13 Dec 2020  |   05:11am IST

The long shadow of Goa's dying Basilica

There exists no monument as evocative of Goa’s cultural history and dearer to Goan Catholics, than the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Old Goa. This monument is not only an important symbol of Goan identity, but is central to Goan Catholic identity worldwide, sheltering as it does the sacred remains of St Francis Xavier. Most people would therefore be surprised if told that the current unplastered laterite facade of the Basilica is a fairly recent look of this ancient and important building. The Basilica was in fact plastered until the 1950s. People would also be shocked if they were told that nearly 70 years later; this unplastered look is actually jeopardizing the very life of the building. Fernando Velho writes.
The long shadow of  Goa's dying Basilica

Fernando Velho

The politics of plaster removal

Unplastered laterite as seen in the facade of the Basilica has historically never been widely used in Goa as an architectural element. And why would it? A porous stone that performs unpredictably when exposed to water, laterite is not suited to the humid conditions of Goa. However, its abundance in Goa has made it a popular choice of stone for construction and plastering it is the best way to protect it from the elements. Indeed, the effect of the lime plaster on this porous stone allows for the buildings to effectively combat the build-up of humidity within the building.

The story of how the Basilica came to have its plaster knocked off is intimately tied to the history of the final decades of Portuguese India. The Estado Novo, the Portuguese regime that emerged in the early 1930s under Dr António Oliveira Salazar, promised a political and cultural renewal of Portugal. This involved a major renovation of monuments across the country, and also Goa. 

Extolling the virtues of tradition and creating narratives between the present and a selectively remembered glorious past is the standard toolkit of dictatorial regimes that modify and rebuild classical monuments as a means to achieve this end. In Goa, this movement of architectural restoration found another dimension. The Estado Novo was facing pressure from a newly independent India which began demanding that Portugal hand over Goa and its sub-continental territories. The Estado Novo stubbornly refused to entertain the idea, and instead introduced a series of measures to boost the social, economic and religious ties between Goa and the metropole. 

Extending its architectural project to Goa, the Estado sent architect Baltazar da Silva Castro to Old Goa, the former heart of its empire. His brief was to improve the infrastructure for the fourth centenary of St Xavier’s death and grand exposition of his remains in 1952. St Francis Xavier had a large following in Asia and the exposition offered the Estado Novo a means to counter the de-colonizing narrative taking hold in the East. 

Castro went about this process with a heavy hand. In order to project a look of antiquity and historic continuity of the Portuguese presence in Asia he ordered knocking off the plastering of the Basilica along with replacing the roof in the bell tower with a concrete slab. A similar act of deplastering carried out on the Arch of the Viceroys led to its collapse. While such interventions were also carried out in Portugal, those buildings were often built of more durable stone and did not have to suffer the unforgiving monsoons in Goa.

De-plastering the Basilica was a controversial act even at the time. Castro's top-down approach to matters resulted in the first backlash to his interventions coming from his contemporary Luis Benavente. A detailed report sent to Lisbon stressed the importance of replastering the laterite stone of the Basilica as these interventions were not suited to the climatic conditions of Goa, especially the monsoons. The events of 1961 prevented these measures from being implemented and Goa became part of the Indian Union with its most famous saint housed in an unplastered and structurally compromised Basilica.

The birth of exposed laterite architecture

Post 1961, local architects like Bruno Souza and Sarto Almeida embraced the modernist vocabulary of exposed concrete, flat roofs and clean lines. Chandigarh was the new point of reference, not Old Goa. A key feature of the modernist architecture was its rejection of regional architectural influences in favour of more universal ideals. Modernist buildings, however, performed poorly in tropical conditions as they lacked an appropriate climatic response. The movement did not flourish in Goa.

In 1983, Charles Correa designed the Kala Academy in Panjim. It was Goa’s most significant architectural commission of its day. It juxtaposed a modernist spatial layout with an aesthetic collage of Goan upper class imagery. The walls of the cultural centre were dressed in a laterite cladding, which fulfilled a purely aesthetic role. This was a curious choice of material as laterite is an absorbent stone not used traditionally as a cladding material in Goa. From the choice of local themes Correa alluded to in the design of the space, one can infer that the subliminal influences of the unplastered Basilica played a key role in this choice of material for the Kala Academy.

The mid 1980s saw the rise of a new wave of post modern and regionalist architecture firmly taking root in Goa. Flourishing local practices lead by Gerard da Cunha, Dean D'Cruz and K D Sadhale embraced the use of unplastered laterite in a range of residential, hospitality, religious and high-end structures. These practices captured the imagination of all communities of Goa. New linguistic terms were coined for the practise of using unplastered laterite as an architectural feature: "exposed laterite architecture" or simply "exposed architecture". By a strange twist of history, the aesthetic sensibilities of Baltazar da Silva Castro, architect to a totalitarian regime, found followers in democratic India.

None of these architects attribute their choice of unplastered laterite to the influence of the exterior walls of the Basilica. Instead, they rationalise their choice based on a range of factors from the environmental to the traditional. However, the only important architectural structures in Goa that were unplastered prior to the Basilica’s were medieval structures like the Mahadev Temple in Tambdi Surla, the Safa Masjid in Ponda and forts spread across the state. These structures had undergone significant ruination and their exposed exteriors had nothing to do with tradition or their original construction techniques.

A land of beaches and churches

At a recent lecture at the Xavier Centre of Historical Research Dr Vishvesh Kandolkar from the Goa College of Architecture argued that the enduring image of the Basilica and its association with Goa was also a result of various tourism marketing campaigns promoted by the Indian State. If Paris had its Eifel Tower Goa needed a universal architectural symbol to market itself as a popular travel destination. The Basilica was a tailor-made for that role. It was recognizable in the West in a way no other architectural structure could match.

Goa Tourism campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s show collaged images of the Basilica with palm-lined beaches, though Old Goa is located away from the coast. These collages also reinforced the idea that Goa was not all beaches, but also had churches to offer – contrary to the rest of the country. An image of the West within easy reach to the Indian tourists was thus created. 

The ruined exterior of the Basilica also implied a minority religion in decline, which sat well with the benevolent frameworks of Indian nationalism of the time.

The architecture of the Basilica

The Basilica is not the largest church in Goa and its scale, architectural style and materiality is a result of the evolving nature of the original construction undertaken by the Society of Jesus (better known as the Jesuits).

A grand Basilica was not even originally planned in Old Goa. Instead, the Jesuits first began with the construction of the Casa Professa that stands adjacent to it. It was only after the Casa Professa was nearly completed that the plan to upgrade the facade of the attached church was implemented. 

This accounts for the Basilica being tucked into the rain shadow of the adjacent roofscape of the Casa Professa. This is quite unlike any other church facades in Goa which tower above the adjacent buildings and landscape, and absorb the full force of the monsoons. This unique architectural feature is what has protected the Basilica, and spared it from the fate of the Arch of the Viceroys, which collapsed in the course of the monsoons when its plaster was similarly prised from its structure three centuries later.  

According to architectural theorist Henri Lefebvre, monumental spaces offers members of society an image of membership, an image of his or her social visage. An ambitious order like the Jesuits needed to have an architectural monument of an appropriate scale for its followers too. They compromised on the size of the facade of the Basilica by investing in its rich ornamentation instead. Granite was brought in from Bassein (Vasai) as it was a harder stone than laterite and allowed for better ornamental outcomes and could be left unplastered. 

The resultant ornamental details of the facade are a fascinating hybrid of European designs interpreted by local craftsperson’s making it one of the most interesting, and influential, church facades in Asia. 

The Basilica and Goan Church architecture 

For close to three and half centuries since its consecration in 1605 the lime plastered and whitewashed Basilica influenced important developments of the Goa’s built environment.

In his book ‘Whitewash, Red Stone’ the late Portuguese architectural historian Paolo Varela Gomes charts out the important role the Basilica played in developing and inspiring the construction of whitewashed parish church in Jesuit-controlled territories. His research also charts out how almost every each and every parish church in Goa has the same spatial typology of Basilica but with varying dimensions.

It was through imitation of the lime plastered and whitewashed Basilica that the white washed parish church rising majestically above the tropical vegetation and tiled roofs came to define the Goan landscape. The development of the white washed churches across Goa (Ilhas, Bardez and Salcette) led to the further development of a simple aesthetic code that mandated houses to be painted in colours to offer a contrast to the church. This key aesthetic feature made Goa’s villages and towns visually distinct from other settlements on the Konkan coast.

Changed regimes and changing times

In 1964, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) began operating in Old Goa from its Aurangabad circle. The transnational prominence of the Basilica made it a unique asset for the Central government and part of the Nehruvian national project that aimed to develop a polity that was benevolent to its minorities. The relics of St Francis Xavier situated in the Basilica of Bom Jesus were now maintained by the Indian State, helping to secure India’s image as a secular Republic in the eyes of the world. 

The infusion of Central government funds in the 1970s and 1980s saw a marked improvement in the Old Goa complex while making it more accessible to the general public. The relics of Saint Francis Xavier still housed within the Basilica attracted the faithful, and curious, in ever increasing numbers. 

However, today the Jesuits no longer own the Basilica. After their expulsion from Goa in 1759, the property was passed onto the Archdiocese of Goa and Daman, which in turn permits the Jesuits to administer. To further complicate matters, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is the guardian of the property on behalf the Central government. This complex mix of ownership and the uneasy relationship between the Church and ASI results in public and backstage skirmishes between these actors and compromises the upkeep of Basilica. 

The past decade saw a lack of investment in many Central government agencies like the ASI and a marked tendency to hand over national monuments to corporate interest. Further, the Basilica and archaeological sites of Old Goa could no longer be aligned with the emerging Hindu nationalist narrative taking root in the country.

With the canonization of St Joseph Vaz in 2015, Goa finally had a local saint of its own and there has been a noticeable the shift of the priorities of the Archdiocese away from the Basilica. The annual celebrations of the feast of St Joseph Vaz have grown in size and a massive construction was undertaken to build the St Joseph Vaz Spiritual Renewal Centre in Old Goa. There are plans to build another church dedicated to the Goan saint in Sancoale.


Iddhar Udhar