Flaming fingers at midnight: In Goa, a succulent has become a symbol of local ecology, migration and community


A prickly succulent, or niveli, takes centrestage at a Pagi temple festival in Goa, symbolising a history of migration and a nod to local flora

A prickly succulent, or niveli, takes centrestage at a Pagi temple festival in Goa, symbolising a history of migration and a nod to local flora

It is 10 p.m. on a cool November night. There is a festive buzz at the small Mahamaya Kurtarkarin temple in the village of Tamnem, in Canacona taluk in the southernmost part of Goa. It is the night of Tulsi Vivah, an annual ritualistic ceremony of Lord Vishnu marrying a tulsi or holy basil plant, which symbolises the changing season (the end of the monsoons). It also marks the start of the wedding season among Goan Hindus.

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Married women of the Pagi community, dressed in jewel toned, nine-yard silk saris, have assembled at the temple but instead of traditional earthen diyas, they have bags full of niveli (cactus in Konkani), a local succulent. They slice the stalks to remove the thorns, create a cavity to place wicks and then push the succulents onto their fingers like gloves. At around midnight, the wicks are lit and the women go around the temple with these divzas.

Mind the thorns

The story behind this unusual folk ritual goes back over 250 years ago, to the times of conversion during Portuguese rule in Goa — when locals migrated with their deities. “We [the Pagis] are originally from the village of Curtorim, but during Portuguese rule, our forefathers fled with their gods when conversion was happening,” explains Raya Pandu Pagi, a village elder. “They travelled here from Paroda village [where they’d stayed for a while] on foot with their deities and a lamp. They had decided to walk till the flame lasted, but when the lamp started to flicker, they thought of placing the wick on the stem of a niveli. Later, they placed the lit niveli under a tulsi vrindavan [a holy basil planter at the front of a temple].”

Devotees from the Pagi community at the Mahamaya Kurtarkarin temple in the village of Tamnem, South Goa
| Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The niveli is harvested locally by the villagers — it grows profusely during this season in their backyard forests. And each person trims around 15 stalks to use. Men also participate in this festival. However, instead of the niveli, they place their wicks on a kelichi path or sheath of the banana stem. After the devotees circumnavigate the temple thrice, the stems are placed in front of the temple door.

Of rituals and medicine

Along with its cultural significance, niveli is also integral to the local ecology. The succulent, which is often mistaken as a cactus, is widely used as hedges by villagers. Its latex is considered medicinal and used for treating ear pain and skin diseases.

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In Goa, there is a strong tradition of using medicinal plants in many rituals. In a research paper published in the International Journal of Environmental Sciences a few years ago, titled ‘A Case Study on Medicinal Plants — An Integral Part of Goan Rituals’, the authors state, “Goa is rich in biodiversity of flora and fauna. The rare medicinal plants are given religious importance by the ancestors and the knowledge is passed orally from generation to generation.”

With traditions such as the divza, this humble succulent — usually a sign of dry, arid climates — is celebrated for a day as a symbol of local ecology, migration and community.

The Goa-based freelancer writes on art, culture and ecology.

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