Big-city amenities take their time getting to Diu. The airport, which receives only a single flight each day, doesn’t even have a carousel, so passengers have to mill around in the tiny arrival hall until the porters haul the suitcases off a hand-pulled trolley and line them up for collection. The English-language newspapers don’t arrive until past ten and they come in such small numbers that if you’re late, you’re unlikely to snag one. If you feel like an ice cream from the town’s most famous vendor at the hottest part of the afternoon, you’re just going to have to sweat it out: Ramvijay shuts down from 1.30 p.m. for a two-hour siesta.
That, of course, is precisely the reason to visit the former Portuguese colony, which wallows under the coast of Kathiawar like a lugubrious whale. Though many visitors imagine they’ll find a microcosmic version of Goa—the headquarters of Portugal’s Indian empire—refracted through a vibrant Gujarati lens, Diu is even more laidback than India’s favourite holiday destination. There are no rave parties here or chic beachside bars, no exotic night-markets or Russian mafia dons.
This seeming stasis has immunised Diu against the real-estate fever that has infected the rest of the country. As a result, it’s an amateur historian’s delight. It offers the opportunity to explore the best-preserved Portuguese town layout in India. Strolling through the island’s winding lanes and quiet squares at twilight teleports you straight into the pages of the seventeenth-century travelogue of Scottish sea captain Alexander Hamilton, who claimed that the settlement was “one of the best-built Cities and best fortified by Nature and Art that I ever saw in India and its stately Buildings of free Stone and Marble are sufficient Witnesses of its ancient Grandeur and Opulency”.
Diu was the last bead in a rosary I’ve been counting for more than two decades. I’ve spent most of my life in Bandra, the Mumbai suburb that the Portuguese acquired in 1534 and held on to for about 240 years. The most visible impression the Portuguese left on my neighbourhood was religious: our streets are studded with large churches and brick crosses. You can also taste the Iberian peninsula in the food we eat and hear it in the tunes we sing.
A childhood soaked in this Indo-Iberian culture left me curious about the Lusitanian traces that have lingered in Portugal’s other minor Indian territories. Since 1990, I’ve erratically worked my way through Vypeen island off Cochin, and Chaul, south of Mumbai, both home to people who still speak Indo-Portuguese creoles; I’ve wandered amidst the cobwebbed ruins of the Vasai fort, north of Bombay; inspected the scanty sights of Silvassa; and tested the echoes of the churches of Daman.
Also following this route, but in a matter of days rather than years, was a group of Portuguese travellers I met on the plane in from Mumbai. Just over 50 years after the Iberian power was kicked out of India in Operation Vijay, Portuguese citizens are finally overcoming the embarrassment of their colonial misadventures to be able to look at their former territories with fresh—rather more humble—eyes.
One member of the party caught my attention. Francisco de Braganza is an eight-generation descendant of Catherine, the princess who in 1661 was married to England’s Charles II, taking with her a dowry that included the islands of Bombay. (Bandra, on the mainland, remained a subject of dispute between the European powers and stayed Portuguese for another 110 years.) As they meandered through India observing Portugal’s architectural and cultural legacy in the subcontinent, Braganza and his friends were mindful that the traffic hadn’t only flowed one way: their Indian colonies had provided untold wealth to their homeland.
Few people know that better than Joao Folque, whom I ran into at breakfast in the cosy guest house in which we were both staying. Even though he’d never visited the country before, Folque had lived all his 52 years with India all around him. The homes he’d grown up in had been decorated with Indian objets d’art. Christmas Day at the Folque family seat, outside Lisbon, is marked by a hearty meal of lobster curry. These are the mementoes of the 46 years his grandfather spent in India—20 of them as Diu’s governor.
After dreaming of the subcontinent for so long, Joao Folque— who had been named after his grandfather—had finally taken the plunge. He was puttering through the lanes of Diu on a scooter, using his grandfather’s diaries and photograph albums as his guide. He was chatting with students in the Gujarati schools Folque Sr had established, tracking down marble plaques that bore the old man’s name and marvelling at how so many of the streetscapes seemed almost unchanged.
“When I came here, it was like coming home,” Joao Folque Jr said. “I was filled with emotion. I can see so much that’s Portuguese here—the balconies and windows of the houses, the way the streets are laid out.” There was also the matter of siestas, though Folque Jr noted that in this regard, Diu did even better than Portugal. “In Portugal, we take one-hour naps in the afternoon. Here, they shut their shops at noon and don’t open again until four.”
Folque generously loaded up his grandfather’s photo albums on my pen drive and, after hiring a sporty bicycle from a beat-up shop near the main market, I set out to explore the town myself. My first destination was the gargantuan fort on the waterfront, the toe-hold the Portuguese wrested from Gujarat’s sultan, Bahadur Shah, in 1535. Unlike the other Portuguese forts in the subcontinent, which follow standard geometric patterns, the Diu citadel is irregularly shaped. Because they’re designed to hug the jagged coastline, the walls bulge in some places and contract in others.
However, the Mir’at-i-Sikanderi, the best-known history of medieval Gujarat, offers another explanation for why the layout of the fort is so unconventional. It says that when the Portuguese asked Bahadur Shah for a piece of land on which to build an outpost, they requested a plot no bigger than a cowhide. After the sultan acquiesced, the Europeans are said to have cut the cowhide into thin strips, laying them out end-to-end to claim an enormous swathe of land.
Over the next few decades, the Portuguese cannily took advantage of the precarious political balance between Gujarat and the Mughals in Delhi to spread their influence. By the time the Mughal emperor Akbar captured Gujarat in 1572, the Portuguese were sitting pretty on all of the island’s 40 sq km. From the battlements of the fort, it’s easy to see why Diu was so desirable. It stands on the mouth of the Gulf of Cambay, and a few smartly placed cannons could easily control Gujarat’s trade with the entire Indian ocean rim. As I clambered atop one of the bastions and stared at the horizon, beyond the red sails of the bobbing dhows, Aden didn’t really seem so far away.
When a Dutch merchant named Jan Huyghen van Linschoten visited the town in the summer of 1583, he understood its advantages immediately. Traders from around the world who “traffic in Cambia [and from thence] to Mecca or the Red Sea, do commonly discharge their wares and take in their lading in Diu”, he noted. In his account, Diu resembled Davos during a meeting of the World Economic Forum, “full of strange nations, as Turks, Persians, Arabians and other country people”.
Today, most of the people of strange nations who visit Diu are tourists rather than traders, but the territory hasn’t lost its internationalism. Many courier companies in the bazaar bear signboards advertising their efficiency at shipping packages to “London, Lisbon and Mozambique,” dots on the map linked by the accident of Diu’s colonial history. The Portuguese attitude to the residents of its colonies was rather different from the exclusionary position maintained by the British: people who live in Goa or Macau were simply thought to be Portuguese citizens who lived overseas. As a result, thousands of residents of Diu born before 1961 and their families have obtained dark red passports that allow them to build new lives not only in Portugal, but also, since the implementation of the European Union’s Schengen agreements in 1995, in the UK and other parts of the continent. Many others have fanned out through the Lusitanian world, to Angola, Brazil and beyond.
Among those who have profited from this diasporic frenzy, even though he’s rarely strayed away the counter of his store in the bazaar, is Jagish Arya, proprietor of Shri Ramvijay Refreshing, Diu’s best-known ice cream store. Since his grandfather opened the establishment in 1933, four generations of Aryas have attempted to give Diu a taste of the changing world outside. They started by making fizzy drinks under the punny brand name Dew, importing bottles from Germany for their venture. In the mid-1970s, they began to serve up delicious ice cream. Pizzas appeared in their menu a few years ago and then, weeks before my visit, Arya and his sons spent ₹55,000 to bring Diu its first espresso machine. This winter, as homesick Diu natives returned from Europe and Africa to relive their childhoods and sort out knotty property matters, Arya found himself selling approximately 50 shots of Lavazza every day. “We may be a small place, but we aren’t lacking for anything here,” he said.
Another effect of Diu’s population dispersal was on display in the clutch of churches in Firganiwada, the island’s old Christian quarter. The territory’s Christian population has never been especially large, and it has now shrunk to less than 200. This has left Diu with more shrines than worshippers to fill them. Demonstrating an admirable generosity of spirit, the congregation has agreed to let the buildings be put to other uses. In 1992, the Church of St Thomas, built in 1598, was converted into an archaeological museum that houses a variety of carved stones and religious artefacts from around the island. The cloisters of the shrine are used as a hotel, with a makeshift rooftop bar that offers refreshing pints of beer, tangy seafood barbeques and spectacular sunsets. It also affords excellent views of the roof of the Church of St Francis of Assisi, built in 1593, sections of which have long served as a government hospital.
One morning, after a refreshing swim off the secluded Chakratirth beach, I pedalled off to meet Father Joseph Rodrigues, the 63-year-old priest with an Elvis quiff, who is in charge of the four-century-old Immaculate Conception Church. The building is decorated with neoclassical and Baroque elements, some of which have been reimagined with a Gujarati sensibility. In keeping with Diu’s coastal location, and in celebration of Portugal’s maritime prowess, seashells are the dominant motif. They’re everywhere: on the façade outside and above the doorways and altars inside. The main altar and pulpit are intricately carved in dark wood, believed to have been transported from East Africa.
Father Rodrigues had his hands full as a stream of parents of all religions dropped by to pay the fees of their children studying in the parish school. Nearby, a group of nuns were running a nursery school in a structure that used to house a Zoroastrian fire temple, another old building for which Diu has found a new function. “There’s a great sense of tolerance here,” said Father Rodrigues, who speaks Hindi, Gujarati, Konkani, English and says a weekly mass in Portuguese. “It’s clean and quiet. It’s a peaceful place to live.”
The diminutive size of his flock should have made his duties less onerous, but that wasn’t the case. The Christians of Diu, it turned out, are like the Parsis of Mumbai. Almost all of them are related to each other, which makes finding marriage partners nearly impossible. As a result, alliances have to be effected with families from Daman, more than 16 hours away by bus, Mumbai or even Goa. The upside, of course, is an enviably tight-knit community whose well-worn familiarity is apparent to anyone strolling down Firganiwada’s lanes. Residents greet each other in Portuguese and set out plastic chairs in the street in the evening so that they can converse with passersby.
On my last night in Diu, I joined one of these huddles, as Alina da Cruz, who ran the guest house in which I was staying, described the tense period of liberation in December, 1961. She recalled the roar of the Indian Air Force planes flying low over Firangiwada, the excitement of people clambering to their roofs to greet the aircraft with shouts of “Jai Hind”, the chunks of masonry that flew across the neighbourhood when the Portuguese governor blew up sections of his palace, to prevent it from falling into Indian hands. Keyboard chords drifted across the wall from the house next door, where her son-in-law Gilbert was giving music lessons.
Like her parish priest, Alina da Cruz speaks several languages effortlessly and is at ease chatting with guests from around the world. She couldn’t see why this should be considered an especially admirable talent. “Diu has always welcomed people from around the world,” she said. “Globalisation is in our roots.”
Diu is a 40 sq. km island that is part of the Union Territory of Daman & Diu. It is located just off the coast of south Gujarat’s Kathiawar peninsula, and connected to the mainland by ferries and bridges. The closest big city is Bhavnagar (166 km to the north-east).
Air Direct flights are available from Mumbai.
Road Diu is around 380 km from Ahmedabad by road. Overnight buses are available from Ahmedabad for around ₹400.
Rail Trains from Mumbai and Ahmedabad connect to Veraval (90 km from Diu). Passenger trains are available from Veraval to Delwada, the closest railhead (8 km away). Taxis and auto rickshaws are available from both Veraval and Delwada.
• The Sea Shell Museum, at Fudam, a village west of Diu Town, has a collection of shells painstakingly collected by Captain Fulbaria over more than half a century. (9 a.m. – 6 p.m.).
• Watch boats being built from wooden planks at the workshop on Vanakbara beach, around 5 km west of Nagoa beach.
• Drive east of Diu town, to the 16th century Portuguese Fort and the adjoining lighthouse, which is the highest point in Diu. (8 a.m. – 6 p.m.)
• Diu is a perfect place for cycling. Traffic is scant and the terrain mostly flat, especially on the seaside road to Fudam village, which is a joy to pedal down. Cycles can be hired at Neel Auto Garage (02875-255128/98243 63795), behind the Government Godown, near Kava Masjid.
Heranca Goesa Diu is a family-run guesthouse with clean rooms, Goan food and welcoming hosts (02875-253851; doubles from ₹700).
São Tomé Retiro is set on the top floor of Diu’s St. Thomas Church. Rooms of different sizes are available, along with Portuguese food (George D’Souza 02875-253137; doubles ₹500).
Radhika Beach Resort is set on Nagoa beach, has comfortable rooms, a fitness centre, play area for kids, and a massive swimming pool (02875275551/2; www.radhikaresort.com; doubles from ₹5,050).
Hoka Resort is a compact hotel overlooking the beach, with clean rooms and an open-air lounge area with a pool.(9824294048; www.resorthoka.com; doubles from ₹3,250, taxes extra)
Azzaro Resort and Spa at Fofrara-Fudam is the only semi-luxury hotel in Diu, with a spa, three restaurants, and a poolside bar (02875 255421; www.azzarodiu.com; doubles from ₹5,550, taxes extra).
Hotel Kohinoor at Fofrara-Fudam is a collection of Portuguese-looking buildings with comfortable rooms, amid gardens and little fountains. (02875-252209; www.hotelkohinoordiu.com; doubles from ₹4,050, taxes extra).
Diu is perhaps the only place in India where visitors of any religion can inspect Zoroastrian Towers of Silence at close quarters—and even enter them. In other parts of India, only Zoroastrians are allowed near the Towers and most often only designated pallbearers go inside. Located in the island’s Fudam area are two abandoned dakhmas, one of which dates back from the 13th century. Locals refer to the structures as the Parsi mandir. Until the last Parsis left the island in the 1950s, bodies of community members were consigned to the vultures here.
Appeared in the July 2012 issue as “Colonial Cousins”. This story has been updated in March 2016.
Naresh Fernandes is the editor of Scroll.in and the author of books, including "Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story of Bombay's Jazz Age" and "City Adrift: A Short Biography of Bombay".
Ashima Narain has worked as a fashion, wildlife, wedding, and ngo photographer. She has also directed and shot award-winning wildlife documentaries, “In The Pink” and “The Last Dance”.