It is nearly 5 pm when we (my friend and I) decide to call it a day at Old Goa or Velha Goa. We have spent a wonderful day in this culturally and historically significant part of Goa by exploring some of its monuments and also a museum.
As we walk out of the last of the monuments we have visited, I switch on my cell phone to call DJ, the driver of the car we have hired for the day to come and pick us up. (I had switched it off earlier in the day when we were dropped outside the first of the monuments we were to visit that day). My phone pings notifications furiously and to my surprise, I see notifications for 16 missed calls and 12 text messages — all from DJ.
When I call him up, DJ almost faints with relief. “Oh Madam, I thought something had happened to you.”
“What made you think so?” I ask him, surprised. “I did say that we would call you once we were done for the day.”
When DJ picks us up, he repeats how relieved he was to see us and asks if we saw all the monuments in Old Goa.
“Of course not ! It’s impossible to see all of them. We visited 6 monuments and 1 museum.”
DJ actually stops the car and turns around to stare at us. ‘You spent 8 hours and saw only 6? I have brought people here who have done all the monuments in less than 2 hours and then headed to the beach.”
I just shrug. As we drive off, I can sense DJ’s puzzled gaze at us. A gaze that seems to ask just what we did we do the whole day in Old Goa?
Are you also curious about my day in Old Goa and what I did there? Well then, read on… 🙂
Old Goa was the capital of the Portuguese empire from 1510–1835. The Portuguese, however, were not the original founders of Old Goa; that honour lies with the Adil Shahi Dynasty of Bijapur. The Adil Shahis established their rule in Old Goa in 1488 and the city became so prosperous that it was often considered as the Sultanate’s second capital ! Though the Portuguese conquered Old Goa in 1510 after defeating the Adil Shahi forces, it was not until 1543 that their influence became visible. Various religious orders (like the Franciscans, Augustinians, Jesuits, and Dominicans) with royal mandates had settled in Goa and started building grand churches and convents.The late 16th and 17th centuries was a period when Christianity established itself in the region. But epidemics, the terror caused by Inquisition, and dwindling resources led to the gradual decay and abandonment of Old Goa. By 1835, Old Goa was a ghost town with huge churches and convents the only reminder to its glorious past.
Nothing makes me happier than the prospect of spending a day exploring old monuments and pottering around ruins and Old Goa is full of them. According to the Archaeological Survey of India, there are 18 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the area.
So, when DJ deposits us outside the Basilica of Bom Jesus (whose tall, imposing façade I recognise from previous visits) on that beautiful November morning last year, I could barely contain my excitement and enthusiasm. I buy some flowers and candles from one of the many women selling them outside the Basilica Gates before entering the complex.
Built in 1585 by the Jesuits, the Basilica is built from the blocks of local red-coloured laterite stone. It is called Bom Jesus or Good Jesus or infant Jesus to whom it is dedicated. But the Basilica is, perhaps, best known for holding the mortal remains of St. Francis Xavier since 1613. The church has two chapels and a richly gilded main altar. It has the figure of the infant Jesus and a rather portly one of St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order.
I am surprised to find that most of the tourists do not even spare the ornate and beautiful interiors of the Basilica a second glance. They are only interested in viewing the casket containing the remains of St. Xavier kept in a side chapel. In fact, I see many tourists making a beeline for the casket and once they have photographed it or “selfied” themselves into the photo, would promptly leave ! No one even gives a second glance to the beautiful altar dedicated to St. Michael (see photo on the right)
The Basilica of Bom Jesus is a beautiful monument, and I realise that in spite of having visited it twice before, I have not really seen it well. Not that it is possible this time around as well. It is so crowded that day that it’s impossible to stand in one place without getting pushed or shoved. So… after lighting the candles and making the flower offerings, we leave.
The next monument we visit is the Sè Cathedral, also known locally as the Big Church. It is across the road from the Basilica and an easy stroll later we are facing its whitewashed façade.
The Sè Cathedral is Goa’s largest church measuring 35.36 m in height, 76.2 m in length and 55.16 m wide. Built from the local laterite and then covered with lime plaster, it’s asymmetric façade is the result of the tower on its Southern side (to your right in the photo above) collapsed in 1776. The Cathedral was built for the Dominicans by the Portuguese Government and construction lasted for nearly three-quarters of a century after it commenced in 1562.
But in spite of all the dust and general mess inside, it is not to difficult to notice the grand interiors of the Cathedral. It has a main altar, 5 smaller altars, a sacristy and 9 chapels. A couple of the altars have wooden latticed screens so fine that I wonder how they were even carved. Unfortunately, they were covered with dust and dust cloths and not fit to be photographed.
The Cathedral isn’t too crowded. Most of them are foreigners or NRIs with Goan ancestry.
We want to visit the Convent and Church of St. Francis of Assisi next, but since there are no clear signposts or maps or information boards in the area, we have to ask for directions. The only people around are tourists who are as clueless as we are. We ask the driver of a tourist bus for the directions and he duly and happily obliges. We follow his directions and end up at the Church of St. Cajetan ! 🙂
The Church of St. Cajetan was built by the Italian Friars of the Order of Theatines who obtained the site via a Royal Order in 1655. The Church is reportedly modelled on the original design of St. Peter’s Church in Rome. Architecturally, both the exterior and interior are Corinthian in style, while the gilded altars and rich carvings are Baroque.
I can’t help exclaiming in delight when I walk into the Church. The interior layout and plan is quite different from what I have seen so far. The interiors are laid out like a Greek Cross and there are 6 altars besides the main one, each one more ornately carved and gilded than the other. The red oxide flooring provides the perfect foil to the whitewashed walls and highly decorated altars. On the walls are paintings depicting the life of St. Cajetan, a religious reformer and founder of the Theatines.
There are even fewer people here than at the Se Cathedral making me wonder why. Not that I was complaining, but it was a real shame that such a stunning church had so few visitors.
Happy as we were for being misdirected to the Church of St. Cajetan, we decide to use Google Maps to locate ourselves and find directions for the other monuments in the area. It was a good thing that we did as something unexpected popped up, something that was not there on the list of monuments in Old Goa compiled by my friend. It was the Viceroy’s Arch, which lay a short distance away from the Church of St. Cajetan.
The Viceroy’s Arch was built shortly after the Portuguese conquest of Old Goa. Made of laterite blocks with lime plaster and whitewash covering some parts and a greenish rock covering some other parts, the Arch was completely rebuilt in 1954.
The road through the Viceroy’s Arch leads to the Mandovi River and we spend a relaxing time there watching commuter ferries ferry people and their vehicles across the river. A quick consultation with Google Maps and we decide to head to the Museum of Christian Art, with a stop at the Convent of Santa Monica on the way. As luck would have it, the Convent was closed for repairs and we couldn’t explore it, but the Museum more than made up for it. It was a real revelation.
Perhaps the only one of its kind in Asia, the Museum of Christian Art showcases Indo- Portuguese art from the 16th–20th century.The Museum’s collection includes furniture, sculptures, ivory and metal artefacts, textiles, paintings and books.
The Museum’s collection is extremely well curated and presented and I have written about one of their exhibits in an earlier post. Here, let me share with you another exhibit that I loved — a rare depiction of the Holy Trinity.
Our next halt is the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary, which is further up the hill that the Museum is located in. Another short walk and we are opening the gates that lead to the Church grounds. There is no one in sight — no tourists, no caretaker — and we are a little hesitant to proceed further. We wait for a while and since no one stops us, we just proceed.
The Church of Our Lady of the Rosary is among the older churches having been built between 1544–1549. Apparently it was from this spot that Afonso de Albuquerque watched the Portuguese forces defeat the Sultanate’s forces. The roof of the church is tiled and supported by wooden rafters. With rounded towers, topped by a cross, this Church is architecturally very different from the others in the area.
It might be an understatement to say that I loved the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary.
It’s simple and grand interiors with remnants of frescoed walls, its two chapels and three altars, the wooden rafters on the ceiling, the quiet, the peace, the general atmosphere… I was immensely moved by the whole visit.
As I walk around the Church, imagining the various sermons given here, the marriages, funerals, baptisms and communions conducted, the prayers whispered, the petitions made… I can hear my footsteps echoing in the emptiness. And yet, I don’t feel alone; instead I feel comforted and blessed. As I leave the Church premises, I know that if I’m ever at Old Goa once again, this is one Church I would want to visit again.
Finally, we make our way towards the last of the churches we have shortlisted to visit or rather its ruins. The Tower of the Church of St. Augustine is visible even from a distance and its desolation drew me in like a magnet.
The Church of St. Augustine was built in 1602 by the Augustinian Friars who arrived in Goa in 1587. The defining feature of this church was its 46 m tall bell tower, as were its richly embellished 8 chapels and 4 altars. In 1835, this complex was abandoned when religious orders were expelled from Goa by the Portuguese Government. The valuables in this Church were either sold or distributed to other the churches in Goa. In 1842, the main vault of the church collapsed, and in due course other portions of the complex also fell into ruins. The façade and half of the tower collapsed in 1931; some more parts collapsed in 1938.
The first thing I see when I enter the complex is a signboard which proudly proclaimed that this is the site where a large part of the title song of the 1965 Hindi film Gumnaam was filmed. It urged the visitor to watch the song, Gumnaam hai koi, to really understand what state the ruins were in and what changes restoration efforts have brought about. 🙂
Ruins fascinate me for reasons that I cannot really explain, and this one is no different. As I walk the ruins, I try to imagine what it must have been like before its “restoration “covered with vegetation and home to fauna that I prefer to read about, but not see.
Time and neglect may have stripped the Church of St. Augustine of its former glory and riches, but its bare walls with remnants of decorative elements, tile work, plaques and gravestones have stories to tell, not all of them happy.
When I saw the ruins of the tower of St. Augustine’s Church rising in the distance, I had wanted to visit it first. But after the visit, I was glad that we had left it till the end. While I do love ruins, they also leave me feeling a little melancholic and that would not have been a good idea to carry forth for the rest of the church visits.
The return journey to Colva (where I’m staying) presents the perfect opportunity to review the day, jot down important observations as well as questions to seek clarifications, think about how different my fourth trip to Goa is turning out to be, maybe review the photos taken…
Suddenly DJ asks: “You really didn’t go anywhere else after I left you outside the Basilica?”
I burst out laughing. “You had the vehicle, remember? How could we go anywhere? And why are you so surprised that we spent an entire day visiting churches?”
“It’s just that I have never met anyone who has spent so much time at churches.”
“Well, you know what? I haven’t seen all the monuments in Old Goa yet. When I come back to Goa next, I’ll be spending another day or two here. Full days, that too.”
DJ just shook his head and continued driving. 😀
PS: If you are planning a day at Old Goa, I would recommend that you pick up the Old Goa booklet published by the Archaeological Survey of India. It has details of all 18 monuments in the area and their floor plans. It also has a very basic map giving locating all monuments in the area. However, I would still suggest that you use Google Maps to get around 🙂