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Experiencing the cultural swirl at Ponda

by V. M. de Malar

Even at 8am, the temple was already buzzing with activity.
The goddess's attendants went back and forth behind an
elaborate, exquisitely wrought silver screen, accepting
offerings and liberally handing out prasad and sweet-smelling

One devotee lay prone on the floor, silently mouthing a long
string of prayers, his wife knelt beside him with her eyes
closed and intensity written on her face. Two small children
came forth with a coconut; their very large and imposing
grandfather prodded them forward to receive their blessings.

     And right behind them came me, I bent my head in respect
     and offered the goddess two garlands of distinctive Goan
     abolim; one for myself and a very particular desire, one
     for you and the rest of us, for Goa and our uncertain

The Shri Shantadurga temple in Kavlem, just outside Ponda, is
Goa's largest temple, and in many ways the most important.

Like many of Ponda's important Hindu shrines, it was first
built as a refuge for a deity forced to flee the destructive
terror of the first centuries of Portuguese rule. The
European fanatics spared nothing, every single appreciable
marker of Hinduism, Islam (and even Judaism and Syrian
Orthodox worship) was destroyed in a frenzy.

     In the year 1567 alone, one particularly animated
     zealot, Rachol-based Diogo Rodrigues tore down more than
     280 temples. The Shri Shantadurga temple in Ponda was
     established in this era; the deity was smuggled from the
     village we now call Quelossim, some distance inland from
     the north end of Colva beach.

Shantadurga equals Goa, she's a widely accepted embodiment of
the Mother Goddess whose veneration is near-total in Goa. She
is a central aspect of our religious worship, deeply embedded
-- for example -- in veneration of the Virgin Mary.

This Goan affinity is pre-Brahmanical, easily traced before
the arrival of Gaud Saraswats; early inhabitants of Goa
worshipped Sateri, their rituals were adapted and blended by
Saraswat migrants from Bengal to their own favorite, Durga.

The highly syncretic result was Shantadurga, one part ancient
fertility goddess, one part Aryan-ized wife of Shiva, one
part newly coined aspect of peace, in keeping with the
tolerant ancient culture of Goa.

The Christians who came later imbued the Virgin with all
these qualities; it is no surprise that Goans of all
communities feel perfectly comfortable venerating the mother
goddess in all her religious guises.

This marvelous melange, this multi-layered cultural dimension
can be appreciated at the Shri Shantadurga temple. This
current building was erected by Shivaji's grandson, the Shahu
Raja, in 1738 and has been repeatedly renovated; from end to
end it is a syncretic architectural confection, with plenty
that is learned and borrowed from church-building in nearby
Goa, from Victorian imperial buildings, and from European

     If you shut out that lovely tower in its foreground, the
     imposing maroon and cream building would seamlessly fit
     into the colonial precincts of Mumbai or Pune, it could
     easily be a college or administrative centre. And most
     of the interior could easily be transposed to a Raj
     Bhavan somewhere; it's dripping with cut-glass
     chandeliers and lined from wall-to-wall with excellent
     imported marble.

Like Goa, like our culture itself, every aspect of the
Shantadurga temple is permeated with swirling influences from
all over India, from our long and intricate history, from the
continuing ebb and tide of East and West that has gone on
here for millennia and shaped every aspect of what we
recognize as Goa.

It belongs to all of us, and is a crucial angle that's
irreplaceable as vantage point to survey who we are, what we
are, and where we might go from here into the new millennium.

As I strode out of the temple precincts on the way back home,
it occurred to me again that diversity is our greatest
strength, we can find great unity and sense of purpose when
we understand and embrace it.

Oh, and two days later, my very particular desire was met in
full measure. That other garland, that other silent prayer
for all of us? Let's see what unfolds, let's just wait and see.

VM de Malar, nome de plume of Vivek Menezes, is a long-time
Goanetter (among the first) who opted to shift back to Goa
after nearly three decades abroad. He lives and works out of
Campal in Panjim, mostly writing and understanding the
heritage that earlier generations migrated away from.

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