In Focus

‘Popular’perceptions about Goa need to change

Carolina Rodriguez

India’s smallest state has been in the news for a host of reasons…mostly wrong. However, and sadly too, the news has almost always revolved around beaches, churches, cheap alcohol and molestations.

Most recently, mining and the associated issues of “growth and development being affected adversely,” created ripples in Goa till the Apex Court had to intervene. Incidentally, the economy of the state is driven mostly by tourism and mining. With mining under pressure from all quarters, the focus has shifted to tourism. The state’s economic dependence on Foreigners vis-à-vis Indians to bolster the sector has been debatable though. Statistically, only a fraction of foreign tourists contribute to Goa’s welfare as compared to a colossal majority of Indians. And, the scales continue to tip even further, year after year.

For decades, tourism in Goa has been synonymous with rave parties, drugs and more recently, a pseudo-dependence on Russian charters and Israeli travellers. Next on the mind of tourists are the churches and towns reminiscent of the Portuguese and their occupation of Goa. And, that’s it. There is nothing else about Goa that grabs the tourist’s fancy. A whopping 66 per cent of the state’s population bear allegiance to Hinduism. Goa houses thousands of temples built by Hindu dynasties ruling for centuries,long before the Portuguese even had a home state of their own, yet the structures never find mention in travel guides or tour packages.

History bears testimony to the fact that the Portuguese conquest of Goa was closely followed by the systematic destruction of Hindu temples and the ruin of all things symbolic of Hinduism. These temples had been built in traditional mould using wood or stones such as sedimentary rock. But, after destruction, the rebuilding led to an architectural mix of various contemporary styles completely transforming the original structure. Discrimination against the Hindus forced them to migrate to neighbouring areas. Many families continued to stay while others returned to Goa only later. Local Hindus were extremely devout and, despite vehement Portuguese efforts to sever their religious roots, held onto their culture.

The existence of Goa in Hindu mythology and scriptures dates back to 1,000-500 B.C. where it finds mention as Gomanta or Gomantak in the epic Mahabharat and other ancient Hindu scriptures. Goa is known as a ‘pure’ patch of land created by Lord Parashuram, the sixth incarnation of Lord Vishnu to perform sacrificial rituals. He fired an arrow from the Western Ghats (Sahyadris) in the Arabian Sea (Sindhu Sagar), which landed in Bannali (Benaulim) where the sea retreated to give way to land between the rivers Mandovi and Zuari (i.e. Gomati and Asghanasini in Hindu mythology).

Several legends are associated with Goa or Gomantak and continue to remain popular among locals but are rarely showcased to tourists owing to little or no efforts to promote and popularise the culture. In one, for instance, after a dispute with wife Parvati, Lord Shiva took temporary shelter in Goa. In another, Lord Krishna defeated the king of Magadha, Jarasandha, on the Gomanchal Mountain in Goa. In a third, Lord Krishna was enamoured by the beauty of this land and he named the land Govapuri.

In north Goa, Arambol is symbolic of the myopic treatment of the state. The pristine town with predominantly Hindu families comprising more than 71 per cent of the total population, followed by Christians and Muslims, has failed to attract visitors to the myriad temples and structures spread across the small, fishermen town. These temples continue to be the hub of social and cultural activities for local residents.

Arambol - traditionally and locally called ‘Harmal’, was one of the places where the Pandavas lived during their recluse. On how the name Harmal came to be, it is believed that the Pandavas arrived at midnight chanting “Har Har Mahadev” which gave rise to the name ‘Harmal’ which was later changed to Arambol under the Portuguese influence. Harmal also means ‘Lord Vishnu’s land’that could be another reason for the name. Locals firmly believe Arambol is pavitra bhumi (Pure Land) which is why it was chosen for rituals in mythology.

According to another legend, Lord Parashuram and the Pandavas found the place to perform the yagna but Draupadi started menstruating and Parashuram decided to stop the ritual. The Pandavas left the place shouting “Hari... Hari…Harmal” and that’s how the name came to be. Another legend describes two ruler brothers, Har and Mal, who came from the South and were constantly fighting, eventually made this land their capital and called it Harmal. The Pandavas are also believed to have built the famous Narayan (Vishnu) Temple when they passed through Harmal.

The famous Sweet Lake or Sweet Water Lake in Arambol is a small natural lake formation that holds lure for foreign tourists seeking a quiet retreat for meditation and solitude. Sadly, even Arambol regulars are unaware of the spectacular history associated with the lake. Sweet Water Lake is called Parashuram Kund. The hills surrounding the lake are known for housing a banyan tree that attracts spiritual seekers looking for peace and isolation. Tourists love to take a dip in its crystal clear waters. The hills around the lake once sheltered the Pandavas.

The Sweet Water Lake end of a cave where the Pandavas lived has submerged and cannot be entered. However, the other end of the cave opens out to the adjoining Keri beach. The Keri side of the cave is on higher ground and can be accessed easily. Right outside the cave at Keri, is a big rock that, according to legend, was placed by Bheem, one of the Pandava brothers. This rock is unique because it rests delicately on three points on the otherwise uneven surface below and has remained unmoved for centuries.

According to a legend, when Parashuram brought the Gaud Saraswat Brahmins to Goa, he settled ten great sages here. The northern end of Harmal beach has a hill (Bhasma Dongor) where Parashuram performed the fire sacrifice (Ashwamedha) and the soil here still contains the sacrificial ashes. Today, the Parshuram shrine on this hill is popular with meditating tourists.Another legend goes on to tell how after performing this ritual, seven sages called the Saptarishis were blessed by Lord Shiva and came to be called as the Saptakoteshwar.

This quaint beach town is also home to several temples of various Hindu gods and goddesses; The Narayan Temple, Ravalnath Temple, Shree Bhumika Temple, Giroba Temple and Mahadev Temple to name a few. However, it is the Giroba temple, which is considered the village temple by local Hindus in Arambol. The Ravalnath temple is another sacred temple and home to the village god or gram devta. Shree Bhumika temple has an ant-hill at the centre that is frequented by snakes that are worshipped by the locals. Each temple has a history and a story of its own relating to its existence that establish links to ancient times and several dynasties in the past few centuries. A temple is an integral part of the neighbouring community and each family takes responsibility and contributes in its own way towards the upkeep, cleanliness and maintenance of the temple.

During festivals, families gather in their respective community temples to celebrate and meet people. One of the most important and sacred festival celebrated in Arambol is Ganeshutsav. Strictly a family affair, it is the most auspicious festival in Arambol and Goa among the Hindus. Entire families unite in their ancestral homes that are intricately decorated in bright colours. Women of the house cook exquisite dishes. Priests perform the puja everyday till the Ganpati idol is finally immersed into the local water body.

Arambol has a distinct characteristic to it because the locals have managed to keep it immunised from the pressures of development and tourism. The town does not have any five-star hotel or resort and offers a laid-back, serene experience to travellers who mostly come here to partake in a bohemian lifestyle or practise spiritual and healing arts. Yoga and meditation, integral to India and Hinduism, are widely practised in Arambol as compared to the more touristy beaches like Calangute, Baga, and others. The ambience, the air, water and soil of Arambol naturally lend spiritual energy to the place.

Locals talk with pride of their traditions in terms of festivals and about how they continue to practise fishing. The fishermen community members undertake fishing as a social activity. About 40-50 fishermen work together and manoeuvre large motor-less boats into the sea. They work collectively in a sort of informal partnership. The fishermen have a unique way of fishing: They never use motor boats and always hand row into the sea and believe that it ensures the catch is delicious as the fish do not get injured by the motor or other equipment before being caught. Huge, knitted nets are used to secure the catch and bring it back ashore. Most fishermen respect this unwritten law. However, if someone breaks the rule, he is punished as decided by the group. It may include a fine or even thrashing.

Traditional Hindu homes are symbolic of the centuries old Hindu architecture. The houses are simple yet rich in their heritage. It is believed that Goan Hindus are purer than the rest because of centuries of living in isolation and subsequent insulation from external influence. They are believed to be more traditional and dedicated in terms of practising rituals and following customs which they have preserved over the centuries. The Hindu families in Arambol display the same sense of devoutness in observing customs and performing rituals.

Another unique feature of the socio-cultural framework in Arambol is the co-existence of different communities, particularly nomadic tribes that have diversified and enriched the culture in Arambol. Gypsies from across India such as Waghris (from Gujarat), Banjaras or Lamanis (from Karnataka) and Pardis (from Maharashtra) live and work on the beach. Tourism and tourism-related activities provide employment opportunities to these tribals. Young girls belonging to these tribes and dressed in their ethnic costumes can be seen parading the beach to sell artefacts, jewelery and clothes to tourists. They speak English, often fluent, to convince tourists to buy their wares. A lot of them sell merchandise along the long, winding road that goes right up to the beach at Arambol.

It is, indeed, a dismal reality that despite a majority population in Goa and, in Arambol, being Hindus, the temples and architectural marvels are hardly talked about or find mention in news, historical references or tourist itineraries. On the other hand, fairly recent architectures during the Portuguese rule are widely popularised and talked about. It is the skewed perspective of a pro-West media and a pseudo-liberal tourism industry that is to be blamed. There is an urgent need to change the perception. Back at grass-root level, things are different: Very different.