India // Goa //

Panjim and central Goa

Stacked around the sides of a lush terraced hillside at the mouth of the River Mandovi, PANJIM (also known by its Marathi name, Panaji – “land that does not flood”) was for centuries little more than a minor landing stage and customs house, protected by a hilltop fort and surrounded by stagnant swampland. It only became state capital in 1843, after the port at Old Goa had silted up and its rulers and impoverished inhabitants had fled the plague.

Today, the town ranks among the least congested and hectic of any Indian capital. Sights are thin on the ground, but the backstreets of the old quarter, Fontainhas, have retained a faded Portuguese atmosphere, with colour-washed houses and Catholic churches.

The area around Panjim attracts far fewer visitors than the coastal resorts, yet its paddy fields and wooded valleys harbour several attractions worth a day or two’s break from the beach. Old Goa is just a bus ride away. Further inland, the forested lower slopes of the Western Ghats, cut through by the main Panjim–Bengaluru (Bangalore) highway, shelter the impressive Dudhsagar falls, reachable only by four-wheel-drive jeep.

The leafy rectangular park opposite the India Government tourist office, known as Church Square or the Municipal Gardens, forms the heart of Panjim. Presiding over its southeast side is the town’s most distinctive landmark, the whitewashed Baroque facade of the Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. At the head of a crisscrossing laterite walkway, the church was built in 1541 for the benefit of sailors arriving here from Lisbon. The weary mariners would stagger up from the quay to give thanks for their safe passage before proceeding to the capital at Old Goa – the original home of the enormous bell that hangs from its central gable.

Running north from the church, Rua José Falcao brings you to the riverside, where Panjim’s main street, Avenida Dom Joao Castro, holds the town’s oldest surviving building. With its sloping tiled roofs, carved-stone coats of arms and wooden verandas, the stalwart Secretariat looks typically colonial. Yet it was originally the summer palace of Goa’s sixteenth-century Muslim ruler, the Adil Shah. Later, the Portuguese converted it into a temporary resthouse for the territory’s governors (who used to overnight here en route to and from Lisbon) and then a residence for the viceroy. Today, it houses municipal offices.

A hundred metres east, a peculiar statue of a man holding his hands over the body of an entranced reclining woman represents Abbé de Faria (1755–1819), a Goan priest who emigrated to France to become one of the world’s first professional hypnotists.

Just behind the esplanade, 500m west of the Abbé de Faria statue, stands another grand vestige of the colonial era, the Menezes Braganza Institute. Now the town’s Central Library, this Neoclassical building was erected as part of the civic makeover initiated by the Marquis de Pombal and Dom Manuel de Portugal e Castro in the early nineteenth century. Its entrance lobby on Malacca Road is lined with panels of blue-and-yellow-painted ceramic tiles, known as azulejos, depicting scenes from Luis Vaz de Camões’ epic poem, Os Lusíades.

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