The influential Roman Catholic Church here has come to the rescue of Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar, who has been criticised by his political opponents for insisting that Goa's most popular festival of merriment, the Carnival, has nothing to do with religion.
After the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief minister, known for his proximity to his Gujarat counterpart Narendra Modi, created a stir earlier this month by announcing a five-day budget session coinciding with the week-long Carnival, Goa's most well-known festival, Parrikar went a step further: "Is it Diwali, Dussehra or Christmas? Technically, everyone is opposed to the Carnival. It is only happening because of tourism. Even the Church opposes Carnival," Parrikar said at a press conference, refusing to reconsider the dates of the session.
Parrikar also claimed that the Carnival had nothing to do with religion.
But amidst the secular flak that his comments have attracted, it is the Church which has now backed Parrikar. "The Carnival has nothing to with our religion," Fr. Olavo Caiado, spokesperson of Goa's Roman Catholic Church, told IANS.
The Church commands a flock of over a quarter of Goa's 1.5 million population and holds considerable sway in the state's socio-political sphere. Fr. Caiado also said that the Church does not "foster" Carnival as a festival.
The Goa carnival is a celebration of the state's Portuguese legacy. It is celebrated in a big way in countries once ruled by the Iberians - either Portuguese like the globally-celebrated Brazilian carnival - or Spanish and to some extent in regions ruled by the French who celebrate Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), a similarly inspired festival.
For the week prior to the austere Christian season of Lent, Goa celebrates "one last shot at having fun" before the liquor bottles and beef and pork are stacked away as part of a 40-day period of religious penitence.
On the streets, gay and colourful parades with floats wind their way through crowded streets across the state, each led by King Momo, a ceremonial figure, who is given the key to the day's celebrations. Along with Christmas and Ganesh Chaturthi, it is one of the biggest festivals in the state, which was ruled by the Portuguese for over 450 years.
While the Carnival is generally perceived as a Catholic festival, some historians and priests prefer to call it a pagan festival. Social historians like Tomazinho Cardozo say its roots are Hindu. He links it to the traditional festival of Shigmo that is as colourful as the Carnival and dates further back in Goa's history. "It is similar to the concept of Shigmo, which also had khells (plays) enacted by the locals. It was enacted on the ground itself in pre-Portuguese days. The Portugal-inspired Carnival later started enacting these plays on floats," Cardozo, a renowned theatre artiste and former speaker of the Goa assembly explained. "The traditional khell traces its origins to the classical Yakshagana dance of (what is now) Karnataka and is based on old Hindu tales with a sutradhar or narrator and a jester called a Kodangi," he added.
The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) has termed Parrikar's comments on the Carnival "communal" and "ominous". Its leaders have also met Goa governor Bharat Vir Wanchoo seeking a re-adjustment of the assembly session dates. But Radharao Gracias of the United Goans Democratic Party (UGDP), an outfit known to play the Catholic minority card every now and then, once again batted for Parrikar and his comments. "There should be no mistake that Carnival is not a Catholic festival. It is a festival of the flesh. The Catholic religion is generally opposed to the festival," he said.
While the week-long Carnival begins on March 1, the five day budget session begins on March 3.