November 12, 2009

Lions At The Gate

On the back roads where people are few and far between, where silence is left to its own devices, shattered only occasionally by a motorbike curving past you, it’s easy to be lulled into the melody of a melancholy road winding past old Portuguese-era homes.

That is until you come upon the lions.

We did, first at Brittona, then along the way through Ecoxim, and later, Salvador do Mundo before passing more lions as we made our way through Carona.

They watch over the road in pairs and needless to say they haven’t tired of watching over it for years on end. Decades are passé. The Brittona – Aldona stretch goes back centuries. And so do some houses. The others date back to early 1900s and possibly a decade or two further back, to the late 1800s.

Once we descended the slope to Britona after riding over the Mandovi bridge the ride got quieter specially after we swept past the fish market in the shade of the bridge. As night falls fish continue to be sold in the light of kerosene lamps. Cats keep vigil by the baskets at the feet of fisherwomen seated on small stools. The stools hold up well under the pressure brought to bear by the not inconsiderable girth of the ladies.

The cats have no use for the kerosene lamps. They have no use for the fisherwomen either. Their perseverance with their penance in front of baskets of fish would put a monk to shame.

In the opposite direction, not far from where we made the left turn, fishing trawlers ferry in fish. Across the river lies Panaji. Water ferries used to operate across the river to Betim. The bridge over the Mandovi made the ferry redundant.

The Sun was beginning to dip that October day last month. The Mandovi river lay to our right and for much of our way it would stay with us.

Rounding a bend I was drawn to the looming edifice of a whitewashed church.

The sight of the Nossa Senhora de Penha da França Church on the banks of the Mandovi in Brittona momentarily takes one’s breath away, more for its setting on the river as it curves past the 383 year old church. It is at Penha da Franca that river Mapusa, flowing southward, merges with the Mandovi. Along the road upstream of the river lies the maritime jetty at Virlosa.

On the banks of the Mandovi one can see massive barges ferrying iron ore upstream of the river. Occasionally they sound the horn, piercing the calm, startling water birds in the mangroves along Ribander causeway on the Panjim side of the river.

The Nossa Senhora de Penha da Franca church is known to have been built by seafarers, sheltering in her protective embrace on the high seas. The landscape momentarily stepped out to tango with us as we rode past the impressive white structure in the backdrop of the Mandovi.

White was restricted for use in painting churches during the Portuguese occupation of Goa. No Goan house came to be painted white in their tumultuous reign on India’s West Coast. So Goan homes took on colours nearly the entire spectrum of the rainbow, and they still do in the largely Christian stretch we rode through that evening. However some break ranks and paint white.

Gaily coloured homes lay back from the road, their gates opening onto paths that led to covered porches or balcaos as they are known locally. A profusion of carefully tended flowers in gardens flanking the approach to the entrance rose above the compound walls that ran along the road on either side of the two gateposts, lions guarding the gates.

While I had expected to see houses on high plinths, their balcaos continuing along the steps leading to the road, sometimes shepherded by curving balustrades, I saw few or none as we rode along, past homes. The plinths rarely exceeded a few feet off the ground. If there were any hidden from the road I wouldn’t know.

I could be forgiven for thinking lions came in all shapes or sizes, and different avatars as well.

While the lion resting on his belly came closest to what I might expect of a lion in the wild while it kept its eye out for prey, a sight reinforced by all the documentaries I saw in the years I was discovering wildlife before I discovered myself, I was still prepared to allow the King of the Jungle to lift himself up so he could see above the tall grass, into the far distance as Heraldson’s lion did.

However I could not bring myself to believe that a lion could swallow its pride and allow itself to be painted pink before being tasked with keeping watch over the gate.

Or for that matter take on a form that would make passersby pause and wonder of the fate that had befallen the proud King of the Jungle.

Still worse if it was reduced to mimicking a startled cat even if it could glory beneath many a sprightly flower bending over in affection.

If ever there was a case to be made for returning the King to the jungle, free to roam in freedom and roil the nights with his mighty roars and retain his form and identity, you have to visit John Sequeira’s lions above to see why.

Unlike the others we saw that evening, the lion at Olaulim had no company. It watched over the gate alone. It had turned the colour of the gatepost it was stretched out on. I saw no hint that it had ever worn the colour that lions wear. There was no hint it was saddened by the fact, at least none that I could recognise. Or maybe it was, and I had no way of knowing that either.

Some houses lay in disrepair. Their front yards untended. Gardens overrun by creepers and grass. Yet, the lions kept watch. If anyone decided to return they were ensured of a warm welcome at the gate.

But somewhere deep down the lions must’ve known they were fated to watch over a gate rusting away from a waiting that was lost to memory, lost to hope.

I could only guess. Was it a family that had migrated to far shores, intending to return while their dreams led them along even as they assimilated into once alien cultures, never returning even as they had promised themselves that some day they would walk through the gate and not walk out again?

Maybe they did return over the years, the visits becoming fewer over time until those left behind aged before passing beyond the pale and there was no one to return to, anymore.

I can only guess.

The lions, however, continue to wait.


marja-leena said...

Wonderful post and photos of a beautiful area! Some of those lions are great but I agree the pink is demeaning. Sad to see the neglected homes.

Ugich Konitari said...

Great Lion post ! And it was great seeing the tranquil landscape dotted with the images of a king.

I first visited Goa in 1963. Then 1975. And recently in 2006. BIG change. But the greenery remains. Kind of slowing down things to a sensible level. Maybe its Susegaad. Maybe its just inherent respect for the land and the water. A pucca Goan friend from 1975, related to all those heritage house folks with curved -figure-8 cast iron sofas in big halls, took us on a walking trip in some of the old parts of Panjim, with such interesting houses, on the latest trip, ending with a great fish meal at a home-restaurant ...

My blogging life actually began with this post on Goa !

Your post brought back those memories.

Anuradha Shankar said...

This was wonderful, Anil! As usual, you have picked something off the usual... and made it into a great piece of writing!! loved reading this one, and I am absolutely sure that the next time I am in Goa, or anywhere else, and see some lions, I shall think of you!!

Anjuli said...

Anil- your absolute BEST post thus far!! I want to go there- oh my- I really enjoyed seeing the various lions and reading the narrative which accompanied the photos.

This was superb!

radha said...

Nice to think that the old individual houses still remain in Goa, despite their dilapidated condition. Nice account as usual with a wonderful collection of pictures. And I particularly liked this line 'Their perseverance with their penance in front of baskets of fish would put a monk to shame'

Uma Gowrishankar said...

Interesting treatise on lions keeping guard far far away from jungles - lions of various hues and shapes to boot! Enjoyed your turn of sentences and the controlled humour that your writing exudes.

Grannymar said...

A wonderful post. You have opened my eyes to Gateposts and Gateways. Now where did I put my camera...

Lauren Quinn said...

What an interesting and unusual premise for a post. I love how much the spirit of the place is revealed in the crumbling gates and their lions.

Glad I stumbled upon your blog; looking forward to reading more.

Granny J said...

Thank you, Anil, for such a great pride of lions guarding the gateways in Goa. I wonder if it was also the custom in Portugal to ask lions to do guard duty...

Rohini said...

Wonderful clicks and lovely write-up to complement it.. Glad I came here.. Had been to Goa a couple of years before, but never took time to stop by and appreciate this hidden beauty.. !
Thanks for dropping by and leaving ur nice comments; photography is one of my hobbies too.. Will post some of my clicks soon.. Will be back here often! :)

neha said...

a piece after my own heart! i love reading (and writing) about details that are lost or forgotten about when taking in the larger picture. they become blind spots, but they have so much to say. love this post.

Niranjana said...

How interesting! Lions at the gate seem so feng shui to me--I would have never associated this with Goa.

Mridula said...

The lions do seem to be the flavor of the town!

Unknown said...

A great insight into Goa, I guess the colour white was chosen for relgious purpose because of it's pure value, but who would want to paint their homes that colour anyway. I like the rambling untidiness in the images, you have captured the age of the place. Excellent post.

Anil P said...

Marja-leena: Pink is demeaning. They used the colour of the strip they painted on the compound wall for the lion. Whoever crafted that pink lion must be starting out with wildlife :-)

Ugich Konitari: Thank you. Goa has changed by a bit in the cities, and some town centers. Elsewhere Goa has retained its tranquility. Yes, charter flights to Goa have increased the number of tourists visiting Goa, but that is mostly beach side.

Like you said in your post, the airport in Goa is the homely kind, bright, cheerful, and its small size does not stand out like a sore thumb in its surroundings.

Your reference to driving: I agree. On Goan roads, much of rash driving can be traced to vehicles from Karnataka, and Maharashtra, bearing KA and MH registration plates. Typically they'll be visiting from interiors of Maharashtra and Karnataka. I've lost count of accidents triggered by these vehicles - Sumos, Trax, Mahindra jeeps etc.

Panaji does have wonderful walking opportunities, the homes are a treat to see. Goan heritage homes now battle with cost of maintenance.

Anu: You must. Some gateposts will feature roosters, or soldiers. I picked lions to feature. Thank you :-)

Anjuli: Thank you. The lions are quite a bunch. Some of the lions are constructed from cement. I would've thought some might be made of clay, especially the older ones, not sure which though.

Radha: Many, many old Goan homes remain still.

Old Goan houses have come under pressure from the push to "develop" areas, typically real-estate development. However the plans are meeting with resistance, specially from local governing bodies like Panchayats. This has also resulted in pitting the villagers against the village Panchayat members, partly driven by suspicion that the Panchayat members might've been influenced (read perks and money) by vested interests (read real estate developers in league with their political masters).

It is only when folks from within local communities in Goa attempt to break ranks and sell out to real estate developers do chinks appear in the resistance.

Thank you.

Uma Gowrishankar: I hope the last of Indian lions will not come to live on gateposts. Thank you :-)

Grannymar: Thank you. Happy clicking :-)

Lauren Quinn: Thank you. You're welcome.

Granny J: I'm not sure. I'll need to check that. It could be unique to Goa as well, more for ornament and status. Often, Goan houses belonging to pedigree families showcase their status with ornamental features built into their constructions.

One example is the plinth level. They might raise the plinth to allow for a sweeping flight of steps leading to elaborate covered porches known as balcao in local language. Then you might see the use of corbels etc.

Rohini: Thank you. There's much hidden away in Goa, much.

Neha: Thank you. Meandering opens many a hidden treasures of a place. Not only is such travel soothing, but often fulfilling as well.

Niranjana: Thank you. Yes, these features can surprise travelers.

Mridula: Oh, is it? Hope they remain a flavour, always.

Cate: Thank you. Yes, that is precisely the reason. White had a religious significance, associating with the purity of Mother Mary, hence forbidden by the Church for use in painting homes.

Colour abounds in Goa.

burpandslurp said...

OMG....fascinating, and intriguing! What a wonderful post...
Wonder about the significance of those lions...

Anonymous said...

Very nice photos of the lions. They continue to do their job even if no one is there.


Anil P said...

Burpandslurp: Thank you. Possibly ornamental.

Paz: Thank you. Yes, they continue to hold fort.

bobbie said...

I enjoyed this post very much, Anil. A few years ago I amused myself by driving through towns and countryside, photographing as many lions as I could find. It is surprising to me how many people, even owners of very small properties, do set them to guard their gates.

Coffee Messiah said...

I like that you take the time to see the subtle in the life that surrounds you!


Anil P said...

Bobbie: Thank you. It would be interesting to see the lions you photographed. They add character to gate posts along winding country roads.

Coffee Messiah: It's more of a result of meandering with no hurry in getting anywhere. Thank you.

Sid said...

Wow, lions guarding homes seem like a theme in Goa. I remember my Mom's ancestral house in Kerala had lions guarding the house, much in the same way as these lions. It was one of the features that every passer-by commented on. Nice post.

bindu said...

Nice post. How interesting ... all those lions and their watch over crumbling mansions and changing inhabitants!

Lucy said...

What wonderful and entertaining variations on a theme. A dreamy walk as ever.

L. Venkata Subramaniam said...

beautiful! Almost as if i traveled with you.

Sherri said...

ahhh, the proud pink lion!
It's because he's so proud that he can own his pinkness. Like a man wearing a pink shirt. Few can pull it off, but for those that do, they wear it with such pride. Real men can wear pink. =)