Goa’s History

Goa’s Rich & Diversified History

sense of the past can add lustre to the landscapes and resonance to the personalities you meet in Goa. Even by the hoary standards of India, Goan history is especially lengthy and romantic, crammed with clangourous battles, colourful characters and intriguing riddles. Pirates and pilgrims, slavers and saints – all have left their mark. Today’s sleepy villages once served successive Hindu, Arab and Portuguese rulers as the hubs of world-spanning empires. Hermitage caves of Jain and Buddhist ascetics are barely an hour’s drive from the rubble of the Portuguese inquisitors’ sinister black castle. As an axis enclave in British India, Goa saw its share of World War II spying. Scuttled Nazi merchant ships still lie at the bottom of Panaji harbour. Some of the stranded German crewmen stayed on, marrying locally.


There is nothing new in that: beguiling Goa has ensnared sojourners since the Early Stone Age. The first inhabitants seem to have migrated to the coastal plain over the highlands of the Western Ghats, leaving a trail of palaeolithic axes and cleavers along the route of the present day rail line. Successive overland migrations came also along the coast, first from the south and later from the north.

Most early immigrants were is still a subject of scholarly wrangles. Judging from the totemic cults that still persist in Goa and the distinctive ethnology of such surviving ‘aboriginal’ people as the Kunbis, the original settlers may have been tribes from the Deccan to the north, Malabar to the south, or even as far away northeast as the Brahmaputra valley in Assam. Or they may have been Dravidians displaced by the Aryan advance from Central Asia. The Aryans themselves seem to have found their way into Goa in early times in the form of the Gaud-Saraswat’s, a band of Brahmins who cut themselves off from their caste when they compromised their vegetarian scruples by eating fish to tide over a 12-year famine. Other Aryan incursions may have been by sea after the decline of theMahabharata-era city states of Saurashtra in Gujarat.

Sea venturers came from farther afield, too. For a ship setting out from the mouth of the Red Sea and then drifting along the prevailing currents, the most natural Indian landfall would be Goa. As early as 2000 BC, Sumerians knew it as a trading station called Gubi. Phoenicians, Persians and Arabs ventured there as well. These successive layers of immigrant tribes and cults hardened into a caste hierarchy that has proved resistant to all subsequent religious and cultural overlays. Even in Catholic churches today, Brahmin and Shudra Christians rarely sit together, much less intermarry. But a more humane legacy is also traceable to Goa’s early history – the millennia-old system of primitive communalism that survived as the basis of village organization right up to the end of Portuguese rule.


Each village, or ‘gaum’, was a self-contained unit of farmers and artisans. Every villager contributed to the commonweal according to this hereditary role. Property was communally held and allotted by the council of elders, which met weekly. All council decisions were unanimous since each member wielded absolute veto power. Services and public works were paid for out of the community fund. Historians theorize that such a system could have evolved in the tightly knit pioneer communities of prehistoric times. The trim and landscaped hamlets of Goa today, so full of amenities compared with the rest of India’s villages, attest to the stewardship of the village councils, or communidades as they were called in Portuguese. After the merger of Goa into the India Union in 1961, however the newly ascendant politicians dismissed the communidades as a hoax designed to perpetuate the ‘elders’ as a hereditary landed class under the guise of communal ownership. Land reforms parcelled out ‘gaun’ property among residents. Whatever the merits of the communidades and the land reforms statistics show that Goa’s agricultural self-sufficiency has declined over the past 30 years, while migration both of Goans leaving the state and outsiders coming in -has gathered momentum. And once-communal Goan lands in the vicinity of prime tourist spots or booming cities have become some of India’s most hotly traded real estate. Not that either urbanity or the ‘hospitality industry’ are exactly new to Goans.

Nearly 2,000 years ago Divar Island was already renowned monasticism. By the second century, the riverside port of Chandor was already important enough to rate a mention by the Greek geographer Ptolemy. With the decline of Mauryan rule in India (third century BC), Chandor became the capital of local Bhoja rulers. Sixth-century Goan seafarers ranged as far as Bali and Sumatra, where some place as a pilgrimage site, while Arvalem was a centre of Buddhist monasticism. By the second century, the riverside port of Chandor was already important enough to rate a mention by the Greek geographer Ptolemy. With the decline of Mauryan rule in India (third century BC), Chandor became the capital of local Bhoja rulers. Sixth-century  Goan seafarers ranged as far as Bali and Sumatra, where some  place names still commemorate the Bhojas.

The Kadambas

Channdor was to change hands repeatedly among such dynasties  change hands repeatedly among such dynasties as the Mauryans, Chalukyas and Siliharas. For all these dynasties, though, Goa was only a sideshow to their main power-plays in the Konkan and the Deccan. It was not until the tenth century, with the rise of the Kadambas, that Goa regained centre-stage status. Even then it was largely by default: only after their ejection from their original stronghold in Mysore did the Kadambas shift their focus to the seaward side of the Ghats.

The Kadambas were of impeccable pedigree, claiming descent from a three-eyed, four-armed demiurge who had sprung up from the ground where Lord Shiva had let fall a drop of sweat during one of his cosmic exertions. More to the point, the Kadambas specialized in breeding exquisite princesses and allying themselves through marriage to neighbouring royalty. But their fortunes had been in eclipse for nearly three centuries prior to their Goan adventure.

After consolidating his hold over Chandor, the founding Goan Kadamba dynast set out with a hundred-ship armada on a thanksgiving pilgrimage to Somnath in Gujarat. He had got no farther than the mouth of the Zuari River, however, when his entire fleet was swamped by a sudden storm- something to visualize on your modern-day  Cortalim-Agassaim ferry trip to liven up the otherwise sleepy boat-ride. The disaster proved fortunate in its way, since the Kadambas were rescued  by the colony of Arab traders from the riverside settlement of  from the Hanjaman-nagar. The alliance thus forged helped establish the Kadamba kingdom as the pre-eminent maritime power of its day. The Arabs used Kadamba patronage to make Goa the hub of their far-fung commercial network embracing 14 ports from Bahrain to Java.


Today, the Zuari has silted so far upstream that the docks of Goa Vellem (as the place is now called) stand high and dry and overgrown .Palm plantations cover the rubble, although road courses are still discernible. Farmers here routinely turn up ancient carved stones. They are often incorporated into the gingerbread style of architecture of local mansions, while a trove of excavated memorabilia can be viewed in the museum of the nearby Pilar Monastery. But only the massive tank of the goddess Chamunda’s temple survives in situ to give an idea of the scale of the Kadamba capital.

The apex of Kadamba power was achieved under the reign (1052-80) of Jayakeshi I, who had himself proclaimed Lord of the Konkan and Emperor of the Western Seas. After his death (by self- immolation, according to legend, due to his inconsolable grief over the death of his pet parrot), the Kadamba rulers found themselves increasingly preoccupied with trying to avoid vassalage to either the Chalyukans or the Hosyalas, who were fighting it out for overlordship of the Deccan. Eventually, by the 13th century, they fell prey to an upstart warlord house, the Yadavas of Devgiri, and Goa reverted to marginal status in the polity of the times.


So it was a trade-rich and relatively defenceless Goa that faced the depredations of the Tughluqs, the first Muslim invaders of the Konkan, around the start of the 14th century. With the break-up of the Tughluq kingdom, Goa fell to one of its offshoots, the Bahmani sultanate, which was locked in a drawn-out combat with the Hindu Vijayanagar empire. Anti-Hindu pogroms got so bad that the tutelary deity of the Kadambas, Saptakoteshwar, had to be plucked out of his temple on the island of Divar and buried in a rice field.

It did not stay there long, though. Saptakoteshwar was unearthed and restored to his temple by a Goan Saraswat insurgent, Madhav Mantri. At the head of a Vijayanagar army, he reclaimed much of the Konkan and ruled, as viceroy, a Goa several times bigger than the modern-day state. For most of the 15th century, Goa remained a Vijayanagar outpost, squarely on the line of confrontation with the Bahmanis.

Goa s Muslims – mostly Arabs and local converts engaged in the horse trade – chose to abandon Hindu-dominated Govapuri (whose harbour was already silted, anyway) in favour of the Mandovi River port of Ella. But Govapuri still remained the base for a Vijayanagar ‘navy’, under the ‘admiralty’ of a Kadamba heir, which occupied itself mainly with piratical depredations upon Haj pilgrims. This practice so affronted the pious and scholarly Bahmani vizier. Khwaja Mahmud Gawan, that he finally extirpated the Vijayanagar coastal enclave after a two-year siege of Goa’s seaside forts.

Gawan lost no time in razing Goa’s Hindu temples. Devotes either buried their gods once again or carried them along on their inland exodus to the highlands around Ponda. These hills remain Goa’s Hindu heartland to this day.

Gawan’s enemies at the Bahmani court got the sultan to order his assassination on the basis of forged incriminatory letters. Deprived of its able vizier, the sultanate promptly disintegrated. Goa fell to the share of Yusuf Adil Shah, a Persian princeling who had been sold into slavery as a result of court intrigue, bought in Ormuz by Gawan and adopted by him as a son.

Although headquartered in the Deccan fastness of Bijapur, Adil Shah was sufficiently taken with Goa to consider moving his capital to Ella, the Muslim enclave established in Vijayanagar times. The city he laid out there with its palaces, artisans’ quarters, s rds and riverfront docks – turned out to be the template fort of his Portuguese successors.  Even the building that now houses the state secretariat in Panaji was originally built as a beach villa for AdilShah.


After Adil Shah’s death, his successors began to lose their grip on the outposts of their demesne. So it proved no challenge for the Portuguese expeditionary, Afonso de Albuquerque, guided by a Vijayanagar scout, to take the city in March 1510 with a fleet of 23 ships and 1,200 troops. Two months later, however, the Portuguese Commander of the Indian Ocean had to vacate the city (with as much loot and as many harem beauties as could be conveniently carried) before Adil Shah’s avenging troops from Bijapur.

Albuquerque waited in the harbour mouth for reinforcements and by year end, finally clawed his way back to Ella (or Goa City, as he had re-christened it), rather more strenuously than before. Two Old Goa churches commemorate the battle: the well-preserved Our Lady of the Rosary and the eerily overgrown Our Lady of the Mount.

What the plaques and frescos do not recount, is the general massacre of Muslim citizens that was ordered once the city was recaptured. Albuquerque saw himself as a crusader in the mediaeval tradition (no wonder, considering how recently the last Moorish enclaves had been expunged from Iberia). His professed mission in Asia was to destroy Islam and expand Christendom.

But that did not keep him from pursuing Portugal’s maritime trading advantage at the same time. The year after he established himself in Goa, he set out to forge more links in the chain of Portuguese dominion-Malacca and the Spice Islands. He was on his way to establishing a bastion at Ormuz when he took ill and turned back to India, only to find on arrival that he had fallen from favor in Lisbon and bitterest rival was now installed as the governor of Goa. He was so ill by the time he sailed up the Mandovi, that he had to be carried to the deck in a chair for a last glimpse of his Dourada (Golden City).  He died before the ship could dock at Goa.

By ranging so far from the Mandovi’s shores, Albuquerque left Goa a richer legacy than any he could have achieved had he stayed put: a widely cast eastern empire for which the Golden City served as entrepot. By the late 16th century, nearly 300 ships a year plied between Goa and Portugal carrying spices, perfumes, gems and gold. The shoals of Goa’s coast are to this day littered with promising wrecks, according to the marine archaeology department of India’s National Institute of Oceanography in Dona Paula.

Profits from this entrepôt trade quickly created a boom town that rivalled Lisbon itself in  ostentation. The hieratic hulks of Old Goa’s churches, incongruously looming nowadays out of an unpeopled meadow on the riverbank, attest to the baroque giandiosity of the Portuguese colonials’ self-importance. No trace remains of the dense tangle of lanes that once enmeshed these monuments. Nor of the throbbing street-life, crowded with fishwives, fidalgos, freebooters and slaves, cutpurses, clerics and opulent courtesans, as described by contemporary diarists. The city boasted the oldest and best hospital in Asia. It also required three jails.


Portuguese power in the world began to wane towards the end of the 16th century, when a botched and pointless Morocco campaign so decimated the Portuguese nobility that the country fell under the sway of the Spanish crown. By the time sovereignty was regained in 1640, Lisbon’s moment of maritime glory had slipped past. Upstart imperial challengers the British and Dutch carved out Far Eastern empires of their own, usurping Goa’s pre-eminence as Europe’s entrepot in Asia. The calibre of Lisbon’s men in Goa also orated. From a band of vigorous (if somewhat piratical) adventurers, the Goa administration deteriorated into a bloated bureaucracy with more perks than vision. Meanwhile, the Indian scene around them had drastically altered.

The Vijayanagar and Adilshahi factions, whose rivalries the Portuguese had so long exploited, had finally withered away. In their place, the Konkan and Deccan were to be galvanized by the newly militant Maratha power under the guerrilla general, Shivaji. In 1668 he ousted the feudal lords of Bicholim and Pernem and parked himself for a few weeks in the temple of Saptakoteshwar, on what was then the border of Portuguese Goa. But before he could mount an assault on the European enclave, he had to rush back to defend his own capital against Muslim attack.

Shivaji’s son 25 years later we so far as to capture Bardez and Salsete. All the Portuguese viceroy could think of doing was to drag out the relic of Francis Xavier and prayerfully convey the baton of military command into the saint’s one remaining hand (see page 113). This seemed to work: the very next day the Marathas lifted their siege and dashed off to combat a sudden attack on their rear by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. The Mughal distraction, it turned out, gave Goa nearly a half-century of peace from the Marathas son, 25 years later, actually went so far as to capture In fact, the Marathas indirectly aided the Portuguese in annexing their next territories: Ponda, Quepem, Sanguem and Cancona. The raja of the area, harried by troops of the Mysore adventurer Hyder Ali, sought Portuguese help in exchange for territory. Hyder’s vengeful attacks on the Goan coast were scotched when the Marathas and British ganged up on him back in the Deccan, and Ponda  remained in the Portuguese fold. Sawantwadi, a petty fiefdom to Goa s  north, also made the mistake of inviting in the Portuguese to fend off their  rivals: The territories of Bicholim, Satari and occupied, the size of the Portuguese enclave trebled and the present day boundaries of Goa established by the time the misguided raja that he had been double-crossed.

Portugal’s allies against the Sawantwadi raja in 1788 had been the fiery Rane clans of Satara. But throughout the following century, these same Ranes were to revolt periodically against Lisbon’s viceroys, too, over such issues as taxes and military conscription. This derring-do earned the Ranes a Robin Hood reputation at the time and an ex post facto cachet as Freedom Fighters since the merger of Goa into the Indian Union. Resistance to Portuguese Rule As much as to the martial prowess of the Rane’s, though, these revolts owe their impact to the deteriorating strength of the Portuguese. By the turn of the 19th century, the city of Old Goa had to be abandoned.

Its port had silted and its population had been decimated by successive epidemics. A new capital, far less grand, was established in Panjim (now Panaji). Britain was already firmly in control of India, andPortuguese mercantile fortunes had so declined that the Goa administration was no longer even self-supporting In the early decades of the current century, iron ore mining in north and east Goa emerged as the new mainstay of the economy grant mineworkers tipped the colony’s demographic balance from a Catholic to a Hindu majority. New Hindu fortunes were built on ore sales to Japan and the smuggling of all kinds of imports into India.

Goan Catholics, once beneficiaries of the thriving entrepôt trade were now reduced to exporting manpower: aristocratic Goan families cut a swathe in the arts and professions of India, while more plebeian Goans worked as clerks, cooks, mechanics, musicians and seamen.

Throughout these economic upheavals, Lisbon still hung on to its colonial enclave out of sheer force of habit (and, perhaps, a tinge of reverence for St Francis Xavier). Then, too, the motherland was preoccupied with its own political upheavals: overthrow of the monarchy, a sequence of parliaments and a short-lived republic. In one of these political convulsions, Goa was first promised and then denied a limited autonomy. The Goan protest movement against the 1918 betrayal was led by the crusading journalist and social reformer, Luis de Menezes Bragança, who is still revered as a kind of Goan Nehru Menezes Bragança went on courageously protesting colonia injustices even after the establishment of the Salazar dictatorship in Portugal. But Salazar was not one to be moved by liberal appeals to conscience. Nor by non-violent, pro-independence demonstrations by Gandhian satyagrahis (adherents of the policy of non-violent resistance), nor by diplomatic appeals for a negotiated settlement with independent India after the British left the rest of the country in 1947.

Finally, Indian Prime Minister Nehru ran out of patience in 1961 and sent in the army. Once again, the Portuguese viceroy appealed to St Francis Xavier but this time the ploy failed. Ignoring Salazar’s orders to defend the colony to the death (and thereby earning himself eventual condemnation for treason), Governor-General Vassalo de Silva surrendered virtually without a shot.