Synonymous with scenic beaches, picturesque churches and charming cafes, the coastal Indian state of Goa is also home to a one-of-a-kind museum that displays smuggled goods seized by Indian Customs over the years. The unique Dharohar National Museum of Customs and GST (Goods and Service Tax) also documents the behind-the-scenes work done by authorities in nabbing culprits and protecting the country’s cultural heritage.
Although the museum’s provenance goes back to 2009, it has been recently revamped and thrown open to the public in a new guise. It nestles inside a 400-year-old Blue Building on the banks of river Mandovi, where a stone inscription in Portuguese over the entrance is the first thing that greets you.
Underscoring Goa’s significance as a centre of international trade, as a Portuguese colony from 1510 to 1961 ships sailed in and out of the state's port from East Africa and Japan, transporting everything from fragrant spices to horses and slaves, which were then traded in other Asian ports or sent back to Lisbon.
Inside the museum’s cool confines, antique wooden floors, a grand staircase and capacious halls greet visitors. To the left of the entrance is the ticket counter and a cloak room. To the right is a chapel dedicated to St Anthony.
The museum has galleries enough to satisfy every interest, including: the Introductory gallery; History of Taxation gallery; Guardians of our Economic Frontiers gallery; Guardians of our Art & Heritage; Guardians of Flora & Fauna; Custodians of our Social Well-being; Journey of Indirect taxes, Salt Tax to GST; and the GST Gallery.
The Guardians of our Economic Frontier gallery is a fascinating archive that reveals the modus operandi of smugglers and the efforts of custom officials in intercepting them to recover stolen goods. Visitors are taught how gold, drugs and other contraband items made their way to India.
From diamonds in the soles of shoes, gold bars embedded in various body parts, jewels in a car's engine or in the hollow of a walking stick, the museum throws light on all the various methods employed by criminals in their attempts to outwit customs officials.
India — once known for its temples brimming with precious gold statues of gods and goddesses as well as artefacts, metal sculptures and terracotta antiques — attracted invaders who plundered the country repeatedly.
The museum’s most popular section, the Battle of Wits gallery, underlines the tussle between the smugglers and the law enforcement agencies over confiscated goods. One large wall has the front half of a white Premier Padmini car protruding from its surface, its open hood revealing how smugglers hid contraband in car engines. The rim of a cycle tire holds a pouch of drugs while currency is stashed in a hollowed-out book.
Before the economic liberalisation in India in the 1990s, when an obsession with foreign watches was at its peak, they were smuggled inside steel tiffin carriers or within the carved-out body of a boom-box. The Battle of Wits gallery also features life-size mannequins of a British couple "posing as aristocrats". They were caught red handed at Bombay Port in 1966 for smuggling diamonds and gold hidden in a walking stick and gold biscuits sewn into the woman's jacket.
The Seizure gallery is where the confiscated goods are displayed. Sculptures of bronze, wood and brass jostle for space with mammoth tortoise shells, shark jaws and ivory tusks. The Amin Pillar (circa second century BC), the Nataraja from the Chola period (circa 11th-12th century BC) as well as seized sculptures and antiquities contributed by various high commissions are displayed.
Ironically, illegal trade in antiquities and wildlife worth billions continues today with rare artefacts, animal skins and body parts leaving the country despite stringent laws.
A museum official says the goal is to evoke a sense of the past and to show the achievements of the customs department in the task of revenue generation and protection of cultural and natural heritage in an educative and entertaining way.
“We also intend the museum to promote a culture of voluntary compliance with tax laws and inspire people to pay their taxes with pride,” he says.
Visitors will probably leave the museum with newfound respect for Indian custom officials, who are usually viewed solely as an inconvenience to those leaving or entering the country. Had it not been for them, India’s priceless cultural heritage would have long ago been lost to unscrupulous smugglers and lawbreakers.