Off the tourist radar: Goa has more to offer than the expected fare

Jun 03, 2015, 07:56 IST | Joseph Zuzarte

Goa has more to offer than expected fare like beaches and party destinations. There are little known places that beckon, if only you knew where they were

Looking to go off the beaten track in Goa? Here’s a small list of unusual activities you can indulge in and little known places you can visit the next time you’re in Goa. Not many know about Goa’s ancient shamanistic culture in the remote Kushavati River Valley in south Goa and the unique ‘rock art gallery’ there.

The cliff between Ajuna and Baga Beach near which the ancient ‘trondhjemite gneisses’ rock is found
The cliff between Ajuna and Baga Beach near which the ancient ‘trondhjemite gneisses’ rock is found

A couple of decades ago, some students and teachers from Goa University decided to visit a remote riverside settlement called Pansaimol in the area to check on what some locals said was an ancient site which had not been documented by anybody. During their ‘study tour’ walk they stumbled on rock art on the banks of a small stream.

The Goan beaches are an experience in themselves for tourists
The Goan beaches are an experience in themselves for tourists

The find, consisting of around 50 rock carvings known as petroglyphs, was subsequently dated to the Mesolithic period i.e. 8,000-10,000 BC. Located in a small, remote village near Quepem town in south Goa, the serene spot is almost completely off the tourist map of Goa, but is worth a visit.

Some of the carvings at Pansaimal
Some of the carvings at Pansaimal

Even when you get there, the rock carvings are not immediately apparent. But then a guard kept there by the Archeological Society of India (ASI) will point out the various carvings on the rocky ground depicting a labyrinth, mother goddess, bulls, deer and many more. During the monsoon the water covers up the carvings.

A board gives information about Pansaimal
A board gives information about Pansaimal

Many of the petroglyphs were covered in river sediment, and it was only after the whole area was cleared and experts studied it that it was determined to be ancient rock art, the artistic expression of the then shamanistic hunter-gatherer culture.

Experts say they hunted the Indian gaur (bison) and the now extinct Indian zebu wild bull and the site is full of bison horn motifs which were carved by the hunter-gatherers to establish their authority over the area. It is said to be similar to the standard bearer seal found in the Indus Valley Civilizations and the carved bronze staff found in Mohenjodaro.

In a similar vein, one can find in a remote village called Mauxi, in Sattari, rock carvings dating back to the Mesolithic era. These were found on a rock in the Mhadei River. The rock was being used as a washing stone where the local women would wash their clothes! The place is close to Valpoi town, north-east Goa, and a temple there also has ancient, erotic art.

There are many other such little known facets of Goa. Imagine standing on a rock which was formed (geologically) before the continents of Asia or Africa, the oceans or the great mountain ranges were formed. Yes, you can do it in Goa, near Baga Beach and at a couple of other seaside locations. Known as ‘trondhjemite gneisses’, these rocks are between 2,500-3,400 million years old.

In comparison, the Himalayas are only 65 million years old, and human life started evolving barely 3.5 million years ago. They jut out of the sea close to the famous Baga Beach in north Goa, and also at Aguada, near Candolim Beach, south Anjuna Beach and near Palolem Beach, remnants of the early geological activity of Planet Earth which itself was formed around 4,500 million years ago.

Standing on these rocks will make you feel nostalgic like nothing else can, though the thousands of tourists who have taken photos of themselves standing on these rocks must have not even had a clue of what they were standing on, but they sure knew they were somewhere special.

It’s one of those little known secrets of Goa. Most visitors (aka tourists) think of Goa as only a place of beaches and churches, with a pulsating nightlife and glamorous floating casinos. But there’s more to the sunny state than meets the eye. Looking for your very own Narendra Modi moment? Imagine standing before a list of names of Indian martyrs etched in marble, just like Modi did recently in France and Canada.

You don’t have to go abroad to do it. You can do it right here, in Goa. When India became independent in 1947, groups of freedom fighters from different parts of the country decided that Goa too needed to join the newly formed country and agitated for Goa’s freedom in a non-violent way. So between 1947 and 1955, small groups of satyagrahis would agitate at the Goa border with Maharashtra and Karnataka, only to be shot down by the Portuguese border guards.

Dozens of unarmed satyagrahis were killed before the Indian army finally invaded and liberated Goa in 1961. Many years later the Goa government decided to honour the memory of these unsung martyrs by building a memorial at Patradevi, right on the border.

It’s on the left just after the Goa excise check-post as you drive in from Maharashtra. The names of those martyrs are etched in black marble. Stop for a moment to pay your respects to SR Raman from Vijaywada, Tulshiram Hirve from Mahad, and many others from Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, etc, because it’s probably because of them that Goa is now the party capital of India!

Goa is also probably the only place in India which has motorcycle taxis. The riders are known as pilots and there are pilot stands in all towns and villages. Pilots are very popular, specially with single women and housewives who do not know how to ride or drive. All you have to do is hop on and ride pillion. Many foreign women take these pilots and go for joy rides around the village roads another very unique Goan experience.

For the last couple of years the makers of Harley Davidson motorcycles have been holding the India Bike Week in Goa, because Goa is a lovely place to go riding. For one, there’s something about going riding around the Goan countryside that makes it an elevating experience. Except for a handful of small towns, most of Goa is rural, so there are only the old village roads which were once bullock cart tracks which have simply been asphalted.

So they meander through the villages, usually following the contours of the small hillocks which are there almost everywhere, trying to avoid going up or downhill. Other roads go through flat agricultural land, and, of course, there are the hill roads and the roads which snake up into the Western Ghats.

Most roads are flanked by lush greenery, some have a long row of coconut trees along both sides, others are covered with tree canopies, and there’s something picturesque everywhere you go. There’s also a little secret very few have stumbled upon. The excursions, a.k.a day trips, not to be confused with the guided bus trips.

More than 90 per cent of the clientele for these excursions are foreign tourists. Typically, you’re picked up from your resort early in the morning and a vehicle transports you on the excursion you’ve booked. The more popular ones are crocodile watching, dolphin sightings, island barbeques, waterfall and spice plantations, churches and temples, etc.

Typically, an excursion combines some of the aforementioned outings into one pleasant, guided tour, which lasts from morning till evening. So from your resort you may go to see the churches at Old Goa, followed by a boat trip into the nearby Cumbharjua canal for crocodile spotting (crocodiles are actually there), with a lunch stop at a spice plantation just next to the canal, a visit to some temples and back. Or you can combine a trip to sight dolphins with a beach barbeque on an isolated island.

Sometimes, there can be a surprise even in the most obvious of things. A majority of tourists visiting Goa head to the beaches, and most, whenever possible, head to Calangute, the so-called queen of beaches in Goa. But the big surprise is that Patnem, right at the southern tip of Goa, has been regularly featured in the CNN list of the top 100 beaches in the world, but hardly anybody ever ventures there.

Nobody knows why, but it is probably a good thing that the masses are giving this lovely beach a miss, but anyone can visit it. Getting there can be a bit of drag as the road from Canacona junction to Patnem has been in a terrible state for years making Palolem Beach preferable to visit.

Go there before it’s too late, because it has already come down a few notches. After being ranked 20th best in the world in 2012, it was down at 46th in 2013. It may be slipping down, but it’s still up there with the world’s best.

The only other beach from India to make the list is Radhanagar Beach in the Andaman Islands, which has been rated at 64th best in the world. Says CNN about Patnem, “Most tourists know Goa for Anjuna Beach, hippie heaven of the 1960s and now a tourist magnet.

If the cacophony of flea markets and tourist raves are not your thing, head to the lesser-known shores of Patnem, a stone’s throw from the increasingly crowded Palolem Beach.

Patnem may be smaller than its famous neighbour, but it’s also less claustrophobic, with cheaper beach hut accommodations. It’s the perfect place to enjoy the sunset while congratulating yourself on ducking the Goan tourist radar.”

You must have heard about Americans joining the Peace Corps and roughing it out in the darker parts of Africa saving and improving people’s lives as part of an extended vacation. You can do something similar here in Goa too. There are plenty of NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) which you can join as a volunteer for a week or a month, and you can work with either humans or animals.

Many have already done it. Jemma W from England works as an air-hostess with a private airline. Six years ago she first came to Goa, and tired of the usual and uninspiring sun-bathing and partying, decided to volunteer with El Shaddai which works with underprivileged children. Three years ago, she took 30 orphan children from El Shaddai to Bangalore.

“I first came to El Shaddai for six weeks as a volunteer, and then I have been coming ever since, at least twice a year to spend time with them all. They have all become my family now. Every couple of years I like to do a big fundraiser to help raise money for something fun for the children to enjoy.

I took 30 of them on a holiday to Bangalore on the train with the help of all of my friends and they had an amazing time.” she says. Goa may be the bohemian beach-hopping party destination but if so inclined, you can find places that prove it’s not all about sun, sand and sea but soul too.

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