February 4, 2012, 12:00 pm
My Island in the Sun
By Dr. Sanjiva Wijesinha
Last month I had the pleasure of visiting Goa – a place that has intrigued me from my schooldays because of its Portuguese connection with us in Sri Lanka.
The first region of the Indian subcontinent to be colonised by a European power (in 1510, followed in due course by the Danish establishing themselves in Tranquebar, the French in places like Pondicherry and the British in the rest of the subcontinent), it was only in 1961 that this Portugese overseas territory of Goa became part of the Union of India.
Today it is the smallest – yet the richest – of India’s 28 states, having the highest GDP per capita of all the states in India. Although very much a part of India, with the majority of its population being Hindu, Goa having been a Portugese colony for 450 years (it even used to send representatives to the Portuguese parliament in Lisbon) remains a very Catholic part of the country. Drive along the coastal roads here and one feels as if one is travelling along our own coastal road from Wattala to Negombo, so many are the whitewashed churches and the shrines with decorated crosses one passes along the way. Look at the shop fronts or read the newspapers or talk to the local people – and don’t be surprised by the number of names you see here like Dias, Brito, Fernandes, Rodrigues and Gomez.
It was in 1510 (soon after the Portugese landed in our own country) that Afonso de Albuquerque, the commander of their Indian Ocean fleet, defeated the Muslim ruler of Goa and set about creating what he intended to be Asia’s first European city. Variously referred to as the Rome of the Orient and the Lisbon of the Indies, the city today still retains its Iberian heritage and vestiges of its old colonial buildings.
Panaji (known as Panjim in English) on the bank of the Mandovi river is the state capital. With its cobbled streets, red-roofed houses built in the Iberian style and spotless white churches, it reminds one of a town in Portugal (except of course for the ubiquitous Indian-style refuse one finds all over the place). The Baroque style white church of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception overlooking the Praça da Igreja (Church Square) and the main street (18 June Avenue) is a prominent landmark, looking particularly attractive when it is floodlit at night.
Another church well worth visiting is the Basilica de Bom Jesus, perhaps best known as housing the relics of St Francis Xavier, the Jesuit missionary from the Basque country of Spain who spent many years in India and Japan. Viewed from the outside one can see why this church, recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, is considered to be one of the finest examples of Baroque architecture in India. Within the church one sees a pleasing fusion of styles – Baroque columns entwined with tropical vines and statues of cherubs with typically Indian physiognomy.
But it is not only the Catholic churches in Goa that reminded me of home. Among the Goanese delicacies I was fortunate to sample were Bibinca (a layered cake very similar to our own Bibikkan) and a sweet called Alle Belle (which I discovered was essentially the same as our pancakes with pani-pol!
I discovered that Goa boasts no less than 27 named beaches along its coast. While the southern part of the state is more up-market, with clean tourist hotels and private beaches, the northern beaches it appears have attracted some unsavoury characters in recent times. Described by one of my Goanese colleagues as a ‘Sunny Place for Shady People’, it reminded me of what can happen even to a beautiful tropical paradise if tourism is allowed to flourish uncontrolled.