Why do smugglers smuggle goods across borders? Simple – to save taxes that the governments impose on taking these goods across borders. To avoid these taxes, some smart people try to fool the customs officers on the borders. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they are caught. When caught, they become the stories in the lives of customs officials or characters in novels and films. How about walking through Indian customs and the central excise museum? And look at how the real smugglers, smuggled goods. And what kind of goods had value for them? A Goa Museum you should visit while in Panjim on Goa Holidays.
Indian Customs and Central Excise Museum, Panaji, Goa
In the heart of Panaji city, at the banks of my favorite Mandovi, stands a Blue Building. That was once called Alfadega and in its latest avatar is the Indian Customs and Central Excise Museum. A one of its kind museum in the country. Spread over two floors this typical Goan building with Portuguese influence gives you a period feel with its tall doors, broad wooden staircases, and its huge halls. It has been standing at this place for more than 400 years. As you walk into the museum, the wall panels on both sides inform you about the current taxation structure in India. Most people would skip this, for those who are interested in the fine print of taxation, unless you have to file your tax returns. A small chapel dedicated to St Anthony, patron saint of lost and found things resides at the right of the entrance.
On the ground floor, the Heritage Gallery is interesting for history enthusiasts like me. It begins with the dockyard at Lothal, which is the first documented port in the history of India. Of course, Kautilya’s Arthshastra is all about managing the finances of a state. And taxes/excise/customs are a primary source of income for the state. He gets an honorable mention in the gallery. I was pleasantly surprised to see a page from Aina-e-Akbari that has a taxation structure documented from the times of Mughal emperor Akbar. Incidentally, this was seized at Patna when it was on its way out of the country. Then there is a bit of history of the customs and excise in Goa to which this very building has been a witness. The history of the building itself is depicted through various paintings and sketches.
Battle of Wits gallery
The highlight of this museum is the ‘Battles of Wits’ gallery. Here you get to see the tricks used by smugglers over the ages to smuggle goods. Be it especially designed cars, be it shoes with special soles, or be it the toilet seats of airplanes. Though it is meant to highlight the achievements of the customs departments in nabbing the criminals, it gives you an impressive insight into the minds of the smugglers. To me, this gallery is also a documentation of what was a prized item to smuggle at what time. Gold and Diamond, of course, remain an all-time favorite. But to think that watches were smuggled in huge numbers just a few decades ago makes you realize the change open economy has brought for India.
Antique and animal parts like elephant tusks and rhino horns remain a top favorite of smugglers even today. Bollywood films may have left the smugglers after the 1970s and 80s. But the smugglers have not given up their professions and they continue to fight the battle of wits with the customs officials. It would be interesting to see how this gallery evolves from here…every few years.
Customs Lab & Finance Budgets
The second floor houses a diorama of a customs lab. And an information gallery on narcotics. A diorama of opium plantation reminded me of Amitav Ghosh stories that talk about the opium trade of 17-18th CE. The rest of the galleries focus on the various finance budgets of India. That basically decides the tax structure for the coming years. Finance ministers and their policies are the highlights of this section. You can even hear some of the budget speeches by them. A diorama of the Salt March by Gandhi Ji establishes the link between the freedom struggle to the collection of taxes. A big hall at the top shows paintings and sketches of various customs and excise buildings across the country, especially on the ports.
Though the name of this museum is hardly inviting, the displays can keep you engaged and even entertained. It’s reasonably well designed and presented, though still very camera unfriendly.
If you are in Panaji, a stop at this blue building is highly recommended.
Timings – 9:00 AM to 5 PM, Tuesday to Sunday.
Entry – Rs 10/-, Children & Students free.
Recommend you to read my travel blog on Must-See Museums and Places to Visit in Goa.