An everlasting mystery lies in Old Goa, the district of 16th and 18th century architectural masterpieces spilling out onto the banks of the Mandovi River, including Asia’s largest church and convent. Of the state’s five million annual visitors, only 10% venture to this UNESCO World Heritage site. But even they tend to be limited to two important churches – the Basilica of Bom Jesus (where the body of St. Francis Xavier resides) and the Sé Cathedral. Venture into the other monuments, each more interesting and more beautiful than the next, and you are likely to find yourself alone.
This paradoxical situation makes no sense. The stunning buildings that make up old Goa vividly bear witness to the 16th and 17th centuries, when this place dominated the trade routes crisscrossing the Indian Ocean, as the capital of the Portuguese maritime empire Estado da Índia, stretching from Mozambique to Japan. Throughout these years, the city has functioned as an early melting pot of East-West globalization on an epic and unprecedented scale, teeming with money and traders from all known corners of the world. Combined, it was double the size of contemporary London and Paris. Immediately thereafter there was a decline – as steep and dramatic as the initial boom had been – but still leaving behind an extraordinary legacy of built heritage quite unique in the world.
From the austere Church of Our Lady of the Rosary – the oldest church in Old Goa still standing – to the incredibly ornate 17th century St Cajetan’s jawbone moldings, the interiors and facades of this magnificent painting barely present a dimension. valued in Indian architectural history. The late historian Paulo Varela Gomes presents the case succinctly. Instead, they are “indigenous” buildings, “unique in the history of the world,” and “to anyone with an architectural and artistic sensibility, these churches do not appear to be the end result of a compromise, but the affirmative artistic statement of a cultural culture. position.”
We all know that. What is less well recognized is the cross-cultural confluence of visions, techniques and practices that Old Goa embodies, from the large scale to the intimate. Think of the three-cord belt worn by St Francis Xavier, with its distinctive bow. Turn your gaze to East Asia, where the saint continued his ministry, and you will find this belt worn by bodhisattvas in Japan and Korea, whose origins date back to Persia.
Look at the fine azulejo, the blue glazed tiles. This art traveled from Persia to the Mediterranean, Italy and Andalusia, and came to Goa with priests, administrators and Iberian craftsmen, some of whom may well be from Muslims and Jews forced to convert after the Reconquered. There is nothing flat, monolithic, or predictable about the Catholic atmosphere of old Goa – it is richly nourished by various cultural sources. It is not difficult to talk about historical wrongs, tales of invasion, conquest, conversion and diaspora. It is more difficult to grasp the richness of the cultural encounters generated by these processes.
Hoskote has named the still-neglected Museum of Christian Art (scheduled to reopen in March, after extensive renovations) as “an extraordinary collection of religious art and sacred objects in its hidden location in the giant 16th-century Convent of Santa Monica. It is a unique institution, acting as a mediator between the world of belief and the world of secular attitudes, relaying the meaning of its objects to its visitors in many ways, historical, aesthetic and contextual. His collection – with which I had the privilege of working – allows us to draw an arc of cultural dialogue and confluence, in the way in which European Christian iconography has been reinterpreted, adapted and gradually Indianized.
In addition to this excellent little institution – and the premises of the Archaeological Survey of India, rather more indifferently kept next to the cathedral – two brilliant music festivals offer visitors the opportunity to experience the marvelous backdrops of old Goa. Both focus on classical Indian and West music. The 18-year-old Monte Music Festival will take place from February 7 to 9 in one of the most beautiful concert halls imaginable: the 16th-century Capela do Monte, on its promontory overlooking the valley of the Mandovi River until Panjim in one direction, with the serene river islands of Divar and Chorao just below. Closely following in its footsteps in the cultural calendar, the four-year-old Ketevan Music Festival (March 12-15) opened for the first time several other century-old buildings for such events, including the St Augustine. Church demolishes very close to the museum of Christian art.
Acclaimed dancer-choreographer Sanjukta Wagh made an unforgettable appearance last year at the Monte, accompanied by Shruthi Vishwanath who sung Kabir poems in seething style. Looking down on Capela’s windows, my sons and I became transfixed, as the setting sun browned the performers with ever deeper shades of gold. Recalling this transcendent moment, Wagh told me, “the energy was palpable. The content of Jheeni [his dance troupe] – especially Kabir’s poems – is largely improvised, and so the sky, the river, the birds, the setting sun and nature have become much more than a canvas. background. We answered them by dancing.