One of India's oldest jails is now a hub for fashion and arts

The 1612-built Aguad Port and Jail Complex was once Goa’s biggest prison that the Portuguese used to incarcerate freedom fighters like T.B. Cunha and Ram Manohar Lohia
The 1612-built Aguad Port and Jail Complex was once Goa’s biggest prison that the Portuguese used to incarcerate freedom fighters like T.B. Cunha and Ram Manohar Lohia


The Aguad Port and Jail Complex is a tourist attraction that informs about Goa’s past and celebrates India's culture and fashion

Prabhakar Dattaram Naik vividly remembers the green cliff he was dragged to by the Portuguese police in January 1958. The morning sun was tender but all his 24-year-old body could feel was pain and anger. The night before he had been arrested for distributing leaflets and posters encouraging Goans to fight Portuguese colonial rule, and locked in a chamber at Aguad, then Goa’s central jail. At the top of the cliff, overlooking the Arabian Sea, Naik was told to mend his ways or he would be thrown into the sea.

In 10 days, on 18 June, Naik will be at Aguad—the place where he was imprisoned for two days 66 years ago, before being moved to another jail for a month—along with other freedom fighters. The occasion: Goa Revolution Day, the day freedom fighters Ram Manohar Lohia and Julião Menezes started the civil disobedience movement against Portuguese rule in 1946. Goa was liberated on 19 December 1961.

The cliff is still there. But the jail complex, nestled against Sinquerim Hill in Candolim, is nothing like its former self. Two years ago, the 1612-built Aguad Port & Jail Complex, once Goa’s biggest prison that the Portuguese used to incarcerate freedom fighters like T.B. Cunha and Lohia, opened to public as a modern cultural and arts venue—perhaps a first such government initiative in India—telling a story of Goa beyond its beaches and churches.

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An interactive, even gamified, museum is housed in three renovated jail cells that highlights three things about the state: “The Land, The Struggle, The People". As soon as you enter the first cell, a kiosk greets you with an interactive 3D map of Aguad fort and jail, spread across 14,000 sq. m. There’s also a Story Machine that dispenses story snippets, or factoids, about Goa every few minutes. My printed snippet explained that Goa was home to Asia’s first printing press.

In the next room, “The Struggle", you learn about historical dates related to Goa’s liberation movement, with a simple pull of a lever. My favourite was the “Message in a Bottle" installation, where when you click on a bottle among the several swimming in a computerised image of the Arabian Sea, and a scroll opens to list the core beliefs of a freedom fighter. Room 3, “The People", offers insights into Goa’s ethnography and anthropology, from the cultural significance of feni to the Portuguese influence on the state’s music and food.

Three other exhibitions were recently inaugurated. Indian Fashion, Timeless Elegance celebrates Indian couture spanning 2,500 years, showcasing the diversity and the craftsmanship of the country’s jewellery and garments (there’s a second century image of Emperor Kanishka wearing a tunic). Sahitya Chitravali delves into Indian epics like the Mahabharat, informing the visitor about the country’s literary legacy. The third, Kamal, explores the symbolism of the lotus flower in religious iconography and mythology.

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The renovated rooms and exhibitions are a fun crash course on Goa’s, and India’s, history. The restaurants on the property are great to take a break after all the walking and reading, and enjoy fried fish while looking at the waves.

It makes you forget the crucial role the property played in the 1600s, when Goa was referred to as “Little Lisbon" and the “Rome of the East", facilitating trade in gemstones and spices. But the empty jail cells, the cliff where prisoners were hung, all a few metres from the exhibition area, instantly remind you of this dark past.

In the 1930s, the then Portuguese prime minister António de Oliveira Salazar converted it into a place of incarceration and torture for those opposing the foreign regime. Inside the cell, the only source of light is an average hand-sized window.

“You can see a dolphin from there if you are lucky," the guide tells me when I try to look out of from the window.


Is it okay to turn a place that was an operational prison till 2015 into a hub for culture and entertainment?

The answer depends on who you ask. According to Suneel Anchipaka, director of tourism, government of Goa, and managing director, Goa Tourism Development Corp. Ltd, “By focusing on art and culture, we aim to create a space where history meets contemporary creativity, allowing visitors to experience the profound narratives of our past in a dynamic and engaging manner. Engaging the local community is integral to our mission, fostering a sense of pride and ownership among Goans."

Plus, it’s a great location. Artist Paresh Maity had a solo exhibition Infinite Light in January 2023 at the complex. Earlier this year, the men’s fashion week was held here, with Indian designers showcasing their resort collections on the pier.

“We have never had this kind of location before (for a fashion show). Models entered the runway via boat; we even had some displays on boats. It fit in well with the relaxed Goa vibe," says Sunil Sethi, the head of Fashion Design Council of India. “Of course, the jail cell area is sacrosanct, and we didn’t enter that space at all."

The second edition of FDCI’s India Men’s Weekend was held in February at the Aguad Goa
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The second edition of FDCI’s India Men’s Weekend was held in February at the Aguad Goa

The location, of course, is its biggest pull, agrees Naveen Chopra, the group chief executive of Waterfront Experiences Pvt. Ltd, the company that has Aguad on a lease for 30 years. But the sanctity of the place is not lost on us, he insists.

“The Portuguese had their presence in India longer than the Mughals. Yet most of us have not really been taught about Portuguese colonial history; we’ve been brought up on a diet of English colonial history. Goa has its own quirkiness like the music, the colours, the food, all influenced by Portuguese. We don’t want to lose that," says Chopra. “We do music events, fêtes (started by the church to sell homemade trinkets and food items), fashion exhibitions, cultural events, all keeping in mind what they stand for."

It is, again, a matter of perspective. While both Chopra and Anchipaka want to create a space of learning, awareness and entertainment, a 23-year-old college student I met during my visit thought of Aguad as a “fantastic place for her Reels". But a group of five family members who were visiting that April, on the other hand, were moved to tears because their grandfather was jailed there once.

The takeaway might be different for each visitor, but the message from Aguad is clear: When the past becomes part of the present, it lives on for the future.

The Aguad complex, Goa, is open all days, 10am-8pm. Ticket prices start from 100.

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