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Articles Blog

Marmagao, India

Karyn Planett

From Bijapur To The Beatles

First, let’s sort out the name. Marmagao is the major port city in the Indian state of Goa. The Portuguese brought the name Goa back to Europe but no one knows for sure where they got it. Then to confuse things further, they named this natural harbor Mormugao instead of Mormugoa, reversing the last two letters (which are pronounced as though you are trying to say “ow” through your nose).

When the Brits arrived they Anglicized the name (as they are wont to do) to Marmagoa, changing the ending again. Since then the generally acknowledged name has been established as Marmagao, which should keep both the British and the Portuguese happy. It’s not known if anyone has asked the Indians how they’d like to say it. So, after that exhaustive explanation, let’s get on with the story of the place.

Vasco Comes Calling

Goa is one of India’s smallest states but one of its richest and best educated probably because its great harbor became the entry point for colonial conquest, civilization, and finally tourism. Panaji (Panjim) is the state’s capital and Marmagao’s city of Vasco da Gama, planned and built in the early 20th century, is its largest city.

Goa’s recorded history begins in the 3rd century BC. From then it was ruled by a succession of sultanates, the last being the sultans of Bijapur in the 1400s. In 1498, Vasco da Gama became the first European to set foot on the Indian subcontinent via the sea. The Portuguese were intent on capturing the spice trade ahead of their European rivals. The Ottoman Turks had closed off the traditional land routes.

True to their mission in other colonies, the Portuguese set about converting the local population to Christianity using the Inquisition to give them encouragement. When the British and Dutch arrived to compete for India’s riches, Goa became the main Portuguese stronghold and was granted the same civic status as Lisbon. Incredibly, this Portuguese colony existed for 450 years, one of the longest colonial occupations ever, until taken over by India in 1961.

Portuguese Legacy

In the only Indian state where European futbol (soccer) is more popular than cricket, Portuguese influence can be experienced throughout, but nowhere more spectacularly than the Basilica do Bom Jesus. This basilica contains the remains of St. Francis Xavier, co-founder of the Jesuit Order, and a missionary said to be second only to St. Paul in converting people to Christianity. He died on his way to China in 1552 and is buried in a silver casket, which is brought out every ten years for consecration and viewing.

The church is a UNESCO World Heritage monument and the most visited pilgrimage site in this part of the world. It is the best example of baroque architecture in India and features marble floors inlaid with precious stones plus elaborate gilded altars.

In addition to the many churches, mansions constructed in an Indo-Portuguese style still stand in many parts of Goa. The area called Fontainhas in Panjim has been declared a cultural quarter. During its peak, “Golden Goa” was even larger than Lisbon and considered the Pearl of the Orient.

Christmas and Easter Sunday are still the most popular celebrations in Goa. At any celebration large or small, you’ll be served “traditional” dishes with obvious Portuguese origins. Rice and fish are featured in combination with curries, coconut and coconut oil, chili peppers, spices and vinegar. Pork dishes such as Vindaloo, Xacuti and Sorpotel are served for special occasions.

Vishnu And The Beatles

For a complete change of pace from Portuguese Goa, there are glimpses of Goa’s short history as a hippie retreat during the Beatles Era. The object of their worship was housed at the temple of Shri Mahalasa in the town of Mardol. This goddess is considered one of the avatars (incarnations) of Lord Vishnu (supreme god of the Hindus). In a conflict between the demons and gods, the evil demons had gotten the upper hand. Vishnu cleverly took the form of a beautiful woman to befuddle the demons just long enough to defeat them.

This period also gave rise to Goan Trance Music. Its psychedelic roots moved from the beaches of Goa to become popular in Europe in the ‘80s and ‘90s where it was combined with several strains of electronic music and eventually morphed into “psytrance” in the 2000s. For an authentic experience, you may want to download some of it from iTunes before you visit the temple. Then again, maybe a few Beatles tunes will suffice.

                                                                                   Karyn L. Planett