The parade is late. What transpires in the waiting period is a steady stream of wisecracks by revellers who keep the sense of anticipation alive. “Without the floats, there’s no flow,” quips one. His friend retorts, “The man who was imitating the chicken has probably laid an egg.” Welcome to the Goa Carnival.
The word ‘carnival’ is believed to be derived from the Latin words carne (meat) and vale (goodbye), translatable as ‘to take away meat’. Largely a legacy of the Portuguese era, the carnival in Goa is seen as the opportunity for a last fling, presumably full of non-veg delights, before what the church calls the season of Lent — 40 days of fasting, abstinence and spiritual renewal. What is unique about this festival is that in the Indian subcontinent it is celebrated in Goa alone. Old Mrs Marchon tells me with a Portuguese lilt in her voice, “We Goans have made it a habit to do things differently from the rest of the country.” The Goa Carnival is that time of the year when everyone descends upon the little state.
Life for four days is an endless spring party, characterised by street dances, float parades and much good cheer. The festival has now transcended its Christian roots and assumed a new avatar as a cosmopolitan event run by the Goa Tourism Development Corporation. Much preparation goes into the making of a successful carnival. Three months in advance, choreographers, composers and dancers gear up for their street performances with costumes, props and rehearsals.
Applications are invited for the role of King Momo (the king of chaos!), with a different occupant ascending the throne each year. The Tourism Board launches into its publicity campaign. Everyone who participates in the creation of the floats is eligible for a prize. There are various categories of performers, from traditional and family floats to individuals who dress up as jokers. The main thoroughfare is adorned with buntings and the pavilions lined with chairs for this gigantic street party, with its parade, light-hearted competitions, concerts, skits and mouth-watering food. But I leave you now to skim over the events, like a humming bird hopping between blossoms, and I trust you will find your enchantment, as I found mine.
Things to see and do
The soul of the Carnival and absolutely not to be missed, the Parade begins its stately journey from Panjim. If you miss it here, make your way to Vasco, Madgaon or Mapusa on subsequent days to witness this majestic sequence of 75 floats. On the opening day in Panjim, thousands of tourists and locals find a vantage spot to park themselves while awaiting the major attraction of the Carnival — the inaugural float parade. Look around and you’ll see folks clad in outrageous costumes, including a bunny tail painted on the rear of their shorts. A man shouts twirling his clown wig, “The Carnival is a chance to go crazy. We need more chances like this.” “Join in the fun and get some whiskers painted on your face by a street artist.” Then the Parade arrives. Leading the procession is the float of King Momo, the Lord of Chaos. He sits on a throne regally decked up, surrounded by skimpily clad beauties. Each float is designed around a theme. Some are Western, like the Brazilian troupe which invites much hooting and cheering. Others are traditionally Goan — depicting for instance, potters and kitchens of the old days.
Not to be left behind are the manufacturing companies eager to use the floats to sell their products. The promise of prize money has the participants atop the floats and the decorations surrounding them vying for attention. The buzz created by the crowd rises to a crescendo. Excited ladies whip out their handkerchiefs and wave. The aroma of food, the beat of music, the colour of costumes, all fuse together into a magical world of riotous motion. Babies squeal as they are lifted onto the shoulders of ambitious papas, intent on giving them a bird’s eye view of the spectacle. Girls in mini-skirts swirl around, revealing shapely legs. Boys dressed as drag queens hoot their whistles mischievously at the crowd. Drunken revellers sway with abandon to the throbbing beat of the intoxicating music.
The man by my side murmurs in my ear a line from godknowswhere, “The music and the splendour arouse a strong tide of shared emotion. This awakens in me a consciousness of the common origin of all creatures.” He bows his head in grassinduced contemplation. When there’s a lull between floats, I find myself captivated by the antics of a masked masquerader, who hops about mock-attacking passersby with a colourful umbrella. Not far away, dancing beggars receive generous helpings of food from over-stuffed merry makers. The party is open to all. Making friends at the Parade is easy. While watching the endless sequence of floats, I become aware that the man standing beside me on the balcony is dropping ash into the cleavage of the lady standing below.
As I later discover, he is the manager of a well-known rock band. Before the evening is out, we’ve acquired a circle of friendly revellers, who intersperse their observation on this feast for the aural and visual senses, with critical commentary. As night falls, the Parade goes home to bed and the concerts come out to play at assorted venues across the city. The boats wear party dress as they sway harmoniously on the River Mandovi. The still waters mirror the dance of the stars who say on a night such as this, “We are suns, do you doubt that?” Internationally reputed bands perform at different venues across the city, such as the Parade Grounds, Campal. At these concerts, which are free and open to all, lots of foot-stomping, chartbusting fare is dished out.
On my way to The UB 40 Tribute show, I pass a man atop a makeshift podium on the street, crooning Bollywood hits. As the local newspaper said, “As each Carnival has its own local accent, an important element is the acceptance of the contemporary desi music and dance. So while Brazil has its samba and Trinidad has its calypso, the music in Goa is varied, ranging from rock to pop to classical to Bollywood.” Through these festive days, street plays and fancy dress competitions abound at the Carnival hubs of Panjim, Madgaon, Vasco and Mapusa. Wherever you stumble upon a makeshift stage with a sound system, lights, backdrops and assembled crowd, you can be sure of a few laughs and maybe a little introspection on local culture.
The plays that are staged are commonly fashioned around the Goa of yesteryear, depicting the conflict between tradition and modernity. Temporary food stalls representing every cuisine in the country are set up along the banks of the Mandovi. I opt for the regional delicacies of fresh seafood. Drink is liberally available at the local taverns and it’s the season for getting high. A masked bandit comes up to me boldly and in manner cavalier offers me “a feni for your thoughts”. Another reveller in equally high spirits tells me with a wink that he’s nicked the salt shakers from a roadside stall. He says, “Everyone likes to leave a good party with a souvenir.” Before I can respond he’s disappeared for the night cruise by ferry on the Mandovi, which happens every evening of the year, but is plastered with additional hype at carnival time. The Red and Black Dance is organised by Club National in Panjim.
This ticketed, dress-code dominated affair is a flamboyant finale to the festivities of these four merry days. Besides these public state-run events, most restaurants and commercial establishments capitalise on the carnival spirit by organising musical evenings, concerts and special offers. Keep your eyes glued to the local newspaper if you’re looking for something of interest. You will notice that every nightclub in the city claims to be featuring the ‘hottest’ band in town. To be a true-blue carnival consumer, go shopping on 18th June Road. Here, discover an abundance of clown wigs, masks and face paints. Another haven for outlandish gear is the Anjuna Saturday Night Flea Bazaar. As the Carnival is a pants-off celebration to commerce and merry-making, it pays to dress up before you hit the streets.
While in Panjim
Walk. This small and lovely capital of Goa is a gift for those who love walking, eating and discovering. The Mandovi flows along Panjim from Ribandar and the Ponte de Linhares, before it empties out into the blue waters of the Arabian Sea at Campal. Then the ocean takes over, curling around the shores of Panjim creating little coves and beaches at Miramar, Caranzalem, the Dona Paula Cove, Hawaii Beach and Orchel. The best possible walking areas are any of the quiet winding lanes on Altinho Hill. This hill (pronounced Aalteenyu) is at the centre of Panjim, and rises gently from the river and sea fronts. The green heights and quiet winding lanes of Altinho offer spectacular views of the capital city and its waterfront. There are no shops, traffic is light and the area is dotted with fascinating old mansions, bungalows and town houses belonging to some of Goa’s oldest families, and ministers and bureaucrats.
Don’t miss the Bishop’s Palace, built in 1894. If you are in Goa on Christmas Eve, you must attend the open-air Christmas Mass in its courtyard. Further up the Altinho Hill is Jogger’s Park laid out with a jogging track and pretty landscaping. The view is even better from here. The road going west takes you down to Campal and Kala Academy. Designed by Charles Correa, Kala Academy is intriguing in its use of structure and space; it promotes musical and dramatic talent in Goa’s towns and villages by holding festivals throughout the year. In Campal, browse through the Panjim Corporation Market — you get everything here, from local and exotic fruits and veggies to fish. Buyers come to eye fat tiger prawn, mackerel, seer fish, tuna, red snapper, pomfret, mussels, oysters, sardines, crabs… the list is endless, the odours rich.
To the east on the riverfront road from the Kala Academy is the Panjim Jetty, where barges, yachts and trawlers snooze in the sun. Here you’ll find the Caravela, the floating casino of Goa that cruises the Mandovi River. Apart from the casino, they have a full service bar and restaurant, as well as entertainment with a live band on the top deck. A little further is the statue of Abbé Faria, the brain behind the Pinto Revolt of 1787 that attempted to overthrow the Portuguese. Adil Shah’s Palace, corrupted to Idalcao in Portuguese, is next to the Abbé Faria statue. This is Panjim’s oldest surviving building built by Adil Shah, the Sultan of Bijapur. In Panjim, all roads lead to Church Square, dominated by the towering Church of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception. This grand church dates back to before 1541 and is popularly recognised by its impressive double staircase built in 1870.
Another church, the St Sebastian Chapel in the heritage area of Fontainhas, is famous for its crucifix which once hung in the Palace of the Inquisition. A stay in Panjim is incomplete without a ride on one of Goa Tourism’s Santa Monica cruise boats that take you either west to see the sunset, or east to the island of Chorao. There is generally a live band playing and everyone’s nice and jolly, but the best part of the cruise is floating down the river, especially during the Christmas season when Panjim’s entire riverfront is outlined in fairy lights.
By Sonia Nazareth
Sonia Nazareth travels around the world and is lecturer at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai.