Its first mention dates back to as early as the Puranas, a compendium of historical, philosophical and mythological texts, dated 3rd century AD. From the 3rd till the end of 13th century, several Hindu dynasties such as Satavahanas, Chalukyas of Badami and Kalyani, Silharas, Kadambas, and Yadavas ruled Goa.
With the Zuari and Mandovi rivers flowing to its south and north, the sea on the west, Sahyadris to the east, and the Banastarim creek forming a formidable natural moat, Goa, then called Govapuri, was thought to be an impregnable natural fortress. One man’s ambition and seafaring skill tested the unassailability of Goa’s bastion.
In the 1340s, Ibn Battuta, a traveller from Mohammad Bin Tughlaq’s court attacked Goa from the sea. Victory was quick, and this first foreign presence lasted almost half a century. It was with the help of the Vijayanagara King Harihara II that the Mughals were ousted out of power in 1378. For nearly a century after this, Goa was at the pinnacle of its economic and political glory. The economics were driven by the Vijayanagara empire. The wars of the empire needed horses. The horses were traded from Ormuz, the Arab port, to Goan ports and brought in a staggering income of 10,000 pounds, which today would be about 8 lakh rupees - not a mean sum.
As if on a see-saw, after this long, prosperous period, Goa changed hands and became a Muslim kingdom again. This time, in 1472, the Bahamanis from Bidar took Goa, and it was governed by Adil Shah of Bijapur, until the Portuguese advent. It is one of history’s quirks: Vasco da Gama is synonymous with Goa and yet, although he was the first to set foot on the shores of Goa in 1510, he played no part in the fascinating sequence of events that led to the Portuguese conquest. Vasco came as the head of an expedition that Portugal had sponsored in an effort to reclaim lost glory, having turned down Christopher Columbus’s planned expedition to India.
The Portuguese intent was always trade; Vasco’s ships were laden with pepper when he headed back home. On one of the voyages that followed, the Portuguese sent Alfonso de Albuquerque, the head of a cavalry regiment, on a fact-finding trip to India, which would help them evolve a strategy to control trade. This determined man came up with a clear, if mad, plan: to seize the Arab ports, using the riches amassed from India. So, in 1506, when Alfonso de Albuquerque set out on his second expedition, his objective was simple: to control the sea route to India. Three years later, 20 ships limped to Cochin. Two hundred men had died, the rest were ill, food had run out. Albuquerque decided to rest at Andajiv Island, near Sadashivgad. This innocuous act becomes the defining moment of Goan history. It is here that Timmaya, the Portuguese regent in Goa (self-appointed, but blessed by Vasco da Gama) approached him as a spokesperson for Goa, assuring him that there would be no resistance if the Portuguese were to take Goa as the locals were sick of bad administration and extortion, and that there were no troops on the island.
It encouraged Albuquerque to march into Goa in March 1510, and the Bijapur Sultans, belatedly enraged, sent an army of 20,000.
Marooned on the Mandovi, Albuquerque decided to go to Andajiv Island and - again, that curious twist of fate - much to his surprise he encountered four Portuguese warships, sent to take over Mallaca. He struck a deal with Diego Mendes, the man in charge. Mendes would help Albuquerque take Goa, and he, in turn, was to help conquer the Arab ports.
After a battle of four days with a diminished army (most of the Sultan’s army had retreated with the onset of monsoon), Albuquerque re-entered Goa in November 1510. This time, more permanently.
It was in those days that Goa acquired a reputation that still survives: a good place to have fun. The Portuguese looked at Goa as an easy posting. There was not much to do, and the economics were staggering: Viceroys were paid 14,000 pounds a year, 300,000 in bribes, gifts and sales of offices. In a year, Goa saw 300 ships ply, and the profit from one ship was 100, 000 pounds.
One of the tangential benefits of this booming trade was that Goans were the first Indians to travel overseas. They travelled to Portugal and other parts of Europe. Goa was home to several other firsts. In 1556, the first printing press in India was started, and much earlier, the first ever hospital. In 1616, the Bible was printed in Marathi. It was the work of Father Thomas, a British missionary, who, in his work, borrowed from Hindu and Konkani folklore. His mastery over language, imagery and poetry is unrivalled even today. The first grammar of Konkani was published in Portuguese.
The Portuguese supremacy remained largely uncontested until the 1600s, when the Marathas (both Shivaji and Sambhaji) took two-thirds of Portuguese territory, and Goa might as well have been theirs. The Portuguese rule had an unlikely saviour: Aurangzeb – the sixth, and last of the great Mughals. He extended Mughal territory considerably, and ruled over the largest part of India for over 40 years.
St Francis Xavier's Coffin
There is a quintessentially endearing tale of the Portuguese inability to deal with the Marathas. In 1683, in response to Sambhaji’s approach into Salcete in South Goa, Conde de Alvor opened Francis Xavier’s coffin, placed his baton, proclaimed him Viceroy and asked him to save Goa. His prayers were heard. The Marathas had to leave Goa - they headed back to defend home ground against Aurangzeb, who had launched an attack on their territory. The Marathas lost to the Mughals only in 1761, and that was the start of the uninterrupted Portuguese rule of 450 years.
In 1948, the Portugese came under increasing pressure to cede Goa to India. In 1955, Indian freedom fighters attempted to enter Goa. The Portugese deported the first few, and when larger numbers tried, used force to repel them. After this, the state was blockaded, trade with Bombay ceased, and the railway was cut off. So Goa set out to forge international links, particularly with Pakistan and Sri Lanka. That led to the building of Dabolim Airport. Efforts of freedom fighters such as Menezes Braganza and D’cunha ensured that the struggle continued. In 1961, the Indian army was sent in. Operation Vijay, as it was called, met with only token resistance, and the Indian Army overran Goa in two days. Thereafter, Goa, along with Portugal’s other two enclaves, Daman and Diu, became part of India as a self-governing Union Territory and a State in 1987.
It has been an oasis ever since, showing no signs of its historical ravages. This tiny coastal settlement has effortlessly imbibed assorted Hindu influences (both Carnatic and Marathi), Islamic imports, Portuguese fetishes and pan-Indian likes to become that indescribably warm feeling that is Goa.
Text: Savita Rao