Goa has four main tribal communities—the Gowdas, Kunbis, Velips, and Dhangars. They live in clusters in different parts of the state, retaining their respective indigenous ways of living, as well as holding on to their traditional customs.
It is believed that the Gowdas were the first settlers of Goa, with agriculture as their primary occupation. While they were originally nature-worshippers, later, they began to follow certain Hindu practices. In the 17th century, during the reign of the Portuguese, a section of the Gowdas residing in south Goa converted to Catholicism. The women of this particular community, after conversion, are known to have adopted wearing the traditional kapodd, or brightly coloured textiles patterned with checks all over. The Gowdas worship Mallikarjun, a form of the deity Shiv, and reside in villages deep in the interiors of the state.
The Kunbis are also said to be among the early inhabitants of Goa. They usually live in small mud huts with roofs made out of bamboo, straw, and leaves of the coconut palm trees. The hamlets the Kunbis reside in are known as ‘kutumba’, derived from the Sanskrit word ‘kutumbakam’, which means ‘family’. The festival of Shigmotsav (or Shigmo Festival) held every February/March is a showcase of the Kunbis’ rich cultural past, and marks the arrival of the spring season. It is also believed that the Kunbis observe Shigmotsav as it commemorates the homecoming of warriors who were said to have left in order to fight the invaders after Dussehra, and returned during Holi. While innate to the Kunbis, it is embraced by most communities in Goa, particularly through the famous Carnival, a parade that begins in Ponda and takes to the streets, traversing across towns and cities in Goa. It is marked by traditional folk music with instruments like the taasha drum and cymbals, and dance forms such as modni and veeramal.
Considered to be a sub-caste of the Kunbis, the Velips have a number of traditions and cultural practices in common with them. They largely reside in the remote regions of the forests of Quepem, Canacona and Sanguem. The joint family system is one of the important features of the way of life of the Velips.
It is believed that the Dhangars migrated to Goa from Gujarat. They are worshippers of a deity known as Bira Deva. Leading a semi-nomadic and pastoral lifestyle, a number of members of this community are shepherds or cattle-herders, a piece of evidence perhaps lying in their ways of dressing.
Meanwhile, the communities in Goa notified as Scheduled Castes by the government of India include the Bhanguis, Mahars, Maangs, Chambhars and Mahyavanshis.
Dances & folklore
Notwithstanding its limited geographic expanse, Goa is home to a number of unique folk dances, steeped in lore and tradition. While most dancers are performed in groups, some are performed in pairs. They usually are associated with certain festivals or seasons or are significant to ceremonial rituals or processions.
This is a dance form that is intrinsic to the annual Shigmo Festival, a fortnight-long celebration across Goa that heralds the onset of spring. Ghode Modini is a combination of a horse dance (ghode means ‘horse’ and modini means ‘movement’) and a martial arts form, performed as part of the many parades that are held in the streets during this period. Its symbolism lies in celebrating the victory of the Maratha warriors of the Sattari taluka over the Portuguese, and also signifies good over evil.
The dancers wear a horse-shaped costume around their waists, along with an angrakha-style pleated, flouncy garment, and mimic the movements of a horse to the beats of drums and cymbals. They wear a traditional turban known as Peshwai pagri, hold a sword in one hand, and have anklets with bells on their feet, making for a colourful spectacle.
A dance form that incorporates elements of a musical, verse and drama, the Mando encapsulates Goan village life, while also revolving around the themes of yearning and nostalgia in love and union. It begins with a slow, wistful rhythm and then gains tempo, which is known as dhulpod. The accompanying musical instruments include guitar, a traditional ghummat, and violin.
Women and men stand in two separate rows, or in pairs, to perform. While it is traditionally considered a dance belonging to the Goan Catholic community, today, it is performed by members of various castes and communities in Goa.
Performed by the shepherd community of Goa, known as the Dhangars, this dance form is usually a part of the celebrations surrounding the festival of Navratri. The Dhangars are a shepherd community, believed to have migrated from South Gujarat and settled in Goa. Only the men of the community partake in this dance. The performers wear the traditional ceremonial dress comprising a white dhoti and a white kurta embroidered in red, along with a turban, that indicate the ancestral lineage of the community.
The accompanying musical instruments include a dhol and a pair of cymbals, to the rhythm of which the dance is performed vigorously. Their traditional songs centre on the love story of the Hindu god, Krishna, and his beloved, Radha.
Usually sung by the Hindu womenfolk at the pre-wedding Chudda ceremony where the bride wears bangles for the first time, Ovi songs are a popular form of music in Goa. It is believed that the Christian missionaries had used the medium of the Ovi by introducing Biblical themes in them, as a means to apparently influence people to convert to Christianity. Some Ovi songs are also sung while grinding wheat and rice for the food preparations for the wedding feast.
A part of the celebrations during the Shigmo Festival, the traditional lamp dance—or ‘Divyanchi Naach’—is characterised by very slow, measured movements as the dancers precariously yet gracefully balance heavy brass lamps on their heads. Performed by women dressed in colourful garb, the dance is a spectacle to behold.
Translated as ‘bewitching beauty’ from Konkani, Dekhni is a semi-classical dance form that brings together a primarily Indian performance with rhythms borrowed from the Western style of music. It is performed by women holding brass lamps in their hands. One of the popular songs to which the Dekhni is performed is ‘Haav Sahiba Poltodi Vetam’, written by Carlos Eugino Ferreira in the late 19th century.
Talgadi folk dance was once found to be performed all over Goa, but is now confined only within a few areas. The artists who dress in traditional attire of dhoti and mundashe perform the Talgadi to the tune of folk music. Talgadi involves a group of male dancers waving sticks to the beat of drums. They make use of folk musical instruments like Zanj (cymbal), Samel (a small drum from the goat skin) and Ghumat (earthen drum of monitor lizard skin) while performing the Talgadi.
The folk songs used for Talgadi are called ‘Jot’. For presenting Talgadi, there is a need of six to eight artists. The folk songs are based on mythological stories. The artists present vivid patterns in the dance and conclude it by saying, “Tha thai tha” words.
Tonyamel (Tone means a painted stick; Mell means a dancing group) is a folk dance having similarities with the Talgadi except making use of Tonyo or sticks made from cane or bamboo. This dance requires very quick movements to the tune of the folk music. They wear dhoti and a turban with the garlands of crossandra flowers in the neck.
This is a dance with ancient origin and is held only in one Kulmi village at Neturlim. Bandawado is one such locality where the ancient dance is performed by Kulmis during the Shigmo. Those participating in this ritual are men belonging to Velip caste of Goa. These men have to prepare themselves by observing strict rules of purity in days preceding the Hanpet. The purpose behind this elaborate dance is to offer symbolic blood to the land, which sustains the Kulmi tribes throughout the year.
The dancers carry swords and inflict themselves with injuries as they dance to the rhythm of drums. They also make a weird sound, reminiscent of their archaic past.
Kunbi dance is a tribal folk dance of Kunbi people. It is also known as Kanbi dance. Kunbi is a farmer caste in western India. The Kunbi community has lent its name to the Kunbi folk dance. This tribe can be found in the Salcete taluka region of Goa. The dance is simple yet also unique. It is performed on various festive and social occasions. The songs used in this dance are from the pre-Portuguese era. Their theme is not religious but social.
The Kunbi tribe has unique clothing which they wear while performing this dance form. Sarees are also a highlight of the kunbi dance form. The dancers tie their hair in a neat bun and adorn it with colourful decorative flower garlands. They also wear simple jewelleries which usually consist of a necklace, earrings and bangles.
Three Kings Festival, January
The Feast of the Three Kings or the Three Kings Festival or the ‘Epiphany’ is observed on 6th January every year. Its significance lies in paying respect to Our Lady of the Mount, i.e. Virgin Mary with infant Jesus in her arms. It marks the end of the Christmas season, with a dramatized performance of the Biblical tale of the Three Wise Men—namely Balthazar, Melchior and Gasper—who had come to visit the new-born baby Jesus in Bethlehem. They followed the star, eventually known as the ‘Star of Bethlehem’,
that guided them to the manger where Jesus was. Some of the more popular celebrations of the festival today are held in Chandor, Reis Magos and Cansaulima at their respective local chapels, followed by grand processions and ending in lavish meals.
Shigmo Festival, March
Among the key festivals in Goa, Shigmo—or Shishirotsava—is celebrated on a large scale, as a marker to welcome spring. Held every March, it involves much fanfare, with dance, music, performances and regional coastal cuisine. It spans 14 days, beginning in Ponda and parading through almost 15 towns and cities. Its origins can be traced back to the Hindu Puranic legend, and showcases traditional forms of dance such as Ghode Modini and Veeramel, to the tunes and beats of musical instruments like the dhol taasha
and cymbals. The festival has two variations, namely Dhakto (or lesser) Shigmo and Vadhlo (or greater) Shigmo. While the former is celebrated among the community of agriculturalists in rural areas to mark the culmination of the harvest season, the latter is observed on a grander scale, with people from different regions coming together to celebrate it.
Sao João, June
The Sao João Festival is observed every monsoon by the Catholics in Goa. It is also known as the Feast of St. John the Baptist. While it has religious significance, it also marks a coming together of family and friends in order to have a good time, and has a unique tradition of young revellers—largely men—jumping into water bodies such as wells, ponds and rivers to take a ‘leap of joy’.
A mass ceremony is held in the local church in the morning after which people head out to go from house to house with musical instruments including the gummot (drum) and cymbals, singing the Mandos. On the way, they are offered feni, the traditional Goan patolli, as well as fruits such as mangoes and pineapples by the villagers in the area. The festival is also characterised by Sangodd, or a boat parade, where the vessels are adorned with colourful flowers and decorations. It is popular in Siolim, Assagao, Calangute and Chapora among other places.
The word ‘Saptah’ means ‘seven days’, with the namesake festival being celebrated for a week. Saptah is held at the Damodar Temple at Swatantra Path in Vasco, where devotees from near and far visit to seek blessings of Lord Damodar. It is believed that the town of Vasco was badly affected by an epidemic of plague over two centuries ago, leading to a large number of deaths. Families from Vasco had travelled to the village of Zambaulim in south
Goa to pray to Lord Damodar so that their town would be free of disease. Their faith manifested into reality, and the epidemic died out. Every year, thousands of devotees throng the temple during Saptah, as the deity is considered as the remover of all obstacles. The path to the temple is lined with stalls selling wares like religious paraphernalia, clothes, food items and other knick-knacks. A procession is held in the town, led by a person carrying a holy coconut known as shreephal, accompanied by a troupe of dancers called Gopalkala.
Bonderam Festival, August
Held every year on the fourth Saturday of August on the island of Divar, the Bonderam Festival is a celebration that dates back to several centuries. Also known as the Flag Festival, the word ‘Bonderam’ is derived from the Portuguese word ‘bandeira’, which translates into ‘flag’. While Goa was under the rule of the Portuguese, there were disputes between the two factions on Divar Island, namely Piedade and Sao Mathias, resulting in occasional violence and fights.
The Portuguese then introduced the system of using flags as markers of demarcating the boundaries. During the festival boats are decked up in colourful flags and a carnival-like parade on the island is the mainstay. Divar Island has six wards, and each ward has its own distinct theme for their respective parades. The festivities also include playing local games, eating, drinking and making merry.
Feast of St. Francis Xavier, December
Observed every year on 3rd December, the Feast of Saint Francis Xavier marks the death anniversary of the patron saint, with a special ceremony held primarily at the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Old Goa. It is locally known as the Goinchea Saibache Festival (Festival of the Lord of Goa) and begins with a mass in the morning at the cathedral. The nine days preceding the main feast are known as Novena, attended by pilgrims from all over the country. The streets near the cathedral are lined with stalls selling sweets,
candles and other souvenirs. The Basilica of Bom Jesus is where the body of the saint was laid to rest, and remains there till date. It is made accessible for public viewing once every ten years; the next one will happen in 2024.
Other festivals celebrated to promote the local culture include :
Goa Food and Cultural Fest, February
Held by the Department of Tourism in February every year, the Goa Food and Cultural Fest is a three-day festival that highlights the regional Saraswat cuisine. While Panjim is usually the host city, this year the festival was held in Margao. It attracts locals and tourists alike. There are standalone as well as self-help food and beverage stalls, and a smattering of performances such as the traditional Ghode Modini and Dekhni dances, along with competitions for children’s activities.
The Grape Escapade, April
The Grape Escapade is a unique gourmet festival held at an open-air venue in Panjim every year during the month of April. Here, international wine makers and local culinary entrepreneurs present their food and drink for visitors to sample and take home. Given Goa’s status as a tourist destination, food and beverage play an important role in fuelling footfalls. Moreover, local wine-makers and home chefs are also given a platform at the festival, encouraging their talent.
Goa Cashew and Coconut Festival, May
As Goa is known for its abundant cashew nut and coconut plantations, a local festival surrounding the two foods is almost a given. Held every May since the last nine years, the one-of-a-kind festival gives the locals an opportunity to showcase and sell their wares, right from handicrafts made out of coconut shells to alcohol distilled from coconut and cashew nut.There are workshops on feni-distilling and handicraft-making, as well as games involving use of both these fruits. Such initiatives help boost the state’s economy, also giving small-time farmers and entrepreneurs a platform.