February is Carnival time in Goa. For three days (from February 13-16), the streets will be awash with colour, noise, parades and floats. King Momo will take over the state and there will be music, rejoicing and much revelry.
Called 'Carnaval' in Portuguese, this festival occurs immediately before Lent, the 40 days of prayer and fasting before Easter. While the starting day of Carnival varies across the world, the festival in Goa starts three days before Lent and ends on Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), the day before Ash Wednesday (February 17 this year) which marks the beginning of Lent.
The origin of the name 'carnival' is disputed. One popular theory is that it comes from the Italian 'carne levare' or similar, meaning "to remove meat", since meat is generally disallowed during Lent. So the festival became an opportunity to enjoy oneself before the austere period began.
Following the King's orders...
The appearance of King Momo during the Carnival often marks the beginning of the festivities. Surrounded by a bevy of beauties, King Momo reads out a proclamation which declares him to be the monarch for the next three days and allows his people to have fun and enjoyment during this time.
Traditionally, in the years gone, this would be the signal for revellers to go around the main Carnival areas singing and dancing, dressed in colourful costumes. Mock fights would take place between local 'gangs', where rotten eggs and tomatoes were the weapons of choice. 'Cocotes' or bombs made with paper and filled with clay were used during mock-battles between various groups of local boys.
... In more modern ways
These days, the boys on foot are replaced by groups of entertainers on spectacularly decorated floats, most with larger-than-life images of flora, fauna, issues of local interest and other newsworthy items. In 2009, floats depicted the Mumbai terror attacks and global warming.
The floats carry massive speakers, the likes of which most of us will not see (or hear, thankfully) normally. These echo live and recorded music for the entertainment of the thousands who gather to watch the spectacle. Keep your earplugs handy if you are close to the action.
While the quiet village fun and games may be long gone, the masked men selling colourful wares are still around.
The 'khells' or street plays that were performed in villages during the Carnival have died out. The talcum and indigo powders used to 'colour' the hair of women have been replaced with hair-braids, caps and of course, more masks, all targeted towards the hordes of tourists, both domestic and international, who'll come visiting.
While you're there
Goa's big carnival parades are held in four cities -- Panjim, Margao, Mapusa and Vasco. Local papers will have the listings for start times and other events that will be held.
Besides the carnival parades, also look out for the various dances organised at local 'clubs' in most cities and villages. The 'Red and Black' dance at Clube Nacional in Panjim is one of the more famous ones.
For once, ignore the masala-dosa-chole-bhature fare that has cropped up in every nook and cranny in Goa and head, instead, head to one of the little Goan restaurants for a bite of local 'chouriÃ§o-pÃ£o' (pronounced show-rees-pav), which is a spice-infused Goan sausage cooked with onions and stuffed in loaves of local bread.
If you are a vegetarian, try sukhi bhaji -- finely diced potatoes cooked in thick gravy, seasoned with mustard seeds and chillies and served with local bread.
A whole big world of fun
The Goa Carnival, much like carnivals celebrated around the world, calls into being a whole different universe. Much like the Rio carnival in Brazil, you'll find revellers dressed to the nines dancing their way into the wee hours of the morning. The tradition of wearing masks probably comes from the Carnival of Venice in Italy that has been around since the 13th century. The famous hand-painted leather or papier-mÃ¢chÃ© masks of that carnival turn into the feathery half masks on Goan lanes. So go make your resort or shack bookings immediately, and don't miss it for the world.
Chryselle is a freelance writer based in Goa whose interest in the city is exceeded perhaps only by her desire for a freshly-prepared chouriÃ§o-pÃ£o
Take a flight to Goa and then hire a pre-paid cab from the airport counter to head into town. If you're staying in Mumbai or Bangalore and feeling particularly adventurous, you could drive down to Goa taking the NH 17 (also called the Mumbai-Goa highway). A/C and non-A/C buses to Goa leave from Dadar and Bandra every night.
A cheaper alternative to taxis are bikes and scooties that can be rented for as little as Rs 300 a day. (A litre of petrol costs Rs 60 and you'll have to pay extra for that. You won't need more than 2 litres a day.)
Were to eat
For authentic chouriÃ§o, try the new Ernesto's (0832 3256213) or George Bar near the Panjim church. ato or CafÃ© Bhosle, both in Panjim, serve delicious sukhi bhaji.