Visit: 20th February 2014
Old Goa was the capital of the Portuguese Indies and thus one of the most important trading ports in the Indian subcontinent. Nowadays it is little more than a collection of churches and ruins, which makes it difficult to believe that less than 200 years ago it was a bustling city of 200,000.
I was fortunate enough to sort a quick two day trip to Goa with my Dad (he’s a pilot). We flew out of Manchester on Wednesday morning and were back at Gatwick by Saturday. This gave us two clear days in India, so it made sense to pop down to Old Goa, which is not far from the airport and the modern state capital, Panjim. We went to the old town via Panjim, where we stopped in the Latin quarter for some food at a restaurant that has been declared by the Telegraph, among others, as “one of the five best restaurants in Goa”. Unfortunately this was not our experience, so all I can say is it must have changed a lot since then. We had some rather small portions of fish in a thick, sickly sauce served with fries. Panjim’s focal point is the very grand Church of the Immaculate Conception (below). I remember standing on those steps on my first visit to Goa 9 years ago, thinking about the first ever tut-tut ride I was about to take.
Old Goa was founded by the Bijapur sultanate – a Shia Muslim dynasty that ruled a swathe of India from coast to coast in the southern central region. However, it is for its Portuguese prominence that the town is remembered, as it was made the colony’s most important city upon its capture from the sultanate in 1510. The Portuguese conquest was overseen by Admiral Afonso de Albuquerque, although he had not been acting on orders from Lisbon, but on the invitation of a local Hindu chieftain named Timoji. de Albuquerque had in fact been sent east to capture Hormuz, Aden and Malacca – all places that remain of geopolitical importance to this day.
The city became the centre of Christianisation in India under the Portuguese, and the churches that still stand there are testament to that. The first building we visited was the 408 year old Basilica of Bom Jesus (Basilica of Holy Jesus) – a large baroque structure built from granite and basalt. Uniquely in Old Goa, it is unplastered – which sets it apart from all of the other churches, which are white. It was originally plastered, but was stripped of it by “a zealous Portuguese conservationist” in 1950.
Inside the basilica lie the remains of St Francis Xavier, a Spanish missionary who was a key evangelist in India. He died in China in 1552, and when his body was shipped back to Goa more than a year later, it was – according to Christian tradition – completely unaltered by decomposition. This is an example of what is known in Roman Catholicism as incorruptibility, and is a sign of holiness. His body was mummified and placed on display in Goa, where you can still see it from a distance. Every few years it is made available for closer inspection, which draws huge crowds: 2.2m people on the last occasion!
Across from the basilica are the Church of St Francis of Assisi (left) and Sé Cathedral (right). The cathedral is the largest Christian building in India, and was constructed with a Tuscan exterior and Corinthian interior. It was built to commemorate de Albuquerque’s victory over the Muslims. Since that happened to have been on St Catherine’s Day, the cathedral was dedicated to her. It was a relief to duck inside these buildings as a cool respite from the hot and humid Indian climate.
A little walk down the road is the Church of St Catejan (photo at top). Apparently it was modelled on St Peter’s in Rome, and built by Italian friars in 1655 – some time later than the main buildings of the town. Eyeballing picture’s of St Peter’s Basilica I can see the resemblance to the Maderno façade (take a look at the link and see what you think). There were no other tourists here, just a cleaner reading a newspaper and one of the ubiquitous guards, so it was remarkably peaceful. Everywhere in India seems to have a guard, which I guess is a function of the vast quantity of labour and relative shortage of capital in the economy. I wondered how they have managed to preserve the interiors so well, given the humidity and lack of air conditioning in the buildings.
Nearby is the Arch of the Viceroys, built to commemorate the explorer Vasco da Gama. This was once the main entrance to the city, and features a statue of St Catherine on this side and da Gama on the other. This arch is fact a rebuild of the original, which collapsed in the 1950s.
The small, low-key Chapel of St Catherine is the oldest building in the site, having been built the year of the conquest (1510). I have to admit that when Dad said this seemed like the oldest building of them all I didn’t quite believe him, but he appears to have been correct!
Walking around World Heritage Sites I am often a little skeptical as to how original some of the buildings I am seeing truly are (eg. the Viceroys’ Arch). It is perhaps a dirty secret of the restoration “industry” that many sites tourists go to visit have been extensively put back together. This is fine, since often they have gone through centuries of decay or pilfering before attracting the interest of conservationists (the whole conservation movement is a relatively recent phenomenon – originally espoused by figures such as John Ruskin and William Morris in the 19th century, but often not put into practice until the 1950s or 60s). But I think it would be an improvement if the history of a site’s restoration was made more explicit to visitors alongside its history. I’m sure many would find it interesting to read and to see photographs.
With that in mind, my feeling upon walking into the ruins of the Church of St Augustine was “now this is more like it”.
But then I read that it had been deliberately demolished by the Portuguese. Other explanations I have since seen online include fire and earthquake, but I have not been able to find an authoritative source on the matter (not even Wikipedia!). Nevertheless, it is a striking sight to see the 46 metre tower pointing jaggedly up into the sky with ruins all around it.
After having seen all the sites of Old Goa (including also the Our Lady of the Rosary church) we headed back into town, where I though I’d share with you a picture of a cow standing by our taxi (not an uncommon sight in India, but something I can’t get used to as a foreigner!).