Also known as Panjim, Panaji is the capital of Goa. Capital of any city conjures up an image of a sprawling metropolis with congested lanes, traffic-clogged roads and roadside squatters. Panaji is nothing like that. It is a small city, clean and pretty with many interesting period buildings.
I take a walk by the quays and jetties along the Mandovi River. In the mornings the scene is very quiet. Cruise liners are docked in the deeper waters. Some small boats bring in fish. Stalls on wheels are empty. The rain makes its dance of rings on the still waters of the river. Traffic picks up slowly as the day wakes up.
Of the buildings in town, there are many period ones now mostly used as government offices. These are large buildings that sometimes occupy the entire length of a street. In those days, buildings were always like that – just two or three levels high but occuping a large ground area. Skyscrapers were not of that period.
A yellow building with tall windows on two levels is currently taken up by the Department of Urban Development and the Collectorate. Each window has its own sloping shade roofed with red-brown tiles. All these shades are elegantly bracketed. The lower level windows are grilled. The higher ones are balustraded with the windows opening inwards. A heavy cornice runs the length of the wall at the top but there is nothing to define any separation between the two levels. What makes this a pretty building is that the borders of windows are painted in white. This combination of white highlights on a yellow background makes the facade stand out.
Another building called the Blue Building was first built around 1600 but extensively renovated more recently. It is painted in Indigo Blue. Like the other building, the windows are highlighted in whites against the blue background. There are couple of differences though. There is a cornice that separates the two levels clearly. The cornice is corbelled delicatedly below the windows on the higher level. Secondly, a semi-circular arch frames each door or window on the ground level. This is a wonderful detail. It gives the facade greater form and breaks its rigidity. The building is being used by the Indian Customs and Central Excise Department. It also houses a Indian Customs and Central Excise Museum. I wonder what their exhibits would be but they open late in the day. I cannot hang around for the museum.
I wander through the streets nearby, passing many wonderful buildings. These period buildings are rarely more than a couple of levels high. The colours are eye-catching and so is the general combination of white highlights against a bold background. The windows on their own make a study. Each building has windows of slightly different shapes. Some are rectangular with a straight lintel. Others stand with a semi-circular arch or a pointed arch in the manner of Gothic art. Where windows are grilled, the design of these grills are unique. As for the tiled shades over the windows, often each window is shaded separately but sometimes, as in one particular building coloured in green, a single long shade stretches the entire length of the building covering all windows and the spaces between them.
At a busy T-junction, I take my time to cross the road. Traffic is busy and a traffic policeman is keeping a careful watch on the scene. Standing before me on a little hill is the Church of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception. What a name! In Hinduism, a god has many names. Each name highlights a certain aspect, divine relationship, miracle or legend associated with that god. A name is not just a name. This has been the case in the naming of this church. Is this universal or something that has taken shape only in India?
The church facade makes a pretty picture even on a day of dull skies and a lazy sun. It stands on three levels, with two square towers and a gable in between them. In a unique way, the gable houses the belfry as well and the bell can be plainly seen from the road. A series of steps and landings lead me from the road to the courtyard facing the entrance. The balustrades contain zigzag moulding and pyramidal turrets topped with spheres, now supplanted with modern day lights. The approach to the entrance by these stairs is symmetrical; that is, one can take either the left stairs or the right or even switch between at the common landings. This sort of an approach gives the church grandeur and importance. It impresses any visitor even before he or she is in full view of the facade.
When I arrive at the entrance an 8 am service is underway. It is a weekday morning but the church is packed. I peep into the interiors from the entrance porch. The ceiling is plain. Gilded decor elsewhere bring richness. Chandeliers light the interiors brightly. Wooden pillared projections encroach into the nave’s wide spaces. These projections have pews on the higher level, perhaps for the choir. There is also an organ above.
I leave the church, quickly climb down and walk towards Fontainhas. It is an area of Panaji credited to the preservation and good upkeep of many small period buildings. On my way I pass a road with a curious name.
‘Why is this called 31st January Road?’ I ask at a shop. The man behind the counter is busy serving two women.
‘I have no idea,’ he shakes his head. ‘Something must have happened that day. Do you know?’
He addresses the question to the women. They shake their heads but their memories have been kindled. They try to recollect the road’s obscure history but they can come up with nothing.
‘There is also an 18th June Road somewhere,’ tells me one of the women. I thank them and take leave.
Fontainhas is indeed a place of pretty houses, some of which are managed as hotels for tourists. For my budget, I cannot even consider staying at one of these places. The buildings, although smaller, are not all that different from those seen earlier today in the old government buildings. Bright gay colours, white highlights around doors and windows, thick whitewashed cornices, beautiful iron grills over windows and potted plants decorating approach paths are common features. Lanterns sit on iron brackets. House names are sometimes crafted in azulejos of whites and blues with rococo borders. Even road names are crafted in this manner. It would appear that even newer buildings take inspiration from the past and evolve from the same style that makes the ambience of Fontainhas.