The divine conch of Goa

RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE

The eleventh day after the Ganesh festival is Anantha Chaturdashi, which had fallen on September 6 the year we visited Goa to pay obeisance to a Shankha (conch) at the 250-year-old Mahamaya Kamat House in the heart of Panaji — the only extant authentic Hindu architecture in Panaji that has survived till date.

The Mahamaya Kamat Mansion is just opposite the statue of Abbe Faria, and abuts the palace of Adil Shah of Bijapur. The divine conch reverently placed in the Mahamaya Kamat Mansion portends an intriguing period of the history of the Goa region.

Kamat family had escaped from Chandor to get away from the Jesuits’ crusade to convert Goa’s people to Christianity. Some from the Kamat family did convert while those who remained Hindu established alliances with the Vijayanagar rulers. In the mid 18th century, these Hindu Kamats shifted to Panaji owing to their close ties with the Raja of Sawantwadi, an enemy of the Portuguese.

The Mahamaya Kamats, who were devotees of Goddess Mahamaya (Durga), were landlords and a major brokering house on India’s west coast, trading in slaves from Africa, in opium, textiles and more. On occasion, they brokered the release of prisoners from the Portuguese.

In those days, the Portuguese royal ladies would share recipes with the Gowd Saraswat ladies of the Mahamaya Kamat Mansion – such was their social status. And their conch, that draws crowds even today on Anantha Chaturdashi day, is in this piece of history.

Once, during a ship brokering chore, a Mahamaya Kamat had visited the chief of a Portuguese ship that had pulled into port from Mozambique. Serving as a paperweight on the ship mate’s table was a conch, which had its opening on the right—unusual and rare. Kamat wanted to have the conch that he considered divine while the Portuguese sailor merely laughed: “This conch is your god?”

He was offered a good price and gold but refused to part with it. He was aware of the Jesuits’ crusade to convert Goa’s people to Christianity. “You want to buy my paperweight and then worship it? I cannot encourage such pagan practice.”

The Kamats were ace negotiators who brokered the release of two Sawantwadi princes who had been captured by the Portuguese. The Kamat ladies were on equal terms with the Portuguese royal ladies at the palace next door to the Kamat Mansion.

Pulling various strings and with diplomatic prowess, the conch was acquired, fitted with a gold border, encrusted with precious stones and reverently placed in the sanctum sanctorum within the Mahamaya Kamat Mansion.

The family’s fortunes had dwindled afterward, but the mansion survived, giving aesthetic pleasure to those who visit Panaji. Current generation’s Kamats serve meals to the hundreds, like us, that come for the Anantha Chaturdashi ritual to venerate the divine conch.

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