Aboriginal Basket-Weavers and Sextons

by Fr. Nascimento Mascarenhas

While youngsters today have many appealing new professions to choose from, in days gone by people in the villages of Goa also earned their daily bread in myriad interesting ways and some of the professions were rather quaint and fascinating.

I will never forget the colourful basket-weavers who came to Saligao all the way from Bairo Alto to make beautiful household articles from matted bamboo strips. The range of products was quite extensive and included elegant baskets (pantli); multipurpose containers (vorli) used, among other things, to ripen fruit and extract coconut juice for the preparation of traditional sweets; brooms (sarun); bamboo matting sieves (kurponnem) to drain water from cooked rice; bamboo mats (dalli); the small barn to store rice (koddo); bamboo fencing (virlem) around the coconut tree sapling to protect it from cattle); boxes of bamboo cane-work (pettaro) ; handheld fans (aino); and, small trinkets and toys.

The men stripped the bamboo into long thin strips, and from these strips the women wove the articles ordered. The children ran about in the backyard and the women sang melodious songs while they worked. They even entertained us with fascinating fairy tales (kanniô).

These women were also proficient in weaving cane-mesh seats and backs for chairs (kodeli), rocking chairs (dolpachi kodel), and easy chairs (volteram) with cane strips as well as white plastic strips. It was mesmerising to watch them strip the long cane strips with knives and weave them through the small holes bored in the wood of the chairs, horizontally and then vertically, adroitly manipulating a pointed cane to tighten the strips into a mesh as they wove simple or intricate patterns. The workmanship was so good that the cane mesh would last for years.

In the culinary art, there was none better than the men folk of the basket-weaver community, mostly adlo-lok (aborigines or natives; Mhars). We had the famous Pasku, Zuzulo, Menino and others quite prominent in this art. They were called to cook special dishes for weddings and other receptions. Two tri-stone chuli (fire places) were usually installed on a slab. Almost all kitchen utensils that were used were made of clay. Those were the days when craftsmen, artisans and potters had a field day.

Aboriginal Sextons

Some of the adlo-lok also served as sextons of Saligao Church. They excelled in preparing and lighting special lamps when the church bells rang at masses and salve, during the novena days. They were also adept at slaughtering pigs to prepare a sumptuous repast for the feast lunch, which including  also knew the art of killing the poor pig for the sumptuous feast lunch and prepare exotic dishes such as sorpotel, buch, cabidel, assado, and arroz refugado, helped by the neighbourhood womenfolk.

They even had a band known as mharacnchem-band, equipped with instruments such as drums of various sizes, bugles and chermellam. The drummer boy went reng-te-teng much to the delight of both young and old in the crowd. The bugler tried his best to stay in tune, but often went woefully off-key, while the drummer compensated with dol-kas and added punch to the band.

Saligao Serenade

Mharanchem-Band. Sketch by Mel D'Souza

I remember the time Pasku helped us make a sorngo. This was a cylindrical bag made out of thin kite paper, filled with smoke and released at night to soar up like a lighted balloon. On a dark night it looked very nice and colourful. The breeze carried it along. It moved to a height of 100 feet or more. The only fear was that if it landed on a haystack or kuddem, that could cause a lot of trouble. In fact that’s exactly what happened once, and then the whole idea of launching the sorngo was forgotten forever.

In those days, Saligao Church had a machila, a special palanquin, to carry the local priest, when Holy Communion needed to be administered to the housebound sick. It was the sextons who bore the machila on their shoulders. The sextons were engaged in the services of the church. They served as janitors, rang the bells for Angelus and church services, dug graves and accompanied the priests on errands of administering Holy Communion and unction of the sick. On duty they usually wore a short khaki tunic with the emblem of the Cross on it. They also hauled the cart that served as a hearse for the coffin, carrying the body of the dead parishioner to his final resting place in the cemetery.

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