Posted by: itsme | August 25, 2010

Portuguese Old Goa

People told me that this isn’t a great time to visit Goa. The monsoons are still not over. I would get to Goa and be holed up in my hotel without seeing anything. That may be so but I don’t really have much of a choice. My one year sabbatical is coming to an end next month. This is the only window I have got. It is time I started on my last tour of India, starting with Goa, then proceeding to Kerala and ending with Tamil Nadu. So rain or no rain, it’s got to be done now.

The train from Bangalore arrives at Vasco da Gama, delayed by an hour. It’s been raining this morning, at times heavily but when I step out of the station there is a lull in the downpour. Going by the name of this town, a visitor may be forgiven to think that the famous explorer landed in Goa in 1498, a landmark event in sea exploration and early colonization. In fact, Vasco da Gama landed in Calicut, further south. Goa was under the Bijapur Sultanate until Afonso de Albuquerque captured it in 1510.

Though this town is named after the explorer, he is not looked upon favourably by one and all. One man’s hero is another man’s tyrant. Vasco da Gama is credited with mass killings and torture. Those were the times and early settlers were not going to sit back and let the rich spices of the Malabar Coast slip through their hands. Strangely, unlike the rest of India, Goans have retained the old name. I have not heard of suggestions to change it to something Indian. Goans are sensible people. Goans realize that history can be brushed aside but not erased or forgotten. They realize that history can be made but not changed. Historically and culturally, they are both Portuguese and Indian. By the very first impressions, I sense that Goans are more Portuguese than the people of Puducherry being French.

I stand in a long queue at the bus station. Tickets to Panjim have to be purchased in advance. There are no bus conductors on buses. I arrive into Panjim, find a room, check in, freshen up and head out for the day. First I stop at a Udipi Restaurant nearby and have a wonderful breakfast of idlis, upma and typical South India filter coffee. Breakfast is a veritable feast in South India unlike in the north where options are limited to samosas and katchoris. I will probably stay in Goa for a few days. Let me start with Old Goa. I unfurl my umbrella and walk out into the rain towards the bus station.

In time I arrive in Old Goa. As soon as I get out I can see magnificent old church buildings to my left and to my right. All buildings are pretty close to where I am standing. Spoilt for choice, I turn left and head first to a little building. It is my habit to start with little things than be overwhelmed by grand creations at the outset. I walk past an assemblage of sculpted rocks and broken gravestones. The path is paved with laterite stones, a feature common to the region. These stones are hard but porous in texture. They are not the patient sandstones of smooth texture. In fact, they are the exact opposite of sandstones. The path is slimy and slippery. There is moss growing everywhere. Vegetation growing by the path is green and thick. Everything is wet. The grand old buildings of Old Goa are flaking in the continuous downpour, their exteriors dripping with black mottled streaks on dull whitewash. The monsoons are not going to spare anything.

The little initimate building is the Chapel of St. Catherine, built in 1510 by Afonso de Albuquerque as a thanksgiving for his conquest of Goa. It is built of laterite stones, probably from a later date. It has two small towers standing at the same level as the central gable between them. Being a well-maintained ruin, interiors are empty and plain. The stone coffering of the chapel ceiling is truly remarkable for its neat construction.

Octogonal towers and characteristic pinnacles

Octogonal towers and characteristic pinnacles

I walk out past old cannons and stone balls, and find myself in front of the facade of the Church of St Francis of Assisi. It is a large church from the 17th century. It has a classical facade of clean lines and architraves. The doorway is made of a composite of thin round columns with rosettes in between. They rise into an arch of trefoils over the high door. In the vast interiors is a beautifully sculpted pulpit rivalled only by elaborate altars gilded in gold. There are beautiful floral murals on the walls. Pilasters rise high in uniform fluting with a base of reeding. The vaulting is quite unique. In one sense it is barrel vaulting with coffering but it also contains overarching ribs and connecting bosses in typical Gothic style. This may be seen as one form of Transitional Gothic style.

Altars are often decorated with columns with a twisted-rope design. This is not something I have seen before. I learn that such columns are called Salomonica columns, a style that originated from Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. This style was extensively used by the Portuguese during the Baroque period.

Notwithstanding the rich details, the medieval ambience and the history of this building, I don’t particularly like it. It is an interesting building from the point of art and architecture, but I can hardly feel comfortable in it. The mood is sombre. The details are distracting and often overwhelming. The damp mood of the outside – it is still raining and the skies are far from clear – has transferred itself to the dim interiors.

Next to this church is the ASI museum. I take an hour to wander through the galleries. Near the entrance is a 12-foot statue of Luiz Vaz de Camoes, apparently a poet who wrote a poem about the Portuguese conquest of Goa. He sings of “Moors and Pagans” in his poem but were there any Moors in Goa then, I wonder. The museum has a couple of wonderful hero stones. Such hero stones are to be found all over India. A 12th century basalt hero stone from Salcette celebrates the events in two panels. In the bottom panel, drummers announce battle. Our hero, sporting a large beard, is at battle. Battle unfolds aboard an invading ship. In the top panel, the deposed hero is enthroned in heaven. He is seated under decorated parasols in the company of busty attendants. Hero stones are generally like this – scenes of battle, passage to heaven and eventual coronation in heaven, sometimes with queen and consort. Hero stones are an essential part of hero and ancestor worship.

Elsewhere, a medieval deity going by the name of Vetal is exhibited. Vetal wears a crown of serpents. His earrings are serpents. His armbands and shoulder pads are serpents. Vetal appears to be a deity local to the region. I have not met him before elsewhere in India.

Another exhibit here is worth a mention – wooden sculpture of St John the Baptist. With a book and lamb on his left palm, he stands almost lifesize. In a clear exhibition of local cultural influence, he is dressed in a tiger skin. There is halo behind his head and its decoration resembles the feathers of a dancing peacock.

The high altar at the Cathedral

The high altar at the Cathedral

Next stop is the St Catherine’s Cathedral, another building from the 17th century, may be grander but not all different from the Church of St Francis of Assisi. The exterior they say is Tuscan but I have no idea what makes it Tuscan. I guess it is in the simple repetitive mouldings of pilasters and cornices. It is in the little pyramidal turrets topped with spheres for finials. It is in the long windows neatly framed and crowned with triangular tympanums. Fluted columns with Corinthian capitals give this structure a grand entrance. The entrance archway is rounded with a voluted keystone. Inside, the mood is light and spacious. Lots of altars line the aisles. The reredos behind the main altar is richly gilded and covers the entire back wall all the way to the ceiling.

It’s past lunch time but Old Goa is a dull place, at least during this tourist off-season period. I can’t find a single decent place to eat. When I find something reasonably suitable, I find the service is slow. There’s not much of a crowd here but it takes ages for my thali meal to arrive. The rotis are like rubber. I complain that they have gone cold. The guy returns a little later with another roti, hot but just as stale and tasteless. Clearly this is old stuff microwaved at the last minute. Such a contrast to the wonderful breakfast this morning.

So far I have not found anything of exceptional beauty in Old Goa. Nothing has stopped my breath for a moment. Nonetheless I am enjoying the churches here. They are unique and open a window to Portuguese Christian heritage. I think Old Goa may be considered as Poor Man’s Portugal. One of the wonderful things about Old Goa is that all the important monuments are within easy reach on foot. Even in a light rain, it is a pleasure to walk from one to another. Sadly, it is only monuments that remain. The streets are lifeless. No one seems to live here except for the caretakers of these medieval buildings.

Rounded towers at a 16th century church

Rounded towers at a 16th century church

I walk up to Holy Hill from where a view opens up to the sea and the ships. Someone tells me that this is not the sea but River Mandovi. I stand corrected. Right next to this viewpoint is the 16th century Church of Our Lady of the Rosary. Its corner rounded towers give it the character of a fortress-palace. The interiors are as empty as can be expected of a place not in active use by any local parish. It stands as a piece of Goan history for curious tourists and nothing more. A few tombstones inside hold some interest. On the way to the main altar is floral decorative art on the walls. On an otherwise empty wall more recently whitewashed, these stand out.

There is just too much to see at Old Goa for a day that I am now having to make choices. I skip the Museum of Christian Art. Next door, at the Convent of St Monica, the church is open for public. I enter it by an obstinate door that refuses to open easily. Newspapers have been spread on the floor to absorb water leaking from the ceiling. The place is damp and dingy. Maintaining old churches costs money and there are just too many of them in Old Goa. The red floral wall decor seen just minutes earlier can also be seen here. I can see it in places where newer coating of whitewash has peeled off. It is sad that such old wall drawings have been buried under modern whitewash. In the same space are some beautiful wall tiles in turquoise, navy blue and white.

Azulejos in the Church of St Monica

Azulejos in the Church of St Monica

There is supposedly a Miraculous Cross in this church. Back in the 17th century, the crucified Christ is said to have opened his eyes and blood is supposed to have flowed down from his wounds. I look around for this cross but there are so many crosses here that I can hardly figure out which is the miraculous one. It doesn’t really matter. One unique thing about this building are the flying buttresses. They stand boldly across the road uphill. It is an experience to walk under the arches of these buttresses.

The first of Goa’s Christian monasteries belongs to the Augustinian Order. The ruins of this Augustinian Monastery from the late 16th century stands on Holy Hill. The bell tower standing at 46 m in particular is a crumbling ruin of laterite bricks and patchy masonry. Moss has taken over the lower levels. It stands in five levels, with the top level revealing the last standing parapets and turrets. This tower is the most spectacular ruin of Old Goa. Surrounding it are remains of walls, cloisters, courtyards and corridors.

One can imagine the busy days this place would have seen in centuries past. One worker is clearing away some weeds but the entire complex as it stands seems beyond improvement. Stairs suggestively lead to a higher level but abruptly end in a drop. Arches and remnants of cofferings reach into empty air. Walls connecting side altars to the nave stand as claws of an animal forged in the wild. Corridors in the open lead from one space to another but the fact remains that all spaces stand enshrined under the wide canopy of an open sky, already connected and merged with the infinite. Gravestones pay their obeisance before the empty altar. Their reliefs are interesting for their coats of arms bordered in rococo style indulgence. Three frogs in one particular coat of arms seem alive as they float in a collected pool of water. The rain has wet their skin to a layer of glistening sweat. The frogs seem poised to jump of their stone skins. Perhaps all they require is a prince to kiss.

Tower, laterite walls and azulejos at the Augustinian Monastery

Tower, laterite walls and azulejos at the Augustinian Monastery

Even better are the glazed polychrome tiles that decorate parts of walls near the altar and the crossing. These are called azulejos. It is said that Arabs introduced the technique into Spain during the Moorish occupation. During the 15th and 16th centuries Portugal imported such tiles from Spain. At some point, the technique and fashion got introduced into Goa. The tiles at these ruins are probably among the oldest surviving ones. The technique of making such tiles is still current and workshops exist to make them. WIth their floral motifs, geometric borders and waving bands of colours, these tiles are valuable pieces of art of Portuguese Goa. Yellow, blue and white make a common colour combination.

Leaving the monastery, I walk to the other end of town in search of the Archway of Conception. There is nothing spectacular about this arch and since I have little knowledge of its history, it stands amidst suffocating creepers with little appeal. I quickly make my way to the other archway called Viceroy’s Archway. On one side of the archway stands the solid proud figure of Vasco da Gama. On the other side is a Christian missionary holding a Bible while stamping over a native pagan. This idea of stamping out evil is probably borrowed from Hindu religious iconography. Early sailors landing into Goa at the jetty nearby would have most likely passed under this archway in complete adoration of Vasco da Gama. This is the manner in which even an evil man may hide his notoriety under a cloak of conquest and glory. But I am not suggesting he was an evil man, am I?

Heading back from the jetty, I walk past the archway, turn left to Adil Shah’s Doorway. This is the earliest structure of pre-Portuguese era within Old Goa. The stone doorway is richly carved in ornate artistic styles that suggest Hinduism more than Islam. Compared to the artistic wonders of the Deccan, this doorway is hardly worth a visit except for what it suggests. It has a poignancy of past wonder and surviving ruin. It must have once been part of a large complex but all that remains is this single doorway standing on its own, without a wall, without a roof, without a building. It apparently opens the way from outer to inner space but actually it stands foolishly holding on to a lost purpose. It is ruin that reminds me of Shelley’s poem titled Ozymandias.

The dome inside the Church of St Cajetan

The dome inside the Church of St Cajetan

Past this doorway is a grand church dedicated to St Cajetan and the convent associated with it. Like many buildings I have visited today, this too is from the 17th century. St Cajetan is a saint I have never heard of until today. Just as polytheistic Hinduism pays its regards to millions of gods, Christianity honours hundreds of saints. The difference to me is only subtle. The building is laid out in the manner of a Greek church. Standing figures of saints and prophets line the facade in recessed alcoves. Leafy capitals betray Corinthian style. The tympanum on the facade and the ribbed dome peeking beyond reinforce its classical character. Two towers complete the facade in befitting grandeur. The square space at the centre is crowned loftily by a rising dome. The space behind the altar is apsidal. The church is lovingly maintained. Woodwork is superb and at times beautifully gilded. The high clerestory lets in natural light. This is a church I quite like on the inside and out.

The dull and drab weather has continued all through the day. As the sun sets, it gets duller and I feel like heading back to my room and tuck into a much awaited dinner. But there is one more church to visit, the most important of all, the Basilica of Bom Jesus. On the outside, it stands on three levels with a protruding gable. As typical of other Portuguese churches here, graceful curves connect the gable to the parapet and terrace. These curves are mirrored in the many buttresses that support the high walls. The parapet on top is lined with small square turrets topped with spheres. Circular windows and large rectangular ones decorate the facade.

Renovated cloisters at the Basilica of Bom Jesus

Renovated cloisters at the Basilica of Bom Jesus

At half past five, I have enough time to admire the interiors. I walk the nave and the aisles. Turning right at the crossing, I find the body of St Francis Xavier. The saint first came to Goa in the 16th century with the mission of converting the locals to Christianity. After many successful conversions and alleged miracles he is said to have gone on a mission to China. He never returned. He contracted dysentery. His body was moved to Malacca and later shifted to Goa where it still remains. After all these years, his dead body is said to be reasonably well preserved. I think I need binoculars to see his face properly which appears shrivelled and gaunt. The body is sealed in a silver and glass casket at the top of a high tomb. The casket is studded with semi-precious stones set within borders gilded in gold. The tomb itself has a base of marble and alabaster.

At six, a service begins. Other than a couple of tourists, the congregation is all local. On a Wednesday, a crowd of forty is a decent attendance. Such an attendance is perhaps wished for thing in the West but in Old Goa, Christianity is truly alive. The entire service of half an hour is in Konkani, a language spoken in Goa. It sounds somewhat like Bengali. I don’t understand a word of it. I would like to walk out but I don’t feel like doing that in the middle of the service, particularly when I am seated at the first few rows. When people kneel to pray, I follow suit. The pews are plain. There are no cushioned kneelers, just the hard hurting feel of wood. At some point during the service, people turn to greet their neighbours. I believe this is when they say, ‘May peace be with you.’ Except that in this case, its all in Konkani and I simply smile to greet my unsuspecting neighbours. In the final act, the congregation approaches the altar to receive the Eucharist. I take the chance to leave, find a bus in the rain and return to the capital.


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