Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Anjuna Hippie Culture

Goa is India's smallest state, located south of Mumbai.  A coastal state, Goa features a distinct local culture, having been under Portuguese rule for several hundred years prior to 1947.  It's a beautiful beach destination, with a balmy tropical climate, and a tourist industry that makes it one of India's richest states.  

However, Goa's tourist status was first established the way many third world destinations have gotten their start in the last 5o years, through backpackers.  The flower power generation, motivated by a desire to leave behind the quotidian routines of life in Western capitalist nations, left home in search of social, cultural and religious revelations, embarking on extended travel, lasting not months, but years.  Given the length of their journeys, they opted for shoestring travel options, traveling from Europe to India by primitive land and sea transport networks.  Given the political situation of East Asia at the time, many travelers finished their trip with a last hedonistic hurrah in Goa, India, before heading home, and so began the hippie scene in Goa, India.

In summary, the hippies sought to construct an underground anti-culture, that usurped the strictures of Western consumerism and productivity obsessed society.  In the end, they imported a hodge-podge of values to India, which were rather unsuccessfully merged with local Indian culture (they quite simply had no idea what India was about, hopelessly mysticizing the place).  The were left with a muddled vision of pseudo-utopian hedonism, about which entire books have been authored; at the core of this were raves (huge underground parties consisting of thousands of people), drugs (everything from hash, to LSD, heroin, etc.), and sex (a lot of it). 

And the latter is largely what survives of Goa's hippie heyday.  Most of the original hippies have ODed, gone home, etc.  What's left is concentrated in North Goa, at Anjuna beach.  The scene is now dominated by young European backpackers, Israeli's fresh out of the army (easily distinguished by their bronzed complexions and devil may care attitudes), and most curiously, a new generation of highly liberated young Indians.  All of these groups have wordlessly co-opted Goa's hippie traditions for their own means, and I have to say, I quite like to result.  At its most essential, Goa is about pure hedonism.  You go there to have a fun time, unfettered by considerations of time, money or responsibility.  And given the laidback atmosphere, low cost of living, and easygoing attitude of the police to all dirty doings, you can get that.  I think few of the people who go to Goa these days fully endorse the escapism it once represented.  I for one, don't think doing drugs on the beach all day exactly amounts to bucking capitalist society.  

However, I do relish the egalitarian festival atmosphere, in which you can rub shoulders with backpackers, local Goans, rich Indian society, package tourists, etc. etc.  Never have I felt less self-conscious on the dance floor than at the raves around Anjuna beach.  Distinguished by striking visual themes (think blacklight posters of alien, mushroom, Hindu gods, and the like), massive beach parties (ranging from 1,000 - 10,0oo), partying that is literally 24 hours (I'm not kidding, around New Years, there is always a 1,000+ person party going on somewhere), and party-goers who are striking non-judgemental, you can let your hair down in Goa as you can in few places.  

Most people would compare Goa to Ko Pha Ngan, where I was earlier this year.  KPN has effectively usurped Goa, as the Full Moon Parties that now make KPN famous were actually a Goan innovation that were shut down in the 1990's (since which Goa's hippie culture has been gradually fading as its replaced by mass, luxury tourism).  However, rich as it sounds, KPN lacks a certain refinement which Goa enjoys.  While KPN is literally pure hedonism (never in my life have I see such excess, in all respects), Goa marries hedonism with a counter-culture sensibility that is free-thinking, intelligent, and very, very rare among party destinations (Ibitza, KPN, and Rio, are again, purely hedonistic in comparison).  In this sense, it has shades of Dharamsala, Rishikesh, and the like.  

Intriguingly, the rich, young Indians who frequent Goa around New Years seem to be embracing this free-thinking, egalitarian hedonism.  Descending like pilgrims from Bangalore, Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderbad, Pune, Chennai, and India's other big cities, these kids often represent the social elite of their respective cities.  However, as soon as they hit Goa, they exchange their designer outfits for hippie uniforms, and mix freely with everyone on the scene, from penniless backpackers to eager local Goans.  Promisingly, some of them seem to be importing some of this egalitarian ethos back to the underground cultures in their home city, creating party scenes that aren't just the playground of the rich, but of young Indians from the middle class as well.  I really hope that the next twenty years sees the emergence of counter-culture's in India that throw off the prim Victoria social strictures that currently dominate youth culture in India (which I can write another post about entirely; the conservatism of even young people has been one of the most trying aspects of my year in India).  I'm hoping for something like Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" beat generation. 

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