Chandor to Fontainhas: Story of Goan-Portuguese

One pandemic resulted in a global hiatus. Another epidemic, in a different century, resulted in setting up of an entire city that is now known as the Latin Quarter of India and deemed as one of the most instagrammable place. Goa was ruled by many kingdoms throughout history like Hindus, Muslims, Portuguese. But it is the Portuguese era within Goa lasting 451 years that went on to influence and transform a state in its entirety, in terms of culture, cuisine, even art, and architecture. And for this very reason, you will never hear a Goan say the word “Indo-Portuguese” when it comes to describing their uniqueness. It’s always Goan-Portuguese, because everything in Goa has its oqn unique flavour associated to it.

Bairro das Fontainhas, or the “quarter of Fontainhas”, sits at the foot of Altinho, an affluent hilltop area in the centre of Goa’s capital city Panaji. Author William Dalrymple described it as a “small chunk of Portugal washed up on the shores of the Indian Ocean”. The word Fontainhas originated from ‘Fonte Phoenix‘, meaning Fontain Phoenix, a spring which is said to have sprouted at the foot of the hill for the first time in 1770. In the late 18th century, Fontainhas was once a coconut plantation owned by Joao Antonio de Sequeira, also known as Mossmikar, owing to his stint in Mozambique which made him a very rich (and hopefully a happy) man. Post his death, Fontainhas was bequeathed to the Carmelite nuns.

In the mid 1800’s when the plague ravaged the colonial city of Old Goa, the Portuguese moved their capital to Panjim, where Fontainhas was chosen as the residential area for the government administrators. The Carmelite nuns sold off their property in portions as demand increased, which is the reason behind Fontainhas growing in a haphazard manner, without a proper plan. It is not uncommon to see streets stem out of nowhere, leading to even tinnier streets. For some reason, watching the remnants of Portuguese architecture, strangely reminded me of how Mughal architecture has influenced many of the Indian monumnets. As you appreciate the Indian-ness of the European charm, you can literally watch history overflowing on the street. There is a Rua 31 de Janeira (31st January Road) street which relates to the date of Portugal’s independence from Spain in 1640, and the bustling 18th June Road named after the same date in 1946 when Ram Manohar Lohia and Dr Julião Menezes started the Civil disobedience movement against the Salazar’s regime that led to the end of Portuguese rule in India.

So what is Portugal for you? Port wine, Lisbon, seafood, surfing, rooster, and azulejos. The Rooster of Barcelos is a national symbol of Portugal which represents faith, good luck and justice, based on the legend of the “Old Cock of Barcelos”. The legend tells a story about a pilgrim traveling through Spain who is accused of stealing silver from a landowner, and is sentenced to death by hanging. To plead his innocence, he begs the judge to reverse his sentence. The judge was about to tuck into a roasted cockerel, when the pilgrim vowed that as proof of his innocence the cockerel will stand up on his plate and crow. The judge decided to set his cockerel aside as a mockery to the pilgrim. As the pilgrim was about to be hung, the cockerel miraculously stood up and crowed. Talk about a fowl play! On his return to Barcelos, the pilgrim carved a statue of the cockerel. The symbolism has lived on throughout Portugal, and made its way to Fontainhas in Goa as well where every house features a bright coloured rooster on the top to bring in good luck. Considering the reign of 451 years, let’s not wonder about the irony that is so evident here clearly!

Another Portuguese symbol that is often seen at the houses of Fontainhas is the soldado (soldier). The soldados were an important part of the society and a figurative portrayal of a protector. It is said that presence of a mid-salute soldier denotes that one of the family members were part of the Portuguese army. It also represents the social status of the house owner.

The Goan houses also boast of Azulejos. The glazed tiles paint stories about their history, religion, and culture through this decorative means. The word azulejo stems from Arabic roots, meaning ‘small polished stone’. Azulejos date as far back as the 13th century, when the Moors invaded the land that now belongs to Spain and Portugal, but they polished tiles secured their foothold in Portuguese culture between the 16th and 17th centuries. It wasn’t until Portugal’s King Manuel I visited Seville and brought the idea back, that Portugal truly adopted this artwork into its culture. The tiles were used to cover up the large areas of blank wall that were common inside buildings during the Gothic period. Antique azulejos were decorated in a simple color palate, dominated by blues and whites. It is believed that these colors were influenced by the Age of Discoveries (15th – 18th centuries) and considered fashionable at the time.

Along with the artistic characteristics, Azulejos at Goa also highlights a important narrative of Portuguese influence on Goa – Portuguese script. Born in the Catholic convents of Goa, Indo-Portuguese literature was limited,from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, to texts of a religion. Instead of becoming defunct, Portuguese language has been transformed into narratives in the other languages of Goa – Konkani, Marathi, and English. However, not many know about the existence of Romi Konkani. Unlike the ad-hoc transliteration widely used for most other major Indian languages (especially online), Romi Konkani isn’t a placeholder for a “traditional” script. It is a traditional script, one complete with its own set of spelling conventions and literary history in print. Romi is the only such Latin-based writing system used by an Indo-Aryan language in India that is developed as a result of Goa’s sustained cultural interaction with the Portuguese State, and the Portuguese language. A prime example of this would be the existence of the Konkani phrase “Hi mhoji kudd” written on the altar in bold Latin characters, and it means ‘this is my body’, a phrase from the Catholic Eucharist (a translation of the Latin ‘hoc est corpus meum‘). 

PC: Google

Romi Konkani takes numerous cues from the spelling system of Portuguese itself. One of these is the way Romi Konkani deals with nasal vowels, similar to Portuguese by denoted at the end of words with a ‘vowel + m/n’ sequence, like in ‘homem‘ (where the final -em is a nasal E), or M at the end of the names of Goan villages like Benaulim, Candolim, and Mandrem. This actually indicates that the vowel preceding it is nasalised. Another distinctive feature is the usage of the letter X to denote the “sh” sound, as in xacuti, pronounced sha-coo-ti. This too is directly lifted from Portuguese convention, like in Portuguese, peixe (fish) pronounced pei-shi. In the decades following Goa’s integration with the Indian Union in 1961, debates over which script and written language should come to represent the state’s identity have raged on, even briefly taking a violent turn in the 80s. The usage of Romi Konkani was seen as representative of the Goan Catholic identity. In addition, the question of which Konkani script to use was also tied to question of which dialect to pick as the standard. Konkani written in Romi generally represents the Bardez dialect (northwest Goa, where Catholics were historically dominant), while Konkani in Devanagari represents the Antruz dialect (spoken in the New Conquests, where Hindus form a majority). In any war waged in history, religion often comes as forerunner clearly!!

Portuguese houses are found across various parts of Goa. While some are well maintained others remain abandoned and in a dilapidated condition. These houses are existing reminders of an art style that belongs to the late 1700’s to early 1900’s. As a legacy of the era of Portuguese colonization, these houses are not only symbols but they still remain occupied and alive due to some locals, who value and preserve these traditional mansions of their ancestral Goan aristocracy. For instance, Casa da Moeda or the Mint House located at the Tobacco square has been in the possession of General Dr. Miguel Caetano Dias and his descendants since 1904. Dr. Dias was the first and only Goan to be designated as General by the Portuguese. He held several portfolios in Portugal, Mozambique, and Goa, including the Director of Health Services and the Director of Escola Medica and Military Hospital in Panjim.

His eldest son, Dr. Victor Manuel Dias was a distinguished physician who headed the Saneamento de Velha Goa — an ambitious plan in 1948-49 to eradicate old Goa of its scourge of malaria and disease. He had his own laboratory (Laboratório Sida) from which he conducted the first radio broadcast in Goa in 1946. And he was also in charge of the body of St Francis Xavier for more than 15 years. His other siblings of notable fame include the eminent engineer Luis Bismarck Dias, who is credited with designing Vasco da Gama, the Praça do Comércio in Panjim and the Dona Paula Miradouro among others; Dr. António Dias, a surgeon who rebuilt Hospicio Hospital in Margão; and Álvaro Dias, an eminent judge.

The Fontainhas neighbourhood is lined with houses painted in mustard, indigo, salmon, olive, and similar bold and bright colours. There is an interesting dictum behind the colorful facade that was passed on that during the Portuguese occupation of Goa which stated that no private house or building could be painted in white. Only churches and chapels enjoyed this privilege. For instance, Chapel of St. Thomas (first image) was built in 1849 on the request of people who came to settle in Panjim after leaving Old Goa behind. St. Sebastian Chapel (second picture below), dated 1880, is home to a crucifix which was a relic from the inquisition in Old Goa. The crucifix, which originally stood in the Palace of Inquisition in Old Goa, is depicted with Christ with his eyes open in order to instil fear amongst the heretics brought to the Inquisitors, awaiting their gruesome end.

The colour of the house was not left upto individual choice or free will, since during Portuguese rule, the owner of the house could be fined if his house was not painted. Even today, the entire Fontainhas area undergoes repainting in different, vibrant colors. Ask for a colour palette, and you will probably find it in the Latin Quarter. The Portuguese were inspired by European architectural styles. With houses dating back to the 1700’s that are still immaculate and inhabited by the following generations this impression is clearly evident as you start walking from the Tobacco square towards the Fontainhas.

However, despite the clear Portuguese influence, there is a distinct ‘Indian-ness’ or rather ‘Goan’ feeling that permeates the surrounding. Arched windows and projecting wrought-iron balconies exude a typically Mediterranean vibe, yet they have a sense of Indianness because they were built by Indian masons, using indigenous building techniques, keeping in mind the monsoon and long hot summer months, and availability of raw materials. The walls and pillars of the house were built from laterite stone and local wood, while the roof was overlaid with terracotta tiles coming from Mangalore. The windows were covered with polished mother-of pearl. This not only allowed for some fancy play of light and shadows, but allowed for ventilation during the humid summers. The flat part of the shell is cut to fit into wooden window pane frames traditionally used in Goan homes. Window-pane oysters take about 4-5 years to mature fully when their muddy brown shells turn translucent white.

Balcãos are another characteristic structure of Goan houses. These inside outside spaces are basically porch-like structures with their own special seats, built at the entrance of a house. The idea of a Balcão is to provide a sitting space and a “social screening device” to the residents of a particular home. Elders can gossip with neighbours, sip tea and greet anyone that passes on the street and interrogate strangers who’d come to the house. If these strangers passed the test, they’d be let into the main home.

Another fascinating feature in the Christian homes are Sacadas, which are basically small balconies that found their origin in a plague that overtook Old Goa! Fearful of the pandemic, the people realised how important it was to “take the air”, and hence small, narrow balconies came into existence so that one person could stand and enjoy the sea breeze or light up a cigar. Sad that the common sensibilities of yester years have lost its value in the current year considering the effects of the never-ending pandemic.

Just as the exterior facade of these mansions is attractive, the interiors make a much more impressive sight with their own mini – chapels and dance rooms. In the ancient times, Goans houses used to comprise of floor smeared with cow dung, a typical feature found in any traditional village in India. But with the advent of colonial rule in India, Goa emerged as a major port town for all trading purposes. As such, lifestyle saw many changes with introduction of European tiles as part of Goan decor.  Around the 20th century, Goans who travelled to Europe brought ‘moulds’ back home with them. As you step into Fernandes House or walk through the Braganza House, you are welcomed into huge hallways and ballrooms with an assortment of floor patterns. Some of these have mosaic work, while others have geometric designs and floral patterns. Mosaic tiles came from Japan, and around the same time, red oxide tile flooring also became popular in Goa. The raw material for the China Mosaic flooring came from the ships’ ballast. Since there was trade between Macau (in China) and Goa, the ballast from these ships was used to make these unique floorings.

Since glass was rare and considered as a luxury item, the inside of the house was often festooned with porcelain from China and Macau, cut-glass and mirrors from Venice, chandeliers from Belgium and tapestries from Portugal. There are long and well preserved dining rooms, the drawing rooms usually boast of a magnificent collection of blue china ceramics and glass artefacts. A prime example of such display is the Braganza House built in the 17th century. The east wing occupied by the Pereira-Braganza family, has a small chapel with a relic of St. Francis Xavier, which is a fingernail. 

The artefacts collected by the family over a number of years, have added to the beauty of the house. There is a Great Salon, a big ballroom with the floor made of italian marble, antique chanderlier from Europe adorning the ceiling, and heavily carved, ornate rodewood furniture. Thanks to the graciousness of the Braganza family, for the first time in my life, I was able to stand in an original ballroom from centuries ago. Just the outfit of the day was not as per ballroom decor!! What stands out among the furniture is a pair of high-backed chairs, beating the family crest, which was given to the Perira – Braganza family by King Dom Luis of Portugal. 

The social aspect of Portugues architecture in Goan houses sheds another interesting light to how the natives built and functioned in their social circles. It is a strong belief amongst the Goans that unlike what the youth potrayal of Goa is publiclised with its cheap liquor and strolling on the road with a beer in hand, the true pleasure of drinking is done in privacy of home with your own social circle. After seeing the gradeur of Portuguese houses, especially their living rooms, I can understand the logic behind the statement. The drinking culture that is considered as “vibe of Goa” goes back to the early Portuguese settlers who wanted to establish a prolific trade route. Walking through the 13,000 sq ft premise of India’s first alcohol museum paints a undiluted picture of Goa’s high spirits.

Cashew which is believed to be a native of Brazil, another former Portuguese colony, was introduced in India during the 1700s in order to stop topsoil erosions during Goan monsoons. India has emerged to become one of the world’s largest cashew producers today. With cashew plantations prominently established in Goa, native locals soon started diverging into fermented brew – Feni. According to records of Portuguese settlers, Feni production from cashews started as early as 1740s. Feni is made from cashew apples that have ripened and fallen off the trees. In fact some locals claim that feni was invented because the portuguese didn’t want the cashew apples. This also lead to constant skirmishes with the Portuguese authorities since the local brew was cutting into the profits that Portuguese gained from selling regular alcohol. Divided across five rooms, All About Alcohol showcases a journey from manufacturing and distilling to fumigation. The museum houses bottles and glasses that speaks of social history of Goa dating back to the 15th and 16th century.

An old-style Goan tavern has been created with bottles and glassware from Portugal as well as a feni cellar, that houses more than a thousand bottles of coconut and cashew feni that dates back to 1946. In the cellar, visitors can sample some of this aged feni—from Kudchadkar’s private family collection—and be a part of an in-house feni tasting and pairing session.

Inside the museum, there are ancient garrafãos and mud pots that were used to store and rest feni, an antique alcohol shot dispenser, a sugarcane crusher for cocktails, glass pint holders for long journeys, chalices, snifters, inclined wine glasses, the world’s tallest shot glass made in Poland, a Queen Elizabeth II coronation glass with gold work, and crystal glasses that give out the most melodious ring when clinked, silver water pots, corkscrew juicers, mixers, jiggers and innumerable other alcohol paraphernalia.

There is also a little section that contains items that are not centred on alcohol. One of the rooms is a recreation of antique Goan kitchens with an old stove, spoons, mortar-and-pestles, measures, grinders, packing trunks, old graters and more stuff that will remind you how and where your ancestors ate.

Goa has an inherent charm that always left an impression. Doesn’t matter if it was in the year 1998, or 8 trips in a span of 2 years, or a impromptu solo for 4 days because of a business conference. At the end of the day, it lives your soul satisfied with its rich history, affable charm and the feeling of Susegad – a concept that is uniquely goa viewed as the relaxed, laid-back attitude towards life that is said to have existed historically in the former Portuguese territory.

The other travelogues from my Goa diaries are as follows:

Origins of Goa: Connecting histories in Goa

In Holy Epiphany

Pro Tip: While both Fontainhas and Chandor were explored in consecutive two days, it is ideal and advisable to spend the full day in respective places. I booked a heritage walk within Fontainhas with Make it Happen who happen to have a heritage building within the quarters as their head office, whereas Chandor was spent with Soul travelling. The Alcohol mosueum, located at Candolim, charges a fees of 300 INR which is inclusive of the guided tour through the facility along with a feni-tasting experience.

Further readings:

Related (and not-so related) Posts:


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