Songs of Korlai

Songs of Korlai

Butterflies swooped and swirled above us. I leaned out over the moss casement stones of a former Portuguese fort and watched as the creatures -- mere silhouettes -- danced in the early spring dusk.

''They are bats, not butterflies,'' my friend R.W, announced.

Of course, bats. Situated in an austere hilltop fortress, that over the centuries has withstood many invasions and much political intrigue, the Castelo de Korlai seems an ideal place for a few bats. Stone seals from that time are still standing, but the etchings have eroded and are less defined; and the remains of the fortress walls are coated with moss. Silence rings through the waist high weeds-green, dense and prickly. I get entangled in the vegetation and yet I walk forward. Thorns pierce through my socks as I brush off the pollen. A rash breaks out as my arms glow red. I know scratching will not help but do not fight the stimuli. I have realized that in nature’s eye humans are an invasive species. A bulbul watches us from her ivory tower in the mango tree laughing at our endeavor to pierce the wall of green. Here we are on a ruined Portuguese fort on a hill, surrounded by the Arabian Sea on three sides. It is a place fit for a water colour painting. If the scene was not picturesque enough there is a lighthouse in the foreground added for good measure.

[The lighthose and fort of Korlai. The lighthouse keeper will give you a tour of the place for a mere 5 rupees.]


You would be surprised to hear that I am not in Korlai for the views or even the crisp Arabian Sea breeze. I am in Korlai, in a search for haunted forts, fallen churches and a lost Portuguese Creole soon to disappear. A short bumpy drive south of Alibaug, past the green glades of Revdanda and just before the Casuarina ridden beach of Kashid lies the quiet village of Korlai. A small community of a less than a thousand people in Korlai still speaks a language unique to them and different from any other language spoken in all of Maharashtra. It is a Portuguese Creole called Kristi that the locals refer to as No Ling, meaning our language. Through colonial expansion in Asia, Portuguese spread as the language of trade, which is how the language developed in the area. The Portuguese left the area in 1740, after which there has been little contact between the local community and Portugal. Yet the language has continued nearly three centuries on due to the relative degree of cultural isolation faced by the village. For many years Korlai and its Christian inhabitants, were relatively isolated from the Marathi-speaking Hindus and Muslims surrounding them. Since 1986, there is a bridge across the Kunkalika River, and the place has become more accessible and with it the more dominant languages such as Marathi and Hindi are increasingly being adopted. Like in Daman and Diu where a similar Portuguese Creole was once spoken, the unique Creole of Korlai is slowly fading away.

During the three days I spent in Korlai last weekend, I often felt as if I were walking around in a historical preserve, not a village. Or in an Indiana Jones movie or in frontier town of some faraway colonial outpost. I decided to let my feet lead me through the sepia-toned side streets of Korlai in search for this disappearing language. Having no prior experience at this sort of thing I decided to wander around hoping to chance upon the language and the light eyed people who speak it.

The streets were gray and of concrete, the homes were of brick and cement, and both were built on a narrow strip of land that expanded more and more until it suddenly curved and ended at the sea. Crosses punctuated every street corner. Old ladies in nine yard sarees oiled their hair, while children chased piglets and men sat cross-legged at porches tugging on beedis.


I smiled and walked on before I piqued one man’s attention enough for him to launch into a question. “Bon dee-ah”, he said before changing over to Marathi and asking me where I came from. Bon dee-ah I repeated as I smiled. There it was the simplest example of Portuguese where you least expect it with a dash of Marathi. I wanted to hear more of this strange pidgin so I was directed to the church and told to ask for a woman named Celestine. She will sing you a song I was promised, so we trudged along. Celestine was a cheerful old lady dressed in a purple sari. She looked well into the eighties but had an infectious demeanor of someone in her twenties and when we asked her to sing for us she was only happy to oblige.


She sat us down just in front of the altar of Korlai’s old church and picked up a worn out looking note book from one of the drawers. As we settled down on one of the creaky benches of this old church she began to sing. In an aging baritone words curled out with a beautiful melody. This was the song of Korlai, a song in ancient Kristi.

“Maldita Maria Madulena,
Maldita firmosa,
Ai, contra ma ja foi a Madulena,
Vastida de mata!”

Which when loosely translated into English means :

Cursed Maria Madalena,
Cursed Beautiful one,
Oh, against my will it was Madalena,
Dressed in leaves and branches!

This was a haunting song about Maria Madelena; the song just like the language it was sung in are mere Ghosts of Portugal in Maharashtra soon to disappear.

* Published in the Hindustan Times, 1 February, 2007

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H. Cardoso said...

Wonderful pictures and beautifully written, my friend! I met Celestine when I was in Korlai and got exactly the same impression about her inner age. Lovely lady, lovely place, lovely language... By the way, did you visit the Chaul fort across the river?

Rajiv said...

Nice article, Akshay. Just one thing,'ve misspelt the name of the river. Its Kundalika and not Kunkalika. It originates from Mulshi dam in Pune district. There's a hydroelectric power station there. Comes to Bhira where there's a second power station and a third one is coming up near Kolad.

-- Rajiv

Hanna said...

Great article, Akshay! Got me curious about this place...

n said...

It's a beautifully written article, but i see you kept some of the better pictures back for your blog :D

Akshay said...

Hugo - I did get the oppurtunity to Revdanda and Chail absolutely magical places. Thanky you for mentioning Korlai to me it was a great experience.

Rajiv -I know Mulshi, really that were Kundalika originates. Thanks for the factoid. Kolad is another place I would want too visit in the future.

Hanna- Glad you liked it - if you're in Mumbai you should go visit it is only 2 hours away !

N - Aha its true you alway keep the better picture to your else. Glad you liked the article.

Alapana said...

Its a part of that simple world which we have come so far from,we rush through everything and when i was reading this article i realized its time to read it slowly,absorb the beauty and peace of this tiny village,reading it brought those bright images of a simple world,i am glad i know about this place now,thank you:)

Ameet said...

I never knew such a place existed. Konkan holds so many mysteries.

I wonder what Dan Brown would think of that song ;-)

Chandrasekhar said...

A great piece of insight Akshay,into a different world.

I drove from Mumbai to Kashid , and there were more such villages like Korlai , friendly folks, homes without shutters, and great food.

Thankfully,you have the rare art of elevating a potential tourist hot spot, into a human interest story.Korlai lies best in the dreams of people.It looks good there.


Vi said...

Lovely article as well as photographs.

I hope you are doing well. :]

Gopal M S said...

Lovely story. And pics.

Please Geolink these pics on google earth. post it here ..


Ashish Waghray said...

beautiful compositions... didnt read the content though:)

Rajesh Dangi said...

good article! being in revdanda all my childhood yet this story reveals i know little!! thanks for the information! keep going!!

Nuno Filipe said...

Indeed, beautifull pictures and words! I often heard about the village but I've never seen pictures. Thank you!

Nigel Fernandes said...

This is a brilliant article. I'm Goan, and as such always intrigued by the remains of Portuguese influence in India.

I found your blog through Siddarth Dawara, and I'm completely awed.

Please note me from now on as a regular reader. You have an amazing eye for photography, and I cant tell you what a pleasure it is to read your articles. I wish you the very best.


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Anonymous said...

Hey, luvly feature, been to korlai fort a few yrs back since my mother's maiden surname is "korlekar". her ancesters, we heard, were "killedars" of the fort. didnt visit the village though wd lov 2 soon.

bhushan said...

hi akshay
thanks for telling me something which i never knew about my village.i live in mumbai but visit there atleast once a year. i feel korlai is really beautiful place.

Taara said...

the songs of gone times...

tarik said...

That is good words abt korlai wich u had write.its good location and i like this place Bcos my love is from this beutiful place.

Khalil Sawant said...

Hi, Akshay (Lecerle),
Your article was a definite revelation, just as good as your photography has been.
Konkan does hold out many surprises when we least expect.
Now this special group of people of Korlai to add to the Marathi Jews who lived very nearby, yet not many people know about and the demographic variety that the rest of Konkan exhibits.
It pains to see a language being on brink of vanishing, (partly because of our narrow-mindedness of adopting other common global languages)
Will visit when I get a chance
GOD Bless :)

Tavinho said...

Why didn't you put a RECORD here? Sounds would be GREAT, and you forgot them!