And I thought crowns were only about big fat diamonds and rubies sewn into silk and brocade. Or the more mournful crown of thorns that Jesus wore. Then, it all changed. My idea of a crown. By a well in Goa’s Campal neighbourhood. There stood a woman. With grapes in her crown. A few guavas. A banana. Two green bell peppers. She, no princess. That day not her coronation.
Not too far was a man wearing a garden on his head. Literally. A crown of hibiscus. Palm leaves. Pink roses. White plumeria. Ornamental foliage draping his forehead.
June 24 is the Sao Joao Festival - the feast of St John, the Baptist, one of the most important Christian festivals in the state. On this day, everyone in Goa wears a kopel (crown) and jumps into water. A well. A lake. A river. A quickly-dug waterhole. A plastic pool. Everyone splashing around. Some with feni in hand, others retrieving gifts thrown into the well.
I stood befuddled at all that merry-jumping. Until I dug into the Biblical leap of joy. The well-jumpers were not loony merrymakers. They were mimicking a saint. As the story goes, St John, the Baptist, leapt in joy inside his mother Elizabeth’s womb when Virgin Mary came visiting. St. John later baptised Jesus in the river Jordan. The jumping into wells is symbolic of St John’s still-in-the-womb leap of joy. The saint jumped in the womb, the pious in wells. And the crown? Curiosity was killing me. That’s to remind revellers of the crown of thorns that Jesus wore.
This unique Goan festival is celebrated across the state but nothing beats the celebrations at Siolim where Sao Joao has been celebrated for more than 200 years.
People start milling around the Siolim Church for the boat-tableaux competition. Traditionally, people used Sangodd, a decorated floating platform made by tying two boats or banana tree trunks together which are then put into nearby streams to float. Now, the Sangodd is more enchanting.
On one boat a fibre-glass crocodile lay with his mouth agape in the Chapora river. Another boat had peacocks and mushrooms atop an anthill while a papier mache girl in itsy-bitsy green dress was sprawled in a flower forest. Cardboard musical notes were swaying in the breeze and a mermaid was drowning in the muddy water. Men were singing hymns to the beat of the ghumat, a local percussion instrument.
For long, San Joao has been associated with the tradition of newlywed brides carrying a basket of fruits, specially jackfruit, bananas and pineapples. The gifts are sent by the bride’s mother for her son-in-law.
One of the most popular songs of Sao Joao is Sasumai ponos dadla (my mother-in-law has sent me a jackfruit). However, the festival is never compete without pataleo, a traditional sweetmeat made of ground rice mixed with palm jaggery, grated coconut and cardamom powder; the mixture wrapped in turmeric leaf and steamed.
On June 24, if you see a Goan with an orchard growing out of his scalp, do not smirk. It is the Sao Joao festival and that orchard is his crown.