Goa’s ‘saib’ Lord Damodar vacations every year at the onset of summer literally painting an entire suburb pink with his Gulalotsav, a tradition that goes back more than five centuries.
Most people would be surprised if told that the land of ‘beaches, beer and buddies’ Goa was at one point in time a land of hundreds of temples and that for the Konkani-speaking Saraswats it is still the most significant annual pilgrim destination.
For it was a cluster of islands that once boasted of around 300 ancient temples, which were razed ruthlessly so the Portuguese could torture the believers to let go of their religion, their deities, and this culture. Many of those huge churches that you would witness today are made of the ruins of the temples that once stood there until St Xavier, whose body in a silver casket is ‘worshipped’ by those that hail him as ‘the man’ of Goa, began the task of ‘baptising’ Gomantak.
“Hanv saiba poltadi voitha, damule lagnak voitha, maka saiba vat dakai, maka saiba waat kalana,
Maka vhoron pavshi vodya…
Ghe ghe ghe ghe re, ghe re saiba,
Maka naka go maka naka go…”
This song, which most people dance to, today, which went popular in the re-rendition in the Hindi film Bobby, is anything but celebratory. The pathos in the song is very audible in its folk renditions. It was a plea of someone, who wishes to cross the river, “I am being stopped from going across, I will give you my jewels, but please take me across, for I want to preserve my Dharma,” is what is implied when the woman requests the boatman, who “refuses owing to the fear of the Portuguese…”, explains author and columnist Shefali Vaidya in her talk on the Inquisition of Goa.
I cannot validate the semiotics of this folk song but nor can it be dismissed. Thousands of Hindus had to ‘cross the river’ and leave their land along with their ‘lord’ (the deities) and move to ‘safer spaces’ be it to the mainland Goa, or Karnataka and Maharashtra. No Hindu ritual was let to be performed. The cultural and linguistic landscape was forcefully changed. All this is part of Goa's history today. That an entire community still traces most of its temples to Goa, that no Konkani wedding is ever seen as ‘complete’ until a ‘var bhet’ or ‘couple visit’ has been performed to the ‘kuladevasthaan’ in Goa, that the deities ‘visit’ their forsaken lands and villages every year and keep the narrative going, is some affirmation.
If you would like to witness it live, land in South Goa on 2 April this year (2019). You will find Madgaon, the commercial capital of Goa, wearing a deserted look, its shops shut and streets empty. For everyone, irrespective of their religion, caste or social standing would have ‘an undeclared holiday’ as they head to meet the original ‘saib’ of Goa — Lord Damodar, 22 kilometres away in Zambaulim.
When the rest of India is washing off the colours of ‘Ranga Panchami’ or Holi, Madgaon will gear up for its biggest religious vacation, its trip to meet its ‘gramdev’ Damodar in his second home, Jaambaavalim, or Zambaulim as it is now called.
The full moon or the pournima of the month of Phalgun marks the beginning of the week-long Shigmo Festival of Zambaulim, which culminates in the largest Holi in Goa, the Gulalotsav of Shree Damodar.
Lord Damodar or Dambab as he is fondly called by his kulavis and devotees, had his temple originally in Mathagram, as Madgaon was originally called. The temple belongs to the Gowda Saraswat Brahmin community, who are a part of the larger ‘Saraswat’ community, which gets its name owing to its migrant history that traces their past back to the river Saraswati. Standing on the banks of the river Kushavathi, the temple at Zambaulim is the second home of Lord Damodar.
The destruction of temples by the Portuguese in the Sashti taluk in 1567 forced the Mahajans or the core families attached to this temple to shift all the deities, Ramanth, Damodar, Lakshmi Narayan, Chamundeshwari, Mahakali and Mahesh to the forest space of Zambaulim. There are various tales of relocation but no sources to confirm any since the Portuguese destroyed all documents, artefacts or footprints of Hindu history possible.
But what they could not destroy is the spirit of the people, who despite facing all the persecution not only kept their gods intact but are also carrying on the legacies of 500-year-old traditions like the Gulalotsav.
Gulalotsav has been celebrated for over five centuries now. It is the last day of the five-day function of Shigmo.
The whole of Mathagram or Madgaon comes down to Zambaulim. It is a cultural carnival with plays being staged, various programmes, bhajan every evening etc.
The whole temple and its functioning is handed over to the locals of Madgaon for the whole week.
The turmeric water with which abhishek has been performed to the deity is sprinkled upon all the kulavis and the Mahajans, who are otherwise entrusted with the responsibility of the temple. “The sprinkling of the turmeric water, which is called haldune is done as an act of protection and blessings for the next week, when there is no regular ritual at the temple. We also take a piece of the turmeric root and keep it as prasad. From this time upto dhool bhet, where the mathagramasthas clean up the temple and give it back to us, it is like a ‘week-long vacation for the lord’ where he spends time celebrating with his ‘gram’ people,” explains president of the Devasthan Committee, Prakash Kunde.
“The mathagramasthas believe that they still feel the presence of Damodar in Madgaon. His vahana is the horse, and so there are tales of how people hear of his presence as if he were riding a horse around his gram. Such is the faith of the people in Damodar that irrespective of religion, in Madgaon, Muslims, Catholics, Hindus, all businessmen go and pray in Zambaulim if they want to run any business successfully.”
And that is what has kept such traditions alive.
The festival has a history of five centuries and was conducted by the Mahajans of the temple and the people belonging to Mathagram, who later formed the Mathagramastha Hindu Sabha (MHS).
Under its aegis, they have been partaking in this festival for the last 105 years. This year shall mark the 106th year of Gulal celebrations by the body which not just conducts this festival but also runs various educational institutions, a cemetery, and conducts other such social welfare activities. The sabha is made up of 16 families, two of whom are also the Mahajans of the temple.
“A coconut is kept and worshipped (naaral puja) at the Keni House in Comba Wada marking the initiation of the Shigmo. This coconut is then taken in procession to Zambaulim, which is followed by haldune,” explains Bhai Naik of the MHS.
After the haldune, the holy pyre is lit, and a saffron flag is unfurled to declare the event open.
“It’s Shigmo time in the city!”
On the following Monday, at night, Damodar sets out on his palkhi ride and visits Ramnath at his temple in the vicinity.
“This year it falls on the 1 April. So Dambab will go out at around 9.30 pm and sit in the sabha mantapa and watch the plays and the cultural functions. Early in the morning, he goes to the Ramnath Temple, an annual affair of greeting, acknowledging the fact that they made room for Damodar. He sits there until afternoon. Around 3.15 pm, Damodar will first apply gulal to Ramnath who follows suit. This declares the Gulalotsav open,” details Manjunath Dukle, former president of the temple committee who has been witnessing the festivities for the last 35 years.
The entire suburb then turns pink as everyone who wishes to play Gulal as Dambab splashes gulal powder on the palkhi. The air, the walls, the trees, everything around is dusted in pink. It is how Goa looks through rose-tinted-glasses.
Another Mahajan of the temple Pavan Agni shares his experiences of what he calls “probably the biggest festival of Goa, as the turnout is as much as you would see at events like the Sunburn”.
“At least 30,000 people would be playing Gulal, with the number of people taking darshan of the lord touching almost a lakh on that one day alone. And the gulal in the area closest to the sanctum is ankle deep so that you can imagine the scale of this splash of colour,” he explains adding that the fervour, the festivities, the vibrancy is to be witnessed to be known.
“The gulal from the palkhi is also distributed as prasad to the devotees who keep it at the puja altar in their houses until the next Gulal. The devotees believe the whole year goes well if one takes darshan of Lord Damodar on the Gulal day,” says Kunde.
“Ghamcha katar gham, ghamcha katar gham the sound of the big drum that is beaten around Gulal is the ringtone of most South Goans in the run up to Gulal, such is the fanfare,” says Agni.
As Dambab heads back to the temple around 5 pm, the devotees head to the river behind the temple for a dip. They then return to the temple premises, a play titled ‘Navro Vhakal’ is enacted by the MHS, as is the tradition for years. This is followed by the dhool bhet, the cleansing ritual followed by the aarti and mahaprasad, which also marks the end of the Gulalotsav.
Gulal is played everywhere but not like the one at Zambaulim. For this one is when the ‘saib of Goa’ himself plays with the Goenkars when the ‘patrao’ (‘big guy’ in colloquial address system of Goa) himself ‘hangs out’ with those who have kept faith in him and paints the town pink, quite literally.
Why not witness Goa of a different kind this summer and see for yourself the entire suburb of Zambaulim turn into the largest party place intoxicated on the divine and devotion for ‘Dambab’ as the entire suburb echoes the chant of ‘Har Har Mahadev’?