Indian Customs and Indirect Taxes Museum in Goa’s capital Panjim is a little gem hidden in plain sight.
Photo: Chryselle D’Silva Dias
Diamonds in the soles of your shoes, gold bars hidden in various body parts, jewels in a car’s engine or in the hollow of a walking stick—smugglers will go to ingenious and elaborate methods to outwit customs officials.
The Indian Customs and Indirect Taxes Museum in Goa’s capital Panjim is a little gem hidden in plain sight. It’s the first of its kind in India, showcasing information about the country’s history of Indian customs and indirect taxes from ancient India to contemporary times.
Inside the Indian Customs and Indirect Taxes Museum, Goa
The ‘Battle of Wits’ gallery is like a scene from a kitschy Bollywood movie of the 1970s. The front half of a white Premier Padmini leaps out of the wall, its open hood reveals how smugglers hid contraband in car engines. The rim of a cycle tyre could hold a pouch of drugs while currency could be stashed in the cut-out pages of a book. In the days where ‘foreign’ watches were a much-treasured commodity (and not so easily available) they were smuggled in steel tiffin carriers or within the carved out body of a boom-box. The gallery also depicts life-size effigies of a British couple “posing as aristocrats”. They were captured at the Bombay port in 1966 for smuggling diamonds and gold hidden in a walking stick and gold biscuits sewn into the lady’s jacket.
There are several galleries spanning two floors of this beautiful heritage building. The building itself is a well-maintained treasure with its high ceilings and wooden floors. The bespoke “Custom Blue” colour is a nod to one of the bestselling commodities of the colonial era‚ indigo.
The blue and white checked tiles of the foyer draw you in. You walk past elephant tusks standing like sentries into the Introductory Gallery with its overview of the Central Board of Indirect Taxes. Head to the Heritage Gallery where you begin a fascinating journey of trade and commerce as early as the Harappan civilization. This is depicted in a diorama showing the Lothal township 4,500 years ago and its innovative dockyard. At Lothal, the proximity of the city to the sea was a key factor in creating a trade route. Seawater was successfully diverted to create a massive tank that would hold ships ready for loading.
Along with replicas of seals and coins, I was delighted to see a handwritten copy of the Ain-i-Akbari (c.18th century CE). This elaborate document, written by court historian Abu’l Fazl, records the administration of Emperor Akbar’s court including the imperial household, military and civil services and regulations for the judiciary.
There’s also the ‘Seizure Gallery’ (no chances of a heart attack here) where confiscated goods are displayed. Sculptures of bronze, wood and brass share space along with mammoth tortoise shells, shark jaws and elephant tusks. Trade in wildlife continues to be lucrative for smugglers even today.
On the first floor, a diorama of the chemical lab draws you in. This shows how customs officials use various methods and implements to test banned and prohibited substances. The Narcotics gallery illustrates the opium trade, its production, use and abuse.
Tucked away behind the Sports gallery (which honours customs staff who have excelled at national-level sports) is a little room that holds several astronomical maps and clocks with Arabic inscriptions. These are stunning in scale and you can’t help but marvel at the imagination that went into making them.
While taxes might not be the most interesting of subjects, the displays in this museum make the subject entertaining. Put it on your to-do list the next time you’re in Panjim.
9.30am – 5.30pm; Closed on Mondays. Opposite Panaji Jetty (Captain of Port building), Panaji, Goa. Entry Fee: Rs10. Children/students with ID card: Free. Website
The museum is currently closed to the public due to Covid-19 restrictions but is set to reopen shortly.