I am not too sure what I expected when the cab driver dropped me off in Old Goa by the gates of the Jesuit Basilica of Bom Jesus this morning. Jostled by women selling candles and marigold garlands with the cheerful assurance “aapke prayers bhagwaan zaroor sunega (god will definitely listen to your prayers),” how could I say no to their strategic saleswomanship 🙂
Each church in Old Goa is unique, quite hard to forget, etching deep in one’s consciousness once visited. And no, that’s not a romanticized exaggeration. Be it laying garlands, along with hordes of other starry eyed tourists-devotees at the Jesuit Basilica, or walking through the empty barrenness of Our Lady of Rosary Church, the very sound of my feet echoing in the silence, staring into the glazed expression of a dramatic Mary pleading at the heavens – the memory stays.
The red brick Jesuit Basilica of Bom Jesus (1605), with its rounded ‘Good’ or Holy Jesus, is Goa’s finest example of baroque architecture, as well as one of the oldest churches in India. The basilica contains the remains of St. Francis Xavier, Goa’s patron saint, who together with St. Ignatius of Loyola founded the order of Jesuits. The body of St. Francis is displayed for public viewing every 10 years; the next is to be in 2014.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Velha or Old Goa is not a large area today. However, in the 16th Century it had a population of 200,000, was the center of Christendom in the east, and served as the capital of Portuguese India from 1510 to the 18th Century. A series of poundings by malaria and cholera epidemics and finally the plague, forced the populace to move to the coast, leaving behind a string of towering edifices with hauntingly beautiful altars, solely for prayer.
As I walked under heady blue skies, armed with google maps on the ipad, Old Goa slowly unfolded – the crowds thinning and the churches becoming even more spectacular, taking me back to a chapter in Indian history where time has stood still…
There is the Roman Catholic Se Cathedral (1619) which celebrates the victory of the Portuguese over the Adil Shahi army and the ensuing capture of the city of Goa in 1510. Dedicated to Catherine of Alexandria the magnificent Tuscan whitewashed façade and gilded altar depicting scenes from the life of the saint, cannot fail to impress one with its grandeur, yet sheer delicate beauty.
A few hundred yards away, is St. Cajetan Church, reminiscent of St. Peter’s in Rome, built in the late 17th Century by Italian friars. Considered to be Goa’s most beautiful church, a stroll in its grounds brought me to the purely Brahminical styled basalt gateway of Adil Shah’s palace, the only remnant of the magnificence of his empire in Goa. As I wandered further, I reached the gently flowing Mandovi river and the Viceroy’s Arch, the historical entrance to Old Goa since Adil Shah’s time, rebuilt by the grandson of Vasco da Gama. It is through this gate that the Portuguese Alfonso de Albuquerque entered the island of Goa (Tiswadi) in 1510 and captured it.
Up Victory Hill is Our Lady of Rosary Church (1549), Goa’s oldest surviving church from where Albuquerque had watched his troops’ attack the then Muslim city and vowed to build a church as a mark of gratitude for his victory. It is also believed that St. Francis Xavier gave his first sermon upon his arrival in Old Goa at this site. Nearby, are the ruins of St. Augustine, with its 46 meter high belfry tower, once a part of a monastery and four-storeyed church (1602). The church was abandoned in 1835 when the Portuguese government evicted most religious orders from the city.
Once upon a time there were more than 20 churches in Old Goa. Only 10 remain now. I saw only six of them today.
Think Bandra in Goa, Think Bairro das Fontainhas in Goa. Narrow streets, boutique galleries and gift shops, and crumbling candy colored villas gather around the 1880 Chapel of St. Sebastian in Panjim’s Latin Quarter. Fontainhas’ prized treasure, however, is the whitewashed Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church, one of Goa’s oldest churches dating back to 1541 and rebuilt completely in 1619, where countless Bollywood films have been shot including Josh, Mujhse Shaadi Karogi, and most recently Aashiqui 2.
The downside was that the guard did not let me in since I was not a Roman Catholic. Me being me, I nevertheless walked in saying I was secular, a free Indian, and no one could stop me from going where I wanted to in my own country. Dramatic. Oh well, as I said earlier the site is the location for countless Bollywood films 🙂