built in 1615 on the site of the palace of the Sultan of Bijapur, who lost Goa to the Portuguese.
Velha or Old Goa
Fabulous churches, convents, monasteries and stately mansions once lined the broad avenues of this magnificent 16th-century city. It was then Golden Goa, Goa Doraida, the commercial hub of Portugal's eastern empire, with more people than London or Paris, the 'Rome of the Orient', rivaling even Lisbon in magnificence. An old saying went: 'Whoever has seen Goa need not see Lisbon'. Portuguese military reverses and a great plague led to its being abandoned. What remains covers eight square kilometers (three square miles) punctuated by grand churches where Indian craftsmanship merged with Latin exuberance.
The Cathedral of St Catherine da Se, one of the most imposing monuments of this period, is the largest church in Asia. Considered the finest expression of religious art in Goa, the Franciscan Church and Convent, built in 1521, is the only example of Portuguese Gothic or Manuelne architecture in Asia. Its ornate interior is an effective blend of local and European art. The convent next to the church houses an interesting museum.
The focus for many of Goa's visitors, the Basilica de Bom Jesus enshrines the mortal remains of St Francis Xavier in a magnificent mausoleum, a gift of the Duke of Tuscany in return for the saint's pillow. An excellent example of Jesuit architecture with a well-proportioned exterior, its interior is perhaps the most richly decorated in Goa. Other religious structures include St Cajetan's Church, styled after St Peter's in Rome; the Chapel of St Catherine, commemorating the Portuguese conquest of Goa in 1510; and on Monte Santo, Holy Hill, are the fortress-like Church of Our Lady of the Rosary, one of the oldest in Goa, and the Church and Convent of Santa Monica, once one of the largest convents in the Portuguese empire. (It has a crucifix believed to be miraculous.)
Despite its amazing number of churches, Goa is 68 percent Hindu. Portuguese zeal, particularly during the Inquisition, led to the destruction of most of Goa's old temples and mosques. A Hindu flavour endures, however, at Ponda, where several temples and shrines survived since it was conquered only in 1763, in a more tolerant era. Among the seven temples in and around Ponda are Shri Mangesh, set on a hill with its elegant blue pillars and silver idols; Shri Shantadurga, dedicated to the goddess Parvati; and the Nagesh Temple. All are built in a distinctive local style characterized by ornate interiors and freestanding lamp towers (deepmals). Further inland at the foot of the ghats, the Shri Mahadeva Temple is the only surviving example of temple architecture built by the Kadambas who ruled between the 11th and 13th centuries. The more recent Shri Mahalaxmi Temple in Panaji, the first constructed under Portuguese rule, was completed in 1818.
Margao, further south, is the second-largest town in Goa and an important commercial center with a few lovely old homes. The busy port of Marmagoa has few historical sights, though its superb harbour was a major factor in the growth of Goa. Mapusa, a charming traditional Goan town, comes to life on Friday market day. But it is in the villages that typical Goan life unfolds. Houses are built around an often over grown central courtyard, surrounded by a deep veranda leading to airy rooms. The feast day of the village patron saint is a major event. The entire village joins the procession, following the brightly decorated image of the saint, and then participates even more enthusiastically in the gay secular celebrations that follow. Feni, the local brew, flows, sumptuous meals are served and there is music and dancing. The annual carnival is the culmination of all such celebrations. For three days, almost anything goes. Dancing in the streets reaches a frenzied finale on the last day when Momo, the King of Darkness, is carried through the town in an elaborate procession, complete with decorated floats and masked dancers.