Another of Goa’s lost tribes: The Bardeskars

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Frederick Noronha

Every once in a while, Goa discovers the story behind yet one more strand of its complex and little-understood diaspora. Fourteen years ago it was the Goans in Burma. The Karachi Goans’ full story is still only slowly being understood.

Goa University researcher Aida Dourado’s recent doctoral thesis on the ‘kudds’ of residential clubs of Bombay is shattering myths and offering new insights (including about groups of males living and managing on their own). To see Goa’s newest diaspora, in Paris, comprising up to 4000 of them according to what some there say, stick to their language, culture, and religion, is indeed touching.

Last week itself, professor Beheroze Shroff of the University of California, Irvine, was talking about the Siddhis, including those connected to Goa and Portuguese history and living in nearby Karnataka. On learning that Charles Camara, the Sweden-and-Margao-based scholar, had discontinued his work on this poorly-studied community, she voiced her disappointment.

This time around, it’s the story of the “Bardeskars” – one that has been known and appreciated, but only in limited, narrow circles. Eduardo Faleiro and advocate Bernard D’Souza were working on this track some time back.

This book is about a community that left Goa, goodness knows when exactly, for what reason, and since then has roughed it out in wet, heavy-monsoonal rural areas outside Belgaum. Since they almost all trace their roots to one sub-district of Goa, they are known as the Bardeskars. Some of them in fact use this as their surname.

 * * *

Pune-based engineer Alphie Monteiro, himself a member of this community, took it on himself to write what would become the first history of its community, its language, its culture, and also the challenges it faces.

Based in Shivajinagar in Pune, another city with close but forgotten links to Goa, Monteiro commented in a message to this columnist: “I am rather fortunate for being good in Marathi and Devanagari Konkani. [For the book], I could read many authors like Shennoi Gomebab Vaman Varde Valavalicar, Pissurlencar, and others. Long ago, I had presented a paper in Mumbai on Goan presence in Pune, which dates back to 1789.”

Monteiro explains the “why” of the book in its first chapter itself. Put simply, he had no easy answers to the questions of who were his forefathers, where did they come from, who were their ancestors, and why did they migrate?

He explains it thus: “I must have been eight or nine and, on one of my regular visits to (the Belgaum district village of) Teurwadi, when I asked ‘Hales Tiva’ (Uncle Alex) why we were called Bardeskars. After spitting out the tobacco that he was chewing and loudly clearing his throat, he said, ‘Puta (son), we are not from this place. We have come here from ‘Bardes’ and so they call us Bardeskar.’ To me, this was an astonishing revelation because even though Bardez was only 150 kilometres from Teurwadi it was a world apart in those days.”

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This book, in 22 chapters and appendices, tells you as much as one would like to know about the Bardeskars. It touches on their roots, their present situation, and the culture they follow. All the time, it gives useful comparisons with the wider Goan Christian community, with whom they all share a common faith as well as roots.

At an online launch function of the book recently — the pandemic makes such events so accessible, thanks for small mercies and count your blessings — some interesting questions came up. Someone wanted to know why the traditional feast offered for souls of the departed is called “almanche jevon” (meal for the departed souls) in those parts but “bhikarachem jevon” (beggar’s meal) in Goa itself.

Starting with a brief history of Goa, the book then goes to its Portuguese era and the changes in religion. This leads us to the formation of the ‘Goan Catholics from the Ghats’ network, as Monteiro calls his community.

Of particular interest is his focus on where the Goans settled in those areas, the connection with particular villages in Bardez (including surnames linked there), links to comunidades and ‘zonn’ (the annual now-modest payout to comunidade members).

Their traditions make for a fascinating study and contrast with other Goan Catholic ones. So is a discussion on that topic we’d rather not talk about except in certain contexts today, caste.

One encounter with this community could leave the average person puzzled, for they (especially elders) are very barely westernised, as compared to other Goan migrants.

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Perhaps the most surprising part of the book lies in the explanation of why the Bardeskars left Goa, during the 17th-18th centuries. In today’s world of politicised positions, issues can get badly confused. Over time, myth and propaganda repeated many times over, takes on the air of truth, where people start even believing distorted versions of their own histories.

Monteiro says said his elders would explain that their ancestors migrated “long ago” because of bata-bati (conversions) when the ‘pakhle’ (Portuguese) threw bread in their wells and turned them into Christians. The actual story is far more complex, and — this might seem surprising — includes Maratha wars against Goa of past centuries.

With his engineering mind, Monteiro dismantles some easily accepted arguments. He points out, for instance, that there were hardly any Christians in Bardez to allow the Inquisition in 1560 to cause the outflow of the Bardeskars. Their strongly entrenched Christian traditions suggest they had been converts for some generations before they left too. Adil Shahi wars could not be the explanation too, he explains.

Other interesting facts emerge too.

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The Bardezkars are spread out across a 150-kilometre strip on the plateau area of the Sahyadri mountain. They’d walk back to Goa in the past to retain their comunidade links and collect ‘zonn’ (or trek it out for pilgrimages for Francis Xavier’s feast as they do, a practice from the 1980s). Most seem connected with the border villages of Bardez.

They avoid meat, perhaps to fit in better with their Hindu co-villagers. Further south, the also Goa-connected Mangalore Christians also had their own very complex history, referred to in passing here.

There are also issues which we may have not heard the last word. Monteiro, understandably, only has existing works to base his work on. But what happens when histories of the Mangaloreans or the Inquisition get re-evaluated showing them in a different light?

Incidentally, the very cultural practices which Priolkar, whose work on the Inquisition has shaped the debate, says were sought to be rooted out by that institution, continue as strongly. Not just among the Bardeskars but even in Goa — ‘almanche jevon’, ‘ros’ or ‘roce’ prior to a wedding, wedding pandals or matavs (p 116-117).

Monteiro accepts the argument that later cultural restrictions from the Inquisition, and the “mere fear” of it, could have caused the migration
(p 66-67). But, though the debate is loud and one-sided at present, especially in some corners of cyberspace, one suspects the last word is not heard
on this.

A study of comparison and contrast between those who left and those who stayed on in Goa is tempting. Oddly enough, the lack of quality education, especially English education, till very recently, kept the community in poor shape for the most. Things have changed, and now the boot might be on the other foot, with out-migration to cities decimating community life.

The words used by different segments of the Bardeskar society, and the fact that the two caste groups at the top (Bamons and Chardos) didn’t live in the same village — nor even intermarry till a few decades ago — is an eye-opener.

All in all, an interesting book for anyone who wants to understand not just another strand of our diaspora,
but Goa itself.