Seven Sacred Springs -Explorations in a Goan Village 2013
Early in 2013 I was living in the village of Assagao in North Goa when I chanced on a little privately-printed booklet about the village. I was immediately intrigued to read in it of ‚seven mineral-rich hill springs with healing properties, now abandoned and forgotten’. As the hot season began to intensify and with the vision of finding cool spring water, I set out to try to find them. Assagao is set in a valley just five kilometers long and two wide, split down the middle by the Vau, a central stream bordered by ricefields and coconut groves, and enclosed by low hills of red laterite rock covered in jungle and cashew plantations. There are two seasons: eight rainless months, getting hotter and more humid as the year progresses; and monsoon, when the area receives over three meters of rain between June and September. Up until the development of the tourism industry over the past generation (which has provided new sources of income on the nearby coastal strip, and in the village itself by the selling off or renting out of houses and building land to outsiders) the villagers were traditionally completely dependant on farming for their livelihoods. As my explorations were to reveal, the abandonment of the traditional springs has been part of a general shift away from agriculture, evidenced by disused fields, overgrown plantations, crumbling walls and collapsed irrigation ditches, all quickly returning to a state of impenetrable jungle. Pretty ironic in a country with hundreds of millions of poor inhabitants, desperate for land to feed themselves!
This part of Goa was ruled by the Portugese for 450 years and was thoroughly ‚christianized’ by these fanatical invaders, its ancient Hindu temples and sacred trees destroyed, its inhabitants forced to chose between exile or convertion. Today Assagao’s population of around 3,500 is split evenly between Christians and Hindus, with the Hindus having returned here only during the past half century since the Portugese left. This is significant, because another of my discoveries shows how, despite a Christian veneer – the churches, chapels and wayside crosses – original customs and beliefs with a deep respect for natural phenomena must have survived the centuries of persecution.
The terrain around Assagao is not difficult, distances are small, and aside from the need to be alert for snakes and the thorny nature of many jungle plants, exploring here is hardly demanding. But there are no detailed maps available in India (the powers-that-be consider making these available to the general public a security risk) and finding anywhere in India therefore comes down to asking around and following one’s nose. I decided to begin with the Valle, source of the Vau that ran right past my house, described in the booklet as an ‚age old perennial spring good for lung problems and rheumatism’. Following the stream, with its lining of crumbling laterite blocks, up into the hills from my home might therefore seem the obvious way to find the place. But, as I quickly found out, this involves swamps, muddy rice fields and disused paths blocked by scrub and newly-built walled compounds. So, after poring over Google Earth, tracing the line of darker green that indicates the thick forest and coconut groves marking out the Vau’s course, I headed off on a minor road leading up towards higher ground. This soon melted away into overgrown cashew orchards and regenerating jungle. Beside a decaying chapel a local man pointed vaguely towards the green hills. ‚Oh yes’, he told me, ‚there used to be a path to the Valle from here, but for years the cashew harvesters have no longer come to clear the paths. You can’t get through now.’
I tried a second road which dwindled into a labyrinth of tracks, all bristling with thorny bushes and hidden beneath fallen leaves, each ending in impenetrable thickets. Spider webs laced the spaces between old mango and palm trees and overhead a cacophany of birds called out their displeasure at my clumsy intrusion. I found myself beating about the bush for an hour before I reached the dry streambed. Coming on some ruined walls, and finally hearing the tinkle of flowing water, I felt a sudden sense of dislocation from the world outside; I had entered the Valle. The place possesses an astonishing serenity: a thin trickle of clear water seeping out of the earth between maidenhair ferns, its flow gathering strength and tumbling over multicoloured strata; the forest trees seeming to congregate around the spot, soaring upwards to create a wide bowl of clear space beneath interlacing branches high overhead. A few meters from the source someone had channeled the springwater into a slim cascade with a short piece of hosepipe and I was able to shower off the sweat of my exertions. It became a place of contemplation for me on many visits there over the ensuing months: musing over the fallen blocks of rough-hewn laterite, which give the impression of having been strewn about by mighty forces, and which are clearly the remains of a complex water management system; enjoying the company of a towering banyan tree, its roots embracing giant boulders, that presides over the spring from a vantage point a little higher up the watercourse; and picking up garbage. One afternoon a family came down a precipitous path from the slummy housing colony on the hill above to do their laundry under the hosepipe. They must come regularly because every time I went there were always their soap wrappers and odd bits of abandoned clothing for me to clean up. Plus the torrent of household garbage that the monsoon rains wash down the streambed above the spring from the road on the hilltop, which is used (like so many of Goa’s roads) as a rubbish dump. The Valle is a paradise –and it seems not totally forgotten – but a tarnished one.
The only other specific reference in the book was to a spring called ‚Dossazor at Dossoxir’, and a grainy picture of a rectangular walled pit accompanied it; but once again the book gave no indication as to its location. A local friend had vaguely heard of it and pointed me north over the hills to Sonarkhed, a small corner of Assagao parish which lies outside the main valley. There I took a path past the last houses and the Sri Dutta Hindu temple into old coconut and mango plantations. Pre-monsoon clearing of unwanted underbrush had obviously taken place and the little valley was choked with cut branches. Noting again the ruined walls and abandoned channels, I began to understand that this, like the Valle and the Vau beside my house, were part of some huge irrigation system that had once fed the village with water for agriculture. The spring itself in the pre-monsoon heat was a mere trickle emerging beneath a dark ochre rockface and fed a pool just big enough for a shallow but welcome dip. It was my second one of the seven, but clearly not the Dossazor on the photo. Next a bit of luck on a Google search led me to a map. Finally a proper large scale map, albeit not one with a single name on it! The Assagao Regional Plan is the product of the village Panchayat (the lowest tier of local government) and apart from marking with symbols the sites of five churches and six temples, concerns itself solely with plot numbers and zoning regulations. But there on the southern boundary of the village, an arrow marked ‚SPRING’.
I must have driven past it dozens of times over the years, for it sits right beside a popular shortcut through to the tourist belt at Baga. And sure enough a battered handpainted sign on the road I had never before bothered to read said: ‚Do not throw garbage in the vicinity….Notice issued by vilagers of Dasashir’. I found the Dossazor spring beneath a mighty banyan, which blocks any view of it from the road. It is approached through a little ramshackle temple and has, as the photo showed, been neatly walled with the local laterite into a rectangular pool. In this season, when any water is a blessed relief from 38 degree heat and 95% humidity, the coolness of the spring’s water on my hand was almost a shock. Even though it was deserted, it felt just a little too public a place for me to strip off for a dip, so I contented myself with paddling my feet in the orange-tinted water and abandoning myself to the sensation of schools of tiny fish nibbling at my toes.
Here I must interrupt the narrative flow to illustrate my point about the survival of ancient pre-Christian beliefs during the centuries of Portugese rule. For on one of my rambles a year or so previously I had stumbled into an extraordinary spot hidden amidst overgrown cashew trees commanding the steep hillside above the place which I had now established was the Dossazor: a rare surviving devrai or sacred grove. (I have visited some of these ancient forest patches in the neighbouring state of Maharashtra, which retained its Hindu identity under British rule. They are considered sacred to a powerful local nature spirit and it is forbidden to cut or remove anything from within their boundaries at the risk of the spirit’s wrath. They thus contain remnants of original pre-human occupation vegetation, often with rare and medicinal plants that are extinct anywhere else in the area). This tiny grove is focused around a twisted banyan entwined with creepers, some of them thicker than a thigh, which take centuries to mature to such a size. It must have been planted once, for its maze of roots begins at chest height, clutching a support of shaped laterite blocks. Scattered on the forest floor I found terracotta waterpots, tiny mirrors and little green combs, many of them already entombed in mud and leaf litter. Apart from these ritual objects, there was no sign of more recent ‚hinduization’: no religious images or symbols, no coloured threads tied around the tree trunk as is usual at venerated trees in temples and villages throughout Hindu India. Yet despite the absense of a god or goddess to worship, someone was still coming here to pay their mysterious respects, as his or her ancestors must have been doing during the long Christian centuries when other such places had been uprooted. My mind reeled back even further to a time when this hillside was part of unbroken primaeval forest, inhabited only by peoples whose remnants India now calls tribals, and who had recognized this spot above the spring, and perhaps even the ancestor of this tree, as special.
Once again Google Earth came to my rescue in uncovering a fourth sacred spring. I was learning to judge the varied shades of green on satellite photos and, while the Valle was clearly in the largest area of the darkest shade (indicating mature forest) right opposite my house on the hillside above Bairo Alto ward was a smaller patch of the same colour. I took myself up there just as the cashew harvesters were hacking a path through last monsoon’s overgrowth up to the orchards. Their track passed a gully full of impenetrable jungle and forked at a tall banyan. The harvesters headed their way up the upper one and I took the lower down to the streambed. This was dry, and already redolant with the scent of fallen and fermenting cashew fruits, but upstream a tiny cave beckoned. Sure enough, even in May, the driest month of the year, when not a drop of rain had fallen for seven months, a shrivelled pool lay hidden within it. Not inviting for a drink, or even a wash, but it was a spring and I knew that with the monsoon the place would come fully alive again. A little yoni (vagina-shaped stone) with a loose river-polished pebble lingam (phallus) had been cemented onto a rock beside the spring. A recent addition for sure, and like the little temple under the banyan at Dossazor, a sign that the Hindus of Assagao had been reclaiming their heritage.
Four down and three to go, I came to a dry-season hiatus. There are just so many empty gullies running down the hillsides to join the Vau, most of them strewn with garbage as they pass the farms and houses at the roadsides. They channel Goa’s three meters of rain during the monsoon, but now they were blocked with a tangle of thorns and fallen branches. Following each one up to a doubtful source at a spring would be an impossible task. A pond in a ricefield near my home in Sauta Vaddo provided a respite and a potential number five. Its roughly circular banks are lined with laterite blocks, overgrown with weeds and slim trees that provide shade. With even the Vau in this season a mere trickle, and the well at our house providing just a last gasp of muddy water, the pond’s source must be deep underground for it brims with clear, cold water. I swam in it daily, often with my three year-old daughter, and could arrive back home cooled down enough to survive the desperate heat of the pre-monsoon afternoons. Should I count this as number five?
The arrival of the monsoon in early June provided a wealth of information for my search, as the brush and garbage-choked gullies cleared by runoff. Now I could distinguish between those that flowed only for a short time after a heavy shower, and those that maintained their flow during drier spells, indicating underground recharge. Back at Sonarkhed I tracked the courses of two further monsoon-fed streams, and just above the junction point in mature forest on the Siolim boundary, I found the prettiest hill spring yet. A deep pool of clear turquoise water bubbled away over bright yellowish-orange laterite to join the main channel. I drank it greedily, its exquisite taste better than anything money could buy after my sweaty trek over the hills. This spring is not forgotten, for there are signs of the local people using it to do their washing, while the well-worn track past it leads to a rectangular basin cut out of the bedrock, used for the distillation of feni (cashew alcohol) and still stained with cashew juice from the past harvest.
The book provided me with my final clue – or perhaps it was not to be final if the valley pool near my house was not to be counted amongst the seven? The neighbouring village of Badem had been part of Assagao parish until a separate church was consecrated for it half a century ago, and still came under Assagao’s local government. The only patches of forest there deep enough to hide a spring lie in a thin strip on the northern side facing the Chaporra estuary. It was a simple matter to establish that a waterfall, which flows into a wide pool formed at the site of an old quarry, is the only waterflow of sufficient size to be powered by a spring rather than stormwater runoff. What was not so simple was to get on top to check the source of the stream feeding the falls. The water ran in a narrow V-shaped gully over sheer quarried rock faces and the monsoon had by now been in full swing for over a month and all traces of paths had been hidden under new growth. I abandoned the attempt and contented myself with clambering my way to a clear view of the falls from below.
By now I had become a bit obsessed. Had I in fact identified seven mineral-rich hill springs? The pool in the ricefields near my home at Sauta Vaddo was hardly a hill spring, was it? My Scorpionic love of uncovering the hidden led me on, together with the fact that in these monsoon days there was not much else going on to fill my time. I drove again around the village lanes peering into gulches; there was simply only one more possibility, and it lay just outside Assagao. It was to prove an equal to the Valle in terms of its fascination.
Consoling myself with the thought that after all the area might once have been considered part of Assagao, I crossed over from the Dossazor along the hillslopes into the nighbouring parish of Anjuna, striking for a shallow side valley that discharges into the central flats along the Vau. It was a short hike (I had hardly left Assagao really, had I?) until below me tall forest marked the stream’s course. I worked my way down, with the usual probes into the impossible tangle of monsoon foliage along the course, hoping to glimpse the signs of human intervention. Suddenly they were all before me: laterite walls, a gigantic banyan, the sound of cascading water; a curious white marble chappati plate, embossed with a flower motif, lying abandoned in the streambed. Easing past the banyan’s arial roots, I looked down onto a waterfall in a cleft in the rock which had been carefully shaped until its walls were vertical. The cleft opened out into a wider space, its sides also hewn into the vertical. Openings at the side, now filled with mud and debris, as well as rectangular pits in the streambed itself, all showed signs of having been carved into shape out of the living rock.
I went back many times, pondering the efforts a small community must have put into fashioning the place. It too must have been part of that valley-wide irrigation project which had once fed the whole village, and signs of which I had seen all over my wanderings in search of springs. But then where were the tumbled-down remains of a dam to contain the water? Or of channels to conduct it? And why such a concern with exact verticals? The presence of that great banyan reminds me that, however purely utilitarian the place’s function once was, the people who made it (and maintained it until the recent advent of government-piped water, diesel pumps and alternative employment in the tourist industry) had a veneration and respect for water, trees and the powers of the natural world that went beyond their mere usefulness. They modified the land they occupied with an aesthetic that shows how finely tuned their senses were to the sacred.
Watch my film Seven Sacred Springs here