Panaji, seen through its homes

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Frederick Noronha

Some forty years ago, as a young student entering college, I recall my first encounter with Panjim (call it Panaji, Pangim, Nova Goa or Ponnje). It looked quaint and charming. One almost got lost somewhere near the five-road junction at the Church Square. Yet, then, most of us probably didn’t realise how historic those times were, and how sharply things would change in the coming years.

Once even more time passes, we might look back at 2020, and wonder how the capital of Goa looked “then”. Thanks to a book on the subject, filled with photos and descriptions of the quaint houses, shrines, landmarks, and shops we encounter there, at least we will have something to go by.

‘The Mapped Heritage of Panaji, Goa’, is a publication of the Goa Heritage Action Group. Even in my collection of Goa books, it has not got the attention deserved. It’s probably because the book is one you might be tempted to postpone buying – hard-bound and priced at `3000. But don’t let that stop you from at least closely looking at its contents.

The 400-paged, square 9×9 inch book has a foreword by noted planner Edgar F Ribeiro, an introduction, and a brief discussion on heritage and conservation. It also has an introduction to the ‘Mapped Heritage of Panaji’, an overview of the town’s (now called a city) heritage status from 2005 to 2016, Goan typologies and architectures, and a glossary of
architectural terms.

But its main part is a listing of 13 neighbourhoods of Goa’s capital, from Ribandar in the east to Dona Paula at the western end, and everything in between. A section ‘Conservation Demystified’ is particularly valuable.

Each section has a brief introduction to the locality. Following a map, the houses of the locality are photographed, briefly explained and highlighted. You might have passed by these homes on numerous occasions, but only when you read about their denizens, their history and since when each dates back to, you gets a better idea of their setting and relevance. There are some interesting details in this book: Inscriptions at the Cabo chapel. That the British might have used the threat of a Napoleonic invasion of Goa to take control of the opium trade (Celsa Pinto is cited here). Jorge de Abreu Noronha extricating reality from the myths about the naming of Dona Paula and Gaspar Dias. Or facts like the Asha Bhavan in Taleigao, currently owned by the Department of Social Welfare, has a gate possibly dating back to the 16th century yet needs “an extra helping of TLC (tender loving care)”.

You zoom in close to many homes: the Keni house at Ribandar, the Casa Visconde de Ribandar, The Caravela (“testimony to the sturdiness of the building practices of the past”), Casa de Dias on 31st January Road, Luis & Co nearby, and others. There are many, many more. Without exaggeration, not scores, but a few hundred. A range of houses get listed and described – big or small, old or new.

This book is full of did-you-know-thats. For instance: the Ponte de Linhares, built in 1633, is 2800 metres long, and has 44 Roman-style arches. Panaji has some Art Deco buildings (including the Lar Maria Goretti). Guess which hotel “once had the best Goan food in town”? Then, the Tobacco Square was once one of the most important parts of the city. Likewise, the Casa da Moeda once minted coins for the government. Unusually-shaped Sangam Lodge in Mala was launched by Bollywood icon Raj Kapoor, and named after his film of that era, in case you were wondering!

Outside the military hospital, once a jail is a “pillar dedicated to Goa’s seafaring traditions”. Canons were introduced to peninsular India by the Portuguese, prior to the arrival of Babar, the founder of the Mughal Empire.

That’s not all. ‘The Mapped Heritage’ reminds us: “How many cities in the world can boast of having so many parks and gardens, the country’s longest promenade and its own beach?” Then, Goan gardens are a pot-pouri of plant material from all over the world. Can you guess what’s the history of the Casa de Povo of Taleigao?

But there are other facts too: Rent control policy, the book notes, often leaves owners bereft of finances to undertake adequate repairs. Though the book doesn’t say it, Goa’s capital can be a tough place to navigate when it rains heavy and has its own fair share of problems.

This book takes us through Goa’s capital and its suburbs.

The hillock of Dona Paula, with its legends and elite status.  Caranzalem where “the recent surge of the multi-storeyed apartment building style construction has changed the character and ecology of the once-a-coconut-grove-fisherman’s village”. Taleigao, with its history going five centuries back. The Miramar and its promenade – “a wonderful gift from the planners of the Portuguese era to the city”.

There’s also St Inez and its lifeline, the creek which “begs for a big clean up job”. Campal levelled and reclaimed only in 1827-35 “with its grid-iron roads and big plots that hold large Goan houses, under the handsome canopy of Rain trees that line the avenue”.

The Central Business District of a small capital, but colourful enough to span so many pages. There’s also Altinho, the administrative centre and the elite residential colony in the past, and still so in some ways now.

We are reminded: in the 19th century, most of Panaji lived in the two wards of Sao Tome and Fontainhas. Portais grew only in the 20th century. Mala, named after a natural spring (‘Fonte Fenix’), and the Fontainhas (a bustling heritage ward which once was a palm grove with huts when the capital shifted over from Old Goa) are also focussed on.

Sao Tome (“Nothing can replace the feeling of nostalgia one gets as one enters this heritage precinct from the direction of the General Post Office”) and Ribandar (which “has witnessed many important events in Goa’s history”) round up the story of this fortunately still not-so-urban urban area.

The glossary of architectural terms (from aedicule to verandah – a porch along the outside of a building), accompanied with some neat illustrations, make for an insightful, if technical, read.

Conservation architect editor Poonam Verma Mascarenhas’ section on “maintenance guidelines for built heritage”, which is written to span across just five pages, gives a number of very useful hints and tips. For instance, why buildings decay and how to undertake preventive maintenance? Why does lime, earth, timber and laterite make sense in a place like Goa? What does rain and moisture infiltration do to a home? Does cement suffocate a structure? Some very interesting discussions here (Pages 388-389).

Ribeiro recommends that this is a book not just for libraries and institutions but “even in households in the city, the state and beyond”. It’s easy to agree.