Carnival in Goa

Parades, Parties and Passion

​So have you ever wanted to go to Carnival? To me the word evokes images of wild street parties, mesmerising samba music, throngs of costumed revellers and general bacchanalia. And of course, who doesn’t know that the festival is associated with Rio?  That pulsating Latin city hosts the largest single celebration in the world with over a million visitors, half of which come from overseas.

Unfortunately it is difficult for Indians to be counted in that number.  The exorbitant cost of flying to Brazil and back puts it out of reach of anybody except for the super mega-rich.  But nil desperandum as the Latin saying goes.  India boasts its very own Carnival in its very own holiday destination of Goa where you can party for a fraction of the cost !

Traditionally Carnival lasts for four days in late February from Sabado Gordo (Fat Saturday) to Shrove Tuesday (Fat Tuesday) which immediately precedes Lent.  The key highlight is the Carnival parade which starts in Panjim on the first day and then rotates through Mapusa, Vasco and Margao on the following days with a huge entourage of dancers, singers, musicians and gaily decorated floats. And the grand finale is the Red and Black block party which is held on Tuesday night and closes down the celebrations.

Carnival traces its roots back to an ancient Greek festival held each spring to honour Dionysus, the god of wine. Knowing a good thing when they saw one, the Romans hijacked the festival to honor two of their gods, Bacchanalia and Saturnalia. Late to the party the Catholic Church jumped on the bandwagon and recast the festival as a celebration leading up to Ash Wednesday. Thus it became one final binge before Lent with its 40 days of repentance, fasting and preparation for the coming of Easter. In fact the word Carnival is derived from a Latin word meaning to take away meat and reflects the period of abstinence from meat and other culinary pleasures which is observed during Lent

So there I was armed with face paint, Venetian mask and funny bowler hat awaiting the mid-afternoon start of the Carnival parade opposite the Old Secretariat in Panjim.  The crowds were sweating and heaving with anticipation while sundry parade organisers screamed contradictory instructions, confusing everybody but also adding to the general merriment.  Finally the rotund King-for-a-Day Rei Momo declared the festival open and the lead float decorated like a bloated clownfish began to roll carrying with it the monarch and his entourage of comely queens and court attendants waving frantically.  The catchy strains of the anthem Viva Carnival soon had everyone shaking their booty.  Carnival 2017 was officially under way!

Old-timers claim that over the years Carnival has become crass and commercialised and certainly there was enough evidence to back that claim. As the floats crawled by I noticed one sponsored by a local bank with morose minions sitting behind desks bearing incongruous Loan Application and Direct Deposit signs! This was followed by a float advertising OPPO mobiles with several green-and-white toons and a Save the Girl Child float bearing the smiling visages of Sania Mirza and Kalpana Chawla. Overall though these business-first floats didn’t seem too intrusive and there were certainly some very creative efforts including a dragon with flashing red eyes and sparkling blue-green scales that moved threateningly from side to side. Tradition also made its entrance in the form of a float with sari-clad women depicting rural life and men playing music on upended matkas.
Looking around the crowds seemed to be lapping it up and the salsa music and the flashing Goan smiles were omnipresent.

Even more so on the final Tuesday night when Carnival closes with the Red-and-Black block party outside the Club Nacional.  I have never seen a venue in India where liquor is so easily and freely available on the streets and man, can it transform the atmosphere of the crowds!! Booze stands offering mojitos and caiprioskas at Rs 150 a shot can’t be beat and my friend Vasquito Alvarez’s honeyed pork chops were to die for. I spotted an Italian woman who looked stunning in her red-and-black Ferrari outfit split to the waist. We mingled freely with the happy crowds swaying to the infectious music of the Goan bands. Dancing with her, I genuinely felt the spirit of Carnival move me that night.  If you are a party animal then this is one party that you cannot afford to miss!

Ranjan Pal

Ranjan Pal is a Gurgaon-based travel writer, photographer, and a world traveler. His travel stories and photographs have appeared in a wide range of publications, including The New York Times, Condé Nast Traveller, National Geographic Traveller, Travel + Leisure and Outlook Traveller.

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