Across the road from the Church of St Alex in Curtorim, a narrow paved road branches off through Muxivaddo, past lush paddy fields on one side and brick houses with low, sloping roofs set back among large leafy trees on the other.

There’s scarcely a soul about as my friend Ajay and I ride between tall coconut trees that rise on either side like arches spanning the heavens overhead; their shadows intertwine in a tight embrace on the narrow road, receding as we motor through, tracing the worn asphalt, shifting with the sun, shifting with time.

We pass a narrow walking bridge with a whitewashed Cross on the parapet. The bridge spans a water channel into which the Zuari backs up during high tide, bringing the fish in and carrying them back to the river at low tide. A gate facing the bridge opens into a verandah where an old woman is conversing with a neighbour passing by. A pig emerges from behind the house and disappears into the undergrowth, startling a dog into a reflexive bark.

The road meanders through Muxivaddo and ends on the banks of the Zuari a short distance away, where an open air dance floor lies in silence by the calm waters. Across the river lies Shiroda.

The Little Hearts dance floor is fenced off from the road and adjoins large man-made ponds used for prawn farming. I watch the fenced-off area with interest. While much remains the same, some things have changed. At one time there was neither a fence nor a dance floor.

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A Cross surmounts a sluice gate set in a bridge in Macazana. On winning the bid for fishing rights at the auction, fishermen will offer prayers at the Cross for a good harvest.

 Behind the fence, the back of a raised platform under corrugated iron sheets sits along the road among coconut trees. On dance nights accompanying Goan Catholic wedding receptions, musicians take to the platform and get the suited, booted crowd grooving with the newlyweds, the bride resplendent in white and the night raising a toast to the couple.

Today the dance floor is empty. White plastic chairs are stacked against the wall as we ride up to the edge of the river by a sluice gate across the road from the dance floor. A light breeze skips in from the river as if on cue. We pause and take it in. The tide is going out. I can hear it in the rush of water coursing out the sluice gate, returning to the river before us, back to where it sprang from.

The sluice gate is like a valve and connects water bodies behind the embankment with the Zuari, regulating flow when the tidal bore courses through the river. In the monsoons, the sluice is closed to retain fresh water for the paddy fields, besides acting as a conduit to drain storm water from the village into the river.

An embankment (bundh) that protects the Khazan fields (coastal wetlands reclaimed from mangrove forests) inland from being flooded by the estuarine waters of the Zuari. From behind the bundh, dark, brackish water gushes into the river through the sluice gate, draining the backwaters that receive the ingress of the Zuari during high tide. These are routed along channels inland that wrap the Curtorim landscape along the banks like ribbons plaiting unruly tresses, protecting paddy fields from the brackish water.


The sluice gate is like a valve and connects water bodies behind the embankment with the Zuari, regulating flow when the tidal bore courses through the river. In the monsoons, the sluice is closed to retain fresh water for the paddy fields, besides acting as a conduit to drain storm water from the village into the river.

There are other uses for the gate. It’s opened at high tide to let in water from the river, and fish, and then shut to allow them to spawn and grow in the estuarine waters, rich in nutrients from organic biomass produced by the mangroves. At night, when it’s low tide, the fish return to saline waters. The sluice is opened to drain the water, but the fish swim into bag nets placed at the gate. Then it’s off to the market with them.

At village agricultural associations, or communidades as they’re known, fishermen bid for leases to fish at the gates. The highest bidder gets the harvest. Together, the farmers and fishermen practise traditional aquaculture along Goa’s estuarine floodplains.

Occasionally, farmers open the sluices to flood their fields with brackish water to kill weeds and pests. It’s not without risk, though, for the fields, originally saline floodplains in the estuarine system, reclaimed from mangrove swamps and flatland to grow salt-resistant species of rice, can suffer serious damage from prolonged flooding by saline water.

Thatched huts by the gates are a common sight. This is where the gatekeepers live. They monitor the sluices round the clock to prevent flooding by the tidal bore, particularly if the gatekeeper operates them for fishing during tidal flows cycling through spring and neap tides.

The gatekeeper also keeps an eye open for any breach in the bund along the river to ensure the brackish water cannot enter the fields. Breaches account for most of the cases of low yield in Khazan lands.

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Kurleo, as crabs are called in Konkani, on sale roadside in Bhoma. Local youth fish in the Khazan fields near the Banastarim bridge, scouring the mangroves for crabs in the waters regulated by sluice gates.

 It’s not uncommon to find village youths selling live crabs by the roadside, dangling them to interest passers-by going home from work. You see them at Bhoma on the NH4A heading into Panaji. They get their crabs from Banastari, a short distance away, shortly before the highway passes through Corlim onward to Old Goa, and Panjim.

“Mansheche”, they reply to any query about where the crabs come from, before pointing in the direction of the Khazan lands behind an impenetrable wall of trees. Passersby stop to look in the buckets holding the catch, triggering a rush of crabs dangling from several hands, each offering a better bargain, all in good humour.

In the night when all is dark save solitary bulbs illuminating lonely roads, the kerosene lantern flickering in a thatched hut points to the presence of a sluice gate, a familiar sight along the stretch spanning Durbhat and Undir in Ponda across the Zuari from Curtorim.

Years ago, walking along an embankment towards a flickering lantern I found myself in a gatekeeper’s hut in Undir, surprising him with my presence. Soon he warmed to my company for reasons not difficult to fathom. A life spent monitoring a sluice gate night after night while everyone is asleep can play on the mind. We sat talking in the light of the lantern while his radio played songs from the local station of All India Radio.

The songs had acquired a clarity that gave the silence about us an edge.

Turning off the engine we get off the motorbike and gaze along the river upstream as the Zuari curves along the land, past Rachol, Loutolim, and Borim among other villages big and small, names that ring various bells, reminding us of different things, for different reasons, before draining into the Arabian Sea.

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Off Char Manos, the sluice gate set in an arched stone bridge in Serula, Badem, a fishing canoe moored in the backwaters of the Mapusa river. In olden days, boats carrying agricultural products and spices plied the river to supply villages along the route.

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The trawler Concip at Cutbona Fishing Jetty on the river Sal not far from where it meets the Arabian Sea off Betul. The catch finds it way to restaurants in Margao and village fish markets.
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A Cross surmounts a culvert off Assolna where the sluice gate regulating the water flow through the culvert has been filled up to retain water for use in cultivating fields.
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Char Manos is located in Serula, Badem, on the Mapusa, a tributary of the Mandovi. Manos is Konkani for a sluice gate. Wooden shutters open at low tide and close at high tide to prevent the flooding of fields by saline waters.   
  
 Among Goa’s navigable inland waterways, including the Mandovi, Sal, Galgibaga, Tiracol, Zuari, Saleri, Talpona, and Chapora, accounting for a river basin over 3,700 sq km, the Zuari and the Mandovi, the largest rivers, make up close to 70 per cent and are navigable up to 60 km from the mouth, largely conducting barges ferrying iron ore to and from loading points along the river.

Along the Mandovi and the Zuari, Goa is home to a rich estuarine eco-system that sustains a mix of aquaculture and paddy farming.

Ajay and I walk over two narrow strips of coconut bark bridging the opening of the sluice gate to the other side. The outer embankment runs along the length of the Zuari as far as the sight will travel.

On our way to the dead-end by the river, before the dance floor, we had passed large ponds with standing water reflecting the grey skies overhead, scarcely a ripple to indicate prawns awaiting harvest.

Prawn farming is a hard job with uncertain returns, but high demand in Goa ensures prawn farmers will invest the effort in the hope of making it pay. Philip Fernandes did just that for seven years after returning from Mumbai, partnering Armando Baretto to work the prawn farms before quitting the scene for construction some years ago.

After Philip left, Armando built the dance floor in the open space that once fronted Philip’s home, a functional structure by the river. I used to visit occasionally and stay overnight when we were scheduled to drive out to the Mollem Wildlife Sanctuary next morning for a spot of trekking.

“The prawn yield had become uncertain,” Philip once told me after changing professions and moving out of Muxivaddo, away from the Zuari. But I could tell he missed the scenic quiet of his old bachelor pad by the riverside.

“Nothing of much significance happened there,” he said, about his years running the prawn farm in Muxivaddo. “Most of the residents were engaged in fishing around 4-5 sluice gates or Muxi as they’re known in Konkani, a variation of the term Manos used elsewhere.” That’s how the place gets its name, from the gates.

“Andrew had won the auction for fishing at the sluice gate near my place where Armando’s dance floor now stands. He worked late into the night to regulate the waters and cast nets during spring tide,” Philip recollected. “Sometimes, his son or local youth who hung around the village doing nothing in particular would help him with the sluice and the nets, but mostly he did it alone. He would be up and about at unearthly hours.”

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A fisherwoman at her stall in the Margao fish market, laying out packaged dry fish, namely prawns, mackerel, bombay duck, croakar, and kite fish among others. She was selling dried baby prawns for `100 a pack, and `20 a measure. Goans stock on dry fish to get through the monsoons when fish are hard to come by and prices are steep

. Andrew’s wife would sell the catch at the Curtorim market, and if he had landed more than usual, a possibility during Spring tides when fishing averages seven hours a day on account of high water ingress, she would take it to Margao, where the prices are higher.

“His catch would typically be an assortment of pearl spot (Kalundar), mullet (Shevte), catfish (Sangtam), crabs (Kurleo), small and sedium prawns (Sungtam), and the occasional tiger prawn (Vagio)."

Along Goa’s estuaries, the quiet that permeates Muxivaddo, and the pattern of life that mirrors the regularity and consistency of the tides, does not change much from one village to the other.