October 21, 2010

Goan Laterite, Red and Rough



Past Bethora, the woods barely part, allowing the rider passing glimpses of sloping roofs of formerly bright hued Mangalore tiles weathered over time by elements to an earthy shade of shadows that filter the morning sun to randomly shifting patterns on Goa’s back roads.

Set back from the road that narrows and curves past bends before straightening, only to curve again, trees rise high along the incline of gentle hills while across the road they drop away along the slopes, shading stone and mortar homes fronted by courtyards centered around brightly painted tulsi enclosures.

If you’re lucky you might spot a Tree Pie in the branches, the twitching tail giving its presence away while Magpie Robins disappearing into the underbrush serve to pause the rider out of concern for their well being. Fear not, the Magpie Robins for all their seemingly clumsy hop, skip and jump routine are supremely athletic. I grew up watching them.

I like riding through the quiet of Goa’s rural landscape, particularly through Nirankal where the silence can lull senses so completely that only the shocking red of a recently quarried earth will awaken them to a screeching halt. Most times newer constructions are hidden away among vegetation so if a rider is returning after a prolonged absence he is unlikely ever to notice it unless you happen upon a laterite quarry.



Laterite mined amidst the greenery is among the most visible of visiting cards that rural economic activity in Goa leaves behind, not as much for the gaping earth as for the searing red of the violation inflicted, the colour resulting from the presence of iron oxides.

Ajay and I pulled up at a newly quarried laterite mine the moment we rounded the bend past a clump of bamboo along the Nirankal-Dabal stretch. While there was little in the landscape to suggest anything out of the ordinary, the disquiet presented by the freshly excavated red earth proved to be hypnotic.



A makeshift house constructed from mined laterite stones and covered with dried coconut fronds stood at one end, home to a Kannada migrant labour family tasked with keeping watch over the laterite mine in the open area to the front.

Migrant labour from neighbouring Karnataka find employment in Goa, filling in for local Goans unwilling to take up hard manual labour. While Kannada-speaking labourers are often, though not always, shunned, ridiculed and likely to be looked down upon by Goans, they’re largely indispensable in filling in for hard labour requirements in this tiny coastal state.



I stepped over laterite rubble from the mine and made for their dwelling. At first I was taken aback by the walls raised with laterite blocks loosely placed one over the other. There was no mortar binding the stones. None at all. Nor did I see a door!

In the doorway the father sat in a swing fashioned from a rope while the lady of the house stood by the doorway in the shade of the thatched roof extending outward. In the middle of seemingly nowhere theirs was a picture of calm.

In the far distance the Western Ghats mountain ranges were outlined in the dreamy blue of a hopeful sky.



Across the road from the quarry a truck stood in the shade of a tree. Tyre marks criss-crossed the laterite mine behind me. While the driver’s side of the door invoked St. Caitan, the bonnet invoked St. Anthony in white paint over rusty red of the laterite it transported from the mine. To a corner of the windshield, under a picture of a suffering Jesus, were the words – Jesus I Love You. No one important was left out. I did not walk around to the back of the truck. If I had, I'd probably see an invocation to a fourth one from the holy pantheon.

The rear view mirror was missing from the holder. Truckers transporting mining extracts on Goan roads find no use for such niceties as a rear view mirror. Moreover, they've little to fear themselves, having entrusted their destiny into divine hands, literally speaking. It's the others on those roads who quiver at the sound of an approaching dumper.

Owning a truck in Goa is a viable business alternative, much in demand for transporting construction material, as also ore from Iron ore and Manganese mines.

The blue plastic drawn over a thatched roof fashioned from coconut fronds was held down by randomly placed fronds and laterite stones. A power tiller fixed with laterite-cutting blades stood to one side of the entrance conspicuous by the absence of a door.

Until recently it was common to see wiry men blackened by the sun toil away manually in the laterite stone quarries, sweat running off in little rivulets as they chiseled away at solid rock, fashioning out large, heavy laterite ‘bricks’ for use in construction of houses elsewhere.


Older constructions in Goa made extensive use of laterite, visible as much in the construction of temples as in churches, including laying steps to raise the plinth. Outlined in white paint, laterite steps, weathered to a shade of black from being exposed to the elements, ascend to the Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church in Panjim, accentuating the church square in the heart of the city, and relieving passersby of the heat of the mid-day sun.



Road-side crosses raised on pedestals are as likely to have been fashioned from laterite stones as the raised plinths of homes in their vicinity.

In each case, more so in the years before machines came to be employed in cutting stones, much hard work, and skill went into manually stripping the laterite quarry into even sized stones for the market. I remember the men employed in cutting stones from rock formations to be wiry and black from being out in the sun. They rarely spoke, and when they did they were often cryptic in their replies.

One time in the monsoons, benefiting from a rare day of sunshine, a wizened old man I met while riding by a laterite quarry in Keri had his head wrapped in towel to protect it from the sun as well as serve as a cushion for carrying the laterite stones to stack some distance away. The old man told me it was a tough ask working the quarry manually in the rains. The stones are usually heavier on account of water seeping through. The costs likewise go up. Flashing a tired smile he returned to chipping the laterite deposits into laterite bricks, his head bent to the task.



The quarry was located a little over a kilometer away from the jagged outcrops of laterite hills that rise immediately upon cresting the incline that breaks cover and levels out into a temporary plateau of sorts before slipping towards Savoiverem, past Booth Khamba, a knee high shrine to the resident spirit whose blessings passing travelers seek on their way past, usually offering coins or incense sticks as much in deference as in obeisance.

Typical of laterite deposits, the jagged outcrops along the surface of the massive mounds from atop which the radio towers on Taleigao Plateau are visible in the far distance, pose stiff challenges if you’re walking on them, more so at sundown. I’ve startled many a Lapwing there and been startled in return by their screaming murder and flapping away agitatedly before circling overhead crying harshly. The night skies fairly dazzle from atop the hills in the vicinity. Hare droppings are common among the jagged outcrops of laterite.


The narrow road that runs past the laterite hills passes by a Banyan tree under whose shade I used to pause for a breather on my cycling sojourns many, many years ago. Now if I happen to pass that way in the noon I pause so the goatherd and his herd of goats have the right of way. Buffaloes grazing in the vicinity will raise their heads at the sharp commands he directs at his unruly flock.


In the years since not much has changed out there except for prices of laterite stones. They’ve become dearer. I remember prices of Goan laterite stones to be a little over a rupee each many years ago, steadily increasing to three, then five before the cost of each laterite stone came to be ten apiece, and even fifteen depending upon your location. Transportation of laterite added to the costs, with locations further away from the quarries parting more for each stone.



Laterite Chira (as laterite stone is known) is designated by the Govt. of Goa as a Minor Mineral alongwith laterite rubble, laterite boulders, Sand, Basalt, and river pebbles. The Major Minerals are Iron Ore, Manganese, and Bauxite. The laterite quarry we happened upon along the Nirankal – Dabal stretch is located near Iron Ore mines operated by Timblo and Sesa Goa.

Most private laterite quarries measure between 2,000 – 7,000 Sq. mts., while smaller leases are typically in the range of 400 – 600 Sq. mts. The larger laterite mines, above 20,000 Sq. mts., are relatively fewer in number.

Laterite deposits in Goa are largely to be found in Sattari, Canacona, and Sanguem, and to an extent in Quepem, with most of private laterite quarries located in these four talukas. The other talukas too have their share of laterite deposits but not as much. Private laterite mining leases granted by the Govt. of Goa will likely be located in villages going by the names of Fatorpa, Darbandora, Pissurlem, Loliem, Virdi, Melauli, Codli, and Agonda among others, names that enchant and evoke curiosity. In my cycling days I would wander down roads for the names of villages they passed through.

Growing up we used to cart laterite blocks stacked up at construction sites and make goalposts of them. Goalkeepers were careful not to lunge blind-eyed at the football, for the stones could hurt if there was so much as a missstep. And missteps were many when we would play catch. I picked up injuries regularly from falls on laterite outcrops when out playing, too many to count.

Boundaries on cricket fields were marked with laterite stones and so were wickets at the bowler’s end. Much to our unease, the leather ball would come apart at the seams from crashing into laterite compounds sooner than later.

Back then each leather cricket ball cost a princely sum of twenty two rupees, a sum we would raise by pitching together. And we played on until the guts spilled out in an unseemly mass of dry entrails, wobbling the trajectory greatly. In time we took to raiding cashew fields to finance our cricket gear, a kilo of raw cashew nuts fetching us ten rupees at the neighbourhood shop!

Laterite was not merely a stone, it was a constant in our lives in more ways than one.

16 comments:

marja-leena said...

What an amazing, glowing red! I'd not heard of laterite so this was very interesting, thanks Anil.

Riot Kitty said...

Nice photos!

Ugich Konitari said...

This post on the "chira" stones, took me back many years. 1975 saw us on a road trip to Goa. We went via Belagum and were returning via Sawantwadi to Mumbai. The Fiat was tilted like a plane, nose up. In those days, the border cops would check if you were transporting Feni . I could see suspicion shining in the cop's eyes as he demanded that we open the trunk. We told him it was stones. He laughed. Then rapped his stick on the car, and we opened the trunk. 4 big chira's, which we brought home then to Mumbai. We had wonderful bookshelves resting on those for many many years after that.

Goa has since then changed a lot. But the use of chiras in Konkan and Goa still continues.

Greatly enjoyed this 'wandering' post about the real Goa !

Anu said...

wonderful!! I have seen these laterite stones, though I didnt know the name, and since i have been collecting stones for ages, have a couple with me too, just small ones, part of the rubble i guess... but i had no idea about all that, esp the cost... and this is rather timely too, while the issues of mining and quarrying are on,in the konkan area....

radha said...

I think we had these laterite stones even in my great grandparent's home in Udupi, if I am not wrong. Kind of took me back years. And placing the stones without mortar is like the walls in England. Stone walls lined for miles without mortar. A beautiful sight.

Anil P said...

Marja-Leena: The rusty-red of laterite owes its character to the presence of iron oxides in the deposits, resulting from weathering over a long period in the tropics.

The laterite deposits found in Goa, and likewise along much of the West Coast of India, is not uniform quality vis-a-vis grade, content of ore, thickness etc.

Laterite rubble is commonly used in Goa in the laying of roads, underlying layers that is.

They have Aluminium content as well, and are very heavy to lift.

Riot Kitty: Thank you.

Ugich Konitari: Interesting story that.

Policemen at checkposts do check bags for Feni, a sight I got accustomed to on buses heading out of Goa, into Belgaum.

I rarely saw them confiscate any though save on a few occasions. Only once did I see a Policeman hurl two bottles of confiscated liquor (not sure if it was Feni, more likely some other) onto stones by the checkpost, other times they simply walked away with them.

I suppose they relied more on their noses to pick liquor, and fingers tracing contours of bag contents, for it could be tedious to get everyone in the bus to open their bags so they could check them for illegally transported liquor.

I'm sure much got through.

Laterite can be very heavy. In high school we would compete with one another to see how far, and how fast each of us could run holding a laterite stone. It was back-breaking to say the least.

Anu: Thank you. Laterite stones have a distinctive appearance as shown in one of the pictures posted in the entry above.

Radha: Laterite is found along India's West Coast, and used to be the primary building material until the advent of cement, factory-made clay bricks and the like. It's still used heavily in construction.

I'd rather have laterite outdoors placed withour mortar to bind them, but surely not in raising walls of a house as was the case with those migrant labour.

I thought it was fraught with risk even though I saw no reason why anyone would want to nudge a stone out of place and have the rest come tumbling down on folks within.

Nona said...

Nice pictures

mumbai paused said...

When land was less dear, homes in Kerala's laterite belt used to have a 'kalluvettamkuzhi' (the hole made from breaking stone/rock') right next to the home. These days, it's bricks and cements blocks that are used.

Anil P said...

Nona: Thanks.

Mumbai Paused: Meaning they would break so many that it would leave a hole behind!

GeraniumCat said...

The colour of the laterite is amazing - such a rich red! And it's fascinating to have so much detail to read about it.

Anil P said...

GeraniumCat: It's strikingly red, and does not wash easily if clothes are soiled by it.

Magan said...

Anil,
That brings back a lot of memories from the middle of granite country that I'm in right now.So does the magpie robin I see ocassionally around. I miss the snakes though. Remembered the disappearing act of the snake among the darkened and weathered laterites in Farmagudi quite a few hrs ago. Gone are those days and also use of laterite that is largely replaced by bricks unless a die hard Goan wants them @ a prohibiting price. When my father started building our house,the price was 45 paise a piece that increased to 85 by the time he finished. I heard that the quality and size of laterite shaped stone only deterioted over time.

There used to be a small stone quarry on the slope down the road that bifurcated into roads going to Keri & Savoi-Vere with a tiny hut of a lone worker who I saw working while Bhatta & I passed on our way to Sanquelim. Seems like it will be long or not before we realize importance of these laborers who help build the riches for the more affluent. The condition is no different here either. Only the scale and contexts are different.
It was nice to revisit life through this post as if I was walking over the long raw laterite wall of the fence that wound around the childhood memories of my ancestral land.
Happy Diwali

Anil P said...

Magan: Thanks for the wishes. Wish you the same.

Even Magpie Robins are no longer as common as they once were, but atleast they did not disappear as the Fantail Flucatchers I would often see outside my window did one fine day, so to say.

Factory-made bricks are used more now than laterite bricks. I think it might be a pricing issue, and as also because of RCC constructions, atleast with the inner walls.

However, I do come upon, every once in a while where the outer walls are constructed using laterite stones and the inner walls with factory-made bricks.

The foundations will still use laterite rubble by the truck-load. Each such truck-load I believe is often priced between Rs. 2,000-3,000.

I remember the quarry you mention. And I was referring to the same quarry in my post. It was on the left as one headed in the direction of the deep-red coloured school structure in Keri. Passing it now it's difficult to locate among vegetation on the side of the road.

Quarrying manually was an important source of income to the labourers. The prices of laterite stones make them a costly proposition now.

Jingle Poetry said...

love the taste of your photos.
beautiful and entertaining.

SEPO said...

again...! breathtaking pics :)
wow.

i have always wanted to visit goa. watching the pics the urge just got more!

Anil P said...

Jingle Poetry: Thank you.

SEPO: Thanks. Visiting Goa is a must.