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The history behind Panaji's stepped streets

Most corners of Panaji hold a lovely architectural or historical surprise. One of these is the stepped streets, the only ones of their kind in India

The  Maruti temple steps.
The Maruti temple steps. (Chryselle D’Silva Dias)

Long before the Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in Panaji became a selfie hot spot, it was the nucleus around which the city took shape. First built in 1541, the “hermitage” on the hill was rebuilt and raised to the status of a church in 1600. Around 1870, the majestic tiered steps, patterned on the Sanctuary of Bom Jesus in Braga, Portugal, were added. Today these steps of the church are everyone’s favourite spot for a photograph.

Goa’s capital city Panaji, earlier known as Panjim, has a unique laid-back charm. It’s a small (central Panaji is just about 8km), walk-friendly city, a rarity in India, and most corners hold a lovely architectural or historical surprise. One of these is the stepped streets, the only ones of their kind in an Indian city, according to the corporation of the City of Panaji.

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These came up in the 17th century, when the Portuguese moved the capital from Velha Goa (Old Goa) to Panaji. The city grew around the hill of Conceição, meaning “Conception”; the name comes from the church. Stepped streets, some with steep steps, some with landings, cut through the large hill on which the church stands. Constructed during the Portuguese era, the wide, user-friendly steps are still going strong. Today, some of these streets are crowded with homes and restaurants, while others are still majestic in their isolated splendour. When they were first constructed, they were expected to improve ventilation in homes and break the pathways of diseases like cholera and smallpox.

Most visitors will pass by, not remarking on how many stepped streets there are, or even noticing if they are walking on one. Yet, you come across these stepped streets, which give pedestrians access to buildings higher up the hill, throughout the old parts of Panaji. The stairways, also considered streets, may have followed their construction, leading up from them to the hill.

According to Vasco Pinho’s Snapshots Of Indo-Portuguese History Vol 1, it was in 1878 that the Corte do Oiteiro, which translates from Portuguese to “a cut of the hill”, was created. The hill was cut through from the base to the top, though there is very little detail on the process in the public domain. The medical community believed this would lead to better ventilation, while also creating a new link road, Corte do Oiteiro or Cortin, between the then administrative and residential areas.

The church stands on one side of the “cut”. The other side is called Altinho, literally meaning “high”, and is home to, among others, the chief minister’s residence, the Archbishop’s Palace, the Portuguese consulate and the Bombay high court bench at Goa. At the crest of the Corte, to the right is an elegant stairway with balustrades and landings. The Escadinhas do Liceu, or Lyceum’s Stairway, is often a visitor’s first encounter with these architectural and engineering marvels.

Lyceum’s Stairway.
Lyceum’s Stairway. (Chryselle D’Silva Dias)

Built in the 1930s, it was once the main pedestrian access to the Lyceum (Liceu) of Goa, the city’s premier secondary school. The Lyceum complex now houses the Goa bench of the Bombay high court. You can still walk up the 139 steps, pausing for breath on the landings to view the tiled rooftops. In recent years, the stairway has been refurbished to include a tiled version of S.L. Haldankar’s Lady With The Lamp and a colourful paint job, vastly different from the earlier white lime-washed steps.

Isabel Santa Rita Vás, an author, a playwright and professor of English at Goa University, has fond memories of walking the staircases up to the Lyceum for school. “I remember the day I ran up all those dozens of steps, to be told in school that I was required to carry a compass box, and of course I ran down, right back home, down Rua de Ourém and up the steps of my house, grabbed the compass box and ran down and along the road and right back up the steps, maybe an hour running, without batting an eyelid. It was June 1961, I was all of 10 years old, an unflappable enthusiast of school life, with its wonderful new friends, lovely teachers and subjects of study. Today, I see those same steps neatly plastered with decorative tiles but whoever climbs those exciting steps now? Not even the intrusive tourist.”

Most tourists may be content to zip around on their rental scooters but many locals still use the stairways to get around. “I have an office in the city and at least once or twice a week I will walk down generally from Sunaparanta or anything in that direction towards the city and the waterfront,” says Vivek Menezes, a well-known writer and co-curator of the Goa Arts and Literature Festival. “The reason I like doing it is you can actually descend pretty much in a straight line, directly down from the hill by tiny little staircases that descend through Boca da Vaca, and then you can walk directly into the Panjim waterfront. That’s very lovely and when you do it in the evenings, you get a sense of the city, the way it organically grows. I am always thinking about the city; it is present in my writing and walking these stairways gives me a lot of pleasure.”

The hill has dozens of wide public access staircases, escadinhas in Portuguese, leading up to Altinho and down to the heritage wards of São Tomé, Fontainhas, Mala and Portais. Increasingly, visitors are using them as a great background for photoshoots.

The stepped streets are bustling with activity. You may well see police officials escorting undertrials up one, since parking at the court is difficult. You will definitely see crowds waiting outside the Portuguese consulate, grateful for a place to sit.

The steps leading up from the consulate to Sunaparanta, a non-profit arts centre housed in a beautiful blue and white building, aren’t just for sitting and walking. Completed in 1897, the Stairway of the Way of the Cross has 72 steps and 13 landings. Across the summit, the line of white crosses with blue and white azulejos (painted, tin-glazed ceramic tile work) depicting Christ’s crucifixion continues its solemn journey. During the season of Lent, you will find the faithful praying along the route, often with a live enactment of the Way of the Cross.

Also leading up to this section of the hill is the Serra stairway, from near the spring of Boca da Vaca to Altinho. There are modest Goan houses all along the right side of the stairway, with some benches to pause and admire the panoramic view. “Boca da Vaca is a very old area. You walk by a padaria (bakery) called Padaria Boca da Vaca which is very, very old and always has fresh bread,” says Menezes.

Some of the Altinho stairways are off the beaten track. In an alley behind the Panaji Residency, leading up to Afonso Mexia Road, the Doctor’s Stairway lies ignored. Named possibly for a medical practitioner, its renovation has been incomplete for several years, giving it a shabby, desolate look. It is still used by residents and the occasional tourist, though.

Not far from the Doctor’s Stairway, a stairway on José Falcão Road has been renovated recently. With 48 steps and four landings, the stairway has several houses along its sides. At the top, the Kasturba Matoshri High School, established in 1936, keeps an eye on the changing city. The stairway serves as a shortcut to the Panaji church. During the school year, it’s buzzing with students, as well as locals heading to the church or their homes.

In Fontainhas, you will find a steady stream of couples, with their photographers and entourage, posing at the colourful Escadinhas Ivens. Named after Roberto Ivens, the Portuguese explorer, the stairway is impressive, with 170 steps and 17 landings, the cheerful colours on the steps cascading like a rainbow waterfall. It winds its way through tiny houses and breathtaking views over the rooftops of Fontainhas. At the base, stop to admire an old well, one of many still in use in Panaji’s neighbourhoods.

Not far from Fontainhas, in the ward of Mala, 70 steps of the Escadinhas do Templo go up from Fonte Phoenix, one of Panaji’s perennial springs, to the Maruti temple dedicated to Lord Hanuman. The annual Maruti Zatra (feast) at the end of January or beginning of February is always eagerly awaited. Its highlight is a palanquin procession, with dozens of stalls lining the streets nearby.

Mala also has the Stairway of Loose Stones, which gets its name from the laterite blocks that used to be loose and unstable. A few years ago, the stairway was repaired and painted with a peacock mural. At the end of the road from this stairway is Bookworm, the award-winning children’s library. Visitors can browse through the extensive collection of books for children and adults and attend literary events.

Walking around Panaji continues to be the best way to experience and admire this tiny city’s historical and architectural gems. And it’s possible, since most of the city is accessible to walkers. As Menezes says, “Seeing the city by foot gives you a much more human scale of understanding of the culture. That’s why I walk.”

Chryselle D’Silva Dias is a Goa-based journalist.

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