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Blurring the lines between royalty and commoner

Author: Rajendra P Kerkar, TNN
Publication: The Times of India
Date: September 3, 2017
URL:   http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/goa/blurring-the-lines-between-royalty-and-commoner/articleshow/60346916.cms

Every year during Ganesh Chaturthi, the 250-year-old Shivtirth Palace in Ponda is thronged by Hindus seeking to worship the elephant-headed deity within it. Sprawling across three acres of land in Bandora, the palace is no ordinary one. It belongs to the Soundekar dynasty, Goa's longest-surviving royal family.

Madhulingnagesh Rajendra Wodeyar, who is likely the last 'raja' of the 16th century vassals, has gone to great lengths to salvage some parts of the Soundekar legacy by restoring family portraits, intricately carved French furniture, and centuries-old weapons, among other artefacts. And, like his predecessors, he has kept an age-old tradition alive: that of commoners visiting the palace to venerate Lord Ganesha during Chaturthi festivities.

"We have maintained the way Ganesh Chaturthi has been celebrated at the palace for ages. Villagers visit it year after year for five days to seek the blessings of the deities within: two clay idols of Lord Ganesha and a gold one of Swarnagauri (Goddess Parvati)," Madhulingnagesh says.

Interestingly, of the two idols of Lord Ganesha, one is worshipped by the royal family while the other, larger one - which is traditionally painted golden - is venerated by the villagers of Parpatiwada, Dhonshi, Navatiwada and Kurpaswada. The visarjan ceremony for both these idols is unique, too. They are immersed into a sacred tank in front of the palace's Nageshi temple to the nostalgic tunes of folk music, a ritual that ends by afternoon.

Several villagers pride themselves for having participated in the tradition for over half a century. Vijayakant Namshikar, 65, is one of them. "We don't know when this tradition began. Yet, we have been assembling here for years to pay our respects to the god of knowledge," he says. Sixty-year-old Vinod Nageshkar concurs. "We enjoy the celebrations mainly because of the humble nature of the royal family, which has maintained cordial relationships with all villagers. In fact, we love being part of any festivity held at the palace," he says.

Historically, members of the Soundekar dynasty - who were also known as 'Sonda Raja', 'Soundekar Raja', or Rei de Sundem (in Portuguese) - were feudatory vassals entrusted with massive tracts of land in South Goa during the Vijaynagara, Mughal and Maratha reigns. Known for their patronage of religious and cultural activities, the Soundekars got their name from the state they had inhabited - Sonda - which comprised areas of South Goa and hilly terrain of Uttara Kannada.

Although the clan enjoyed the good graces of several mighty empires, it had to scurry for cover when it was attacked by Hyder Ali, the legendary sultan of Mysore and father of Tipu Sultan. Helpless, the chieftain of Sonda sought refuge for himself and his family with the Portuguese, a request that the latter heeded. The Soundekars were subsequently offered shelter in Gouli-Moula of Tiswadi.

As a gesture of gratitude, the king of Sonda bequeathed Ponda, Zambaulim, Panchmahal and Canacona to the colonisers through a treaty signed on January 17, 1791. He, however, retained a three-acre tract of land in Ponda, which included the Shivtirth Palace and the Nageshi temple.

The king was never able to exercise his royal powers during the Portuguese regime and even after Goa's liberation. But, he and his successors have continued to enjoy the love, affection and respect of the people of Bandora; a relationship that is only magnified through the annual Chaturthi celebrations by both, royalty and commoner, at the palace.
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