Survivors of Time – Goa and its mansions

Portuguese colonial influence has left Goa with its magnificent churches, tenacious forts, exquisitely built expansive laterite-stone houses and other cenotaphs strewn across the state serving as historical remnants of its culturally rich past. While the landmark forts and churches have long become tourist attractions, the grand old mansions and houses built centuries ago are still being preserved in pockets in Goa’s villages. Some of these houses are painstakingly restored after having fallen into destruction owing to natural causes. There are also relatively lesser known forts along the length and breadth of the state with little or no tourist footfall throughout the year.

Entrance to Cabo De Rama

One such mansion, Palácio do Deão, sits resolutely in its reclaimed glory by the Kushavati River in the town of Quepem, unperturbed by the hubbub of Goa’s tourist mayhem. Built in 1787 by a Portuguese nobleman who is also credited with the founding of the town of Quepem, the mansion is meticulously restored by Ruben and Celia Vasco da Gama, who also accepts visitors and conducts guided tours of the house along with a lavish lunch buffet of Indo-Portuguese cuisine prepared by Celia and served in a dining hall with ornate seating, overlooking the river.

Ruben walks us through the house explaining the displays – he shows us the oyster shell windows, the primitive mobile toilet, the restored domestic relics including iron boxes, mirrors, closets, utensils and antique furniture. The house also has a library with rare books, an eating area (where we were served lunch) and space were cultural events were held. The house features an architecture which is a combination of Hindu and Portuguese cultures, Ruben adds. The garden at Palácio do Deão is an ornate garden with beautiful display of terracotta figurines, stone ornaments, balustrades and ornamental vases.

We end our tour with a multi-course dinner preceded by a cocktail made with locally available ingredients – kokum syrup and feni. The lunch consisted of quintessential Goan specialties with delicacies like prawn curry and chicken vindaloo with a smattering of items borrowed from fusion cuisine such as batter fried prawn dumplings, squid canapés, ending with homemade bebinca – layered egg-yolk pudding popular in Goa.

It was past meal time in the afternoon when we reached our next stop, the Menezes Braganza house in the tiny village of Chandor in South Goa. Understandably, the minder of the house a middle-aged woman, named Judith, has retired for a siesta. Goan takes their siestas seriously, more so in villages where the sun-induced stupor necessitates the practice. The resident maid, however, agreed to take us around elaborating that ‘madam instructs me to show around when there are visitors during lunchtime.’ Built about 400 years ago on a land donated by the king of Portugal, the Braganza house is exquisite with its ornate furniture, long passageway that overlooks a garden, elaborate chandeliers, painting, family portraits and other artifacts.

According to family legend and the minder Judith who later came to explain us the details of the house, the house was divided into two halves with two sisters occupying each half after inheriting the property. Entry is through a huge Portuguese style outer façade with dramatically large stairs leading to the houses. Each house has a separate plaque with names Braganza Pereira (East wing) and Menezes Branganza (west wing) and entry is through respective doors. Judith tells us how the family is scattered all over now – other parts of Goa and Bangalore.

The family gathers on festive occasions, rarely with Judith maintaining the house throughout the year. Though the garden looks like it could do with some pruning, the palatial mansion is well-kept and is a living, albeit crumbling, piece of history from the Portuguese era. As we walked around, gazing at the sagging ceiling, flamboyant entryways, wooden furniture and elegant china, the amorphousness of the living and the dying becomes evident. One part of the house is also a kitchen where Judith gets her meals served, evident by the din of the fridge and the dining table with steel utensils on it.

The drive to the Cabo De Rama takes one through vast expanse of sunburned grasslands dried and golden brown alternating between undulating roads hugged by cashew trees on both sides. There is no traffic as far as eyes can see and the signboard to take diversion to the fort from the road to Agonda is inconspicuous. We fill up on oranges and bananas sold by vendors on a deserted roadside who also sell the other staple, Omlete Pav.

Cabo De Rama has the distinction of being one of the oldest forts in Goa and has witnessed bloody history for having changed hands from Hindu rulers to Mughals to the Portuguese. The Portuguese captured the fort in the 1700s and renovated it by building a chapel and barracks. The fort now lies in a state of abandon but it was used as a prison till mid 1950s. After the Indian government annexed Goa in Operation Vijay, the fort became part of republic India. For a fort of historical significance, Cabo De Rama is desolate and wears the symbol of having been left in the lurch. The church of Santo Antonio, however, is in use even now.

The entrance, the guardhouse, has been recently painted and the view of the fort from either side is spectacular. Though it requires negotiating sharp rocks, the sparse tourists that visit the fort attempt to get down to the rocky sea side on the western side to take in on the breathtaking views from close. We head out and finish our lunch at the sea facing beach shack, perched on laterite stone, served by its pleasant, chip-toothed owner Morano.

We spend the sundown at the Reis Magos fort that squats alongside the Reis Magos Church on the Mandovi River on the other side to Panjim. Though the fort is conspicuous from Panjim, it is largely overlooked by the tourists, who flock its famed counterparts Fort Aguada instead. When we visited, a Punjabi wedding was being held with celebrities like Ritu Beri in attendance. The fort is reclaimed and the walls and pathways built with laterite stones, Portuguese style turrets and the prison cells are beautifully preserved. And with its large French windows offering stunning views of the sea and the sunset itself, there was never a moment of lament for having traveled down the beaten path abandoning the beaches and their shacks to the crowd.

This appeared in The Hindu and can be accessed here.

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