On a rainy monsoon morning, 70-year-old Joaquina Colaco clutched an umbrella and walked through the crowded lanes of Margao market in the Indian state of Goa, hoping for a full day’s work.
After wading through puddles, she sat down next to a carpenter’s shop, waiting expectantly for customers who need a porter or “coolie” to carry their wares.
Colaco is one of a dwindling band of female bhadels, as the porters are called in the historic city of Margao, Goa’s commercial hub about 30km south of the state capital, Panaji.
The bhadels — whose name translates as “for hire” — have been a feature of life in Goa since the days of Portuguese colonial rule in the 18th century and carry everything from groceries to furniture on their heads.
No one knows locally why women have traditionally done the back-breaking work, but increasing competition from cars, vans, the railways and men is threatening to put them out of business for good.
“We don’t get much business these days,” Colaco said, puffing on a beedi, a cheap, hand-rolled Indian cigarette packed with tobacco leaves. “The male coolies are much stronger and are ready to work at a cheaper rate,” she said.
Another bhadel, Albertina Fernandes, agreed.
“At times, they [the men] carry loads on their heads for free or in return for a peg [tot] of fenny [a Goan spirit made from fermented cashew fruit or coconut],” she said.
The arrival in the 1990s of the Konkan Railway, which stretches 760km up the western coast of India through Goa, sounded the death knell for the female porters.
The picturesque line connecting the southern city of Mangalore with India’s financial and entertainment capital, Mumbai, brought eager young men from neighboring states like Kerala and Karnataka in search of work.
At the same time, increasing numbers of vehicles began to appear on the state’s narrow streets, making the transportation of more and heavier loads quicker and easier.
The liberalization of the Indian economy has also played a part, opening up the country to outside influences in areas from fashion to television and increasing its people’s expectations.
“A bhadel’s daughter used to be a bhadel,” Colaco said. “Sons were not allowed in the trade. We’re now fearing extinction as the next generation is not ready to continue the legacy.”
“Do you expect my daughter who wears jeans to sit here and work as a coolie?” she asked.
Goan Chief Minister Digambar Kamat, who represents the Margao constituency, announced in March payments of 25,000 rupees (US$550) to any bhadel who had worked for 25 years, praising their “selfless service” to society.
According to Auda Viegas, a women’s rights activist who has been documenting the history of the female porters, most of those still working fit that category.
“The youngest bhadel is 50 years old,” she said. “You won’t find anyone younger.”
Five years ago, bhadels — all of them Roman Catholic — could be found in their hundreds, carrying goods for up to 5km outside the city, but now there are thought to be barely two dozen left working.
With their likely disappearance within a generation, another piece of traditional Indian life will be consigned to history.
“Even until recently, local shopkeepers in Margao used to ask them to watch over their shops during siesta time,” Viegas said.
“They are most trustworthy,” said Sajiv Sawant, a cloth merchant who owns a shop in Margao market. “Even now, we keep our shop open in the afternoon time when we go for lunch break and bhadels guard our shop.”