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Goas History and Culture

[vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][vc_single_image image=”1139″ border_color=”grey” img_link_target=”_self” img_size=”full”][vc_column_text]Legend has it that Lord Parshuram, the sixth incarnation of Lord Vishnu, shot an arrow into the Arabian Sea to create Parshuram Kshetra of which Goa was one part. Known in the past as Gomanta, Govapuri, Govarashtra and Gopakapattana, this tiny state has a rich social and economic history that is reflected in its festive traditions, its arts, crafts, cuisine and architecture.

Legend apart, Goa’s earliest inhabitants were the Kunbis, Kharvis, and other Proto-Australoid Mundari races. Goa’s history dates back to the 3rd century when the Mauryas ruled it. The Satavahanas, the Bhojas, the Konkan-Mauryas, the Rashtrakutas, the Badami Chalukyas, the Shilaharas and the Kadambas followed this rule. In the 14th century, Goa fell into the hands of the Muslims of the Deccan. The Bahamanis and the Vijayanagar Kings of the Deccan were rivals over Goa. Finally, the Adil Shahs took over from the Bahamanis.

The Portuguese arrived in Goa in the year 1510 , captured the Panjim fort with the help of the overtaxed Panjimites, and stayed here until its liberation on 19th December 1961. The Dutch made a few unsuccessful attacks while the British East India Company preferred diplomacy with the Portuguese, who aimed to control the spice route, and gained the right to trade and use Goa’s harbour. In 1542, Jesuit missionaries led by St Francis Xavier, arrived. By the middle of the 16th century, Portuguese control had expanded beyond Old Goa to include the provinces of Bardez and Salcete and aggressive conversions were fast spreading Christianity across this newly acquired colony. Once the Portuguese had vested power from the Turks, who controlled the trade routes across the Indian Ocean, Goa became the most prized Portuguese colony.

The Marathas nearly conquered Goa in the late 18th century, and there was a brief occupation by the British during the Napoleonic Wars in Europe.

Unlike what most people think, all of Goa was not under Portuguese rule over the entire period of 450 years. The mahals of Tiswadi, Bardez, Salcete and Mormugao were under them since the 16th century and the mahals of Ponda, Sanguem, Quepem, Canacona, Bicholim, Sattari and Pernem towards the end of the 18th century.

The Goan independence movement began in the late 19th century and gained momentum when the Portuguese monarchy collapsed in 1910. After India gained independence from the British, it cut off diplomatic ties with the Portuguese. The new Indian government actively pursued the cause of Goa’s independence, especially after a liberation march resulted in a number of deaths in 1955. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru finally ordered an invasion on 17 December 1961 and Goa was liberated bloodlessly within two days. Initial moves to assimilate the region into neighbouring states and to drop Konkani as the official regional language were resisted by Goans. Finally, in May 1987, Goa became India’s 25th state and Konkani was recognised as one of the country’s official languages. Goa is the only state to have a uniform civil code for all communities, which is a model and a legacy of the Portuguese rule.

With the sixties and the Vietnam war came the first draft resisting Americans. Goa, with its beautiful beaches and its peoples easy going tolerant ways quickly became a part of the hippie circuit. With the start of the chartered flights a different kind of tourism started. Goa entered the millennium with a burgeoning tourist industry. Today several heritage action groups have been pressing the government to conserve Goa’s cultural and natural heritage, which is under threat from rapid and unplanned over development and a large influx of people from other states.

Goa Arts and Crafts

Goa’s unique crafts as well as its contemporary works of art let us know that this holiday destination, unlike its popular lightweight image as a lot of merrymaking drinkers, is a state of substance, depth and a social fabric that serves as a model for others. In other words, a Goa of mettle.

All the many influences and the political turbulence has had a deep-seated effect on Goa’s culture and its economy. Various crafts and trades thrived and perished according to the immediate needs of its citizens under these various rulers. The economy was primarily agrarian between the 4th and the 10th centuries when the Kadambas ruled over Goa.

There was trading in gold, silver, paddy, cotton fabric, black pepper, perfumes and betel leaf. Crafts like smithy, weaving of yarn, brassware, bamboo-ware and jewellery flourished. Arab dhows bearing coconuts, dates, pepper, cardamom, cloves and other goods had kept coastal trade thriving since the 6th century. When the Portuguese arrived in Goa in the 16th century, Goa’s trade had extended as far as Mecca, Aden, Zanzibar and Ceylon.

Four and a half centuries under Portuguese domination has produced its own unique blend of cultural output that is uniquely Goan and yet carries forward influences from the Western world. Emigration to parts of British-India (Bombay, Karwar, Hubli, Belgaum) brought back into Goa social and cultural patterns from other parts of India in the early 20th century. All of Goa’s crafts-pottery, woodcraft, mother-of-pearl shell windows, fancy shellwork, canecraft, brassware, copperware, gold, silver and gunmetal jewellery, banana and pineapple fibreware, crochetwork, quilting, embroidery, papercraft, buildingcraft, mask making and boat-building-are a culmination of these influences. Goa’s village fairs, almost always linked to either a church or a temple in the village, become showcases for Goan craftspeople and their skills. The performing arts-zagor, dhalo, tonya mel, mussol khell, mando, phugdi, dekhni, morulem, ghode moddni, tiatr and khell tiatr-combine religious ideology and human vigour. They also provide an opportunity to Goan artists to showcase their costume making and designing skills. In addition to the traditional crafts, Goa has a whole new generation of fine artists and craftsmen and women who are making forays into the contemporary art scene. There are some great lifestyle stores and art galleries located in the villages on the beach that exhibit this talent.


The potter is Goa’s oldest craftsperson and pottery Goa’s oldest craft. Long before history was recorded, it was the Goan potter who provided the temple with clay lamps and cooking vessels. It was he who brought fresh supplies of eating, drinking and cooking vessels for mass meals. Freshly made clay vessels were considered pure by their very nature. They were fashioned out of earth, water and fire, three out of the five basic elements that support life. This gave the potter added status in Goan society.

Today’s potter fashions containers for planting ornamentals, clay idols of saints, gods and goddesses, tulsi vrindavans and fancy articles just as he or she continues to produce traditional containers and cooking vessels that are both functional and beautiful. Interestingly, while men may turn the potter’s wheel at any point of time in their working lives, the woman potter must be content with creating these beautiful objects by hand without the use of the wheel. You will also see her selling these articles at church and temple fairs all over Goa. A more permanent display of Goan pottery, however, may be found in the industrial estates at Bicholim in the north-eastern corner of the State. Studio potters produce contemporary choices at Porvorim and Penha de France.


Traditional Goan woodcraft was initially made up of low stools (patt) as seating, low beds and toys. This traditional Goan craft has few compatriots elsewhere in India. Dowry boxes in the unusual circular shape, low stools with traditional motifs of fertility (two parakeets) and cradles are some of the most popular of these articles. Visit the weekly market on a Friday at Mapusa to see wooden measures called puds or go to the village of Cuncolim in the south to watch the making of patts. The other pieces of Goan furniture are actually a culmination of Goa’s unique and hoary past. Almirahs inlaid with different woods (intarsia work) are milestones of the period when the Bahmanis and the Shahs from the Deccan ruled Goa. The chairs and tables, with intricately carved backs, armrests and feet, are a mixture of Japanese, Chinese and European influences that came with trading links with that part of the world. Ornamental legs and armrests probably helped highlight the status of the owners of these exquisite pieces of furniture for these were the portions that were visible when someone was sitting on them. Some of these pieces include the uniquely Goan six legged folding chair and the triangular chair that has been especially designed to fit into the corner of a room. Add to these the chests of drawers, chests especially designed for stamp and coin collections, filing cabinets, revolving bookcases and console tables in rosewood and teak. Look for the traditional marine and faunal symbols and motifs carved on these exquisite pieces of furniture and read a new meaning into Goa’s cultural and social history. While some have motifs inspired by various facets of the flora and fauna that Goa abounds in, some others are direct imports from China and Europe and still others Indianized versions of European designs. These pieces of furniture may be found in private homes, antique shops and restoration workshops in and around Mapusa in Bardez. The furniture seen on the highway is most often not made in Goa.

Mother-of-pearl shell windows

The use of the nacre of the mother-of-pearl shell to cover windows may have originally come to Goa from Gujarat via Bassein and Diu but it took Goan carpenters to perfect the art. Glass came to Goa as late as 1890 and remained an expensive building material well into the 20th century. The nacre of the mother-of-pearl shell was preferred over glass as it allowed for a subdued filtered light to come into rooms of a house while affording privacy. This gave windows in Goan homes a warm translucent look from the outside while cutting off glare on the inside. Superior quality timbers were often reserved for the erection of altars and fine pieces of furniture in Goan houses. The timber used for windows was inferior in comparison. The nacre of the mother-of-pearl, otherwise a waste material, was then cut into lozenge shapes and slid into wooden battens to give windows added value and beauty. The Goan craftsman today makes miniaturized replicas of these windows that can be used as picture frames or placed on walls to add a touch of interest. Lifestyle stores on the Baga Beach Strip stock these miniature replicas while full size windows may be commissioned in Bicholim, Morjim or Duler in Mapusa in the north. Mother-of-pearl shell windows are often made to measure on building sites but can also be custom-made to specification.


Shells have been used in the coastal state of Goa since time immemorial. Freshly harvested shells are soaked in water overnight to give a dazzling white sheen to whitewash houses. The nacre of the mother-of-pearl shell is fixed into wooden battens and used to cover windows. One cannot say when the demand for fancy articles in shell began in Goa. Fairy lights, table lamps, photo albums, wall hangings, planters and terracotta jars embellished with small shells make up most of the repertoire of these fancy items. All the handicrafts emporiums in Goa stock these articles. Look out for signs saying APARANT MAAND in all the Government Tourism Development Corporation hotels. There is one in every major town in the state and each one has the suffix Residency to its name.


Had it not been for the Goan basket weavers, Goan homes and lifestyles would have never been the way they were. There would never have been winnowing fans so strong that they are handed down from mother to daughter; baskets so well crafted that they can keep a commodity like salt dry through the monsoon; mats for sleeping upon at night and baskets for bread, for grain, for fish and for flowers. Goan basket weavers have specialized their craft to such a degree that there is a special basket for a specific use and each one has its own name in Konkani. There is one for carrying fish, another for carrying loaves of bread on a bicycle, a third for carrying vegetables to the market, one for transporting chickens and yet another for carrying harvested paddy. Coconuts, rice, flowers are often carried in baskets from field to temple or home and large baskets (patlos) are especially made for wedding banquets. Hand-held fans (aenom), winnowing fans (supa), fish traps and tree guards (virlem), mats and baskets become objects of beauty when crafted by Goan eyes and hands. Visit the weekly market at Mapusa on a Friday to see the complete range of canecraft in Goa.

Copper and brassware

Goa’s coppersmiths or kansars insist that they are the direct descendants of Sage Vishvakarma’s third son Tvashta, a man who is said to possess extraordinary skills. He is believed to have made exquisite copper vessels for the gods to drink from and is said to have handed the secrets of his techniques to his descendants. When gold and silver utensils replaced copperware in temples, Goan kansars turned to the domestic market. Copperware today includes large pots for boiling water (hando) and paddy and smaller vessels for cooking. The Goan hando is the most significant of all the vessels made by the Goan metal craftsman. It is designed to hold 10 kudos of rice and is gifted to Goan brides on their wedding day. This makes it more than just a functional object. It makes it an object that incorporates fine home values that a bride is expected to bring into her new home. The pot is made up of several components. The rim (kaat), the neck (gomti), the middle segment (deron) and the bottom segment (paun) are all carefully crafted and joined together in a system that is briefly described in Konkani as “datrey ghalap ani jodap” or “carving out teeth and then joining them together”.

Brass, an alloy of zinc and copper, offers us a repertoire of bells, plates and lamps from the workshops of the same kansars. In fact, the Goan kansar also makes the traditional green glass bangles that adorn every Goan bride thus adding ritualistic reason to beauty. What is interesting is that both Hindu and Catholic brides consult the almanacs for an auspicious date and time before they go to the coppersmith for the green glass bangles they will wear on their wedding day. One of the most important contributions made by the Goan blacksmith is indigenously made locks and keys. Door handles in shapes of the auspicious betel leaf (paan) and locks that take seven turns of the key are some of these contributions. Look for the coppersmiths in the suburb of Khorlim in Mapusa in the north and for blacksmiths and locksmiths in the heritage precinct of Fontainhas-Mala in the capital city of Panaji.

Gold, silver and platinum jewellery

Seven is an auspicious number in Goa. Verandah railings will often sport floral patterns with seven petals; a house with seven gables is considered lucky and a bride often makes a wish of living in a house with seven rooms. The Goan goldsmith fashions a complex ring that is made up of seven thin rings bound with a clip for a Goan bride. He also fashions an ornament with seven bangles bound together with a clip. Flowers also play an important role in Goan culture. While natural flowers (abolim, shevtim, zoyo, zayo) complimented beautiful hairstyles, the wealthy adorned their hair with floral clips and hair ornaments made in gold.

Surprisingly, silver is never seen as a metal of adornment for men and women in Goa.

Silver in Goa is most often seen as altars or prabhavallis in domestic temples or as tableware. Low stools, called patts, are embossed in silver with traditional floral motifs and patterns to add aesthetic appeal to a functional object. While silver is never a favoured metal for personal jewellery in Goa, a set made in marcazitas (gunmetal studded with silver, gold or diamonds) is often considered mandatory for a Goan Catholic bride on her engagement or wedding day. Aventurina is a sandstone piece made into a rectangular tube that is fashioned into earrings and necklaces. The green malachite is also quite popular. Cameos portraying human figurines in ivory and gold filigree work are also made. Coral is also fashioned into rose petal shaped rings, earrings and pendants. Jewellery shops in all the major towns offer a wide range of these delightful pieces of jewellery. For large silver articles, however, you would have to go to the specialized silversmiths in Mapusa in the north.

Fruit fibreware

The banana is not just an inherent part of the Goan diet but also assumes ritualistic importance as the long plantain from a village named Moira in North Goa is considered Lord Ganesh’s favourite fruit. The banana plant also symbolic of fertility, prosperity and wealth and almost every home in Goa will have a banana plant in its backyard. Apart from its contribution to Goa’s culinary skills, banana and pineapple plant fibres are traditionally used to string flowers into garlands (sheetals) while modern-day artisans are turning the banana fibre into a material to fashion tableware. For plates, bowls and platters in this environmentally friendly material, visit the workshop in Betim village on the banks of the river Mandovi.


One of Goa’s most endearing crafts is the art of weaving flowers and floral wreaths into decorations for temples and churches. Grand temples assume an ethereal quality when floral decorations change every night for the nine ritual nights of Navratri preceding the martial festival of Dussero. For the finest decorations of all, visit the Mahalsa temple at Mardol for the zayam puja when decorations exclusively made from star-like jasmines (zayos) adorn the temple in the most ingenious ways.

Crochet and Patchwork Quilts

The fine needlework craft of crotchet and lace was probably introduced into Goa from Europe and other parts of India simultaneously. Simple fine white cotton thread is fashioned into runners, tablecloths, bed covers and tray covers under skilled hands. Housewives carry out this craft in the sanctity of their homes all over Goa but organized self-help centers have also sprung up in the villages of St. Cruz, Mayem, Navelim, Pernem and Shiroda.

Almost every home in Goa has a tradition of fashioning quilts from patches of fabric and almost every Goan holds great sentimental value for his or her own personal quilt. These quilts (gojdi or kapyale) are sometimes handed down from one generation to the next and often make customary gifts for a new baby in the family.


Rice and sugar were once imported into Goa from the neighbouring areas in sacks made from jute. Once used, the jute sacks were used to partition rooms or put to some other functional use. Rural women in Goa are taking to making contemporary articles out of jute as part of the general revival of this fibre.


Rice and coconut has been the mainstay of Goa’s economy long before records of history. Palm fronds have served as traditional festive decorations since time immemorial. The trunk of the coconut palm is hollowed out to make traditional boats and outriggers. The whole trunks are also used to function as beams (vashem) that support roofs. The coconut fibre is used to make highly efficient brooms (sallni) and ropes. The coconut shell also has many innovative uses, the most popular being the davlo or spoon. The shell is also processed and made into a container in which the ubiquitous cocum kodi (a delightful mixture of Indian jujubes, coconut milk and red chillies) is made. The shell was first introduced as an innovative design material by Goa’s best known fashion designers and has caught the imagination of modern-day craftspeople ever since. Funky fashion jewellery, candle stands, masks carved on coconut shells and animal figures fashioned out of outer husks have added a new dimension to this erstwhile kitchen waste. There are some fine coconut craftsmen in Pernem in the north.


There was a time when Goa imported blue tiles, called azulejos, from Portugal to decorate homes and foyers of official buildings. Hand painted tiles and tiles as replicas of the charming windows from Goan houses are now a major indigenous craft. While the hand painted tiles are simpler to execute (unfired tiles called “biscuits” are hand painted and then fired), the replicas of Goan windows are a little more complex. Clay is shot through a pinhole into vacuum moulds and compressed until it sets. It is then prised apart and the tile finished, hand painted and then fired. Each mould has a life of about 100 tiles and it is the imperfection of the hand painting that gives each tile its exclusivity. The elaborate ornamentation that you see on these windows may have their origins in Portugal where each window was rendered artistically so sailors could recognize their homes from a distance as they sailed home from long and hard voyages, the windows in Goa are executed by Goan craftsmen for Goan houseowners and have a style of their own. One side of this Crafts Map of Goa has been designed as a tribute to this indigenous adaptation with tiles hand painted by artists and produced by local entrepreneurs in Panaji and Margão.


There was a time in Goa when the entire region woke up to the sound of the swishing of mats as people aired them after a restful night. Hard wood furniture has replaced their use in Goa today but there are still a few places where these mats are made. Reed rushes are picked, sun-dried and then woven into simple sheets that can be rolled up when they are not required. This gives householders the flexibility of using the rooms in their homes as multi-functional spaces, a benefit that hard wood furniture denies. Mats may be found in the Mapusa market on Fridays or in the remote village of Mavlinge in Bicholim.


This craft, of making intricate buntings, lamps and decorations from thin strips of coloured “kite” paper is one of Goa’s finest crafts. Entire canopies can be fashioned out of these simple decorations that have become symbolic of community vigour and team spirit. What is interesting is that these paper intricacies begin very simply with triangles or thin strips of coloured paper and then go on to becoming highly complex decorations that provide shade during the day and coloured filters during the night. Every village in Goa has a team of young men and women who serve as paper craftsmen and women on a festive occasion but the villages of Aldona and Moira in the north appear to have the most professional of these craftspeople.


Goan domestic architecture is unique to the world. Most of the houses that we see as part of our legacy can be dated to the middle of the 18th century. Typically, they have a sopo or a balcão in the central axis of their front facades and reception rooms in the front with dining areas and service areas delineated towards the rear. High plinths and long stairways often complete a picture of mystery and charm. Windows and openings fronting the road are often quick clues that give away the age of a Goan house. The older the house is, the fewer there are windows facing the road. The more ornamental the window facing the road, the more “outward-looking” is the house and householder. The flooring in a traditional Goan houses varies from being made in stucco plaster imported from Germany in the 19th century to tiles from France in the early 20th century. Cowdung flooring was, however, the preferred flooring material in the functional areas of a large home and mud and rammed earth were the chosen materials for flooring in the more modest homes.

Mosaic work

The art of making china mosaic floors first began when crockery from Macau came on ships as ballast and was smashed and discarded on Goan shores. Instead of allowing this china to go waste, the Goan mason used his skills to lay floors in Goan homes in intricate and beautiful patterns. While white tiles formed the backdrop for these floors, coloured tiles and crocks from blue Macau pottery were saved for intricate patterns. Most of these patterns were floral and decorative in nature but there were a few meaningful patterns in that they reflected the homeowner’s taste, his travel experiences and his personal wealth. Hence, if the homeowner had accumulated all his personal wealth in East Africa, his floors would reflect this in the pattern of the Secretary bird or a zebra that is native to that land. The fashion spread to other parts of the country in the 20th century and to Bombay (Mumbai) in particular but the techniques and skills remain essentially Goan. It is a craft that is essentially ethnic and encompasses Goa’s cultural and social history in a nutshell. It tells a story of trade and economy across the seas, the history of Goa’s colonization by the Portuguese and is also a symbol of how thrift and economy were part of the Goan householder’s philosophy of life over centuries. It is also reflective of how a waste product has been put to use by the ingenuity of the Goan master builder to create a skill that can be exported throughout the country.


The other contribution of the Goan mason to architectural crafts is the fashioning of finials (ornaments that sit on top of roofs or gateposts) out of stone or clay for gateposts. Traditionally, these finials have been in the shape of lemon balls, soldiers, roosters, dogs and lions. While most of these are renderings of popular images, the lions are a definite hangover from the official emblem of the Kadambas.


One other craft that is dated to Goa’s pre-colonial past is the art of graffito. Graffito is the art of rendering a design on the wall using a highly specialized technique. The wall surface is plastered in lime as usual and then a design scratched out with the help of a charcoal stick or a thin brush made from the hair of a wild boar. The design is then dug out and the hollow portions filled in with a paste made with red oxide and lime. The whole rendering is then polished over with fine muslin or a wooden spatula. This art originates in the temples of Goa from where it has travelled to homes where it is rendered in sanctified spots of the house. It is to the Goan craftsman’s credit that when new churches and chapels were built in the 16th century, this craft was kept alive and modified into designs that suited these buildings. It was, in a way, the Goan craftsman’s way of honouring a new religion in his land with the same respect that he would accord his own.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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