What is Panaji without its historic buildings?

April 10, 2010

HETA PANDIT – author, heritage activist


Letter dated: 06 April 2010

Mr Digambar Kamat
Chief Minister
Secretariat, Government of Goa
Porvorim, Goa

Open Letter To The Chief Minister Of Goa On
The Destruction Of Goa’s Built Heritage

Dear Mr Kamat,

On Saturday 27th March this year a beautiful building in Panaji popularly known as Café Puna was demolished by its owners with the approval and the sanction of the Government of Goa and the Corporation of the City of Panaji.

The building was at least 70 years old and must have taken its craftsmen and builders at least two years to build it, decorate it and make it the pride of the city. It was located opposite the historic Massano da Amorim building and also opposite the National Theatre that once had Corinthian columns at its entrance and was also the pride of the neighbourhood.

Café Puna was not an extraordinary building but embodied a distinct character. It had two stories and Mangalore roof tiles like a lot of houses in Panaji. At one time, its upper floor verandah had wooden railings which had been hand-crafted by Goan wood craftsmen (later these were replaced with decorative ironwork). Its chambers contained furniture that was either Burma teak or Indian teak wood. Café Puna added an identity and strength to its neighbourhood, one of the several old structures that give Panaji its uniqueness.

But on the day and night of the 27th of March 2010, blunt bulldozers won over the delicate tools of the Goan craftsmen. High rise won over history.

Why did this happen, Mr Kamat? And what if it did? Apart from a few heritage lovers of the city, does anyone care? We see buildings like Cafe Puna (together with other lovely period buildings in the city) as deposits of Goan craftsmanship and culture. We remind you that there is no-one in Goa who can build like this any more, for this was a building of beauty and an article that shows Goan craftsmanship. These buildings tell you the story of how people lived, how they worked, what it meant to them to be Goan.

This is what the thoughtless demolition of Café Puna has achieved, the loss of an example of our craft and skill. Did you think of asking the property’s new owners what exactly it was that they had brought down? We wish to remind you that these are not only buildings we are trying to save. These are deposits of the city’s history. It pains us that the absence of laws to protect Goa’s heritage have destroyed evidence of history such as Café Puna. Outside of the few conservation zones in the city (those too are constantly under threat) there are no protection laws in the state. By allowing the demolition you have given your sanction to the annihilation of Goa’s history.

Does Goa then not want to protect its heritage? Your government’s reluctance to frame regulations for heritage protection says it all.

The plot on which Café Puna once stood may belong to Sungrace Developers on paper but the building was part of our common cultural heritage. And you have allowed this heritage, kept safely for 70 years, to disappear overnight. We are told that the new high rise to come up in its place will be a 40-room hotel. We are told that heritage buildings are ‘white elephants’ that cost money and are a financial drain. Who says so? Some of the finest corporate offices all over the world (such as Arcelor Mittal in France) and in India (HSBC in Kala Ghoda. Mumbai) are located in privately owned heritage buildings. Some of the finest hotels in the world – like The Lake Palace in Udaipur and The Taj Rambagh Palace – are located in heritage buildings. Some of the finest stores in the world (Harrods) are in heritage buildings.

Even in Panaji there are areas which sustain themselves economically because of their heritage and history. In Fontainhas, for example, establishments like the Panjim Inn, Afonso Guest House, Fontainhas Inn, Panjim Peoples, Panjim Pousada and Park Lane lodge have heritage as their main drawcard. So do restaurants like Venite, Horseshoe, Viva Panjim and Ernestos. So do stores like Barefoot, Bombay Store, Syne and Velha Goa. Elsewhere in Goa establishments like Siolim House, Fort Tiracol and Goa Chitra depend upon the heritage value of their establishments as their primary merchant USP. These are but a few examples to prove conclusively that heritage buildings can be made economically viable. That they provide essential character, are a touchstone of local identity and make a city a better place to live in is the bonus they bring to any urban settlement.

The city of Singapore has often been held up by the state government as a role model of development. Singapore’s modern character comes from a careful fusion of the old with the new. Together with world class sea and airport, education hub and financial centre exist several thriving city wards which have scrupulously preserved old structures and settlement layout. That is the reason Singapore attracts such a high volume of tourists – its tourism development board, its urban planning authority and neighbourhood committees work together to preserve and revitalize its built heritage.

Café Puna could have been restored with care and shown as a fine example of restoration. The new hotel could have been the pride of the city, a restoration the new owners would have been proud of and a building that people would have paid more to stay in. We have examples of heritage hotels in the city of Panaji, in the rest of Goa and all over the world. These hotel owners will tell you that visitors pay more to stay in a heritage hotel than in a block of concrete and steel.

Instead, over the past few years several heritage houses and buildings have been demolished in Panaji – we are alarmed and concerned that the pace of such destruction is increasing in Goa’s towns and cities. They have all been replaced by high rises, which bring with them a depressingly familiar set of new problems: greater congestion arising from vehicular traffic, increased pressure on the infrastructure-water, electricity, sewerage and garbage disposal. Tearing out the old and replacing it with the new further alienates the residents of the city from their old familiar landmarks.

We wish to remind you that repositories of craftsmanship and memory like Café Puna exist in a city that has many firsts to its credit. Panaji has India’s longest river promenade. It is the only Indian city with stepped streets. It was built on a grid pattern that most Indian cities do not have. And it has a mix of heritage buildings with Indian Art Deco, British, Italian and Modern styles of architecture.

What is Panaji without its historic buildings? Just another town in India? With no special character, no individuality and no uniqueness? Why would visitors come to Goa and wish to walk about, charmed, in the city of Panaji? To escape from the congestion, traffic issues and woes of Indian urbanization elsewhere? If that is evident, Mr Kamat, why are you and your government turning this beautiful city into a faceless urban maze by destroying something that neither you nor your government can create?

What lies in the balance in Goa? There are human-scale settlements that have taken over a century to evolve. And there is the result – in the debris of Café Puna – of the ignorance and greed of a few who are overturning that balance.

We therefore urge you, Mr Kamat, to frame and commit to law – with no further delay – regulations for the protection of the built heritage of Goa.

Yours sincerely,

Heta Pandit | Jack Ajit Sukhija | Sanjeev Trivedi | Prajal Sakhardande | Rahul Goswami

Chairman Hon Secretary Executive Executive Member
Committee Committee
For and on behalf of Life members, Patron members and Annual members of Goa Heritage Action Group (GHAG)


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