Ten years ago, I fulfilled a boyhood dream by moving to my native Goa, to live in Panaji (Panjim) with my wife and two sons (our third son was born in the city) after a lifetime cleaved between giant metropolises: Bombay, New York, London, Paris.
We bought an apartment just footsteps from the beach at Miramar, and, as with every previous home, I began to explore our new surroundings with camera and notebook in hand. I ventured out again and again, to try and peel back the dense overlays of social and cultural history that make India’s smallest state’s pocket-sized capital feel so instantly, palpably different from any other city in the country.
From our first days as new residents, Panjim’s effect was eerily transcendent. Where I once raced feckless from point A to B, now my pace blurred to a languid, circuitous stroll. Instead of ducking my head to issue curt nods of recognition, I found myself almost involuntarily engaged in gracious, elaborately mannered exchanges, often with total strangers. All of us became inveterate ramblers. My kids clamour for long walks in town like other children in other parts of the country beg for mall visits.
We grew utterly devoted to the abiding joys that have always made Panjim special. There are routinely breathtaking sunsets on the beach near our home at Miramar, where fishermen still wade waist-high into the water to pull in huge perch and mullets. The lingering hundred-year-old café courtesies at Tato and Bhonsle. Bacchanalian revelry at the Carnival, and languid people watching on the criss-crossed steps of the church square. Frugal magic and pure exhilaration of a free monsoon ferryboat ride across the Mandovi River, and the welcoming outdoor midnight mass on Christmas Eve in historic Fontainhas, where residents of the neighbourhood hospitably lay out coffee and cake for all visitors.
But at roughly the same time that we arrived in the city, Panjim began to undergo a remarkable metamorphosis, which continues to polish its architectural heritage to a 21st-century sheen. The trigger was the International Film Festival of India, which made the city its permanent home in 2004. The splendid old Goa Medical College precinct—it housed the first medical college in Asia—was beautifully restored for this purpose. The following decade has seen an impressive range of art galleries, restaurants, hotels, boutiques, and start-ups decanting sparkling new fizz into the gorgeous, vintage 19th- and early 20th-century localities.
All that new energy fits particularly well with this decorous little riverside city, because of the little-known paradox that underlies its considerable charms. All of the sun-dappled, seemingly quaint Latinate architecture and old-fashioned atmosphere is deceptive. Goa’s capital is actually the first rigorously modern city of India. Panjim was originally constructed with great care by technocratic, highly globalised natives of the 19th century, who travelled back and forth between Europe, North and South America, and sought to build a city back home that articulated their ambitions and unique world view.
Thus, the fundamental reason for Panjim’s difference from other Indian cities lies in the profound dissimilarity of the Goan experience of Portuguese colonialism and the rest of India under the British. Briefly, the 450-year-old Estado da India’s (State of India) heyday was in the 16th century, when it was the richest trading port in the world, but Portugal’s ability to protect power within its own empire crashed soon thereafter. It only managed to retain nominal control through a set of compromises with increasingly assertive Hindu and Catholic Goan elites. By the 19th century, a full-scale internal rout was underway, signalled by the abrupt shifting of administrative power from priest-dominated “Old Goa” to the native-built “New Goa” in Panjim.
You can feel the contrast in the course of a half-hour walk. This is the first city in India built on a grid, with pavements constructed along all of its main roads. Shade trees were imported from South America, engineering blueprints for drainage and sewerage from Germany, and concepts for park gazebos and bandstands from England. Panjim is where the first non-Western “world citizens” asserted themselves, self-confidently brought Hinduism back into the public sphere, created a range of modern institutions for their own use, and sought what the passionate historian of Panjim, Vasco Pinho, describes as “freedom from fear the like of which has existed perhaps nowhere else.”
This is why I like to begin the impromptu Panjim walking tours I conduct for culture-minded visitors at the entrance to the Institute Menezes Braganza. Situated in a corner of the Quartel—the imposing compound facing the riverfront opposite the ferry wharf—this is where the first public library in Asia was inaugurated in 1832, giving all Goans access to a huge, multilingual collection of books and periodicals in French, German, English and Portuguese, but also in Marathi and Konkani. Over the century before 1947, the library and companion public institutions signified the first independent republican impulses in India.
Formerly called the Instituto Vasco da Gama, Institute Menezes Braganza neatly illustrates both the taste and aspirations of globalised Goans of the 19th and 20th centuries, who endowed their beloved centre of culture with the most extraordinary collection of contemporary art in India, including original works by Renoir, Cézanne and Pissarro. The entranceway is itself a marvel, lined with panoramic azulejos, the emblematic painted ceramic tiles of Iberia. These depict scenes from Luís de Camões’ epic poem Os Lusíadas, about the departure of Vasco da Gama for India, his rounding of the Cape of Good Hope, and his encounter with the Zamorin of Calicut.
Like Dante in Italian or Shakespeare in English, Camões is by far the most significant writer of Portuguese, and is credited with helping to create the modern language. But most of this poet’s greatest work was not written in his country. Instead it was produced in Goa. His most recent translator, Landeg White, writes, “it was the experience of being in India that changed [Camões] from a conventional court poet into one of the most original…”
Now we head to Jardim Garcia da Orta, where Panjim commemorates another little-known connection to global intellectual history. This pleasant park, where senior citizens cram themselves four-a-bench at dusk to gabble volubly in Portuguese and Konkani, is named for the brilliant Renaissance-era doctor, botanist, and scientist (and closeted Jew) who first communicated the wealth of India’s medicinal and commercially valuable plants to Europe. Every Sunday evening, musicians perform in the park’s bandstand, while locals dance, lounge, and reminisce.
Right above is Clube Vasco da Gama, a century-old social club that encapsulates the living traditions of Panjim. Still frequented by the great-great-grandchildren of its founding members, it is also wonderfully welcoming to walk-ins and visitors, who can sit under high ceilings and enjoy the constant breeze from floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the gardens below, while enjoying the house favourite chouriço pao, the emblematic, vinegary Goa sausage with hand-kneaded bread.
Back to the waterfront, where an eye-catching, dramatic sculpture depicts one of the most ambitious 19th-century Goans, Abbé José Custódio de Faria, who made an unprecedented, outsized reputation for himself in post-revolutionary France. A controversial priest who preached at the Vatican and Portuguese courts, and schemed with Tipu Sultan’s agents to depose the colonialists, he became a Parisian sensation for his public battles with Anton Mesmer (whose name is the root of the word “mesmerise”), about the true nature of hypnotism. Faria’s insight about auto-suggestion is considered to be the origin of scientific hypnotism, and he was immortalised by Alexandre Dumas in The Count of Monte Cristo.
Directly opposite Faria’s statue is a valuable palimpsest of the city. At first glance, in the shorthand drivel of the tourism and real estate marketplaces, it is a “Portuguese house”. But look just beyond the facade, and the Mhamai Kamat house unfolds into a Konkani village, classically arrayed along courtyards with fruit trees, ancient kitchens and a timeless, laterite-lined well. The architect Raya Shankhwalker, who grew up in a part of this building, describes the indigenous fusion of building styles in Goa as a “unique architectural expression”, an “appropriate climatic and social response” that resulted in a “stunning collection of well-proportioned houses.”
Only now, more than 50 years after decolonisation, is it becoming apparent that these old houses of Panjim are an irreplaceable cultural treasure that merit preservation, rather than the wholescale destruction that has ravaged heritage districts in other parts of India. While some protection has come via city ordinances, most of the remaining buildings have survived simply because their owners consider them a part of their identity.
A new cultural hub for Old Panjim is steadily taking shape in the heart of Fontainhas, the “Latin Quarter”, where the Panjim Inn family of boutique hotels has spread itself between three old buildings (and a new one) including the popular Gitanjali Gallery. A few steps away, the Fundacao Oriente, headquartered in Lisbon, has opened a jewel-like gallery in a century-old villa to showcase a selection of masterpieces by Antonio Trindade, the “Rembrandt of the East” who was the first Indian faculty member of the J.J. School of Art in Mumbai. Opposite is another new venture in an old building, the vibrant Traveller’s Café with its excellent coffee and free Wi-Fi.
Fontainhas, like the rest of Old Panjim, is best explored on foot through its bylanes and broader paths. Here, you stroll past the house where local priests conspired to overthrow the Portuguese in 1787—the first war of Indian independence!—to a chapel housing the notorious cross of the Inquisition, in front of which hundreds of Goans were condemned to flames. But Panjim is never all distant past. Right in front, in the middle of a 19th-century block of houses, are the headquarters of the Charles Correa Foundation, a miraculous cube of light brimming with the great man’s archives, and smiling, young acolytes dedicated to “the betterment of Goa’s built and natural habitat.”
That habitat is in better shape now than it has been in many decades, as a new generation of innovations moves into half-abandoned or empty structures. Even as the state mostly sits on its hands, the citizens of Panjim are steadily burnishing their city with unexpected new delights sheathed in lovely classic surroundings. The young designer Syne Coutinho has opened a little boutique in a cottage by the river in São Tomé. Sacha’s Shop is an eclectic mix of clothes, jewellery and bric-a-brac in a side room of an imposing mansion near the Boca da Vaca spring.
Near where I live in Miramar, a Milanese native, Maria Grazia Raschi, has opened an astonishingly good Italian restaurant that turns out hand-made pastas and brick-oven pizzas in a room dominated by large black-and-white photographs of Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. Just below, French-born Lucie Masson’s Patisserie Delicieux serves up an array of cakes, croissants, and snacks made fresh every day from top-quality ingredients.
In the aristocratic neighbourhood of Campal, which is filled with huge old houses, the activist-minded fashion designer and writer Wendell Rodricks showcases his one-of-a-kind collections in the upper storey of a tree-shaded residence. Very close by, the Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant has rebuilt a vast, crumbling villa to become the most family-friendly establishment in town, with a seafood-dominated menu that includes some of the best Goan fare in Panjim.
High up in Altinho, where the archishop and chief minister live near each other, a stately, typically Goan home has been renovated into Sunaparanta, a centre for the arts with a charming café nestled in its courtyard. Called Bodega, the café is owned and operated by Vandana
But no place in Panjim better epitomises its deeply rooted contemporary revival than Black Sheep Bistro, an unexpectedly thrilling new restaurant in the same mansion which accommodates Sacha’s Shop. The venture is an immediately appreciable labour of love from Prahlad Sukhtankar, who grew up just a few yards away down the road, and his wife Sabreen. The couple met at hotel school in Switzerland.
Panjim’s generations mingle agreeably all day at BSB, as Goans have inevitably come to call it. Regulars drop in from the neighbourhood, and visitors from all over the world pore over the menu’s several pages, which prominently notes “we are proud to support a ‘farm to table’ philosophy.” Thoughtful experiments abound, including poha-crusted chicken laddoos, paper-thin medallions of raw fish cured with paan-infused olive oil, and a wildly inventive deconstructed puran poli. My sons always go for Goa sausage, smeared on homemade poi bread, enlivened with molten dark chocolate shavings. An enduring classic, but irresistibly revitalised. That is my Panjim, today.
Panjim (Panaji) lies on the tip of Tiswadi island, at the centre of Goa’s coastline. You can reach any corner of the state in less than two hours drive from the city. The beach strips of North and South Goa are equidistant and are 1-2 hr away. Just upriver is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Old Goa.
Within the heritage district of Fontainhas, the Panjim Inn family of hotels offers a range of quirky, characterful options (http://www.panjiminn.com/; doubles from ₹3,400). Nearby is the similarly tastefully repurposed Hospedaria Abrigo de Botelho (http://www.hadbgoa.com/; doubles from ₹2,100), the distinctly swankier La Maison Fontainhas (lamaisongoa.com; doubles from ₹4,100) and, right opposite, the incredible value-for-money, family-run Afonso Guest House (http://afonsoguesthouse.com/; doubles from ₹2,500). More budget options are available from thehostelcrowd (http://thehostelcrowd.com/; doubles from ₹1,400). Looming over the Latin Quarter is the five-star The Crown (http://www.thecrowngoa.com/; doubles from ₹6,500), with unbeatable views of River Mandovi. On the verge of the aristocratic neighbourhood of Campal, The Vivanta by Taj-Panaji (http://www.vivantabytaj.com/; doubles from ₹11,900) is the most luxurious hotel in Panjim, while the Goa Marriott Resort & Spa (http://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/goimc-goa-marriott-resort-and-spa/, doubles from ₹13,950) sits riverside where the Mandovi meets the ocean at Miramar. Another excellent option is across Dona Paula hill at the beachfront Cidade de Goa designed by Charles Correa (http://cidadedegoa.com/; doubles from ₹9,500). All rates are starting rates and for low season.
Heritage Walks It is difficult to get the best out of this many-layered cultural gem without an expert guide. Great tours of the city are regularly organised by Goa Heritage Action Group (www.goaheritage.in/). Individual tours can also be arranged from Jack Sukhija of Panjim Inn, and Dr. Luis Dias (https://luisdias.wordpress.com/).
Kala Academy At one end of the city’s riverfront cornice, this small architectural masterpiece by Charles Correa houses conservatories for western and Indian classical music, and hosts concerts and plays almost every day.
Abbe Faria statue One of Goa’s most intriguing public artworks, it also occupies a very significant place next to Clube Nacionale, the Mhamai Kamat household, and the superb Palacio Idalcao.
Velha Goa Galleria This iconic store (http://velhagoa.net/) near Panjim Inn has a vast selection of products crafted from tin-glazed ceramic tiles called azulejos. Don’t miss their gorgeous jewellery boxes and replicas of Goan shell windows.
Acclaimed new restaurant Black Sheep Bistro (blacksheepbistro.in) is a culinary highlight of Panjim. Another is Horse Shoe (0832-2431788), an extravaganza of Luso-Indian fare. For sandwiches, cupcakes, and lunches on the go, you can’t beat Bodega (facebook.com/bodegaGoa) on Altinho hill, and first-rate Italian food is available near Miramar beach at Baba’s Wood Café (facebook. com/babaswoodcafe). Just below is French-run Patisserie Delicieux (delicieux.co.in). For goodies and an old-world atmosphere go to the century-old cafés Bhonsle (opposite Cine National), Tato (near municipal garden) and bakeries Confeitaria 31 de Janeiro (0832-2225791) and Mr. Baker (08322224622). For Goan food in a family-friendly setting, The Fisherman’s Wharf (thefishermanswharf.in) in Campal is unbeatable. Finally the local favourites are Clube Vasco da Gama (0832-2423768), Venite (0832-2425537), or Viva Panjim (0832-2422405) in Fontainhas, serving up delectable Goan curries and local pork specialities.
Appeared in the December 2015 issue as “Reinventing The Modern”.