It isn’t raining, but we’re all drenched. Drinks in hand, there’s animated chatter all around that’s punctuated by frequent giggles. I’m in Goa for the São João festival which takes place each year on June 24. A piece of Portuguese heritage from Goa’s colonial past, the São João festival toasts St John the Baptist, harbinger of Jesus, by jumping into wells and dowsing passers-by with water.
Water is a symbol of life, of cleansing and of grace – according to the Biblical story, when John first meets Jesus, he declares Jesus’ role as the saviour of the world before dipping him in the river in which he baptises people for the forgiveness of their sins. Diving into a well is a nod to this immersion – and also to the story that John kicked for joy in his mother’s womb when she was visited by her relative Mary, pregnant with Jesus. It’s only fitting that Goa’s traditional São João celebrations take place right in the middle of the monsoons.
You wouldn’t guess the serious undertones at the festival. I watch a pair of enthusiastic young locals – whose soaking clothes reveal that they’ve already been having fun – jump into a well. The boy plunges in and makes it look like it’s the easiest thing on the planet, and the girl, after a slight hesitation, follows suit. They vault out again, all set to dive into the next well.
Although Goa’s fest shares its name with its counterpart in Portugal, that’s where the similarities end. In Porto, Festa de São João includes hitting people – usually of the opposite sex – on the head with leeks, jumping over bonfires and decorating homes with bunting.
This year, the monsoon has been erratic – there have been heavy downpours for a few days and then no sign of a drizzle for weeks after. But that hasn’t dampened spirits. In the village of Siolim in Bardez, at one of the more publicised São João celebrations, colourful boats race down the Chapora river. In Panjim, there’s a makeshift well that was actually a pool. I, on the other hand, am accompanying one of Saligao’s aunties to a more low-key celebration in Cottula vado (neighbourhood).
Before the prayers are said at the village grotto and the merriment begins, everyone in the neighbourhood gathers together for a scrumptious lunch. Each year, a different person hosts the feast; this year, we’re at Domnick Fernandes’ home. He’s a bespectacled man with greying hair, who stays busy with church and community activities. The stars of the lunch spread are his pork sorpotel and sambarachi koddi, a delicious curry made with dried and fresh prawns, dried mango seeds and bimbli (Averrhoa bilimbi), which shares the coconut-rich flavour of the Goan Xacuti masala. Fernandes tells me that sambarachi koddi is made only for special occasions because of the painstaking prep, which makes me even more delighted to be present.
Today’s the day to make merry – I quickly learn that this is the central idea of the festival. There’s a massive sense of bonhomie in the air, and it’s clear everyone’s taken time out from the daily routine to be here. Shouts of “Viva São João” punctuate the jumps into wells and the rounds of singing. Hit play on the podcast below to hear their convivial singing.
There’s a koppel on almost every head – a handmade wreath of flowers, leaves and even fruits – a gorgeous reminder of John’s gruesome end: King Herod’s stepdaughter demanded his head on a platter for speaking out against her parents’ marriage.
Apart from tying in with Biblical stories, Goa’s São João festival is a celebration of one’s ties to family and community. New brides wear red dresses called sados and visit their in-laws’ homes with a platter of food and fruit. The newlywed husbands, on the other hand, are supposed to be the first to jump into the well to fetch a bottle of feni, after which the drinking begins.
It takes a couple of hours to go around the vado, jumping into each well and stopping to snack on juicy fruit. There are freshly cut watermelon, jackfruit, apple, pineapple and bananas offered at each house. Buckets of water are poured over people who aren’t jumping into wells, and those who don’t have wells anymore or don’t want their wells touched, offer donations instead.
These days, São João is synonymous with drinking and partying until dawn. During my visit, one of the most prominent billboards was of a São João Shuffle that promised an all-night dance party, complete with DJs and pumping electronic dance music. The youngsters I met in Cottula vado were also headed to these parties later that night. It’s no wonder then that celebrations like these, as Fernandes pointed out, are fervent attempts to keep these traditions alive.
Fabiola Monteiro was formerly a member of National Geographic Traveller India's digital team. Since then, her words have featured in The Hindu, Mint Lounge, Roads & Kingdoms, The Goya Journal, and Condé Nast Traveller India. She tweets as @thefabmonteiro and is on Instagram @fabiolamonteiro.