We check out India’s only museum dedicated to customs and the central excise! This one-of-a-kind space in Panaji, offers interesting insights into the world of smugglers and customs authorities.
Keeping my eyes peeled for something unusual, while taking a walk in Panaji, Goa’s eclectic capital, I was rivetted by a beautiful building in blue. As I got closer, I knew I had to visit what turned out to be the country’s only Customs and Central Excise Museum!
A large traditional hand painted azulejos courtesy Velha Goa outside the building had some interesting information. This heritage building is said to have been originally built around 1600 AD and was substantially renovated in 1834. It was then that it began to function as a Custom House during the Portuguese regime. Increase in trade activities led to the extension and restoration of the building around the end of the 19th century. This is reflected in an inscription in Portuguese over the entrance of the building, which reads ‘Genio Restaurador Levante Altivo Morda Ingentio do Comercio ao liro’. This translates into ‘Restoring genius proudly rises in born of World Trade’.
From 1963 till 2000, the beautiful building was yellow and white and housed the headquarters of the Indian Customs and Central Excise Department at Goa. In 2001, the exterior of the building was painted for the first time.
The colour indigo was chosen as it was one of the commodities traded during the colonial days. Interestingly, this particular hue of indigo has been obtained through trial and error on a computer effort and is branded as ‘Custom Blue’!
This information in a way set the tone for my visit here. After paying the entrance fee, I entered the building and noticed that the architectural features have been maintained impeccably. High ceilings, wooden floors and stained-glass windows are all reminiscent of an era gone by.
There are 10 galleries in this double-storeyed space that take you on a fascinating journey of trade, customs, narcotics, and more. There are informative panels on the walls on both sides that explain the current taxation structure in India and a small chapel dedicated to St Anthony, believed to be the patron saint of lost and found things, at the entrance.
The first gallery is the Heritage Gallery, a great introduction to see how the people of the Harappan civilisation conducted trade and commerce 4,500 years ago. A model of the Lothal township and its innovative dockyard, showing how the seawater was diverted to create a massive tank for ships to be ready for loading is here. Do not miss the page from Aina-e-Akbari from the era of Mughal emperor Akbar that shows the taxation structure of those days. This was recovered from Patna when there was an attempt to smuggle it out of the country. Also keep an eye on the walls that have a plethora of paintings and sketches that trace the history of the agency and the custom ports.
One of the important galleries here is the ‘Battles of Wits’ gallery, which, as the name suggests, documents the ingenious ways in which smugglers used cars, shoes and even airplane toilet seats (!) to smuggle goods. I was smitten by the front half of a white Premier Padmini with an open hood concealing contraband within the car engines. This is where you can get a glimpse into the mindset of smugglers who used steel tiffin boxes to smuggle watches, hid drugs in rims of cycle tires, jewels in the hollow of a walking stick or currency in the cut-out pages of a book.
Do check the ‘Seizure Gallery’, that has nothing to do with the matters of the heart, but boasts a formidable collection of bronze, brass and wood sculptures, huge tortoise shells, shark jaws and elephant tusks that have been confiscated. The second level has a model of a chemical lab that shows how customs officials test banned substances using different methods. When I visited the Narcotics Gallery, I saw a visual of the production, use and abuse of the opium trade which took me back to Amitav Ghosh’s book ‘The Ibis Trilogy’ almost instinctively.
There is a gallery here that describes finance budgets and how Finance ministers formulated taxation policies. The Sports gallery is an ode to customs staff who have been part of sports at a national level. Do not miss the room that has several astronomical maps and clocks with Arabic inscriptions. The museum has an interesting mix of exhibits from illustrations, life-sized models and dioramas that will keep you engaged throughout your visit here. The next time you are in Goa, do not miss a date with the Customs Museum, it will take you on a journey that is as fascinating as it is fun.
Address: Opposite Panaji Jetty (Captain of Port building), Panaji, Goa | Open: From nine am to five pm, Tuesday to Sunday | Entry fee: Rs 10 for adults. Children and students free.