Agassaim is one of Goa’s low-profile beaches, frequented mainly by locals and the occasional day-tripper. But when the tide recedes, it reveals one of Goa’s most explosive secrets. Hidden in plain sight, along the shoreline where the sand falls away into the waters of the Arabian Sea, are the ruins of the city of Gopakapattana, or the ‘original Goa’.
To the untrained eye, these ruins appear to be no more than a row of misshapen laterite rocks on the fringes of the sand. And yet they were once part of a flourishing medieval port, commercial centre and prominent emporium on the west coast of India.
Gopakapattana is located at the southernmost tip of North Goa, where the Zuari River meets the Arabian Sea, which is where you cross over from North to South Goa. Its prime location explains why this ancient city was a maritime jewel.
Situated 14 km south of the state capital, Panaji, Gopakapattana is at the southern tip of the ‘island of Goa’, a piece of land which corresponds to present-day Tiswadi taluka. This ‘island’ is bounded in the north by the Mandovi River, in the east by the Cumbarjua Canal, and in the west and south by the Arabian Sea.
Although what we know as Goa today was ruled by numerous dynasties over the centuries, the story of Goa really begins at Gopakapattana, as it is this port city that gave the modern state its name. The name ‘Gopakapattana’ first appears in the Panjim copper plates of Kadamba King Jayakeshi I (r. 1050 to 1080 CE), dating to 1059 CE. It is the first historical reference we have to present-day Goa.
According to these copper plates, Gopakapattana was an important port of the Northern Shilaharas before they ceded the city to the Kadambas in the 11th century CE. But some experts believe that Gopakapattana may have existed even earlier, during the reign of the Southern Shilaharas, and that it was their capital. The port city was already a major commercial and trading hub when Kadambas took over.
But let’s travel further back in time, to even earlier references to the territory that comprises the modern state of Goa and the surrounding region.
Early References to Goa
The Mahabharata and the Puranas refer to the low-lying land beneath the Western Ghats, corresponding to present-day Goa, as Gomant, Gomantak, Goparashtra, Gomanchal, Govapuri or simply Gove.
The antiquity of the region can be gauged from the fact that Gopakapattana or Govapuri finds a reference as ‘Nelkinda’ in The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, the Graeco-Roman trade manual written in the 1st century CE.PERIPLUS OF THE ERYTHRAEAN SEA MAP
According to the Girnar rock edict of Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (r. 268 to 232 BCE), the region of Goa was inhabited by the Pertinikas, Rashtrikas and Bhojas, who were contemporaries of the Mauryas. Shortly after Mauryan rule, when the Satavahana dynasty ruled the Deccan, these same Bhojas administered Goa on behalf of the Satavahanas.
Gopakapattana as a Trading Hub
The earliest historical reference we have for Gopakapattana is the Panjim copper plates of the Kadambas, which mention that the Northern Shilahara dynasty ruled the city till 11th century CE.
Goan Historian Teotonio R de Souza in his books Goa Through The Ages: An Economic History Volume II (1990), explains that the last ruler of the Southern Shilahara dynasty, Rattaraja, was defeated by Chalukya Emperor Jayasimha in 1020 CE. Following the defeat, it was the Northern Shilahara dynasty, which took over the region from the Southern Shilaharas in 1020-1050 CE.
We also know how the city passed on from the Northern Shilaharas to the Kadamba dynasty, through the Panjim copper plate inscription of Kadamba King Jayakeshi I (r. 1050 to 1080 CE). The inscription states that Jayakeshi’s father, Shashtadeva II (r. 1005 to 1050 CE), defeated the Northern Shilaharas and took over Gopakapattana.
It was during Jayakeshi’s reign that the city became the capital of the Kadamba kingdom. Jawaharlal Nehru University historian Pius Malekandathil in his book Maritime India – Trade, Religion and Polity in the Indian Ocean (2010) writes about how King Jayakeshi offered incentives to Arab traders to settle in the port city, with a view to increasing trade and commerce.
The Panjim copper plate inscription also mentions how an Arab named Sadhan was appointed as the Governor of Gopakapattana. In his inscription, King Jayakeshi explains that this was a mark of gratitude, as Sadhan’s grandfather Muhammad had rescued Jayakeshi’s grandfather Guhalladeva I (r. 980 to 1005 CE) from a shipwreck.
We know from the Panjim copper plates that, by the 11th century CE, Gopakapattana had emerged as a major maritime trading port, which had commercial links to various Indian and Asian regions like Tulu country, Gujarat, Thane, Bengal, Tamil Nadu, the Malay peninsula, Sri Lanka and Zanzibar.
However, frequent attacks and invasions from the Delhi Sultanate in the 14th century CE drained Gopakapattana of its wealth. This prompted the last Kadamba ruler, Kamadeva (r. 1260 - 1311 CE), to shift his capital to Chandrapura (present-day Chandor), triggering the city’s decline.
Vijayanagara rulers take over
In the 1380s CE, the region of Goa including Gopakapattana fell to the Vijayanagara Empire, after the city was conquered by Vidyaranya Madhava, Prime Minister to Vijayanagara Emperor Harihara (r. 1306-1356 CE). It is from the 14th century that Gopakapattana came to be known as ‘Govapuri’ or ‘Gove’ under the Vijayanagara rulers.
But the city continued its decline. The Zuari River had begun silting, making it difficult for ships to enter the port. Thus, another port named ‘Ela’ was developed, 14 km north, on the banks of the Mandovi River. Since the Mandovi was deeper and wider than the Zuari, it was a better destination for larger ships. Also, Ela’s proximity to the Ponda forests ensured a regular supply of timber for shipbuilding.
Eventually, traders from Gopakapattana shifted to Ela, which replaced Gopakapattana as an important trading port. In time, Ela became synonymous with the name ‘Goa’.
Next, Goa came under the rule of the Bahmani Sultanate from 1469 CE to 1498 CE. When Yusuf Adil Shah declared independence after the fall of the Bahmani Empire, he brought Goa under the Bijapur Sultanate. He developed Ela as an important port and it became the chief entry point for maritime trade. Eventually, it became the second capital of the Sultanate, after the principal capital, Bijapur, in present-day Karnataka.
Arrival of the Portuguese
In 1510 CE, the ‘island of Goa’, which included both Gopakapattana and Ela, was famously conquered by Portuguese Governor Afonso de Albuquerque. Ela was the capital of the Portuguese Empire in the East, which included regions of India, Malacca (in present day Malaysia) and Hormuz (in present day Oman).
However, Ela was abandoned in 1759 CE, due to repeated epidemics of the plague. The Portuguese were to shift the capital to Mormugao but, due to financial problems, they chose the nearby suburb of Panaji instead. While Panaji became the administrative headquarters, maritime trade shifted to Mormugao. Thus, as the new capital, Panaji was called ‘Nova Goa’ or ‘New Goa’, giving Ela its current name, ‘Old Goa’ or ‘Velha Goa’. Old Goa is today known for its world-famous churches, especially the Basilica of Bom Jesus, which houses the mortal remains of Saint Francis Xavier.
In November 1991, the Goa State Archaeology Department and the National Institute of Oceanography collaborated to excavate the site of Gopakapattana, at Agassaim beach, in Tiswadi taluka. They first excavated the shore and found a laterite wall up to 1.5 metres tall. The top two layers were built using lime mortar, while the layer below was constructed of dry masonry. This suggests that they were built in different eras, the upper ones belonging to the Portuguese period and the one below dating back to Shilahara-Kadamba times.
While the city of Gopakapattana faded from history, its name was imbued with so much power that succeeding capital cities in the region were designated as ‘New Goa’, and eventually the entire region, which first became a Union Territory and later a state, was named after this ancient city.
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