Deep in the forested village of Cotigao in Canacona taluka of south Goa, there’s a circular compilation of stones. It is a sacred place for villagers, where they gather to discuss important village events and also to conduct some rituals and ceremonies. However, these villagers are probably unaware that this site could be a burial ground dating back to thousands of years. Such stones are also found in a few other villages of south Goa.
And now a new photo book, Outdoor Museums of Goa, by Pantaleao Fernandes reveals such hidden sites of the state, comprising stone circles, dolmens, menhirs (prehistoric burial sites), sculptures of local deities, stone inscriptions, old temples, and dovornim (small platforms on old village pathways used for offloading goods, and resting places for porters), implements and tools of the past. All these are out in the open, exposed to the elements, and yet not much is known about them.
Research scholar Themistocles D’Silva, who has studied several of Goa’s prehistoric sites, mentions in the book, “These are commonly known as stone circles. Evidence indicates that some were Neolithic burial sites or more likely solar and lunar observatories, places of ceremony, worship and healing, and social gathering.”
Veteran lyricist-writer-director, Gulzar, who has written the foreword too mentions stone circles, stating, “Not like pyramids of the Kings of Egypt, but some prehistoric innocent burial places of common people still exist here.” This section also features a poem, titled Khandahar (ruins).
Eminent Konkani writer and Jnanpith awardee Damodar Mauzo had approached Gulzar to pen this piece. He says, “When I saw Pantaleao’s works, I instantly thought of Gulzar saab, who, I was sure, would recognise the value of the art repository that is this book.”
The book opens with the fascinating petroglyphs found in Pansaimal at Sanguem in south Goa, which could be some thousands of years old. The book states that it could be dated to late upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods (8000 B.C.).
Situated on the Kushawati river bed, these petroglyphs are carved on laterite stone and depict animals like Zebul bulls, deer, bison, human figures, and also a female dancing figure. “The rock art at Pansaimol is proof etched in stone that our Goan culture goes back thousands of years,” says Fernandes, who asserts that this heritage needs to be protected, as many times visitors walk on these carvings.
Outdoor Museums of Goa also throws light on other aspects of Goan culture, which are not well known. Take, for instance, the local guardian deities found in different parts known as Betal/Vetal and also a decorative stone panel of goddess Gajalaxmi. Some of these deities are found deep in the forests, while others are situated inside private properties—like the Betal in a private plantation in the Loliem village of Canacona.
Rohit Phalgaonkar, assistant professor of history at the S. S. A. Government College of Arts and Commerce, Pernem, and an expert on temples of Goa, mentions that such deities are meant to be in the open. “Deities like Betal are meant to be without any shelter and in the open as they are connected to nature,” he elaborates. He explains that often, in the past, temple authorities would immerse idols in wells to keep them safe from attacks and also as a ritual practice to immerse mutilated idols. Phalgaonkar has been instrumental in retrieving such idols from a few temples in the state.
The book also has features chapters authored by experts like Devdutt Pattanaik on ‘Village Gods of India’; researcher Pandurang Phaldesai about the ‘Sociological Profile of Goa’, and also a poem, ‘Dovornnem’ by Goa’s celebrated poet Manohar Rai Sardessai.
This is Fernandes’s seventh photo book and like all his past works, in this too he has tried to show the other side of Goa, its people, occupation, and the overall heritage, which is dwindling with time. However, he mentions that he never has a theme in mind when he is capturing such hidden wealth of Goa. It is an organic process for him. “I sort out the images village-wise and then make subsets. These themes sometimes seem to call out and demand to be born as a book,” he says.
Fernandes hopes that the book will create awareness about Goa’s heritage, which seems to be lying around abandoned. He also feels there ought to be more research on the origin and history of these sites.
He emphasises this with the example of hero stones, “These are like graphic storyboards that beg to narrate a story. A detailed study needs to be conducted on each of these stones as it will be a great help to understand the local history.”
Some of the structures have also been razed in the past due to lack of awareness. “The classic example that comes to my mind is an ancient dovornem located at Raia in south Goa, by the highway. I always intended to photograph the same but never got down to it. One fine day, I discovered that it was demolished due to the construction of a four-lane road,” laments Fernandes.
He opines that such clusters should be declared as outdoor museums, with the local panchayat made responsible for its upkeep. He concludes that there is a need to know our backyards to find such treasures which are waiting to tell their stories to the world.
Arti Das is a Goa-based independent journalist