It is summer time and Goan’s are seeking to spend time in cool breezy places to beat the soaring heat. Long restrained by the pandemic, the fun-loving Goemkar is getting drawn to outdoors like iron filings to magnet. Our sea shores are once again bustling with locals and tourists, and this frenzy of coastal leisure will continue until the South-West monsoons arrive with accompanying light and sound to drench this land of Parshuram.
From the colonial times through liberation of Goa, and later as a Union Territory and state; tourism in Goa has been largely driven by the our coastline that boasts of 105 km long stretch of silver sands, and shades of Portuguese culture that attracts our desi tourists from conservative landlocked states as well as the foreigners who find themselves at home in Goa. The coastal tourism sector has seen significant investment over the years accompanied by aggressive campaign of being ‘365 days on holidays’ to counter the ‘god’s own country’ claims from the neighboring maritime state of Kerala, a keen competitor for tourism revenue. As always, the leisure industry too is not exempt from the ‘law of diminishing returns’ and Goa is now facing the crisis of over tourism on our fragile shores trading off its vital marine ecology and associated biodiversity of high conservation value.
In the last couple of decades, this beach tourism has been heavily tilted towards our coastal regions, and is turning out to be a point of fierce debate of economic disparity between coastal and hinterland communities, cause of blatant violations and ecological damage and worst of all a rising crime graph. The impact on Goan ethos and consequent acculturation is worrisome too. Those loyalty driven patrons of the coastal tourism also have started ruing about novelty deficit and overexposure to the sun sand and sea over the years; pressing the sectoral think-tank to look for viable alternatives without a compromise on experience and thrill.
While it will be difficult for us to distance ourselves from the unequivocal tag of beach destination of global repute, the stakeholders must reconcile to the reality that beach tourism is a saturated segment and needs refurbishment. Also, with rising awareness of eco-ethics and carbon neutral economy, the leisure segment must not hesitate from greening itself. It is only prudent therefore to explore for recreational alternatives in Goa that will be eco-friendly, educative and those that guarantee assured economic incentives to local communities.
Among the many hitherto untapped, novel ‘natural areas leisure’ option in the state of Goa, cave tourism is a choice to reckon with. These geological artifacts, ecologically unique spaces and treasure troves of few yet unique creatures could easily win appreciation and admiration of genuine tourists from within and beyond the state.
The word ‘cave’ elicits fear, awe and imagination in equal measures, perhaps due to their projection in popular literature and mythology as dark, deep hollows where demons and predators reside. The exiled royals of the Indian epics like Pandavas of Mahabharata also took secluded shelter in caves. The mortal fear of caves is taken to a magical realm in Alibaba’s cave that held ill-gotten treasure of the forty thieves, and would open only upon uttering of a magical repeat of ‘khul ja sim sim’. The pious associate caves with penance and meditation for attainment of that ultimate divine knowledge. For the evolutionary biologists, caves offered the first shelters to our human ancestors against rigors of harsh weather and beasts. Perhaps it is in these caves that a family unit took shape and gave rise to kinship and bonding.
History and mythology apart, caves are a subject of modern scientific research and the scientific study of caves is known as ‘Speleology’. Caves fascinate geologists and biologists in equal measure, the former for the construct of these subterranean hollows and the processes of their genesis. While the biologists look for bizarre organisms adapted to life in darkness, and relatively constant humidity and temperature. In fact the science of caves is still in its nascent stage in our country, whereas countries that have rich array of caves in their terrain like Poland, Slovenia, Austria, Italy, Uzbekistan and Mexico have progressed much.
The cave research has its own thrill, adventure and risks, as a cave can be unfathomable and leading to nowhere! Also, the inhabitants of these dark ecosystems could overwhelm the researcher with their mere numbers, as in case of roosting bats that number in thousands. Needless to say the risks of encountering wildlife, contracting zoonotic diseases, accidental falls, and entrapment exist. However, these risks can be minimized and even eliminated with proper safeguards and under the supervisions of experts.
My acquaintance with caves has been both, academic and as a tourist. On a family tour to Malaysia years ago, I visited the Batu caves in Selangor. A limestone cave with a huge statue of lord Murugan, this hollow was used by the pagan Temuan tribes. In the Batu caves one comes across rich diversity of plants and animals adapted to lime rich soil, such as spiders, Cave nectar bat and territorial troops of long tailed macaques that often pester tourists and pilfer their belongings. The site also offers rock climbing to the adventurous. I have also visited the rock shelter caves of Bhimbetka in Madhya Pradesh while being on an assignment to NCERT Bhopal. Here one can see oldest Indian rock art that depicts Stone Age. The etymology of this cave cluster is inspired by the myth that this was the mighty Pandav Bhima’s Baithak or seat!
In Goa, I have seen the many caves scattered and attributed to the Pandavas, at Arvalem, Narve and Rivona on the banks of Kushavati. The rock shelter Cave of Divar Island in Tiswadi was a subject of research for me and my students in 2018 and we systematically documented its biodiversity over a year and published the first ever research paper on cave Biology for the state of Goa. This research brought me in contact with Prof Jayant Biswas, of National cave Research and Protection Organization in Chhattisgarh. He is perhaps rightly called the ‘Caveman of India’ for his seminal and significant contribution to Indian Biospeleology. Currently I am collaborating with Dr Shirish Manchi of Salim Ali Centre of Ornithology and Natural History, Coimbatore, and Founder of Speleological Association of India, and have submitted a proposal to the Goa State Forest department for preparing an Atlas of caves of Goa and their biodiversity. About a year ago, I also visited Rivona caves with noted birder Parag Rangnekar and have come across roosts of Lesser False vampire bats in these caves, confirming their importance as refugia of many lesser known species. Recently the Rivona villagers expressed anguish at the reckless picnickers to the cave cluster in their serene village, who they lament not only desecrate these caves but also their ecological integrity with noise and litter.
Goa has a good number of such caves that await exploration and mapping. Many of these can be developed into tourist attractions with requisite facilities and safeguards to avoid vandalism and infringement on the delicate cave environment. With proper signage, access, guided tours, these caves can offer a viable and novel tourism alternative to the beach weary tourists of Goa. This will require handholding between the departments of Tourism and Forests, besides involving the Biodiversity management Committees of the villages in whose precincts the caves exist. More than anything, promoting cave tourism in a coastal state like ours shall require ‘thinking out of box’ and political support from the ruling dispensation. Perhaps as the American writer Joseph Campbell has famously said “the very cave you are afraid to ente, turns out to be the source of what you are looking for”. In our case an alternative to our crowded and littered sea shores!
(Dr. Manoj Sumati R. Borkar- First Goa State Teacher Awardee in Higher Education, Biologist and columnist)