Saving Goan Ancestral Houses

Iris CF Gomes

All over Goa we see heritage houses, a testament to the Portuguese rule in this tiny state. Usually they are abandoned, empty with the owners living in another country, or in a dilapidated condition. The occasional well-maintained Portuguese-Goan style house is preserved at considerable cost. Even so, the preservation of ancestral Goan houses is essential to the Goan identity which carries with it stories of families and their legacies.

There are many Goans who cut costs and try to use modern methods and materials such as ceramic tiles, etc. The best way to maintain these ancestral homes is to use age old architectural techniques which, although expensive, retain the integrity and structural harmony of the house.

Ketak Nachinolkar is a conservation architect who has made an example of his own ancestral house by maintaining it the old fashioned way. Ketak, who has been practicing for the last sixteen years, found opposition to his ideas of conservation when he started out but more recently they have found acceptance. ‘Even if they were fellow professionals like engineers and contractors, there was a lot of resistance, ’says Ketak.

Ketak emphasises the importance of the knowledge of the materials used in the original structure, keeping in mind how these could differ as in some cases it could be lime plaster, cement plaster, wood, and so on.

In the case of categorising monuments as heritage sites, there are a number of levels to it and factors that deem a particular level of categorisation. At the highest level we have the world heritage sites. Ketak says, ‘We are lucky to have Old Goa within our state. That actually matters to world history, it has played a role in world history, in the evolution of mankind and human history.’ Then there are nationally protected monuments that come under the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Another level is the state protected monuments that are under the state Directorate of Archives and Archaeology. Below this there are what is known as listed monuments, houses, etc where anything to be done to these structures or in the vicinity of these structures is reviewed by a separate committee of the Town and Planning Department.

‘Then there are conservation zones. But beyond that I would say it is free for all. There are laws and regulations, but beyond these laws and regulations there is an uncharted area,’ says Ketak, noting that many structures that do not fall within these categories have survived by sheer chance and the admirable efforts of some people.

When people come to Ketak to have him restore or conserve their houses, his work is facilitated by their willingness to use the original materials and methods used to build it. Every one of these ancestral houses or heritage edifices, some over a 100 years old, has some history attached to it which marks its value. In the case of ancestral houses, it also denotes the identity of those living within it. Ketak says, ‘I have found for myself that my ancestral house that is there … when I step out of that house I have a sense of identity. People know me. They may not know my first name but they know I belong to this house.’

Where many people look on these houses as liabilities, they can be converted into assets. You can take a house, a group of houses, a street, or even an entire village and turn it into something that will be lucrative. Each area will have its own character in terms of the materials used, the period and type of architecture such as arched windows, etc.

In conservation we find purists who will decline to make even the slightest change to the original structure. This, however, depends on the kind of structure and sentiments attached to it. For example, a church in Old Goa which may be over 450 years old will be dealt with differently compared to an ancestral house.

The most crucial factor in conservation is the battle against time. Deterioration can be caused due to natural reasons such as the climate and by decisions made by men. ‘It is easier to deal with the first factor than the second,’ says Ketak.

Money needed to maintain these houses is always a concern, but according to Ketak having more money can be a bigger issue. ‘People get ideas about demolishing the whole place and rebuilding. If your resources are limited, if your resources are directed towards conservation, you can do a better job of it,’ says Ketak. He cites examples of age-old temples made with wood being demolished because the authorities received funds in donation.

People seem to think replacing old structures with reinforced cement and concrete beams, poles, slabs, etc is the best way to go about doing the job. They do not realise that this is not the permanent solution to the wear and tear problem that they think it is. Concrete is a product of the Industrial Revolution where there was an urgency to set up structures at a quick pace. There was no thought given to what would happen to these structures in the future. In the case of ancestral houses, they were built to endure the vagaries of nature and survive much longer than concrete built buildings. ‘Concrete is supposed to last, theoretically, about 70 years, maximum 80 years,’ says Ketak. But frequent maintenance is essential to enable it to last long, especially because the salinity in our environment will corrode the steel rods used in construction. Only a high level of quality control will ensure that concrete structures will remain intact over a long period.

Ketak advises that nipping a problem with the structure in the bud when it is evident instead of collecting a whole lot of issues to deal with is much cheaper. For example, roots growing into buildings and houses if left as they are will create cracks in the walls and so should be removed or a chemical like glyphosphate can be used to halt the growth. He also says that unnecessary changes should not be made.

Having government regulations and policies in place is not an instant answer to conservation as many people do not avail of opportunities offered to them. The best catalyst to saving an ancestral house seems to be following the example of someone else who has done the same – a sort of chain reaction. Therefore sensitisation about the conservation of these places is vital, particularly at the village level. This can be done with the help of the Panchayats and Municipal Councils.

Convincing family members to contribute and be party to the conservation is one way of going about it. In villages, where the environs are pollution free and still retain an old world charm, conserving heritage houses and converting them into a bed and breakfast or letting rooms out to tourists for an authentic Goan experience could prove to be a lucrative move. There are plenty of examples of ancestral houses that have been converted into tourist attractions such as the Menezes Braganza House in Chandor and Palácio do Deão in Quepem. Some have also become art galleries such as the Carpe Diem-Art and Learning Centre in Majorda.

While the Gram Panchayat Development Plan could be used to preserve the authentic feel of the village, this too depends largely on the conviction of owners of heritage properties to conserve them.

Ketak says, ‘Today most of my clients are original house owners which means sensitisation is happening. It has taken time and still a lot has to be done’, starting with the inclusion of Goan history in schools and in college. Teaching children to appreciate their heritage at a young age will lead to having adults who will not waver in trying to save the legacy left to them by their ancestors. Heritage walks in little known areas of Goa with precious nuggets of Goa’s history will also play a role in convincing Goans to conserve their ancestral houses.

Ketak recommend sending a list of heritage houses and monuments that need to be conserved in villages to the town and country planning (TCP) conservation committee, of which he is a part, promising that some action will be taken to ensure the area remains protected.

At the end of the day, only discussions and spreading awareness, whether through education, the media, social activism or government initiatives, will allow us to make headway in the conservation of our heritage structures in Goa.