In Goa's Siolim village, the lesser-known Zagor festival brings together Hindu and Catholic devotees
Zagor in Siolim, Goa is celebrated with dance performances, tiatr (local theatre), and a special dinner menu which includes 'sanna'
It’s a cold winter night in early January in Goa, and residents of the Siolim village are heading home to witness the unique Siolim Zagor. Zagor, which in other parts of the country is known as the Jagran festival, is a night long religious festival where devotees invoke god throughout the night.
But here, in the Siolim village which is roughly 25 kilometres away from the capital city of Panaji, the nature of this festival is not the same because it has a different cultural and religious significance. It brings together the two main religious communities of Goa — Hindus and Christians. It is held on the day after Siolim’s Feast of Nossa Senhora de Guia, or the first Monday after Christmas. This year, it was held on 1 January.
Big hoardings welcome you as you enter this village, and the well-lit roads and houses add to the sense of festivity. The scene is of a typical village feast with stalls of flower vendors, sweet shops and even local gambling dens. Because it is mandatory to attend Zagor, the village is buzzing with people.
You will be invited to a special dinner made on this day, and the menu will include sanna (bread made of steamed rice). It is a dish made mainly in Christian homes, but on this day, even Hindu homes cook it. You will witness serpentine queues of devotees holding garlands and candles in their hands, which are offered to Zagorio and Our Lady respectively. The main reason that devotees flock here is the special prayer which is locally called ‘sangne'. These devotees ask the Almighty to fulfill their wishes, and it is mandatory to make another visit once the wish is fulfilled.
The word 'Zagor' means keeping a night vigil to please the Almighty or the protector of the village. Many villagers believe that if they do not celebrate this festival, their fields will get inundated and their bunds will be destroyed because of the Chapora river, as their village is situated on its banks. “In Goa, Zagor is held at various villages such as Anjuna and Nageshi, when the monsoon is in the offing and after the harvest season. It is only the Siolim Zagor which is held during this time of the year,” says researcher and writer Maria de Lourdes Bravo da Costa Rodrigues.
It begins with devotees coming together to seek blessings of the local deity called Zagorio, as well as the local saints. “The ceremonies combine prayers, songs, skits and dances from both the Hindu and the Catholic traditions, and the Konkani and Portuguese languages blend together. The ritual is thus reminiscent of India’s most long-lasting experience of European colonialism under the Portuguese-Catholic rule from 1510 to 1961,” says German cultural anthropologist Alexander Henn, who has studied Goa’s culture for the last 25 years.
However, when we turn the pages of history, we discover that this festival was mainly a Christian one. But in the early 20th century, Portuguese rulers banned it because they considered it a pagan festival. Many of Siolim's residents attributed the destruction of their crops to the fact that Zagor was not being celebrated. A group of Christians then approached the Shirodkar family of Siolim to engage in the festivities with them, which is when Hindus, too, began to participate in the festival.
Groups of devotees start trickling in around 9 pm, but the festival starts only late at night. The performances begin after the seeking of blessings. First, there is a torch-light procession called ‘suari’, where the torches are created using dry palm leaves. The procession moves towards the stage or the holy space called ‘maand,’ amidst the beats of the dhol and cymbals. Some believe that torches became part of this procession in the olden days before street lights were installed, so that revelers could see in the night.
Members of the surari procession, which consist of 20 to 30 boys and men, gather on the stage to dance. It is considered auspicious and a privilege for these men to open this festival. Then a performance starts by invoking Zagorio or Zagreshwar, the Holy Cross, St Anthony (the patron saint of the village) and Saibeen. This dance-drama has no continuous plot or narrative, but it has to have a few main characters, and the actors who portray them perform on stage one at a time.
There’s also the tradition of singing ‘ovio’, a Christian prayer written in Konkani. “It is interesting to note that the chants speak about inter-community interaction. The performance ends with an invocation of the holy trinity: "Poilo noman Deva bapak/ Dusro noman Deva putrak/ Tisro noman Deva spirita santak/ Sogle Dev ekuch re." It means that the first praise is to God the Father, the second praise to God the Son, and third is to God the Holy Spirit; all three are one,” explains Rodrigues.
Characters such as the 'Bharbharaichya', 'Firangi Raja', 'Mali' (gardener) and 'Malani' (gardeners’ wife) are always part of the Siolim Zagor performance. The female characters are enacted by male actors, as women were not allowed to take part in this dance-drama; this practice still continues. They all dance to the beats of ghumat. I am told that it is the prerogative of certain families — predominantly Catholic ones — to put up these performances.
The most important performance is the dance by the Zagorio, which locals term the dance of the God. In it, the performer wears special clothes and a headdress, and dances with a stick in his hand. Prior to the performance, his headdress is lit up with candles and placed in the temple so that devotees may seek seek blessings. This performance in many ways symbolises the Zagor festival.
After these performances, 'tiatr' or the local form of theatre is staged. These tiatrs which are performed by acclaimed tiatrists of Goa are crowd-pullers and manage to keep the devotees awake late into the night. The Zagor concludes at around 4 am with one final invocation.
For any culture or tradition to sustain, it has to evolve with the times, and this is true of the Siolim Zagor, too. As Henn puts it, “Like the genealogies of its performers, the ritual has gone through conversion and shuddhi (purification), it has become Catholic and Hindu, and has attained its post-colonial syncretic nature today. Its songs have no master narrative but string together a multitude of stories dealing with mythology and the everyday, the divine and the mundane, drama and laughter.”
It is interesting to note here that this festival which was confined to being a local celebration has now gained mainstream popularity due to singer Remo Fernandes. Fernandes, who hails from this village, used to perform regularly here and also used this platform to speak about contemporary issues. “It was Remo who wrote about this festival and talked about its uniqueness to the world. He also spoke about the Konkani language issue during the language agitation in the 1980s,” says cartoonist Alexyz, who is also a resident of Siolim.
A decade ago, a rift developed between the villagers which has resulted in two separate Zagor celebrations in the same village. However, this has not dampened the spirit of the villagers and they seek blessings from both deities. At Dango Zagor (the original) the role of the Zagorio is performed by the Shirodkar family and at Guddem Zagor (the second, newer one), it is done by Alex Rodrigues. This speaks volume about the communal harmony of Goa.
Kaustubh Naik, a researcher, attributes Hindu-Catholic unity to the celebration of this festival. “I think it would be limiting to call it Hindu-Catholic syncretism. It symbolises the complexity of devotion and religiosity among Goan Bahujan communities, which cannot be explained through broad generalisations of Hindu-Catholic unity.” It also shows the people’s connection with their land and genealogy, which are outside the scope of religion.
“No colonialism can convert culture,” says Henn. He says that a culture can only be accommodated or transformed, but not converted. The Goan culture is persistent. “Any Goan Catholic is Goan first and then Catholic. Culture trumps colonialism. Even in times of aggression, a culture protects its vitality,” says Henn. Perhaps this explains why Zagor is still celebrated in Goa, even in contemporary times.
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