There’s a small corner of India where it’s not weird to chow down on chorizo and down it with a glass of port – where church steeples tower over town and the body of dead a 16th century catholic saint sits unmolested on display for all to see.
They call this tiny enclave Goa.
Goa was not officially admitted to Indian statehood until 1987. It wasn’t even part of independent India until 1961. A Portuguese colony long after India’s colonial days ended, Goa is beguiling, fiercely independent, and 100% unique.
This Portuguese enclave is the smallest state in India. It’s also the richest and most developed with the highest quality of life. The per capita income in Goa is a staggering two and a half times that of the country as a whole.
Christianity is said to have arrived in South India in 52 AD with Thomas the Apostle. It’s widely believed that Christianity spread in India even before it spread to many Christian nations of Europe. Some theories even hold that Jesus Christ traveled to Kashmir in present day India after crucifixion along with Mother Mary and studied Hinduism and Buddhism before being entombed.
Today, Christianity is India’s third-largest religion with roughly 24 million followers. Many of them live in the southern states like Goa.
Indians are a devout people, no matter the religion. Just like the fanatical Hinduism of the north, many in southern states like Kerala and Goa are passionate about their Christian faith.
Christianity really took root in Goa with the arrival of Vasco de Gama in 1498 when the Portuguese Goan Inquisition brought repression and brutality in the name of religion, introducing Catholicism to the subcontinent.
In the 1500s, Old Goa had a population exceeding that of Lisbon and London and was able to stand up and demand real authority in the European-Catholic community. However, the good times did not last long – the Inquisition and a major epidemic saw to that, decimating this decadent dropping of Portugal.
Though the Portuguese are no longer in control, their influence remains not only in the food, but in the landscaped gardens and palm-encased villas of Margao and Panjim:
A few years back, I entered into the damp basement of an old building in New York’s posh Upper East Side neighborhood for a gathering of Indian families. My friend and I were invited to celebrate a mysterious Hindu holiday called Holi.
We were the only white guests at the event, but our skin would not remain so for long. Unbeknownst to us, Holi was the festival of colors – a festival that involved the hurling of neon powder until every human was tie-dyed into a spirograph.
I wore a black coat that day – a coat that would never quite recover from the event. I left the party looking like a clown that accidentally wandered into a paintball arena, vowing that if I ever made it to India, it would be for Holi.
Somewhere in the neon haze of that day in New York, I forgot one key fact: Holi is a Hindu holiday. So when Holi approached and I found myself in Goa — the heart of Christian India — I went into panic mode.
Searching Google at the Internet café, the words “Holi” and “Goa” returned little results. Every blogger recommended staying in Northern India for Holi – anywhere, they said, but Christian Goa.
Yet, when I arrived at Goa’s Agonda Beach and saw specks of neon powder on the road, I realized something I knew deep inside all along: no Indian would ever let a holiday go by without celebrating, regardless of where in the country he may live.
In southern Christian states like Goa, Holi is celebrated within the greater festivities of Shigmo – a holiday heralding the arrival of spring. As such, the celebration lasts a fortnight and powder flies day in and day out until the festival ends.
Many guesthouses along the popular tourist beaches of Goa threw Shigmo parties, but to me, it seemed like an excuse for Indian men to “decorate” Western women with neon powder. I wasn’t after this sort of Holi celebration, so I rented a motorbike and drove out into the countryside on the proper day of the Hindu Holi looking for a celebration. I found it in the picturesque riverside community of Betul.
Hugging the Sal River estuary, the small, homespun village of Betul was the quintessential image of serene, rural Goa. A towering pastel church signaled my arrival in town and the palm-lined main street beckoned me in.
Far from the throngs of bespeckled tourists, I arrived in Betul just in time for the festivities. I first encountered the women of the town celebrating separately from the men. Having sufficiently painted each other with powder, the girls rinsed off — fully clothed — in the middle of the street, giggling as they doused each other with water.
I felt a tad out of place at the girls’ party so I ventured further into town and found the men, quickly realizing why the women kept their distance. The men pounded on drums and danced in circles around the center of town, flinging powder as they marched.
Bare-chested men of all ages formed a mosh pit as the girls slowly edged in on the periphery.
The chanting grew louder, the men grew wilder, and colored particles erupted from the volcano of human activity until the entire pack of wound-up neon revelers marched straight to the river and dove in.
It was nothing like the Holi in the Upper East Side basement. Nothing like the Holi on the tourist beach. This was the Holi I came to India to find.