I was no stranger to Goa; having studied college in Pune and Bombay. On one of those trips, it was a pleasant surprise to come across some old churches around Panjim (Panaji). I was instantly reminded of the Portuguese history of Old Goa and waited for a opportune chance to explore the Churches on a self guided heritage walk.
We had alighted in Panjim, returning from South Goa and Gokarna and had caught a local bus for Old Goa at Panjim’s Kadamba Bus Stand. Goa’s public transport is quite efficient and all parts of Goa and important places are connected by frequent buses.
Old Goa (Also called Velha Goa) : An Introduction
Old Goa was the capital of the Bijapur Sultanate before the Portuguese captured it in 1510, defeating the forces of Adil Shah. Old Goa is said to have been one of the richest cities in the world during the 16th and 17th century, before epidemics of cholera and malaria paralysed Goa. Thereafter the capital was shifted to Panaji (Panjim.) Old Goa was also known as ‘Rome of the East’ due to the incidence of prettily designed churches and wide open piazzas. The Portuguese are said to have lovingly called it Goa Dourada, literally meaning ‘Golden Goa.’
Old Goa has been named as a World Heritage Site under UNESCO World Heritage Site – Churches and Convents of Goa.
More about the UNESCO World Heritage Site Status – Churches and Covenants of Goa are monuments inscribed by UNESCO under the World Heritage List in 1986 as cultural properties which were built by the Portuguese colonial rulers of Goa between the 16th & 18th Century AD.
Old Goa today attracts foreign tourists and domestic tourists alike, and even during the non-touristy month of July we saw a lot of tourists. Once the bus dropped us on the main road, I quickly found the location on google maps and began walking. Another reason why it is easily possible to walk to the Churches of Old Goa (or Velha Goa, as it was called earlier) is the fact that most of the Churches and important heritage sites are located very close to each other. This is how the walk unfolded :
Heritage Walk : Churches of Old Goa
The Churches of Old Goa and other historical sights are all located a short distance of each other and thus one can easily cover it on foot. Although I did not undertake a heritage walk with a travel company, an approximate idea of of total distance covered is around 3 kms. The typical Heritage Walk encompassing the Churches of Old Goa would begin at Basilica of Bom Jesus and end at Holy Hill. The Churches in Old Goa were mostly designed by Portuguese or Italian architects and the architecture style ranges from Baroque to Renaissance.
Basilica of Bom Jesus
At the inception, the ancient looking red building of Basilica of Bom Jesus was out first stop. It was a humid monsoon day and I was having a difficult time with the heat. I figured it would be must easier inside the church!
Basilica of Bom Jesus (Literally translated to Cathedral of the Good Jesus) was built between 1594 and 1605 as a resting place for the remains of the patron saint of Goa, Francis Xavier. He was one of the original seven founders of the Jesuit order. The body of the respected saint lies in a silver casket to the right of the altar, and his corpse is surprisingly well preserved. Every 10 years the body of St. Francis Xavier is brought out for public viewing.
Basilica of Bom Jesus was the first church in South Asia to be granted the status of Minor Basilica, in 1946. This grand Baroque structure is a mix of Corinthian, Doric and other styles of architecture prevalent then in the European world. The tomb was built by Florentine sculptor Giovanni Foggini and took 10 years to build. The gilded altar inside Basilica of Bom Jesus is extravagantly decorated in gold, and depicts the infant Jesus under the protection of St Ignatius Loyola. There were many places and sections of the church to explore once inside.
Tomb of Francis Xavier – The marble tomb has four plaques depicting scenes from Francis Xavier’s life. The elaborate wooden pulpit has figures of Jesus and other evangelists beautifully carved on it.
Noticeable in many places inside and outside the Basilica of Bom Jesus; the Jesuit motto ‘IHS‘ has the full form Iaeus Hominum Salvator which means, ‘Jesus the saviour’, in Greek.
Among all the churches of Old Goa, Basilica of Bom Jesus had the most number of visitors. I’d love to go when there are lesser people!
Who was St. Francis Xavier?
Francis Xavier was born in 1506 in the kingdom of Navarre, now a part of Spain. He studied for priesthood and was ordained two years later in Venice. He was then recruited by St. Ignatius Loyola along with five other priests to make what is known as the Jesuits.
When the Portuguese king received reports of corruption and immoral behaviour among the Portuguese in Goa, he asked Ignatius Loyola to send a priest who could influence the moral climate for the better. In 1541 Francis Xavier was sent to work in the diocese of Goa. Despite frequent obstruction from Portuguese officials, he founded numerous churches, and is credited with converting thirty thousand people to Christianity.
After Francis Xavier left Goa for the last time, he contracted dysentery aboard ship and died off the Chinese coast, where he was buried. On hearing of his death, a group of Christians exhumed his body – which they found to be in a perfect state of preservation. It was first reburied in Malacca, and after that his body was later removed and taken to Old Goa, where it has remained ever since, enshrined in the Basilica of Bom Jesus.
Every ten years, the St. Francis Xavier’s body is carried in a three-hour ceremony from the Basilica of Bom Jesus to the Sé cathedral.
Church of St. Francis of Assisi
Just after crossing the road, this gorgeous white church is visible. The Church of St. Francis of Assisi is a beautiful building that makes it feel as if its a recently built structure.
The Church was built by the Franciscan friars in 1521, and is one of the most important churches of Old Goa. It is designed in the unique Portuguese Architecture style called Manueline style which uses nautical motifs. The Church of St. Francis of Assisi has a beautifully carved doorway as well.
After clicking many pictures from the outside (there were hardly any people here!), I peeked inside and was stunned. The inside of Church of St. Francis of Assisi features fine decorative frescoes, and paintings on wood showing the life of St Francis of Assisi. There’s a Greek cross (the emblem of all Portuguese ships) on the door.
At the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, its gilded main altar is the star attraction of the interiors as it depicts crucified Jesus.
The Archaeological Museum was established in 1964 by converting the Convent of St. Francis of Assisi. It is located in adjacent to the Church of St. Francis of Assisi and has a 10 or 20 Rupee ticket. Among the interesting displays here in the Archeological Museum is a gallery of portraits of Portuguese viceroys, a bronze statue of Alfonso de Albuquerque. Other exhibits include coins, Christian wooden sculptures, 11th century statues of Lord Vishnu & Surya God among other things.
Sé Cathedral (St Catherine’s Cathedral)
It was proving to be a lovely heritage walk in Old Goa with all the ancient churches close to each other and within no time I was at the magnificent Sé Cathedral.
The Portuguese government commissioned the Sé, or St Catherine’s Cathedral to build a grand church worthy of the mighty Portuguese empire. It took eighty years for this magnificent cathedral to build and it was only consecrated in the year 1640. The scale and detail of the Corinthian style interior is quite stunning.
Sé Cathedral is said to be bigger than any church in Portugal. It is also believed to be Asia’s largest Church. The pièce de résistance of Sé Cathedral is the gilded high altar panel depicting the life of St. Catherine of Alexandria.
The surviving tower of the Sé’s whitewashed Tuscan exterior houses the Golden Bell, whose melodious tolling indicated commencement of the auto da fé. These were public punishments in which suspected heretics were tortured and burnt at the stake, also known as The Goa Inquisition. There used to be two towers earlier.
The Goa Inquisition : A tribunal of Jesuits arrived in 1560 with a mission to convert people to Christianity. Those who refused were locked away in the ‘Palace of the Inquisition’ (Adil Shah’s former palace) to be subjected to the auto da fé (acts of faith) trial. The punished were burnt alive in front of a congregation. Over the next two centuries, more than 16000 trials were held and thousands were burnt alive. It was only sometime late in the 18th Century that the Goa Inquisition was finally stopped. It is a dark chapter in the history of Old Goa.
Church of St. Cajetan
After another short walk, it was time to see the beautiful church of St. Cajetan. In hindsight, I can say this had some of the most beautiful interiors of all the churches of Old Goa and there was no one else around! The path leading to the Church of St. Cajetan was quite beautiful too and that had already made me look forward to it, despite have seen two huge churches earlier.
Nearby, the Church of St. Cajetan was built in 1661 by Italian friars, who designed it after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The Church has a distinctive dome and interior, which is said to be laid out in the shape of a Greek cross. St. Cajetan church is renowned for its immaculate woodcarvings on its altar and pulpit.
Viceroy’s Arch (Gateway to Old Goa)
To be honest, I had no idea about the Viceroy’s Arch and it was an entirely random find when we were trying to head to the ferry point to Divar Island. I’d clicked a picture then without realising this was the Gateway to Old Goa and a very significant attraction with regards to history.
The Viceroy’s Arch was built in 1597 in commemoration of the arrival of Vasco da Gama in India. It was constructed by Vasco da Gama’s grandson, Francisco da Gama, to commemorate Vasco da Gama’s arrival in India.
Gateway of Adil Shah’s Palace
This was another chance find when I was coming out of Church of St. Cajetan and saw this. Gateway of Adil Shah’s Palace is also known as Adil Shah’s doorway, this small structure predates the Portuguese rule of Goa. It consists simply of a lintel supported by two basalt pillars, and used to be the gateway to Adil Shah’s Palace. While walking near the Arch of the Viceroys, I spotted this small doorway around there but didn’t think it was relevant and hence never bothered to click a picture!
The Chapel of St. Catherine
This small chapel was built to commemorate the Portuguese victory over Goa. The structure is directly opposite Mandovi river and is in dark brown and white colour. I couldn’t find a way to get through inside the compound where this chapel was located, but its significance is quite immense for the Portuguese history.
The humidity of the day had resulted in stormy clouds that looked ominous. I’d have to come to Old Goa (Velha) again someday to see the places that I missed!
Other important Churches that I could not visit on the Old Goa Heritage Walk are Our Lady of the Rosary, Royal Chapel of St. Anthony, Church of St. Augustine; Convent of Santa Monica.