Amitav Ghosh on Goa

Some musings here about the liberation of Goa from Portugese rule by India:

But the interaction between Portugal and India also produced vibrant cultural hybrids in architecture, music and food. Among the state’s most famous dishes is the spicy vindaloo, a curry whose name is thought to be a contraction of the Portuguese phrase “vinho de alho,” or garlic wine. Besides, as Mr. deSouza pointed out, Goa was where the influence of the Enlightenment and the Renaissance in Europe was felt much before it reached other parts of India. As a result, the practice of sati – or widows immolating themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres – was abolished in Goa 200 years before the British banned it in the rest of India. [Naresh Fernandes]

And on Portugese language, 50 years after the Portugese were sent back to Portugal:

The popular history of the Portuguese period in Goa has largely been restricted to the gory tales of the initial conquest of the island of Goa, of the Inquisition, and the dramatization of the anti-colonial episodes in the territory’s history. To a large extent, this nationalist history dissuades Hindus from subaltern castes from studying the language. This has ensured that it is solely dominant-caste narratives that are incorporated into the histories of the territory, preventing alternative and liberatory narratives to emerge from a re-reading of the texts and narratives of the period of Portuguese sovereignty over the territory.  It is little known for example, that the knowledge of Portuguese is critical to the bahujan challenge to Hindu upper-caste groups’ monopolistic control of the Goan temples. This monopolistic control of the temples was forged in particular through these latter groups’ knowledge of Portuguese. [Jason Keith Fernandes]

7 thoughts on “Amitav Ghosh on Goa”

  1. Somehow how feel that the excerpts you quoting themselves seem to be in favour of a rather airbrushed historical treatment of Portuguese occupation. One has to keep in mind that the Portuguese were occupiers who neglected all popular demands of a peaceful retreat and had to be forcibly evicted.


  2. The pernicious myth of “British banning the Sati” also has to be checked. Much before the British, Akbar, Humayun, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb had all outlawed Sati in one form or the other. Guru Nanak had also spoken against it. Also, the British ban of it had a lot to do with the work of Raja Ram Mohan Rai. The European Enlightenment, great as it was, cannot be allowed to take credit away from these reformers.


  3. do you guys do any fact checking before writing all this stuff? no one in goa under 70 speaks portuguese any more.

    the structures of the well-known hindu temples are built around certain custodian families. these are all hindu saraswat brahmins who had the temples built centuries ago, but i don’t know what the portuguese language has to do with it.

    still, one musn’t let facts get in the way of a dubious story.

    why do leftists always end up on the side of the racist, colonial power?


    1. Dear Ramakant,

      If one went to the classes held by the Instituto Camoes in Panjim, and the Chowgule College in Margao, one would see that there are numerous younger people, below the age of 70, from varying backgrounds learning Portuguese.

      The structures of the well known Hindu temples in Goa, are not different from the claims of dominant caste group over temples in locations in other parts of India. One has to only engage in a deeper reading of the structure of the Hindu temple, and the South Asian village, to see that the situation in Goa is the result of the manner in which local elites represented the situation to the Portuguese administration. The Portuguese language is critical because the larger edifice on which a communal property (land) is claimed as private is rooted in interpretations of Portuguese law, and histories recorded, or not recorded, in the Portuguese language. I personally find extremely interesting the situation where the ‘uniqueness’ that is claimed by Lusofilic Goans is derided, when the uniqueness claimed by such institutions as the ‘well-known Hindu temples’ on the basis of Portuguese history are held as sacrosanct.

      What is dubious in fact is the story (or myths) of Goa that has been repeated ad nauseum for years now. It is time to challenge that reading, precisely by posing facts and asking questions. Once we do this, these myths such as villages being founded by a small group of families, and the temple being the trust property of these families, comes crashing down, just as it does (or did) in other parts of India.

      Finally, your last statement is surprising since it seems that you suggest that the colonial period was uniformly dark? and challenging the nationalist narrative (which in the Goan context is deeply inflected by caste narratives) is to side with the former colonizers? My own reflections that have been referred to in this Kafila post, indicated that our concern with Portuguese has less to do with the Portuguese than with our own internal democratic project.


  4. Fernandes:

    I have nothing against Portuguese as a language and in fact find it a very beautiful one – as ornate and sonorous as its sister Spanish and with the somewhat metallic sounds of the latter softened most agreeably.

    Portuguese is lovely, like Hindi and Sanskrit and Malayalam and Russian and French and, at times, even bloody old grunting English.

    But what exactly are you getting at in trying to run down Hinduism in favour of Portuguese colonialism? Portugal can hardly claim to have been an advanced nation for centuries. It used to be said about it that it was the land of the three Ps: Police, Prostitution and Poverty.

    It was for very long the outpost of fascism in Europe, a by-word for collaboration with all that was Catholic and spitefully reactionary.

    Harping on caste as an excuse to attack other religions won’t do. If Hindus have caste it is up to them to reform it, not to go to the Portuguese for salvation. Because cholera is bad you don’t have to praise syphillis.

    Western countries like Portugal in any case have their own deeply and growingly unequal societies. They call it class but like caste the poor are excluded just the same.

    Stop whitewashing colonialism, will you?


  5. To a large extent, this nationalist history dissuades Hindus from subaltern castes from studying the language.


    This is not even remotely convincing. If you want an explanation for why Portuguese is not attractive as a subject of study in today’s Goa, there is a much simpler one: studying Portuguese does not enhance one’s job market skills in today’s India, or for that matter, today’s world.

    Perhaps if — as Amitav Ghosh suggests — Portugal had granted Goa independence in the 1950s, then Portuguese might well have become the “official” language of Goa as it did in Angola and Mozambique. That would automatically have led Goans to study the language. For various reasons, that did not happen.

    At any rate, if you think “nationalist history” is the reason for the lack of interest in Portuguese, then what explains the continued growth of English? Are you suggesting that “nationalist history” paints the British raj in a favourable light?

    You make a good case that Portuguese should be studied more in Goa, if only to understand her past and present travails better. But there is no need to invent artificial villains.


  6. Interesting this debate and the attempt to look at the colonial influence from a new
    light, aided by the resources now available to historians, sociologues and anthpologues at
    the archives in Lisbon, Coimbra, Paris, etc I wish similar approaches in historiography be
    undertaken in the cases of ex-French territories, i.e., Pondicherry, Mahe, Karaikkal, etc. In
    any case, the impact made by the Portuguese on the then Goan population and by the French on the local society is qualitatively different from that made by the British on the rest of India. Of course, the religion and politics at home (that is in continental Europe) of
    that period did influence the colonial administration. But along with the despicable arrived
    also the desirable elements which interacted with Indian thinking and traditions. We don’t
    have to feel jittery if the high caste families monopolised the temple and temple property
    and to legally maintain their sway they realized the importance of the colonisers’ lingua.
    But then thru this process unwittingly certain elements of the Latin culture/Latin lifestyle
    and the values associated with it came to stay. That is what made, even makes today., Goa
    and Pondicherry look defferent while remaining an integral part of the millenial Bharat!!
    Inasu Thalak/Poet Writer/ Paris.


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