The Khazans of Goa: A Socio-Cultural Perspective

in Overview
Published on: 18 October 2019

George Jerry Jacob

George Jerry Jacob is an architect, whose work focuses on urban ecologies. His interests lie in the relationship between city centres and their peripheries, the interdependency of rural communities on ecological systems and everyday cultural practices. He teaches at the KRVIA, Mumbai.

Khazans are part of a traditional agro-aqua integrated system practised by local communities for equitable sharing of resources between farmers and fishers. They are reclaimed lands recovered from marshes, with bunds preventing the ingress of tidal waters. They are generally used for pisciculture and to grow saline-resistant varieties of paddy such as xitto and asgo

According to a Goan scholar, Dr Nandkumar Kamat, khazan is an exclusively Goan term.[1] It is close to the Konkani term kharsan, meaning saltiness. Kharsan is a 2,000-year-old word probably corrupted and modified from the Sanskrit word ksharjanaka (salt-producing), a conjunction of two words kshara (salt) and janaka (producer) that was in use during the Mauryan rule (fifth and sixth centuries AD) over Konkan. Ksharajanaka got corrupted to kharjanaka (Mauryan), followed by khajjanaka (post-Mauryan) to khajjana (fifth–seventh century) and then khazan.[2]

The system of khazans have been in continued use to protect agricultural fields and villages from tidal influx through a system of outer and inner bunds, backwaters, sluice gates, ponds and drainage canals. The outer embankment comprises mangroves that act as wave breakers against tidal action. Along with this, longitudinal bunds are constructed that prevent saltwater ingress. Bunds are usually constructed with alluvial mud. The inner bunds are made of mud, straw and bamboo poles. They prevent soil erosion and protect fields from nutrient leaching. The sluice gate regulates the flow of water into the fields. It allows water only into the canal that goes around a field but doesn’t allow water into it, preventing waterlogging. The canals are connected to an estuary and inner embankments. During monsoon, the sluice gates flush out the water and the kharif crop is harvested. The khazans depend on freshwater to maintain the salinity at an optimum for cultivation of rice and crops. Freshwater is supplied either from ponds in the vicinity of the fields or from springs in surrounding hills. The hills are dotted with wells fed by the groundwater that also enable a steady stream. As the area is fertile and water easily available, terrace farming is practised along the run-off path. 

Khazans are an important component of the village system ecology and are vital to maintaining a balanced system. These lands were held under the communidade—a self-governing institution with judicial and financial powers prior to the ‘liberation of Goa’ in 1961. However, over the last few decades, an excessive load of anthropogenic activities such as mining and tourism have adversely affected this system and its embedded cultural practices. 

The Goan Gaun
The Goan village constitutes a world of its own. It is structured by a long-established organisation that orders economy and redistribution, social life and its allied hierarchies, customs and ceremonies, with an interrelatedness that is apparent. The economic, social and ritual community constituted by the gaun (village) was traditionally encompassed in an ancient village organisation called the gaunkaria.[3] This organisation was largely based on the communal ownership of agricultural land by the gaunkar (the family clan that claims to descend from the original settlers, hence holds the status of truly belonging to that village). 

The gaunkariaalso called gaunponn, translates to commune. The system can be traced back to the early settlers of the state (the migrants from Northeast India) although not much information is available on them in terms of records. The main constituents of the system were the gaunkars, the zonnkars (a person or family who is entitled to a monetary share), the kulkarni (clerk), the kullachari (employees of the gaunkari), and the vadikar (employees of the commune who are entitled to share). 

The two major hierarchies that structure the village society were vangor (clan) and caste. The gaunkari system went beyond the stratifications of the caste system to ascribe seniority and functional importance to an original settler in the village system. Each vangor had access to certain ritual privileges, locally known as mann, which included harvesting khazan lands.

Productive village land was divided into three categories: the largest and most productive, called gaunkaria land, was annually or biannually auctioned among the gaunkar households and used for their livelihood and private interests. The second type known as devachebhat or god’s land was used to cover costs arising from religious expenditures—maintenance of temples, livelihood of priests, temple servers and performance of rituals of the village as a whole. The last type was the communal land reserved for specific productions such as the khazans (highly productive saline floodplains used for specialised agriculture, pisciculture, horticulture, etc.). The gaunkars were recognised as the only rightful collective owners of the communal lands. However, the communal land was also leased to a mundkar (tillers, who would, at times, lease the land to cultivate on them) and its earnings were used for village clerks, artisans, labour force to name a few. The earning from the land was used to finance public works and generate additional income for the village community.[4]

From Gaunkaria to Communidade
Goa was a Portuguese colony from 1510 to 1961. The gaunkaria system was well established and the colonists recognised it as a communitarian way of life that enabled collective ownership of land and redistribution of profits arising from it among villagers.[5]

Being the military victors and rulers of Goa from 1510 onwards, the Portuguese decided to collect revenue from the people through taxation for which they found the already-established gaunkaria system to be the most convenient. In 1526, the Portuguese revenue superintendent Afonso Mexia compiled the Foral de usos e costumes dos Gauncares (the charter of rights and duties of the gaunkars). The gaunkaria was similar to a village commune, from which communidade (Portuguese for village communes) got its title. The Foral de usos e costumes dos Gauncares established the rights and privileges of the gaunkars and codified some of the administrative, juridical and financial rules and norms. The original organisational structure remained largely untouched but the state under the Portuguese government saw this as an opportunity to wrest control. 

Although early Portuguese intervention worked at policies that reproduced the gaunkaria, an important division between gaunkar, as communal land owners, and the mundkar, as land tenants or agricultural labourers, was clearly established. The transition from gaunkari to communidade continued in major socioeconomic structures of the Goan village. But the significance of particular communities engaging with particular occupations did not find a mention in Mexia’s Floral of 1526. Under the Portuguese, the communidade became the owner of all non-private lands in a village. A new group of shareholders, called cuntocar, was formed and they held the same rights as the gaunkars, particularly for the lease of plots belonging to the communidade. Lands held by the communidade were auctioned for a period of three years. Fishing rights in the poiem (a pit on one side of the khazan, used for fishing) were auctioned by the communidade as well.  Some villages, especially in Salcette, have had  fishermen, fish sellers or toddy tappers as their foundersThese non-landed villages were significant in size and resources and thus independent in their own right. 

Religio-Cultural Significance of Khazans
Khazans are deeply rooted in everyday cultural systems of the village. Konsachem Fest (harvest festival) is first celebrated at Our Lady of Snows Church in Raia. Probably a derivation of the fifth day of Bhadrapada (fifth month of Hindu calendar, which coincides with August–September of the Gregorian calendar), considered auspicious for the first harvest, it is celebrated annually on August 5 with great pomp after the new sheaves (konsa) of paddy are harvested and blessed. The village of Raia was the first in the state where the entire village converted to Christianity, which is why the harvest festival starts there before it moves to other churches of the state. Representatives of the first four vangors carry a palanquin with a statue of Our Lady of Snows, patron of the village, with the other eight vangors, non-gaunkars, women and children following. The parish priest walks under an umbrella behind the palanquin to the communidade fields. The priest cuts a handful of the sheaves at a paddy field named Saibinichi Kongi with a small silver sickle, thereby initiating the harvest season. The sheaves are then distributed among the vangors in terms of hierarchy. The procession makes its way back to the church and the sheaves of rice are placed at the altar. After the rice is blessed, it is distributed among the people.

Since conversion to Christianity, brought about by the Portuguese, the Goan traditions of worship are an amalgamation of old and new rituals. The biggest highlight is the transformation of the Devi (Earth Goddess in this context) to ‘Saibin Mai’ or Mother Mary. With conversion it was easy to appropriate the worship of Mother Mary as another form of worshipping the Earth Goddess. The format of the novena (a celebration that lasts nine days at the chapel followed by the feast of the patron of the chapel) too was derived from the jatra of Hindu gods and goddesses. Many of these rituals are guided by agricultural and seasonal cycles, such as the first harvest. These feast days are followed by farmers of both Hindu and Catholic communities. As part of rituals performed during the festival, the bund that is used to access the surrounding fields is blessed by a priest and dried coconut leaves are tied as vows and offerings. 

In other parts of the state, folktales, songs and dances revolve around the khazan system. The machni dance or crocodile dance is performed by men wearing crocodile masks. The zagor is another art form that brings together rituals, invocations, sacrifices, singing and dancing. It is mainly performed by mundkars and fishermen. 

When the khazans are auctioned under the communidade system, the winning bidder pays a deposit and immediately offers prayers at the cross on the sluice gate. The ceremony is not elaborate, and involves the winning bidder and his family reciting the ladainha (litany) while candles are lit and the cross is decorated with flower garlands. 

[1] Kamat, ‘History of Khazan Land Management in Goa: Ecological, Economic and Political Perspective.’

[2] Sonak, Khazan Ecosystems of Goa: Building on Indigenous Solutions to Cope with Global Environmental Change.

[3] de Souza, Medieval Goa: A Socio-Economic History

[4] Rubinoff, ‘Pink Gold: Transformation of Backwater Aquaculture on Goa's Khazan Lands.’

[5] Alvares, ‘Fish, Curry and Rice—A Citizen's Report on the Goan Environment.’



Alvares, Claude. Fish, Curry and Rice: A Citizen's Report on the Goan Environment. New Delhi: Ecoforum, 1993.

de Souza, T.R. Medieval Goa: A Socio-economic History. Panaji: Goa 1556 and Broadway Book Centre, 2009.

Henn, Alexander. Hindu Catholic Engagements in Goa: Religion, Colonialism and Modernity. New Delhi: Orient Blackswan, 2014.

Kamat, Nandkumar. ‘History of Khazan Land Management in Goa: Ecological, Economic and Political Perspective.’ Paper presented at a seminar on history of agriculture in Goa, Goa University, 2004.

Rubinoff, J.A. ‘Pink Gold: Transformation of Backwater Aquaculture on Goa's Khazan Lands.’ Economic & Political Weekly 36, no. 13 (2001): 1108–14.

Sonak, S. Khazan Ecosystems of Goa: Building on Indigenous Solutions to Cope with Global Environmental Change. Dordrecht: Springer, 2014.