Goa. Those three letters are now synonymous with parties, beaches and cheap booze. It has been taken over by the brute force of commercialism, but look a little harder and you find a lot more in this pocket sized wonderland.
It is all but ironical that what kickstarted this transformation of Goa from a little known Portuguese colony, was a bunch of hippies escaping the realities of 'western materialism'. It all started with this small group of pioneers who travelled from North America and Europe and eventually settled down on the south of Anjuna beach. They lived a life of subsistence by all means, depending on the generosity of the local fisher folk. The hippies have left a long time ago, but the remnants of their culture and their influence is still felt all across Goa. Anjuna is now dotted with shops selling expensive trinkets and crowded by the hordes of charter tourists from everywhere in the world. But standing on those shores, shutting out all the noise and clutter, it is still not hard to imagine what attracted the spirit seekers to this land.
A truly astonishing fact that I learnt a few years ago, was the existence of an overland hippie trail that existed between Europe and Goa in the '70s and '80s. People used to drive their VW Kombi minivans from as far as London all the way to Goa, passing through Greece, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and finally crossing the Wagah border to India. Some would then fork off to Kathmandu, some to Goa and some even south to my neck of the woods in Trivandrum (specifically Kovalam). As you can guess, this route became more and more infeasible as the years passed and political instability gained root all along the trail. But try they did, despite it all; the last of those reported trips happened as recently as 1998.
So what attracted these folks from thousands of miles away to an unpretentious strip on the Indian coast? The answer to that starts a few hundred years back in Goa's history. During the early 16th century, Portuguese invaders wrestled control of this portion of land from the erstwhile native rulers. They soon established Goa as the primary base for their lucrative spice trade bolstered by their holdings in the orient. This made Goa one of the oldest European colonies in India (from 1510AD), and also the last one to be liberated (1961 AD). The 450 years of Portuguese rule had undoubtedly created a unique flavour of a blended native Indian & European culture in Goa. The relics of the erstwhile Portuguese empire are still relatively well preserved, which collectively are now also a UNESCO world heritage site. These comprises of churches, convents and cemeteries; the most prominent ones include the Church of our Lady of the Rosary, the Goa Cathedral and the Basilica of Bom Jesus among others. Built in the 16th & 17th centuries these structures are well preserved examples of late Gothic and Baroque architecture. They are concentrated in the old Goa area, some 10km away from the current capital of Panaji and well worth a visit.
So when the new wave of disgruntled westerners arrived in India, Goa presented them with least barriers. It was way more welcoming with their liberal leanings in most things. Goa was also well relatively well connected to Bombay (now Mumbai), the true gateway to India of those times. Add to that mix a bunch beautiful beaches, a laid back life, the lax policing (on virtue of it being a Union Territory at that time with no local state government) and dirt cheap prices - the hippies had found their piece of paradise.
One amongst the pioneers credited with popularising Goa as a hippie hotspot was Yertward Mazamanian, an Armenian American from Boston, USA. Popularly called Eight Finger Eddie, he setup his base first in Colva in South Goa before moving north to Anjuna. A soup kitchen and flea market that he set up there ultimately became the focal point of the hippie trail and eventually cemented Goa as the hippie capital of the world. Eddie spent the rest of his life in Goa and passed away in 2010 aged 85. That flea market he started (or revived as some people contest) still exists in Anjuna and is open every Wednesday - it might be different now, but it still has its charm (and some old hippies as well).
Some people say it's not like it used to be, and it's not. But I like it here now. I like the parties. And I like the music. It's good to dance to.
- Eight Finger Eddie in 1991.
One major contribution that still lasts beyond those shores is the music genre of Goa Trance. Developed by the same hippies in the 80s, Goa Trance is a sub-genre of electronic music influenced by elements techno, trance and Indian classical music. It began as an underground movement with music being written and played catering to the notorious everything-goes hippie beach parties. The first platform for this style of music where these wild raves in places like Anjuna, Arambol and the aptly named Disco Valley. Picture this - DJs setting up shop on foldable metal tables; speakers set up on the sand blaring their music; people dancing sporting fluorescent paint; smoke screens of weed everywhere; sadhoos roaming around; graffiti featuring aliens, mushrooms, Hindu & spiritual imagery alike - all basking in the glory of the moonlight. Surreal! That must have been some party indeed.
By the 90s the genre went a lot more mainstream with the scene opening up in Europe, Israel and even Japan. It enjoyed some good success during the mid-90s and eventually influenced other genres of trance, the most significant amongst them being psychedelic trance.
So what remains of that Goa now? The hippies seem to have migrated north to Arambol they say, though I couldn't find a trace. Parts of Anjuna still has a bit of the vibe, but you can see it transforming into a noisy outpost like how Baga and Calangute have become. The parties seem to be like rigidly organised corporate affairs. The music and the beaches now have the air of urban high pitched cacophony played in countless shacks on the sand. The once idlyic villages have been taken over by casinos and resorts, big and small.
If that's not your cup of tea, the good news is that Goa still has other things to offer. There are places where you can rusticate even now. Wade off from the beaten path and you can find that the beaches in the south are still relatively untouched - Utorda, Varca, Cola & Palolem are all possibilities where you can carve out a quiet spot on your own. Go inland from the shore and there are small charming villages surrounded by the green of paddy. Walk the streets of Panaji, enjoy its old alleys and sip coffee in a small café. Enjoy the amazing Goa cuisine and have a taste of Xacuti, Vindaloo and Balchão. Get a sense of history in the well preserved Old Goa heritage area. Or trek up the seldom visited ancient fort of Cabo de Rama or the more mainstream Chapora and treat yourself to stunning vistas of the ocean around.
So yes, let your next trip to Goa not be just about the shacks and the clubs. Look around, soak in the history and breathe the peace. Goa still has some magic left in it.