The long beaches and rocky inlets of western India have been a haven for contraband for centuries, with smugglers sneaking their goods into the country via the Arabian Sea.
In the past, gold was the commodity of choice along with opium. Illegal narcotics have dominated in recent years, after Goa became a key stopping-off point on the drug-fuelled hippie trail in the 1960s and 1970s.
Now a museum has opened to tell the story of India’s smuggling history, displaying the unusual items uncovered by keen-eyed customs officials and the elaborate lengths smugglers went to in an effort to conceal their activities.
The Indian Customs and Central Excise Museum, created at a reported cost of about $600,000, is housed in a heritage building on the banks of the river Mandovi in the Goa state capital Panaji.
The building, painted in indigo blue after the dye traded in Portuguese colonial times, is thought to have been built in 1600 and served as the headquarters for customs operations from 1834 to the turn of the 21st century.
Lillian Fernandes, the officer in charge of the museum, said collecting the exhibits has been a labour of love, with workers scanning through huge lists of seized goods from across India and then battling through red tape.
“We have sourced and seized artifacts from all customs and central excise warehouses and the other museums across the country,” she said.
“In the case of antiques, we had to take the necessary permissions from the Indian museum authorities before putting them on display.”
On display are contraband goods such as antiques and religious idols seized on India’s border with Nepal or from around the coastline.
Some are from the days of the lucrative animal trade, including a large shark jaw and huge tusks and molars from elephants. Others include gold nuggets stashed under the seat of an airline toilet or in the hollowed-out heel of a shoe — both methods used by smugglers to avoid paying hefty import duties.
A special section dedicated to such innovative methods of concealment is contained in a gallery called the “Battle of Wits”.
The unusual museum, which hopes to attract local residents, school groups and tourists, also traces how India’s customs and excise operation has developed in recent years.