Goa has been through a dizzying array of rulers from Ashoka’s Mauryan empire in the 3rd century BC to the long-ruling Kadambas from the 3rd century AD, and the Hindu Vijayanagar empire to the Adil Shahs of Bijapur in the 15th century. But it was the arrival of the Portuguese in 1510 that changed the course of Goan history, religion and culture forever. Their 450-year reign only came to an end in 1961 when they were kicked out by the Indian Army.
According to Hindu legend, Goa was created by Parasurama, the sixth incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, who shot an arrow into the Arabian Sea and commanded the tide to retreat, to create a peaceful spot for his Brahmin caste to live.
A trip out into the Goan hinterland, however, to the riverside rock carvings of Usgalimal offers an alternative picture of the first Goans, hunter-gatherer tribes who inhabited the hinterland sometime between 100,000 BC and 10,000 BC. No one really knows where they originally came from; some believe they were migrants from Africa, others that they hailed from eastern Asia, or were a northern tribe forced southwards by instability in their homeland.
In the 3rd century BC Goa became part of the mighty Buddhist Mauryan empire. Ashoka, probably the greatest Mauryan emperor, sent a Buddhist missionary to convert the locals; the monk set up shop in a rock-cut cave near modern-day Zambaulim, preaching nonviolence and urging the tribes to give up their nasty habit of blood sacrifice. Though he had some success, introducing the plough and spreading literacy, his liturgy fell largely on deaf ears, and following the rapid demise of the Mauryans after the death of Ashoka in 232 BC, Goa turned to Hinduism, commingled with its old tribal practices.
The next seven centuries saw Goa ruled from afar by a succession of powerful Hindu trading dynasties, which sent Goan goods and spices to Africa, the Middle East and Rome. However, continued wrangling between these dynasties offered the opportunity for a homespun dynasty to quietly emerge: in AD 420 the local Kadamba clan declared independence, and created their very own ‘royal family’.
Under the Kadamba royal family, Goa finally had some stability. By the late 6th century, the Kadambas had found their stride, and in contrast with what was to come, the Kadamba rule was a period of tolerance. Muslim merchants from Arabia and East Africa were encouraged to settle, Hindu temples were constructed statewide and prestigious academic institutions were inaugurated.
Yet, like all good things, it was not to last. The success of the Kadambas signalled their own downfall, as Muslim Bahmani sultans from the Deccan in South India, keen on getting their hands on Kadamba wealth, began pouring into Goa from the 10th century onwards. Today, the sole Kadamba structure to survive the troubled years to follow is the melancholy Tambdi Surla Mahadeva temple, saved from a grisly fate only by its remote jungle location.
In 1352 the Bahmanis triumphed, and years of religious tolerance were brought to an abrupt and painful end. The new rulers immediately set about a harsh regime of Hindu persecution, destroying the grand Kadamba temples and killing their priests. They reigned intermittently, ousted by rival kingdoms from time to time, until the late 1400s, when a force far bigger than their own was to sail merrily over the horizon.
In 1498 Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese sea captain, landed south of Goa at Calicut (present-day Kozhikode) on the Malabar Coast, ‘seeking Christians and spices’, with a view to superseding the Arab monopoly of the overland spice trade. He didn’t have much luck finding Christians, but there were certainly spices in abundance.
However, it was to take 50 years of Muslim-Christian fighting before Portugal was able to claim those spices as its own, establishing firm territorial borders in Goa – now known as the Velhas Conquistas (Old Conquests) – that stretched from Chapora Fort in the north to Cabo da Rama Fort in the south.
Goan House of Horrors
Of all Portugal’s alleged abuses of its Goan subjects, the terrors to which the population was subjected to under the iron rule of the Inquisition – also known as the Holy Office or Santo Officio – were undoubtedly the worst.
The Inquisition was dispatched to Goa on royal command, originally conceived to target ‘New Christians’ (Cristianos Nuevos), the forcibly converted Jews and Muslims of Portugal who had fled to the country’s colonies and ‘lapsed’ back to their original faiths. By the time the Inquisition arrived, life was already becoming increasingly difficult for the region’s Hindus, who for some years had been enduring a slowly eroding official tolerance to their faith. Idols had already been banned, temples closed and priests banished. Now, with the arrival of the Inquisitors, matters went from bad to worse: refusing to eat pork became a crime punishable by imprisonment, as was possession of turmeric, incense and other items used in traditional Hindu worship.
Though the genuinely louche and licentious Portuguese gentry were generally above the law, the lower, indigenous classes soon found themselves at risk of imprisonment in the fearsome dungeons of the Palace of the Inquisition, the Orlem Ghor (big house) of Old Goa, with tortures such as the rack, flesh-eroding quicklime, burning sulphur and thumbscrews awaiting their arrival.
Once a ‘confession’ of heresy had been extracted, the prisoner then languished in a windowless cell, awaiting one of the Inquisition’s famous autos-da-fé (trials of faith). During these morbidly theatrical ‘trials’, dozens of prisoners, dressed in tall mitres and robes emblazoned with macabre images of human beings engulfed in flames, would be marched across the city of Old Goa, from the Palace of the Inquisition to the Church of St Francis of Assisi, amid crowds of onlookers and to the solemn tolling of the Sé Cathedral bell.
Inside the church, following a lengthy sermon, the judgements were read to the accused.
The luckiest ones were to endure slavery abroad. Victims who refused to recant their ‘heresy’ were usually burned at the stake; those willing to admit to it were thoughtfully strangled before the pyre was lit.
In the period between 1560 and 1774 (after which records become sketchy) a total of 16,176 people were arrested by the Inquisition, mostly Hindus, though more than two-thirds of those burned alive were Jews who had been forcibly converted as Cristianos Nuevos. In 1814 the Inquisition was finally repealed, as part of an Anglo-Portuguese treaty, and most of its later records destroyed.
The Inquisition Arrives
Initially, Portugal’s approach to its new subjects was relatively enlightened: Hindus were considered friends against Portugal’s Muslim foe, and ‘conversion’ was largely confined to allowing Portuguese soldiers to marry local women, so that their children would be raised Christian.
But in 1532 Goa’s first Vicar General arrived, and the age of tolerance was over. Increasingly stringent laws were passed to forbid Hindu worship, and to allow only Christians rights to land. Then, in 1560, the terrifying Portuguese Tribunal of the Holy Office – otherwise known as the Goan Inquisition – came to Goa.
Establishing itself at the old sultan’s palace in what is now Old Goa, the tribunal soon began flexing its ecclesiastical muscles. But astonishingly, the subsequent two centuries of Portuguese religious terrorism failed to completely eradicate Hinduism from Goa. Many Hindus fled across the Mandovi River, into the region around modern-day Ponda, smuggling their religious statuaries to safety and secretly building temples to house them.
Goa’s Golden Age
Not all religious orders, however, came tarred with the same cruel and zealous brush as the Inquisitors. By the mid-16th century, Franciscan, Dominican and Augustinian missionaries, along with Jesuits and others, were present in Goa, establishing hospitals and schools, and teaching alternative methods of farming and forestry.
When they weren’t busy converting the masses, they were masterminding much of Goa Dourada’s (Golden Goa’s) glorious ecclesiastical building boom. Levies from the lucrative international spice trade financed work on the Sé Cathedral and the Basilica of Bom Jesus, and soon Old Goa’s population stood at 300,000, larger than London or Lisbon itself. Though life remained perilous – many would-be immigrants perished at sea en route, or succumbed to bouts of malaria, typhoid or cholera that swept the city – in Goa it seemed truly golden.
Just as ‘Goa Dourada’ and its magnificent edifices were in their ascendancy, Portugal’s own fortunes were beginning to wane.
In 1580 bankrupted by a disastrous campaign in North Africa, Portugal was annexed by Spain, and it wasn’t until 1640 that the Portuguese regained independence. Wranglings followed over Goa, both with Britain and with the last of the mighty Maratha Empire, led by Shivaji, whose homeland lay in the Western Ghats of southern Maharashtra. In 1739, following a two-year siege, a treaty between the Portuguese and the Marathas forced the Portuguese to hand over large tracts of their northern territory, near Mumbai (then Bombay), in exchange for a full Maratha withdrawal from Goa.
And though Portugal succeeded in adding more territory to Goa during the 18th century – talukas (districts) including Bicholim Ponda, Quepem and Canacona, known as the Novas Conquistas, or New Conquests – the grand age of Portuguese Goa was on the decline. The effects of the Inquisition, coupled with plague after horrendous plague sweeping Old Goa, meant that by 1822 Old Goa had been completely abandoned, its monuments lost in a tangle of jungle. The senate moved to Panjim (present-day Panaji) in 1835, which soon after became Goa’s official capital.
Meanwhile Portugal continued to struggle with troublemakers within and without. In 1787 the short-lived Pinto Revolt, whose conspirators were largely Goan clerics, sought to overturn their overlords’ rule. The revolt was discovered while it was still in the planning, and several of the leaders were tortured and put to death, while others were imprisoned or shipped off to Portugal.
End of an Empire
The 19th century saw increasing calls for Goan freedom from Lisbon. Uprisings and rebellions became common, and by the 1940s the Goan leaders were taking their example from the Independence movement across the border in British India. But despite widespread demonstrations, on 10 June 1947 the Portuguese Minister of Colonies, Captain Teofilo Duarte, warned that the ‘Portuguese flag will not fall down in India without some thousands of Portuguese, white and coloured, shedding their blood in its defence’.
The March to Independence
When overtures by the newly independent Indian government were made to the Portuguese in 1953, it became clear that the Portuguese had no intention of withdrawing. On 11 June 1953 diplomatic relations between the two countries were broken off.
Within Goa, protests continued, often met with violent retaliation from Portuguese forces. Meanwhile India manoeuvred for international support. However, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru found himself pushed to the brink when, in November 1961, Portuguese troops stationed 10km south of Goa opened fire on Indian fishing boats. On the night of 17 December 1961 Operation Vijay saw Indian troops crossing the border. They were met with little resistance and by evening of the following day the troops reached Panaji.
At 8.30am on 19 December, troops of the Punjab Regiment occupied the Panaji Secretariat Building and unfurled the Indian flag, signifying the end of the 450-year Portuguese occupation of Goa. The Portuguese left quietly shortly afterwards.
Initially, India’s self-proclaimed ‘liberation’ of Goa was met with a lukewarm response from Goans themselves. Some feared a drop in their relatively high standard of living, and saw in themselves few similarities with their Indian neighbours. Others feared the loss of their cultural identity, and that Portuguese plutocrats would simply be replaced by an army of Indian bureaucrats.
Nevertheless, the first full state government was operating in Goa by the end of December 1962. On 31 May 1987 Goa was officially recognised as the 25th state of the Indian Union, and in 1992, its native tongue, Konkani, was recognised as one of India’s official languages.
For most of the 1990s political instability plagued the young state: between 1990 and 2005, Goa had no fewer than 14 governments. Corruption became rife, and policy-making impossible. One of the parties to benefit from the chaos was the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In March 2006 communal riots between Muslims and Hindus broke out in Sanvordem, in the interior of Goa, threatening the very religious tolerance Goans themselves are famous for.
Away from the political machinations, from the 1960s Goa began to experience a new wave of visitors – travellers on the hippie trail setting up camp and dancing on the beaches. This naturally developed into mainstream tourism, from the trance parties of the 1980s to package and charter tourists of the 1990s onwards. Over time, Goan entrepreneurs took to tourism-related industries – hotels, restaurants, beach shacks, travel agents and boat tours – and the economy shifted from mainly agriculture, fishing and commerce to tourism. Heavy industry in the form of controversial iron-ore mining and the manufacture of petrochemicals followed, forever changing the face of Goa.
Goa has largely avoided political extremism and terrorism, but an influx of people seeking to benefit from the state's tourism industry and with its liberal attitude attracting some shady characters, Goa has earned an unwanted and largely unfair reputation for violent crime against tourists. In 2017, a UK Guardian report found that 245 foreigners had died in Goa in the previous 12 years, though only a handful of these were proven murders. The most high profile were 28-year-old Irish tourist Danielle McLaughlin who was raped and murdered near Palolem in 2017 and 15-year-old British girl Scarlett Keeling who was found murdered on Anjuna beach in 2008. While these tragic events received widespread media coverage, it would be unfair to describe Goa as a dangerous holiday destination.
Goa's political landscape has changed over the years but two major parties still battle it out for governance. After seven years of power the Indian National Congress party was soundly defeated by the BJP in State Assembly elections in 2012, returning popular former Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar to the top job (he was previously Chief Minister between 2000 and 2005).
Parrikar had campaigned strongly for zero tolerance on corruption, stopping illegal mining and cleaning up industry and tourism practices (including moving the floating casinos out of the Mandovi, which had still not happened as of 2018). His star was clearly on the rise, and in 2014 he was hand-picked by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi to take on the important defence ministry portfolio in the central government.
In the 2017 state legislative elections the BJP won the popular vote but lost eight seats to the Congress Party and, needing 21 seats for a majority, was forced into a shaky coalition government with the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MAG), Goa Forward Party and independents on the proviso that Parrikar return as Chief Minister.
As of late 2018 Parrikar was in poor health, reportedly due to pancreatic cancer, leaving the government in limbo and resulting in what the opposition Congress claimed was an 'absentee government'.