The porters we see in a railway station, airport, hotel, or market, are mostly men. In fact, we always associate men with carrying heavy things around, much like our fathers and uncles always hauling the luggage when we go on a vacation or the employees of a moving company carrying furniture. Even when we see women labourers working in construction or farming toting bricks or harvest it goes unnoticed, like we subconsciously don't acknowledge them as people who are capable of doing the heavy lifting.
But that whole narrative is turned on its head at Margao, Goa where professional women porters known as Bhadels exist. The Bhadels of Goa have been in this line of work since the Portuguese colonial rule in the mid-eighteenth century. This community has traditionally been of Roman Catholic origin mostly belonging to the Kunbi tribes originating in Goa.
Kunbis are an aboriginal people believed to be the original inhabitants of Konkan. Although most of them follow folk Hinduism, many were converted to Catholicism by the Portuguese missionaries during the Christianization of Goa while still keeping their folk traditions and culture alive.
Generations of women in the family have been involved in this trade but as globalization found its way here, the number of Bhadels dwindled. The introduction of the Konkan railway in the late 1990s brought in migrant workers from neighbouring states, affecting the women’s earnings. Transport vans, cheap labour, and young male students looking for par time employment became competition for the Bhadels, leaving a lot of the women without work. Also, with modernization, women of younger generations sought out better means of living, unwilling to continue the tradition. As of 2017, there were only around 20 Bhadels left in Margao.
In 2011, as part of the events to commemorate 50 years of liberation from Portuguese rule, Goan Chief Minister Digambar Kamat, who represents the Margao constituency, recognised the services of the Bhadels who've worked in this trade for over 25 years. They were given a one-time honorarium of ₹ 25,000. Although the women can apply for government pension schemes for senior citizens, the Bhadels are proud workers who have so far shied away from taking help.
In 2017, a life-size stainless steel, expressionist sculpture of a Bhadel made by Sculptor Subodh Kerkar using 50,000 stainless nuts was installed in Margao as a reminder of the town’s traditional women porters who were the epitome of sincerity, honesty and hard work.
The Bhadels are an important part of Goa's cultural history. The women who travelled from neighbouring villages to the Margao market to carry heavy cupboards and loads of products for vendors always received their respect and trust. They kept the trade alive and managed to give better education to their daughters who then had the choice to move on to higher-paying jobs, even if that now means that a tradition may soon go extinct. As time moves forward, the stories of the, strength, grit, and courage of the Bhadels will endure.