Viva São João – The Feast of St. John the Baptist

Posted in Goa by Priya Ramachandran.

Viva São João – The Feast of St. John the Baptist

Rituals speak a lot about civilizations. Generations live and die, but the symbols of things that once were, stay back, holding torches down the forgotten paths of yesterday. The flame may flicker or get dimmer over the years, the path might keep changing shape and the symbols may be stripped of all context, but these rituals remain as the greatest storytellers, reminding you of where you came from and of all the stories that met your stories along the way.

So, it’s fascinating to learn that when thousands of leagues away, the city of Porto in the North of Portugal, was busy indulging in a heady mix of pagan celebrations and wild gaiety to celebrate the Feast of St John the Baptist (The Festa de São João do Porto) which is considered to be one of Europe’s liveliest street festivals, Goa was celebrating its own localised version, in a throwback to its Portuguese colonisers. Here is the story of my first São João experience — or San Joao, as it is more widely known — in Goa.

When I learnt that the San Joao celebrations involve the locals from each village forming large and merry crowds as they walk from house to house, jumping into the wells, I was curious to know what this act stood for. And soon enough, the symbolism of it all was made clear by the Biblical tale of how St John jumped in joy inside the womb of his mother Elizabeth when her cousin Mother Mary, who was then carrying Jesus, paid them a visit. Apart from being a celebration of that jump of ecstasy, the ritual of jumping into wells during Sao Joao is also a reminder of how John the Baptist would baptize believers including Jesus Christ by dipping them in rivers.

But more than anything, the Sao Joao Festival is a glimpse of a simpler, older Goa. Since it is a lesser-known celebration outside of the state, it’s thankfully not rendered into a commercial touristy spectacle yet. At least not in every part of Goa. Yes, there have been more ‘San Jao parties’ than ever, where youngsters jump into swimming pools at bashes instead of into wells (one hosted by a nightclub was called The Bullfrog Grind!). But in most villages, this celebration still embodies the cheery ‘everyone knows everyone’ spirit that I’ve come to see and love in Goa, where the entire village is like your own big backyard.

Lovell was extra excited about San Joao this year since he had missed the celebrations for six years in a row after he had moved to Hyderabad. The party started early at our friend Glen's place. A Parra boy like Lovell, Glen is like our go-to guy for all things Goa. He knows all the beautiful nooks and secret corners of his motherland. More often than not, drives with him always ends up in the discovery of some unexplored place.

In fact, it is Glen who told me that on the eve of Sao Joao, locals participated in a ritual called ‘Zudeo’ or ‘Judeo’, where they go from house to house, set hay on fire and beat it out with coconut piddes (the keel of coconut leaves), symbolic of beating the fire demon (‘Zua’ is fire and ‘deo’ is God). Some even chant these words in Konkani: “San Joao sagor, kurpecho dongor, judevancho gobor”. Rough translation: “Sea of San Joao, mountain of blessings, Zudeo turns to ash”.

The ritual of Judeo
The ritual of Judeo – Photo by Claudio Pacheco

Another interesting version I have heard of this ritual is that the burning of hay (or trash lately) symbolises the burning of Judas the Jew, thus referred to as Judeo. I also heard another story that links this practice to the pagan midsummer ritual in Europe of burning trash and making fires that could drive away dragons from poisoning springs and wells and to frighten the evil spirits. Like I said earlier, it often happens that the the rituals practiced for generations after generations lose their context somewhere along the way and yet the symbols they represent live on. It’s all so incredibly fascinating!

Our Sao Joao celebrations began with Glen making kopels (crowns), which are traditionally worn by the well-jumpers, out of fresh flowers, twigs and leaves.

Glen and Jordan - San João - Goa (2014)
Glen and Jordan flaunt their kopels.

Then locals from Lobo Vaddo, which happens to be Glen’s vaddo (translates into ward) gathered at the local chapel to pray for safety and pay homage to the late village elders, before the festivities began. Even as the prayers were being offered, I couldn't help but be distracted by the amazing kopels that each one of them sported as headgear. Some of them were so elaborate that they had fresh fruits like grapes and raw dates hanging from them!

San Joao - Goa
Folks from the Lobo Vaddo say a prayer prior to the festivities.
San Joao - Goa
Posing with the kopels.
San Joao - Goa
Us with the kopels.
San Joao - Goa
More posing.
San Joao - Goa
Lovell is one with nature.

The procession of merry folks then made its way to the first house singing chants of “San Joao, San Joao! Viva San Joao”. Some of the raucous songs are pretty elaborate too. It goes: “Sao Joao Sao Joao, ambe khatalo mure? Voi Mure! Ponos khatalo mure? Voi Mure! Annanas khatalo mure? Voi Mure! Bhuskatalao mure”. Translation: “Will you eat mangoes? Yes we will! Will you eat jackfruits? Yes we will! Will you eat pineapples? Yes we will! We are going to dunk you in the water!”

San Joao - Goa
Revellers walking from house to house through the Lobo Vaddo.
San Joao - Goa
En route the first well..

Another version goes: “Guvta mure, vat amkam disonamm, aicho dis urbecho, konn konnak hassonam choll re pie re tu illo ghe re faleam kaim mevonam osli festa vorsak kiteak don pautti ienam Viva Sao Joao!” Translation: “My head is spinning, I can’t see the road. Come, have a drink, you too, have a little, because tomorrow you won’t get any. Why don’t such feasts come twice a year?”

Now let me get to why the good men of Goa complained of spinning heads! Feni! Lots of it. Along with port wine. The most fun part of Sao Joao is the ladies of each house stepping out with trays filled with Ponnsache ghore (jackfruit pods), the last mangoes of the season, pineapples and load of local alcohol to keep the spirits high and to warm the bones of the drenched locals.

Since Lovell warned me early on, that taking the camera or phone would not be too wise because eventually everyone gets doused with water during the Sao Joao celebrations, we decided to carry the handy GoPro to capture pictures and videos. Most of them ended up being videos of the crazy festivities. Lovell has taken the best screen grabs from the videos to illustrate the day’s events. So I’ll let these images do most of the talking now. Viva San Joao!

San Joao - Goa
The first few jumps of the day.
San Joao - Goa
A nervous Darren takes his first plunge.
San Joao - Goa
Lovell ready to jump in. He always jumps as the ‘sui’ (needle). The sui jumps first, going straight down, deep into the well, at times reaching the bottom, in order to leave enough room for the remaining jumpers. While usually around five people jump in consecutively, sometimes the numbers can even go up to eight or more depending on the size of the well.
San Joao - Goa
The sequence of jumping in and climbing out goes on.
San Joao - Goa
Glen jumps in with the GoPro tied around his wrist, giving us this priceless expression as he is free falling.
San Joao - Goa
Glen, floats back up after his jump.
San Joao - Goa
Glen takes the first jump into the second well as the ladies of the house look on.
San Joao - Goa
View from inside the well.
San Joao - Goa
Lovell fill a pot with water, which goes back out to wet all the people who don’t jump in.
San Joao - Goa
Jordan is the partner in crime.
San Joao - Goa
And, an unsuspecting lady gets the usual San Joao treatment while the jackfruits, mangoes, pineapples and other seasonal fruits get served.
San Joao - Goa
Glen takes another plunge.
San Joao - Goa
Jordan makes a splash.
San Joao - Goa
While the sui’s job is to make a clean, straight and deep entry into the water, the guy who does the ‘bondd’ has to break his fall and make a splash so that he doesn’t go deep and injure the other people who are already inside. Avloo finishes the sequence of consecutive jumps by doing the ‘bondd’ here.
San Joao - Goa
A kopel that adorned the head of one of the jumpers gets flung back out of the well.
San Joao - Goa
Valent (Valentino) jumps into the well as others watch on.
San Joao - Goa
Splash!
San Joao - Goa
The jumpers assess the well, assign the order of the jumps and decide who will be ‘sui’ and who will be ‘bondd’.
San Joao - Goa
Lovell goes in first.
San Joao - Goa
The splash that follows.
San Joao - Goa
Lancelot jumps in next.
San Joao - Goa
Everyone moves to the sides of the well…
San Joao - Goa
And makes way for Avloo.
San Joao - Goa
The jump.
San Joao - Goa
Lovell is ready to jump in with the camera.
San Joao - Goa
Lovell in motion.
San Joao - Goa
Lovell breaks the surface.
San Joao - Goa
The camera is engulfed in water.
San Joao - Goa
A view of the world above. Revellers, coconut trees and all.
San Joao - Goa
Moments before the boy steps off solid ground.
San Joao - Goa
Suspended in air.
San Joao - Goa
And the splash!
San Joao - Goa
The water droplets paint pretty patterns.
San Joao - Goa
More prettiness.
San Joao - Goa
Fluid designs.
San Joao - Goa
Priya hesitates before her first jump in any well EVER!
San Joao - Goa
OMG! OMG! OMG! OMG! OMG!
San Joao - Goa
And she falls flailing her arms wildly.
San Joao - Goa
Glen and Lovell help Priya out. Note: Priya can’t swim. The well is around 25 feet deep!
San Joao - Goa
Another jump.
San Joao - Goa
Priya tries to figure how she is going to climb out.
San Joao - Goa
The tough climb up.
San Joao - Goa
The triumphant post-jump selfie!
San Joao - Goa
A ‘sui’ at Glen’s well.
San Joao - Goa
The big splash!
San Joao - Goa
Avloo with his fruity kopel.
San Joao - Goa
While Glen and Jordan finish off their Sao Joao festivities by jumping into a pool, we headed to Gama Vaddo, to catch the action at the last well here. Lovell preps up for a jump, while Milind climbs up the well post readies to follow.
San Joao - Goa
The last jump of the day.
San Joao - Goa
Glen and Jordan’s antics under the water.
San Joao - Goa
And it’s a wrap! Viva Sao Joao!

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