Old Goa is said to have been deliberately dismantled by its inhabitants until nothing remained except its churches and convents. Lhendup G Bhutia strolls through the remains of Portuguese India
The ruins of the Church of St Augustine in Old Goa (Photos: Meesha Holley)
THE PEOPLE WHO MIND the crowds that arrive at Goa’s churches appear to have two significant briefs. One is to scan for the sight of unapproved flesh—anything above the knees, for women, is forbidden; no concessions are made for men in shorts irrespective of their length; and anything that exposes the upper arms and shoulders of both men and women is a strict no. The second brief dovetails with the first—it is to tell the offenders to cover up and failing that to turn them away, but also to conduct the entire exercise with extreme politeness.
Such rules of entry are not unique to the Catholic Church. But today, at the Basilica of Bom Jesus, the second directive about politeness seems to have been done away with. Instead, a new one has been adopted. “Hurry, hurry! Quickly, quickly!” cry the minders, an assortment of professional security guards and perhaps volunteers, in almost a robotic monotone, as they get a long queue of disorderly tourists on a Sunday afternoon to move double-file through a corridor of the church and out as quickly as possible, their eyes always alert to the signs of a wraparound slipping down a woman’s shoulders or for people who linger a little too long.
I’m currently quite a long way from entering the Basilica. Only a few minutes have passed since the Sunday morning mass got over but already the queue to enter the church has begun to stretch and snake across its vast lawns. I’m reminded at that moment of the account of the famed 16th century Portuguese explorer Fernão Mendes Pinto, translated in English from his memoir Peregrinação (Pilgrimage), which I recently encountered in the book Goa Travel (edited by Manohar Shetty). Some scholars have challenged the historical accuracy of some of Pinto’s accounts, but many believe he is one of the most important sources of history for this part of the world in the 16th century and that a lot of his memoir, especially the portions of his association with Jesuit missionaries and his service to the Portuguese crown, can be verified.
Pinto is believed to have accompanied the body of Francis Xavier, the saint interred in a regal silver casket at the Basilica, when it was being brought from Malacca in Malaysia to Goa in 1553, two years after Xavier’s death. He writes about the spectacle of that moment in Goa, of the viceroy and “all the nobility of India”, and footmen with silver maces at the pier waiting for the body, and the enormous crowd that needed to be cleared. But which church was the saint’s body taken to? His body was shipped to Goa after all in 1553, and the construction of the church where the Basilica stands today only began in 1594 and got consecrated in 1605. But that small anomaly notwithstanding—in the hot afternoon of Sunday, the lawns of the Basilica and the road adjacent to it overrun with tourists who have taken a break from the beaches, and the many tips of majestic churches and convents amidst a sea of palm trees visible across the horizon—it is not difficult to imagine this place as it once was more than 450 years ago. Pinto writes that after the procession reached the church, Xavier’s body was placed next to the high altar, a solemn high mass held and celebrated with a chorus. But the crowd had grown so anxious to see the body that the sermon had to be dispensed with. “[T]here were so many people there and each was trying to get a closer view of it, the crush and press of the crowd was such that the grilles of the chapel, despite the fact that they were very sturdy, were broken into many pieces. Seeing that the tumult was steadily increasing and that they were unable to control it, the fathers covered the coffin again and told them that they would be able to view it more comfortably in the afternoon,” he wrote. The body would be shown several times afterwards, but according to Pinto, the crowds that turned up remained so enormous that women and children would scream for fear of being suffocated.
Today, pushed into the Basilica, you can feel some of that press, but it is one made entirely of tourists and selfie-seekers. Inside the cool environs of the church, you can’t help but marvel at its interior, at the opulence of its altar, the silver casket where the saint’s body is interred, but before you know it, you have been pushed out, and the scorching sun of Goa’s afternoon is back on your unprotected head.
Goa, and more specifically Velha Goa (Old Goa), was one of the great cosmopolitan cities of the 16th century. Located on the south bank of the river Mandovi, upstream from present-day Panjim, Velha Goa was the so-called ‘Rome of the Orient’. It was the capital of the Estado da India, the Portuguese maritime empire which at one time stretched from the African coast all the way to Japan. The city would rise rapidly after the Portuguese general Afonso Albuquerque defeated Adil Shah’s army in 1510, but its decline was almost as swift. The Dutch and the English were making inroads into the Indian Ocean trading networks by the end of the 16th century, regional kingdoms were eating away parts of the Portuguese empire in India, and the city itself was suffering from devastating plagues. The old city hollowed out rapidly, and the capital formally moved to current day Panjim in 1843, where it existed as a shadow of its former self, until the Indian state sent troops in 1961 and formally brought Goa into the Indian Union.
Velha Goa, it is said, was deliberately dismantled by its inhabitants, stone by stone, over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, until nothing remained of it. All that remains from its heyday are its churches and convents, some grand and opulent, and some in ruins.
We had begun that day not at the Basilica but at the equally grand Se Cathedral across the road. We had moved rapidly through its lawns, our eyes on its large magnificent bell, called the Golden Bell for its rich tone, only to find at the cathedral’s doorstep a middle-aged man and woman, possibly volunteers at the church, standing guard, interrogating tourists who try to pass off as Catholic churchgoers. A Sunday mass was in progress. And the two were such experts at catching lies that instead of risking admonishment, we wandered about instead in the area, turning back ever so often to see the magnificence of the white cathedral, so stark against a cloudless blue sky.
As we move farther west from a lane that shoots off the Rua Direita, today an unremarkable road bustling with tourists but in the days of the empire a busy commercial street where the wealthiest lived, we find another impressive church called St Francis of Assisi. The Franciscan order, it is said, were among the first religious orders to settle in Goa, and an early church came up at this spot in 1521. But the one we enter now was rebuilt over the earlier church sometime in the mid-1600s. The crowd of tourists that had so flocked to the Basilica and the Cathedral has now begun to thin, and one can roam this church and gaze upon its artefacts at leisure, which includes, at its entrance, a vast painting that on close inspection seems to be so cracking with age and exposure that it is difficult to make out the subject. Outside, the lawns spread out. And walking across them, looking for some shade, one encounters large millstones of an old gun powder factory, broken pieces of structures once part of churches, and some tombstones of ancient residents, all now maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India. It comes as quite a surprise, when almost out of nowhere you chance upon what looks like a small and unremarkable structure. This turns out to be the Chapel of Santa Catarina, which it is said was built at the site of a gate through which Albuquerque and his army had entered to take the city. Albuquerque built this chapel immediately after, and when it was granted cathedral status in 1534, it went through a round of rebuilding, and then once again in 1952. The chapel, not in use today, is a plain structure. Its location might suggest an important intersection in Goan history, but inside, its contents have been stripped, its single nave bare. We move in a vehicle behind these churches, on a road that lies adjacent to the river, to land some distance away at a church that could rival any of the churches in size and splendour. This is the St Cajetan Church, built by monks of the Theatine order in the mid-1660s, and its exterior was modelled, it is said, on St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Goa, and more specifically Velha Goa (Old Goa), was one of the great cosmopolitan cities of the 16th century. Located on the south bank of the river Mandovi, upstream from present-day Panjim, Velha Goa was the ‘Rome of the Orient’
NONE OF THE churches we encounter in the old city belongs to the 16th century. Almost all actually belong to later periods or, as in the case of the Basilica of Bom Jesus, the Se Cathedral, the St Cajetan Church and several others, they were rebuilt as monumental structures over older and possibly smaller churches. Goa began to see a massive building and rebuilding of churches in the 17th and 18th centuries, the kind, it is said, whose size and splendour haven’t been seen anywhere outside Europe. Some scholars have even wondered how this could be possible when, according to conventional wisdom, Goa was believed to have been in a state of political and economic decline by then.
There is, however, one church that continues to exist, as it was built, from the 16th century. And we hop on to a car and drive under a melting sun to arrive not too far away at Our Lady of the Rosary. Overlooking the Mandovi river, and flanked to its west by the remarkable ruins of what must have once been the impressive 16th-century Church of St Augustine, the church of Our Lady of the Rosary is a remarkable structure because it looks nothing like any church in Goa. Built in the 1500s, it seems more a small fortress, its entrance flanked by small cylindrical towers with cupolas, probably indicative of how churches first looked in Goa before they were rebuilt in new styles or lost to time. You cannot enter the church today because it is undergoing repairs. But since tourists rarely show up here, it takes little to convince the caretaker to let us in. Inside, amid a simple wooden altar and wooden statues in corners, are scaffoldings that appear to be holding up the roof. The caretaker constantly looks up at the roof as though afraid it could fall any moment. So we exit and make our way to the ruins of the Church of St Augustine.
Goan churches, often described as Indo-Portuguese, look nothing like the churches seen in the rest of India, or even the ones in Portugal or Europe. That probably has quite a bit to do with their origins. Catholic architecture might have arisen here in the early 16th century with the arrival of Portuguese architects, masons and priests, but Goa was shortly thereafter a space for members of different religious orders from across Europe, each bringing their own church-building aesthetic. The architectural historian Paulo Varela Gomes argues that one cannot explain Goan church architecture simply by saying it is a result of outside influences and local craftsmen. “It is true that, analysing the buildings in parts, this entablature here, this door frame there, this tower, this vault, one can see Portuguese wall composition, Flemish vaulting or ornament, Bijapuri tower design, Konkan stucco patterns and ornamental design, etc. But the churches as overall buildings did not result from the sum of their constitutive parts. Their builders and patrons knew how they wanted a Catholic church to look and how they wanted it to be experienced,” he writes in the book Whitewash, Red Stone. “Their understanding, I believe, was not Portuguese, Flemish or Indian but Goan Catholic or Indo-Portuguese, if you like. To anyone with architectural and artistic sensitivity, these churches don’t seem to be the end-result of a compromise but the affirmative artistic statement of a cultural position. It is my contention that Indo-Portuguese architecture and art developed its characteristics because it became the more important manifestation of the material culture of a group of people which came into being in the 16th and 17th centuries as a result of conversion to Catholicism—a group of people who had to create a distinct culture for themselves.”
To the inexperienced eye there is little to tell what the Augustinian church close to Our Lady of the Rosary must have been like. All that remains is the spectacular five-storey tower that looks like it is piercing the sky. Everything else has long collapsed, and wandering through it, one can tell how large it was, how deep its spaces for altars and chapels. It is said that the ruins once hosted a church whose façade was similar to that of the Basilica of Bom Jesus. Built between 1597 and 1602, it was abandoned in 1835 when, as in Portugal at that time, many religious orders began to be proscribed in Goa too. The vault of the church first collapsed in 1842, followed by its body by 1871, and what we see today are what remains of its slow disintegration over time. It is remarkable when one considers that a team of scholars, using medieval Portuguese records, was able to retrieve the relics of a Georgian saint, Queen Ketevan, from the ruins of this site just a few years ago. A 17th-century Georgian Queen, her remains had been taken to several places and much of the same was lost. Some Portuguese friars, it is believed, had taken the fragments of her right arm and interred those in the St Augustine church in 1627, where the relics remained, amidst the ruins, before the discovery and confirmation through DNA analysis. When External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar handed over the relics during a visit to Georgia two years ago, he described it as an emotional moment.
A little way from the Augustinian ruins is the Santa Monica Convent, believed to be the largest convent in Asia when it was completed in the early 1600s. It was closed after its last nun died sometime in the late 1800s. Today, some of its space is used by the Museum of Christian Art. The museum possesses an impressive collection of objects used in Goan churches, going all the way back to the 16th century. Its value can be deduced from the fact that in 2012, it became the site of a robbery which left one security guard dead and the museum poorer by five objects made of gold. The museum leads to an old chapel whose most precious possession is probably what is called the Miraculous Crucifix. It dates back to the 1600s or earlier and, according to folklore, people witnessed the image of Christ open its eyes and mouth, and saw blood dripping from the stigmata back in 1636.
An interesting aspect of many of Goa’s churches is that when the old city declined and people began to move to present-day Panjim, they took many bits and pieces of the abandoned churches, from the stones to build new churches, to crucifixes, statues and bells to install in them. We see quite a few of them, from the almost life-size crucifix in the St Sebastian Chapel in Panjim, where Christ is depicted with his eyes open and which is believed to have once stood in the Palace of Inquisition in the old city in the 1500s, to the large bell atop Panjim’s famous Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church which was retrieved from the Augustinian ruins.
We see another such church in Saligao village, close to the famous Calangute beach. The village’s stunning Mae De Deus (Mother of God) Church, often likened to a castle, lies nestled among palm fronds and farms. Interestingly, the church is celebrating its 150th anniversary on our visit, and in the confusion of the preparations for the feast tonight, we go in. The church was completed in 1873, using the stones sourced from many old churches, including an abandoned friary in the old city’s Daujim village. And among its most prized possessions is an over 400-year-old wooden statue of the Mae de Deus that once stood in that friary.
It is late evening by the time we leave and find ourselves at the foot of the Reis Magos Church. Located on the northern banks of the Mandovi and built by Franciscan friars, it is considered one of the oldest churches in Goa. We have long left behind the crowd of tourists and passed through a picturesque setting of small fishing and boat-building villages to get to this tiny hamlet with a church looming magisterially over a mound of steps.
We climb the steps, our breathing heavy from the exertion. An evening mass is currently in progress and the church is packed. We stand outside, catching glimpses of its splendour, turning occasionally behind to watch the river, so blue in the setting sun.
– The churches and convents in Old Goa are about 12 km from Panjim. Rent a car, or hire a bike to explore the old capital of the Portuguese empire in India.
– Start with Goa’s most famous church, the Basilica of Bom Jesus where St Francis Xavier’s remains are interred. Cross the street to step into the magnificent Se Cathedral.
– Most tourists stop here. But there are many more old churches in this locality. Walk west from the Se Cathedral to explore the Church of St Francis of Assisi, and just a little way on, the now unused Chapel of Santa Catarina. The chapel was built at the site of a gate through which the Portuguese army had entered to take Goa in 1510.
– Within driving distance is St Cajetan Church, its exterior modelled on St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
– Farther west from the Basilica is an area filled with three interesting structures. Step into the distinctive looking Church of Our Lady of the Rosary, the only church from the 16th century that has not been rebuilt. Nearby are the ruins of the Church of St Augustine. Don’t forget the Museum of Christian Art at the Santa Monica Convent.
– The Mae De Deus Church is just minutes away from Goa’s famous Calangute beach. Located at Saligao village, it is often likened to a castle. Don’t forget to check out the over 400-year-old wooden statue carried here from an abandoned friary in Old Goa.
– Stop at the Reis Magos Church, about 10 km from Panjim on the other side of the Mandovi. Wander around the Reis Magos Fort and enjoy the view of the river.