Preserving Goan Religious Heritage – 1

Roman Catholic Religious Monuments

Iris C F Gomes

The conference titled Challenges for the Preservation of the Diverse Goan Religious Heritages was held at Fundação Oriente India in Panjim on the 18th of March 2018. Joaquim R Santos (University of Lisbon), Vishvesh Kandolkar (Goa College of Architecture), Amita Kanekar (Al-Zulaij Collective), and Gulafshan Khan (Deccan College of Pune) presented perspectives on the heritage of various religions in Goa.

Architect and research scholar Joaquim Santos spoke about the Catholic religious architecture in Goa and deterrents to its preservation. Some of the apathy towards caring for Catholic structures and even conscious destruction of Catholic monuments could be traced to an animosity towards the Portuguese regime. Perhaps it is because these stand as an ideological and political reminder of that time with the obvious Portuguese influence on the architecture.

In 1934, all the significant churches in Old Goa were listed as national monuments. When Goa became part of India, these monuments came under the control of the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India). Since the final decision about conservation or renovation of national monuments rests with the ASI, the Roman Catholic Church has little or no say in what happens to its churches that are listed as national monuments. This has led to a conflict between the two and the question of who sees to the maintenance of these monuments with the wear and tear of the tourism industry. ‘The heritage will suffer more when it is not maintained properly,’ says Santos.

The churches were built for people to care for them spiritually. While other non-listed churches are able to extend and rebuild to accommodate the growing number of devotees, the churches in Old Goa remain the same, despite being used for religious purposes. However, the flipside of being able to make changes is that many of the churches that were built in the Portuguese era have taken on a modern look and not always for the better, bringing a loss of heritage when statues and paintings are clumsily restored by amateurs. The painting tends to be with brighter and more colours as compared to the staid Portuguese whitewashed churches with a predominant gold colour. Sometimes churches have been demolished to build entirely new ones that are modern and lean towards a ‘less is more’ look. Other churches have been built by the side of the old ones, preserving heritage and increasing the space to house a greater number of Catholic worshippers.

The fact that is was usually the Brahmin caste that became priests and were the only ones to advance in position within the Church hierarchy, according to Santos, created bad feeling between the lower castes and the upper castes. And this too may have become an obstacle to preserving heritage. Since the lower castes do not want to remember a heritage connected with their subjugation, it is easier to destroy the old and bring in the new.

Santos muses that the structures of old reflected the aesthetic sense of the European elite and what we have now is an integration of the lower classes tastes and their inability to comprehend the value of the church architecture and the objects within it and the heritage they represent. The same can be seen in rural Portugal where similar mistakes are being made with a preference for the new and leaving out any inclination to properly preserve the religious heritage of the country.

To be able to preserve religious heritage, the sensitisation of people is important with an aim to ethically conserve what exists or build separately while preserving whatever remains the of old structure.

Vishvesh Kandolkar, Associate Professor at Goa College of Architecture, spoke on Mausoleum for the Living: Presenting Old Goa’s Architecture. An estimated 50 lakh people attended the 2014 exposition of the relics of St Francis Xavier. Kandolkar says, ‘The relics of St Francis Xavier never fail to draw large audiences.’ Apart from the clearly religious purpose behind this fervour, there is also the sense of rootedness and affirmation of a particular identity conferred upon the Catholics, especially lower caste Catholics, linked to the regular commemoration of these sacred relics and the religious architecture connected with it. The government uses Goa’s colonial history to promote tourism and focuses on the historical structures and not the minorities that are an integral and live part of Goan heritage. The rituals, celebrations and resultant community and family gatherings that take place within these hallowed structures must be acknowledged and propagated by the State.

The fact that some of the religious heritage monuments of Old Goa, reminiscent of Goa’s history, have been deliberately allowed to fall into ruin, proves that there is a concerted effort being made to weaken Goan Catholic identity. If anything is preserved, it is to provide a tourist destination. There is no room for the sentiments of the religious minority associated with the heritage sites.

The attitude with which Goa is sold as a tourist destination, only to be exploited by consumers, is reflected in the disrespect towards the sanctity of these religious monuments and the rites and rituals that take place within. Kandolkar says, ‘Despite the warnings to tourists that they are entering a sacred place and that they should maintain silence, tourists click selfies completely oblivious to the local worshippers who are present in the church. On closer observation it seems that the tourists are deliberately clicking selfies with the worshippers forming a backdrop of their photographic composition along with the heritage setting of the church.’ Using the church and the worshippers merely as props, the Indian tourists attempt to garner mileage in their social circles for their unusual cultural experience. They speak loudly during the religious services aside from dressing immodestly when in churches. This is in complete contrast to behaviour in Hindu religious places where the utmost respect is accorded.

The State has a significant role to play in controlling the behaviour of tourists. The projection of Goa as a place of fun and frolic and depicting the beaches and churches in the same space is bound to create an insensitive approach to the Catholic religious sites.

The ruinous appearance of monuments such as the unplastered and gradually deteriorating Basilica of Bom Jesus serves as an ideological reminder of the colonial past and sends the message of the Indian government having rescued Goa from her colonial masters. Nonetheless, by continuing to participate in celebrations at the historical sites in large numbers over the years after Goa became part of India, Goan Catholics defy the attempts to nullify their identity and presence and the true religious importance of these heritage monuments.

(To be continued)