This is a true story. All resemblances to characters, dead or living (or both), are true.
“Papa, let’s go for a drive. This is so boring!”
It was a cloudy night in 2006 – our first in Goa having arrived just a few days ago after a beautiful drive along the west coast of India. The whole family was eagerly looking forward to another beautiful ‘posting’; this time down from the misty hills of Wellington, Nilgiris to the sun-kissed beaches of Goa. Ever since we reached here, our boys, Abhishek, 8 and Akash, 3 were ready at all times day or night with their beach wear. Having finished a staid, sit-down dinner in the mess, their energy levels were still far from depleted.
Living in the Naval Officers’ Mess hardly met their expectations of Goa. They wanted to ‘do Goa stuff’ and ‘not just keep loitering endlessly around the mess building’. Pre-monsoon squally winds and intermittent showers threatened to put beaches out of reckoning for next few months. Perfect time for long drives through Goa, they pleaded.
“OK, I know a real scary place, but I wouldn’t take you there” I played the time-tested trick, twirling the car keys around my fingers nonchalantly.
What is it? where is it? We want to go! We want to go!!” they screamed, almost in unison. My plan was working like a dream.
“It’s called the Haunted Church. It’s a very scary place, you don’t want to go there” I said in a sinister tone that got their antenna further up.
“Yes, that’s right. We don’t want to go to any such place at this time of the night” Madhuri butted in, with the wisdom of mothers.
“No way! We are going – there is no such thing as ghosts, mama!! C’mon! Be a sport!” The boys were already dashing towards our car screaming “A haunted church! Wow!!”, as if it was some amusement park!
Sitting majestically on Cuelim hill in South Goa, #3 Kings Church fits the description of a haunted place alright, especially after dark. A short drive from Goa airport on the coastal road to South Goa, the narrow road to the church that leads sharply away from the main road is missed by most tourists. There are no sign boards, no traffic lights and no streetlights on that desolate stretch uphill. For good reason, as the church is closed and deserted for all but a couple of days in a year.
I recalled, with the somewhat hazy memory of things that happen after a copious intake of beer, my last trip there on a Sunday afternoon. In the company of ‘coursemates’ and ‘Premium Lager’, Cuelim Hill was awesome then. There were no signs of anything remotely paranormal (except our boisterous post-beer behaviour). Ten years have passed. With the kids raring for some adventure, why not visit again, I thought. So what if it’s in the dead of a moonless night.
Her protests fell on deaf ears. Faced with the only remaining option of waiting alone in the semi-haunted shacks that made up ‘Officers’ Mess Transit Accommodation’ at Goa, Madhuri gave in. “If we run into any ghosts, more hands the better”, I joked. Nobody laughed.
It was an unusually pleasant night. A fresh breeze was blowing out of the south. Akash cuddled up in Madhuri’s lap and Abhishek wedged himself on the edge of the rear seat between the two of us. With a vague recollection of where the church might be, (and no Smartphones or Google maps then) I gunned the car to life. “Roll down windows, enjoy the breeze”, I told the boys.
“Papa, your side power window isn’t working, remember?” Abhishek chuckled, rolling down his window gleefully (Yes, there was a time when Maruti cars were available with only front power windows). I silently let out a curse for having selected the Maruti Esteem, that too LXi over VXi!
As I recounted the story of ‘3 Kings Church’ to the boys, some little butterflies fluttered in my stomach. What if the story was true? What if we run into something unexpected? Should we be doing this at all? Fleeting thoughts, which soon vanished when we hit the well-lit highway towards Verna.
According to the popular legend, once upon a time there were three Portuguese kings in Goa. The kings were often engaged in power tussles and there was simmering discontent between them. It is believed that one of the kings – King Holger Alvunger, one day conspired to eliminate the other two. He invited the other two kings to his palace and poisoned them to death. This action invited the wrath of public who laid siege to his palace and, unable to hold his position, he consumed poison and died. The Church site, which became their final resting place, came to be known as ‘#The Church of 3 Kings’. Every year on 6th of January, the church comes alive when the ‘#Feast of 3 Kings’ is celebrated here. For the rest of the year, it stands desolate, serene and beautiful on the hilltop, bathed in a ghostly white light from the moon and hidden from view on moonless nights. Rumours of strange sightings and unusual activity in the area have not yet found serious investigators. So they remain rumours.
And now we were headed there on this dark night. The road was getting darker with each mile. As we left the well-lit roads near Verna, Madhuri made one last appeal “Lets turn back and go home. I am not liking this one bit”. She was instantly overruled three votes to one. We continued to speed towards Cansaulim.
Like most tourists, I missed the sharp turn leading away from the main road. Backtracking slowly, I managed to pick up the thickly wooded road and started uphill. As we started uphill, darkness enveloped us like a thick black cloak embedded with stars. The car’s headlights pierced through the darkness, sending rabbits and the odd mongoose scurrying for cover across the narrow road. The boys were a little nervous, though they wouldn’t show it for fear of losing out the trip. The road leading up Cuelim hill was steep and curvaceous with many turns. The church was hidden from view for most part.
Halfway up the hill, Madhuri spoke for the first time in 20 minutes – “I thought I saw a moving light behind us”.
“Must be a reflection of some vehicle on the main road. Nobody comes here at this time”, I dismissed her fears while re-adjusting the mirrors.
Rounding another bend, a small light, like a motorbike’s headlight, bounced off my mirror briefly. She was right (as always!). There was something behind us. Maybe somebody following us? There was no way we could turn back now. The road was far too narrow to back up or reverse. We had only one way to go – up!
As we rounded the last turn to reach top of Cuelim hill, the church suddenly exploded into view. Ghostly white in light reflected from a sliver of moon, totally deserted and unlit. The sight was at once enthralling and daunting. A collective, involuntary gasp rose from inside the car as we took in the formidable sight.
“This is it”, I said and parked the car. I couldn’t see that mysterious light anymore. My sixth sense told me to park the car pointing downhill for a quick exit in case of any unexpected surprises. “Don’t get out of the car. Roll down the windows if you want, but stay inside the car”, I cautioned the boys. There were reports of snake bites in that area, a bigger worry than unconfirmed ghost stories. My hand reached for the switch. Damn those power windows, I cursed for the second time that night.
3 Kings Church is one of the most scenic spots in Goa. From top of the hill, one can get a breathtaking panoramic view of south Goa and the Arabian Sea. On full moon nights, the church basks in white light and can be seen from miles away. In the stillness of night, the only sound was our breathing. It was a surreal and sinister setting, fitting every description of a haunted place, but infinitely beautiful. I looked around the area, eager to leave quickly. That’s when I saw the single light coming up the hill.
“Roll up the windows – do it NOW”, I ordered tersely, as my right hand turned the ignition key. Having lived through some adventures, I could smell trouble from a distance. The stillness of the night was broken by the roar of a motorbike coming directly at us, its headlight dancing off the pale walls of the church and casting evil-looking shadows around.
“Papa, what will happen now??” Abhishek gasped from the rear seat, as Madhuri held on ever so tightly to Akash.
“Leave it to me, I will handle it. Just be quiet and don’t get out of the car”, I replied under my breath.
The bike stopped with the rider blocking our only exit while the pillion rider got down slowly and menacingly. They were aged about 30 years, I figured, wearing tees and casual shorts like most Goans. The rider kept the bike’s engine running so as to block any attempt on our part to make a dash. Some sort of a club, maybe a hockey stick or a cricket bat, was balanced between the handle bar. I took a deep breath and switched off the car. There was no way we could outrun them. The pillion rider slowly came to the driver’s side and tapped on the window indicating “roll down” with his palm. I slowly rolled down my window.
“Who are you people? What are you doing here at night?”, he asked in a gruff tone, fixing his gaze on me. My working knowledge of Marathi helped me understand his Konkani.
“We just came to see the church. Anything wrong?” I asked in an even tone.
“Why come here? Church is closed. There have been murders here”. I was not sure if he was quoting history or events from the recent past.
“Oh, is it? That’s bad. We didn’t know that”, I offered. Keeping his hands on my steering wheel, he spoke to his friend in a local dialect. What I could gather with my weak understanding of the language chilled my blood – “Should we leave them or ………?”
I felt Madhuri’s fingernails digging into my forearm. “Sanj, what will happen now??!”
The odds were clearly stacked against us. With a lady and two small children, taking on these two well-built and possibly armed men headlong on top of a deserted hill was clearly not an option. I needed to use other tactics…and fast! The biker turned his handle, blinding us with the headlight. I winced at the bright light as it shone across the small cross hanging above the dashboard of our car – a rosary gifted by one of Madhuri’s Christian friends from a recent visit to Italy. If all else fails, turn to Jesus, she used to say. Perhaps, it was time.
“Look, we believe in Jesus. We mean no harm” I said, pointing to the rosary. That seemed to catch his interest as he peered inside the car to examine the rosary hanging from the rear view mirror, woven around a short length of Vaishnodevi chunri and other remembrances collected from across places of religious interest in India.
“You Christian?” tone was softer this time.
“We are a family that loves all religions. We visit churches, gurudwaras, temples and mosques – all with equal grace” I replied in my best Marathi. Since I meant what I said, it was not difficult.
His gaze turned to the rider. Some words were exchanged, they discussed my unlikely claim and what to make of it. After a brief exchange, the biker pulled aside to let us pass.
“Go, go. Phir mat aana. Dangerous hai. Should not come here.” He said, half threatening, half advising.
As we sped down Cuelim Hill, nobody spoke inside the car. When we finally hit the highway, Abhishek asked in a hushed tone “Dad, how did you manage that? That was close! You were speaking to him as if there was no window on your side!”
I glanced to my right – my window was rolled all the way up. I hit the down switch. Nothing moved. Just like it was before we set out for this adventure.
What a night! Long live the legend of Three Kings Church!