The Goan Way of Life
Goa's compact coastal geography and four centuries of Portuguese rule have imbued in its people a uniquely independent spirit and culture that's undeniably Indian, but unmistakably Goan. Whether working in farming, fishing or the tourist industry, life here changes with the seasons, family is all-important and festivals are celebrated with gusto.
With the frequent comings and goings of the sultans, kings, governors and colonising cultures over the last several thousand years, Goans have grown adept at clinging tight to their indigenous traditions while blending in the most appealing elements of each successive visitation. Goans today take substantial pride in their Portuguese heritage – evident in their names, music, food and architecture – combining this seamlessly with Hindu festivals, Konkani chatter, Christmas parties, a keen interest in the English football leagues and, with the influx of Russian travellers, an uncanny ability to read Cyrillic and rustle up a good bowl of borscht.
Whether Catholic Goan, Hindu Goan, Muslim Goan or ‘new’ Goan, some things unite everyone native to this eclectic state. Everyone has a strong opinion about the constantly changing face of Goa, and of what it means, in essence, to be Goan. Everyone possesses a set of nostalgic memories of ‘the way things used to be’, whether this means the opulent landowning days of Portuguese dependence, the trippy free-love '60s, the calm before the package-holiday storm or before the damage of heavy industry. Above all, Goans across the state are eager to ensure, each in their own individual way, that Goa doesn’t lose its alluring, endearing, ever-evolving distinctiveness in the decades to come.
Compared to the rest of the country, Goa is blessed with a relatively high standard of living, with healthcare, schooling, wages and literacy levels all far exceeding the national average. Its population of somewhere around 1.8 million is divided roughly down the middle between rural and urban populations, and many people continue to make their living from tilling the land, fishing or raising livestock.
However, there are still those who fall desperately far below the poverty line. You may notice slums surrounding the heavy industry installations as you drive south on the national highway from Dabolim Airport. Many migrant workers, attracted to Goa by the hopes of benefiting from its tourist trade, end up begging on its beaches, and hundreds of homeless children from surrounding states are supported by local and international charities.
Another acute social problem, linked both to poverty and Goa’s liberal attitude to drinking, is alcoholism, though it's a problem shared with other South Indian states.
Though many cultural traditions overlap and mingle, particularly within Goa’s Christian and Hindu communities, you’ll find some traditional practices still going strong in Goa.
Though ‘love matches’ are increasingly in vogue in Goa in Christian and Hindu circles alike, both communities still frequently use a matchmaker or local contacts to procure a suitable partner for a son or daughter. If all else fails, you’ll find scores of ads listed in the newspaper classifieds or online sites, emphasising the professional qualifications, physical attributes and ‘wheatish’ complexion of the young, eligible individual.
Following Hindu marriages, generally the young wife will leave her family home to live with her husband’s family. However, this is not always the case, and many young couples today are choosing to branch off to begin their own family home. Dowries are usually still required by the groom’s family in both Christian and Hindu weddings, either helping facilitate a match or hindering it; a mixed-caste marriage will become much more acceptable if there’s a good dowry, but a high-caste girl from a poor family can find it very difficult to secure a partner of a similar ‘status’.
Hindu weddings in Goa are lengthy, gleeful and colourful, while Christian wedding ceremonies are more sombre (though the party afterwards usually kicks up a storm) and similar to those in the West, with some elements, such as the ritual bathing of the bride, borrowed from Hinduism. Chudas, green bracelets traditionally worn by married women, are donned by both Hindu and Christian brides, and tradition dictates that, should her husband die before her, the widow must break the bangles on his coffin.
Death, as everywhere, is big business in Goa, and you’ll spot plenty of coffin makers, headstone carvers and hearse services on your travels. In the Christian community, personal items are placed with the deceased in the grave, including (depending on the habits of the deceased) cigarettes and a bottle of feni, while most Hindus are cremated. Annual memorials, wakes and services for the dead are honoured by Christians and Hindus alike.
There are numerous superstitions in the Hindu and Christian communities about restless spirits – particularly of those who committed suicide or died before being given last rites – and a number of measures are undertaken at the funeral to discourage the spirit from returning. The clothing and funeral shroud are cut, and a needle and thread are placed in the coffin. The spirit of the deceased who wishes to come back must first repair its torn clothing, a task that takes until daylight, at which time departure from the grave is impossible.
Women in Goan Society
Generally, the position of women in Goa is better than that elsewhere in India, with women possessing property rights, education options and career prospects not shared by their sisters in other states. The result of Goa’s progressive policies today is that women are far better represented than elsewhere in professions and positions of influence. While men undoubtedly still predominate and many women still choose to fulfil traditional household roles, around 15% of the state’s workforce are women, many of whom fill roles as doctors, dentists, teachers, solicitors and university lecturers, and 30% of panchayat (local government council) seats are reserved for women.
On paper, at least, it’s clear: roughly 30% of Goa’s population is Christian, 65% Hindu and 5% Muslim. But statistics alone don’t reveal the complex, compelling religious concoction that typifies the population’s belief.
During the fierce, Inquisition-led imposition of Christianity by the Portuguese, many Hindus fled to safety in parts of the state still considered safe, while others converted to the new faith and remained in Portuguese territory. Thus, for generations, many Goan families have contained both Catholics and Hindus.
The distinction was further blurred by the ways in which Christianity was adapted to appeal to the local population. As early as 1616 the Bible was translated into Konkani, while in 1623 Pope Gregory permitted Brahmin families to retain their high-caste status after converting to Catholicism, and allowed the continuance of a number of local festivals and traditions.
Today the fusion of these religions is still extremely evident. In Goa’s numerous whitewashed churches, Christ and the Virgin Mary are often adorned with Hindu flower garlands, and Mass is said in Konkani. Christians and Hindus frequently pay respects to festivals of the others’ faith, with both Christmas and Diwali being a source of celebration and mithai-giving (sweet-giving) for all.
But that’s not to say that Goa is free from religious tensions. In 2006 anti-Muslim riots, beginning with the destruction of a makeshift village mosque in Sanvordem, shook Goa’s religiously tolerant to the core.
Though Hinduism encompasses a huge range of personal beliefs, the essential Hindu belief is in Brahman, an infinite being, or supreme spirit, from which everything derives and to which everything will return. Hindus believe that life is cyclical and subject to reincarnations (avatars), eventually leading to moksha, spiritual release. An individual’s progression towards that point is governed by the law of karma (cause and effect): good karma (through positive actions such as charity and worship) may result in being reborn into a higher caste and better circumstances, and bad karma (accumulated through bad deeds) may result in reincarnation in animal form. It’s only as a human that one can finally acquire sufficient self-knowledge to achieve liberation from the cycle of reincarnation.
Hindus have long worshipped animals, particularly snakes and cows, for their symbolism. The cow represents fertility and nurturing, while snakes are associated with fertility and welfare. Cows take full advantage of their special status in Goa, even lazing in the middle of chaotic highways, seemingly without a care on this mortal coil.
Christianity (Catholicism) has been present in Goa since the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century, who enforced their faith on Goa’s Muslim and Hindu population by way of the Goan Inquisition. By the time Hindus and Muslims were once again able to practise freely, Catholicism had taken root and was here to stay.
For the last 30 years or so, a form of faith known as ‘Charismatic Christianity’ has being gaining ground in Goa. Worship involves lots of dancing, singing and sometimes ‘speaking in tongues’, with readings from the New Testament allegedly used to harness the power of the Holy Spirit, heal the sick and banish evil forces. Unlike mainstream Catholicism, Charismatic Christianity’s services are usually in the open air, and its priests reject all notions of caste, understandably making the movement particularly popular among Goa’s lower castes.
Brought to Goa in the 11th century by wealthy Arab merchants, who were encouraged by local rulers to settle here for reasons of commerce, Islamic rule predominated in the region for large chunks of medieval Goan history.
With the arrival of the Portuguese, Islam all but disappeared from Goa, and now remains only in small communities. Most Goan Muslims today live in Goa’s green heartland, around Ponda, in the vicinity of the state’s biggest mosque, the Safa Masjid.
Most people know how seriously Indians take the pursuit of cricket, but it may come as a surprise to learn that Goa’s top sport is football (soccer), another legacy left over from the days of Portuguese rule. Every village has at least one football team, and sometimes several – one team for each waddo (ward) of the village – and league games are fiercely contested.
This has seen the creation of several teams that regularly perform at National Football League (NFL) level. The main Goan teams to watch are Salgaonkar SC from Vasco da Gama, Dempo SC from Panaji, and Churchill Brothers SC from Margao. The big matches are played out at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium (known locally as Fatorda Stadium) in Margao, regularly attracting up to 35,000 fans.
Goans are also keen cricketers and you’ll see plenty of dusty playing fields being used for local matches. The state team plays at Margao's Dr Rajendra Prasad Stadium. Volleyball, too, is a firm local favourite, with regular matches played at sunset on beaches and on almost every village green.
You won’t get far in Goa without hearing references to susegad or sossegado, a joie de vivre attitude summed up along the lines of ‘relax and enjoy life while you can’. Originating from the Portuguese word sossegado (literally meaning ‘quiet’), it’s a philosophy of afternoon siestas, and long, lazy evenings filled with feni and song. On the 25th anniversary of Goan Independence, even Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi described how ‘an inherent nonacquisitiveness and contentment with what one has, described by that uniquely Goan word sossegado, has been an enduring strength of Goan character’.
Goa’s Caste System: Hindu & Christian Alike
Every Hindu is born into an unchangeable social class, a caste or varna, of which there are four distinct tiers, each with its own rules of conduct and behaviour.
These four castes, in hierarchical order, are the Brahmins (Bamons in Konkani; priests and teachers), Kshatriyas (Chardos in Konkani; warriors and rulers), Vaisyas (merchants and farmers) and Sudras (peasants and menial workers). Beneath the four main castes is a fifth group, the Untouchables (Chamars in Konkani; formerly known as ‘Harijan’, but now officially ‘Dalits’ or ‘Scheduled Castes’). These people traditionally performed ‘polluting’ jobs, including undertaking, street sweeping and leather working. Though discrimination against them is now a criminal offence in India, it’s nevertheless still an unfortunate part of life.
While the caste system doesn’t play as crucial a part in life in Goa as elsewhere in India, it’s still recognised and treated in a uniquely Goan way, and holders of public office remain largely of the Bamon or Chardo castes.
The Christian community also quietly adheres to the caste system, a situation that can be traced back to Portuguese rule since, as an incentive to convert to Catholicism, high-caste Goan families were able to keep their caste privileges, money and land. Even today, in village churches, high-caste Christians tend to dominate the front pews and the lower castes the back of the congregation, and both Hindus and Christians carefully consider questions of caste when selecting candidates for a suitable marriage match.
Dos & Don'ts
Refill plastic water bottles with filtered water.
Consider buying souvenirs from cooperatives or charity concerns.
Cover shoulders and legs in churches and cathedrals.
Use shower water sparingly to avoid shortages affecting locals.
Sunbathe nude or topless; it’s illegal and unwelcome in Goa.
Wear shoes inside local Goan houses.
Sport bikinis and shorts outside beach resorts; they’re not considered appropriate.
Sidebar: Web Weddings
Goans, like almost everyone else, are taking to the internet in search of love. Popular sites – allowing would-be brides and grooms (and their parents) to scour the whole of India for suitable matches include www.bharatmatrimony.com and www.shaadi.com.
Goan Hindu homes are identifiable by the multicoloured vrindavan (ornamental plant container) that stands in front of the house. Growing inside it is the twiggy tulsi plant, sacred to Hindus as in mythology the tulsi is identified as one of the god Vishnu’s lovers, whom his consort, Lashmet, turned into a shrub in a fit of jealousy.
Sidebar: Football Season
The official football (soccer) season runs from January to May; tickets to the matches generally cost less than ₹30 and can be bought at the ticket kiosks outside the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium (Fatorda Stadium) in Margao on match days.
Sidebar: Our Lady of Miracles
At the Church of Our Lady of Miracles in Mapusa, which was built on the site of an ancient Hindu temple, the church’s annual feast day, held 16 days after Easter, is celebrated by Christians and Hindus together.
Sidebar: FC Goa
FC Goa, playing in the Indian Super League football competition, is co-owned by Indian cricket superstar Virat Kohli.
Arts & Architecture
Goa's traditional art forms, much of its architecture, and even its sporting passions are strongly influenced by its colonial legacy. Goans display an infectious love of music, festivals, dance, poetry, literature and a rich artistic and cultural heritage, seamlessly blending Indian and Portuguese elements.
Although there’s no painting style particular to Goa, some of the state’s most historically significant artistic output can be seen in the murals at Rachol Seminary, in the ornately decorated churches across Goa, and adorning the portraiture-heavy walls of Goa’s grand mansion homes.
Internationally, one of Goa's best-known artists was Francis Newton Souza (1924–2002), whose expressionist paintings can be found in galleries worldwide. Out and about in Goa, the two artists you’re most likely to come across are installation artist Dr Subodh Kerkar, and the late, much-loved artist and illustrator Mario de Miranda, who died in 2011 but whose distinctive style continues to adorn everything from books to billboards. You can see his work at the Mario Gallery in Torda.
Although it can be difficult to get hold of Goan literature (books go out of print very quickly), a decent amount of Konkani literature is available in English translation.
Some mainstays of Goan literature include Angela’s Goan Identity, a 1994 fictional work by Carmo D’Souza, which offers a fascinating insight into a girl’s struggle to define her Goan identity towards the final years of the Portuguese era in Goa, while Frank Simoes’ engaging Glad Seasons in Goa offers an affectionate account of Goan life.
Perhaps the greatest classic of Goan literature, though, is Sorrowing Lies My Land, by Lambert Mascarenhas, first published in 1955, which deals with the struggle for Goan Independence launched in Margao in 1946. Meanwhile, Victor Rangel-Ribeiro weaves together Goan vignettes in his award-winning first novel Tivolem. Mario Cabral E Sa’s Legends of Goa, illustrated by one of Goa’s best-known artists, Mario de Miranda, is a colourful reworking of some of Goa’s best folk tales and historical titbits.
Music & Dance
Listen carefully beyond the Bob Marley, lounge and techno jumble of the beach shacks, and you’ll hear Goa’s own melodies, a heady concoction of East and West.
The most famous kind of Goan folk song is the mando, also known as ‘the love song of Goa’, a slow melody with accompanying dance, which sees its largely Catholic participants dance in parallel lines, flourishing paper fans and handkerchiefs. You might catch a glimpse of this if you pass a Christian wedding or feast day in progress.
Though increasingly rare, the melancholy, haunting fado can still be heard here and there in Goa, whose songs lament lost love, or the longing for a Portuguese home that most singers, in fact, have never seen. Listen out for the late, great folk singer Lucio de Miranda, or Oslando, another local folk and fado favourite.
Local Konkani pop is a strange and sometimes wonderful combination of tinny, trilly musical influences – African rhythms and Portuguese tunes, with a bit of calypso thrown in. You’ll catch its twangy melodies from passing cars, buses and taxis, and in local Goan lunch spots. A classic, old-school performer to look out for, who has influenced a whole new generation of local musicians, is the much-loved Lorna, ‘the Goan nightingale’.
Goan singer, musician and producer Remo Fernandes is famous in India for his ability to fuse cultural influences in both his music and his image.
Remo was born in Siolim in 1953. After studying architecture in Bombay and hitchhiking around Europe and Africa (busking along the way), he returned to Goa. Several rejections from Indian labels made him record his first (and arguably one of his best) albums, Goan Crazy, at home in Siolim. From there, Remo shot to success with more hit albums, film-score offers, awards, product endorsements and titles such as ‘the Freddie Mercury of India’.
Remo is loved in Goa, not only for the versatility of his talent but also for never cutting his Goan roots along his path to fame. When Remo turned 50 in May 2003, he celebrated with a free 4½-hour concert in Goa.
Look out for Old Goan Gold as well as Forwards into the Past, which has arrangements by Remo and vocals by the late, fado-famed Lucio de Miranda. Remo lives and records in Siolim.
The Western electronic music scene in Goa still thumps – albeit less incessantly than in past years – to the hypnotic rhythms of Goa trance and psy-trance, a uniquely Goan sound that came to prevalence on the beaches of Anjuna in the early 1990s.
Its most famous exponent is Goa Gil, who still DJs trance parties worldwide. Go to www.goagil.com to see where he’s next appearing – the schedule usually includes gigs in Goa or elsewhere in India. Other well-known artists include Hallucigen, Astral Projection and Cosmosis. You can pick up Goa trance CDs at the Anjuna flea market.
Goa’s theatre scene is dominated by the unique local street plays known as tiatr and khell tiatr (a longer form of tiatr performed only during festivals such as Carnival and Easter). The tiatrs, almost all of which are in Konkani, provide a platform for satire on politics, current affairs and day-to-day domestic issues.
Since 1974 Panaji’s Kala Academy has held an annual festival (performed in Konkani) each November, showcasing the work of well-known tiatr writers. Throughout the year, this is also the venue for arts, drama and folk theatre.
The Indian film industry is the largest on the planet, with around 800 movies produced annually, most of them elaborate, formulaic, melodramatic Bollywood montages that celebrate romance, violence and music, with saccharine lip-synced duets and fantastic dance routines, all performed by Indian megastars who are worshipped like deities countrywide. While in Goa, you must see at least one of these incredible creations of high camp. In Panaji head to the comfortable INOX Cinema or the far more gritty Cine Nacional.
The INOX and other venues play host to Goa’s annual International Film Festival of India, the country’s largest such festival, which sees actors, producers and screenwriters jetting in for preening and partying all along the red carpet.
Goa is becoming an increasingly popular shooting location for Indian films (Bollywood, Tamil, Konkani, Telugu and Malayalam), either as a beach backdrop or with Goa providing an integral setting in the film's plot. Films to look out for:
Finding Fanny (2014; director Homi Adajania) Comedy road trip set in a fictional Goan village. In English and Hindi.
Husbands in Goa (2012; Saji Surendran) For something different this Malayalam (Keralan) comedy follows three men travelling to Goa to escape from their domineering wives.
Bourne Supremacy (2004) This Hollywood action film is worth a look just to see Matt Damon jogging on Palolem Beach and out-driving the baddies (miraculously emerging in Panaji in the same scene).
Last Hippie Standing (2001; Marcus Robbin) This short documentary (find it on YouTube) traces the history of the hippie days of the 1960s and ’70s, with interviews and some original Super 8 footage.
Goa’s most iconic architectural form is likely the slowly crumbling bungalow mansion, with its wrought-iron balconies, shady front balcãos (pillared porches), oyster-shell windows and central saquãos (inner courtyards), around which family life traditionally revolved.
Most were built in the early 18th century, as rewards to wealthy Goan merchants and officials for their services to the Portuguese. The architecture was inspired by European tastes, but the materials – red laterite stone, wood, terracotta, and oyster shells used instead of glass for windows – were all local. The wealthiest of these homes also contained a locally crafted wooden chapel or oratory, which housed gilded and golden relics, altars and images of Catholic saints as the focal point for family prayers.
Churches, too, bear the hallmark of Portugal, many of them cruciform and constructed of whitewashed laterite stone. Even the humblest of village churches usually sports a sumptuous interior, with an elaborate gilt reredos (ornamental altarpiece or screen), and lots of carving, painting and chandeliers.
Goan temples are yet another form of architectural hybrid, enfolding both Muslim and Christian elements into traditional Hindu designs. Domed roofs, for example, are a Muslim trait, while balustraded facades and octagonal towers are borrowed from Portuguese church architecture. Their most unusual and distinctive features, however, are their ‘light towers’, known as deepastambhas, which look a little like Chinese pagodas and are atmospherically decorated with oil lamps during festival periods.
Sidebar: Goa Bookshops
Sidebar: Houses of Goa
Stroll the lanes of Chandor, Siolim or the coastal villages between Velsao and Mobor for a treasure trove of Portuguese mansions in various stages of decay. Visit the Houses of Goa Museum at Torda to get up to speed on Goa’s architectural heritage.
Sidebar: Kala Academy
Aside from local celebrations (to which tourists are often extended a warm welcome), the best place to find traditional music and dance performances is at Panaji’s Kala Academy.
Wildlife & the Environment
Goa may be tiny but it possesses a surprising diversity of landscape and environment. In the five decades since the Portuguese left its shores, Goa has experienced phenomenal growth in tourism, industry and population, sometimes taxing to the limit this beautiful, yet fragile ecosystem.
Goa occupies a narrow strip of the western Indian coastline, approximately 105km long and 65km wide, but within this relatively tiny area exists an incredibly diverse mixture of landscapes, flora and fauna.
To the east of the state lie the gorgeous green Western Ghats, whose name derives from the Sanskrit for ‘sacred steps’. This mountain range runs along India’s entire west coast, but in Goa is made up of the Sahyadri Range, comprising around one-sixth of the state’s total area. The ghats are the source of all seven of Goa’s main rivers, the longest of which, the Mandovi, meanders for 77km to the Arabian Sea at Panaji.
Goa’s grassy hinterland is made up mostly of laterite plateaus, with thin soil covering rich sources of iron and manganese ore. The midland has thus suffered from large-scale open-cast mining, evident in the red gashes in Goan hillsides.
Spice, fruit, cashew and areca-nut plantations predominate commercially, while terraced orchards make efficient use of limited water sources to support coconut, jackfruit, pineapple and mango groves.
Though just a fraction of the state’s total area, Goa’s coast is its crowning glory. Mangroves line tidal rivers, providing shelter for birds, marine animals and crocodiles, while paddy fields, coconut groves, and the seas and estuaries provide the majority of the population’s food.
The beaches and marine waters have suffered from unfettered tourist development, overfishing, untreated sewage, pollution from sea tankers and iron-ore mining.
Despite Goa’s diminutive size, the state is home to a surprising array of fauna and some spectacular birdlife. The most impressive mammalian species, such as wild elephants and leopards, occur only in small numbers, are incredibly shy, and thus hard to spot. Tigers have been recorded by the forest department in Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary.
The wild animals you’ll most likely encounter in Goa are the state’s mischievous monkeys: most visible are smallish, scavenging bonnet macaques, and larger, black-faced, long-limbed Hanuman langurs.
Other inhabitants include common mongooses, smooth Indian otter, giant squirrels, slender lorises and shaggy sloth bears.
In Goa’s wildlife sanctuaries, you may come across gaur (Indian bison), porcupines, sambars (buff-coloured deer), chitals (spotted deer) and barking deer. One of the rarer animals inhabiting Goa’s forests is the nocturnal pangolin (scaly anteater). The ‘mini-leopard’ (known as the vagati in Konkani), a greyish fluffy-tailed creature about the size of a domestic cat, is also sometimes seen, along with the Indian civet.
Common dolphins can often be found frolicking offshore or in estuaries, while fruit bats and Malay fox vampire bats come out in force as the Goan sun goes down.
Reptiles, Snakes & Amphibians
Snakes are common, though reclusive, with 23 species of which eight are venomous. You’re most likely to see nonvenomous green whip snakes, golden tree snakes, rat snakes, cat snakes, wolf snakes and Russel sand boas. Kusadas (sea snakes) are common along the coastline, but generally live in deep waters, far off the coast.
Goa is also home to chameleons, monitor lizards, turtles and two species of crocodile. Flap-shell turtles and black-pond turtles are freshwater species plentiful during the monsoon, while a third species, the olive ridley sea turtle, is in grave danger of extinction. There are protected nesting sites on Mandrem, Morjim and Agonda beaches.
Though crocs are also threatened, you can spot the saltwater variety in the Mandovi and Zuari estuaries, along with the less aggressive 'Mandovi mugger' which mostly inhabits Mandovi River waters around Divar and Chorao Islands.
Keen birdwatchers will be in seventh heaven in Goa.
In open spaces, a flash of colour may turn out to be an Indian roller, identified by its brilliant blue flight feathers. Drongos are common, while pipits and wagtails strut in large flocks among the harvest stubble. Common hoopoes are often seen (or heard) in open country, while birds of prey such as harriers and buzzards soar overhead. Kites and vultures can wheel on thermals for hours; ospreys, another large hawk, patrol reservoirs and waterways for fish suppers.
Stalking long-legged at the shallow edges of ponds are various species of egret. Indian pond herons, also known as paddy birds, are small and well camouflaged in greys and browns.
Colourful kingfishers, Goa’s unofficial mascot, patiently await their prey on overhanging branches. Species include black-and-white pied kingfishers, colourful common kingfishers (also known as river kingfishers), and stork-billed kingfishers, sporting massive red bills.
In the forest, woodpeckers are more often heard than seen as they chisel grubs from the bark of trees. Their colourful relatives include barbets and Indian koels, whose loud, piercing cry can be relentless in spring. Hill mynahs are an all-black bird with a distinctive yellow ‘wattle’ about the face.
The jewels in Goa’s avian crown must be its three magnificent species of hornbill, resembling South American toucans. At the other end of the size spectrum, the iridescent, nectar-feeding purple sunbird is equally brilliant. A host of smaller birds, such as flycatchers, warblers, babblers and little tailorbirds forage for insects in every layer of vegetation.
Flowering plants, grasses, brackens and ferns all play their part in Goa’s ecology, and the Western Ghats comprise some of Asia’s densest rainforest. On their lower slopes, thinner, drier soil supports semi-evergreen forest; in other places the arid landscape leads to savannah-like vegetation.
The coastal region has a wide range of flora, with saline conditions supporting mangrove swamps. In villages, banyan and peepul trees provide shade for the Hindu and Buddhist shrines that are often beneath them.
Wildlife Sanctuaries in Goa
Roughly 12%, or 455 sq km, of Goa’s total area is given over to wildlife sanctuaries and reserves, under the auspices of the Goa Forest Department. In 1999 Madei (208 sq km) in Satari taluka (district) and Netravali (211 sq km) in Sanguem taluka were declared protected areas.
8 sq km
What to See
Bondla Wildlife Sanctuary is Goa’s smallest protected wildlife sanctuary. Home to wild boar, gaurs (Indian bison), monkeys, jackals, leopards and deer, as well as butterflies and birds.
45km from Panaji
What to See
240 sq km
What to See
Encompasses the 107-sq-km Molem National Park. Shy and hard-to-spot wildlife include jungle cats, Malayan giant squirrels, gaurs, sambars, leopards, chitals (spotted deer), slender loris, Malayan pythons and cobras. There’s an observation platform a few kilometres into the park; as with most parks, the best time to see wildlife is in the early morning or late evening.
50km from Margao
86 sq km
What to See
Goa’s second-largest sanctuary has hard-to-spot gaurs, sambars, leopards and spotted deer, along with frogs, snakes, monkeys and abundant birdlife. Marked hiking trails and two forest watchtowers.
9km from Palolem
Over-cutting of the forested Western Ghats began at the start of the 20th century, and environmental groups estimate that more than 500 hectares of Goa’s forests continue to disappear every year.
The damage caused by deforestation is far-reaching. Animal habitats are diminishing, as are the homelands of the tribal Dhangar, Kunbi and Velip peoples. In an effort to curb the damage, the government has stepped up its efforts to protect Goa’s forests: felling fees now apply, licences must be issued, and reforestation projects are under way.
In past decades nearly half the iron ore exported annually from India has come from Goa, with huge barges ferrying the ore along the Zuari and Mandovi Rivers to waiting ships.
Of the 80 million tonnes of rock and soil extracted annually, only 13 million tonnes are saleable ore. Surplus is dumped on spoil tips and is washed away come the monsoon, smothering both river and marine life. Other side-effects of mining include the disruption of local water tables and pollution of air and drinking water.
In 2010 the Shah Commission report into illegal mining – lobbied for by environmental groups such as the Goa Foundation – revealed corruptions, scams and unlicensed mining which led to the Supreme Court suspending all mining activities in 2012.
The Goa Foundation described this victory as 'suspending more than a decade of senseless extraction and looting which irreversibly brutalised the natural environment, destroyed the peace of village communities and damaged public health'.
By 2014 the Goan government had renewed a limited number of mining licences, with a cap of 20 million tonnes of iron ore extraction, paving the way for at least partial resumption of an industry that has provided some 10% of the state's GDP.
However, in 2018 the Supreme Court again cancelled 88 mining leases, effectively shutting down the industry and leading to protests from 'mining dependants' – those working in the industry. At the time of writing, renewing of mining leases was still being thrashed out between Goa's government and the central government.
While bringing countless jobs and raising standards of living for many in Goa, unchecked hotel building, inadequate sewage facilities, water-guzzling swimming pools and landscaped golf courses have all taken their toll on the environment. Count up the plastic water bottles you might use during your visit, multiply this figure by two million, then refill your own with filtered water to do your bit towards saving Goa from an avalanche of non-biodegradable plastic.
Tourist arrivals to Goa have more than doubled in the past five years (the vast majority are domestic tourists), creating a strain on Goa's infrastructure.
Although Goa didn't suffer the same devastating levels of flooding as experienced in Kerala in 2018, monsoon rains can be unpredictable and climate change is widely considered responsible for a trend of damaging weather events. Deforestation as a result of past illegal mining and current infrastructure projects has also created the possibility of landslides and river flooding.
- Goa Foundation (www.goafoundation.org)
- World Wildlife Fund (www.wwfindia.org)
- Centre for Environment Education (http://ceeindia.org/goa.html)
Sidebar: Goan Views
Goa – A View from the Heavens, by aerial photographer Gopal Bodhe, is a beautifully photographed book dedicated to Goa’s environment and heritage.
Sidebar: Animal Guides
S Prater’s The Book of Indian Animals and Romulus Whitaker’s Common Indian Snakes are two reliable guides to the nonhuman residents of Goa.
Sidebar: Bird Books
Birds of Southern India, by Richard Grimmet and Tim Inskipp, is a comprehensive birdwatching field guide, considered by many to be the must-have guide to the region. More focused is Birds of Goa, by local naturalist Rahul Alvares and Heinz Lainer. Online, check out www.birdsofgoa.com.
Sidebar: Wildlife Watching Seasons
The best time for wildlife watching is as soon after the monsoon as possible. October is perfect, when tourist numbers and temperatures are low and animals are attracted to still-verdant watering holes.
Sidebar: Goan Rivers
Seven great rivers flow from the Western Ghats to Goa's coast. From north to south: Terekhol (Tiracol), Chapora, Mandovi, Zuari, Sal, Talpona and Galgibag.
Some of Goa's spice farms have traditionally kept elephants for short rides and bathing. At Lonely Planet we do not recommend elephant rides or support elephants being kept in captivity for this purpose.