A Plaster of Poise for the Basilica

Paul Fernandes
Sunday, 17 May 2020

The Goa Church is calling for a major restoration of the neglected monument, but the unspoken part is that the red-brick laterite surface be maintained. And yet for many decades, some discerning conservationists have been campaigning at various fora for more protection-specific measures rather than aesthetic-oriented conservation.

A combination of a few factors – historic, climatological and human bungling – has exposed Goa’s arguably most popular monument of Basilica of Bom Jesus at Old Goa to decay. Originally, it was plastered, as it was envisaged that the brightness of the whitewash would highlight the contrast of the gray of the basalt stone sourced from Bassein (Vasai) against the backdrop of shadows. Despite the deplastering during Portuguese President, Antonio Salazar’s regime, there were plans to plaster it again, but liberation left the polemic about its plaster hanging, reports Paul Fernandes

Completion of repairs to the leaky roof of one of India’s most iconic churches - the centuries-old Basilica of Bom Jesus – has induced a slight lull. This follows a tempest that was triggered over the alleged neglect of the monument at Old Goa by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the open roof, which let in unseasonal showers, especially on April 20, 2020.

But bitterness and anger over ASI’s gradual scaling down of its work at Old Goa – earlier the organization was praised for fairly good conservation effort - is likely to simmer for some time.

What heritage lovers alleged is that the skeletally structured ASI may find it difficult to pool its expertise for a major restorative effort in keys areas of the badly affected church and its interiors on a war footing.

But the real danger to the more than four centuries old church already being weakened by years of destructive exposure to the monsoons lies elsewhere.

The Goa Church is calling for a major restoration of the neglected monument, but the unspoken part is that the red-brick laterite surface be maintained. And yet for many decades, some discerning conservationists have been campaigning at various fora for more protection-specific measures rather than aesthetic-oriented conservation. This is a demand to plaster the church again to restore it to its original condition and ensure a better level of protection from damage for posterity. But the Church authorities may not be amenable to transform its red-brick outlook into a whitewashed one, considering the overriding public sentiment.

“People are always resistant to change, but they need to open their minds and ask for themselves: Do I want a basilica without plaster for the next 50 years, or do I want a plastered basilica for the next 500 years?,” says a Portuguese architect, Joaquim R Santos.

It was during the rule of Portuguese President, Antonio Salazar, who being overzealous in showing off the Portuguese monuments in his country and colonies as ancient ones, ordered the “false” restoration of the basilica. As part of Salazar’s plan, Baltazar Castro de-plastered in 1950s the Basilica, exposing its red brick surface for the “ancient” look.

This unique look has moulded into the landscape and Goan people’s minds…

Santos is one among a few conservationists advocating an assessment to study the damage to the basilica’s laterite over nearly seven decades.

A document in Portuguese archives which Santos found is quite significant, as it relates to Luís Benavente, also a Portuguese restorer. He had submitted after a visit to Goa in 1961 a report directing the replastering of the basilica. His visit to Goa was less than a decade after Castro’s work. Benavente termed Castro’s work a mistake. Surely, the damage to the walls was apparent then itself.

“Just by comparing the pilaster capitels side by side (the ones in laterite and the others in basalt), we can see how fast is the disaggregation of the laterite,” Santos said.

The basilica is even older than India’s most famous building, Taj. It is a special monument because it was built by Goan artisans, using local materials, like laterite stones and a couple of other reasons, says Vishvesh Kandolkar, associate professor, Goa College of Architecture.

The porous quality of these stones makes them unsuitable for unplastered walls. “When it is exposed to rain it absorbs water by capillary action, wherein the entire section of the wall gets soaked with water,” Kandolkar said.

The basilica towers about 100 feet high and unlike most structures in Goa, it is without a roof overhang, especially on northern and eastern sides. “The result is that the rain pours directly on the now exposed laterite surfaces, leading to continuous deterioration of the walls. Onsite inspection will confirm my argument. The church walls, especially the rear surfaces and the bell tower, show clear visible signs of ruination,” he said.

Another architect, Fernando Velho agreed.“De-plastering the façade and the external walls has irreversibly damaged parts of it. It's just a matter of time till the entire façade gives way,” he said.

For decades, the Goan society has formed a strong bond with the basilica’s de-plastered version due to the presence of St Francis Xavier’s Sacred Relics in it.

“Any attempt to tinker with that internalized memory will provoke a potentially explosive reaction from society,” Velho said.

Fr Savio Barreto, former rector of the Basilica had said that plastering the church may hurt the Goan people’s sentiments and  any change was inadvisable. Concurring with this view, present rector Patricio Fernandes said, “There are surely modern ways with which to conserve it.”

An architect, Dean D’Cruz said expertise is available for such restoration. “It could be done without fully plastering and ensuring the joints are sealed to prevent water ingress,” he said.

Anti-fungal and water repellant treatment can be employed to protect the structure. The disaggregated stones also can be stabilized by structural experts.

“The chemical treatment seals water from entering the structure, though its effect lasts hardly five years due to Goa’s heavy rainfall conditions,” an ASI official said.

But architects say these are short-term measures and not totally foolproof, as water from the ground can enter the walls through capillary action and resin layers may trap it, leading decay of the structure.

“Goans, who are concerned about its appearance need not worry. The plastering and whitewashing will only increase its life and enhance its image, with its unique façade, which was decorated in granite stone imported from Bassein near Bombay. It stands out in the history of Christian architecture in Asia,” Kandolkar said.

It was a week ago, the row over Basilica’s maintenance had broken out after its rector, Fr Fernandes accused ASI of sheer negligence, alleging that it has sustained considerable damage (due to rain) and is in serious danger of further deterioration. “The ASI’s indifference towards the Basilica -- considered of religious and tourist importance all over the world for several centuries -- has been most shocking and unacceptable,” he had said.

ASI deputy superintending archaeologist, Ramkrishna Amarnath said that lockdown had stalled the work, though it had started in March.

 “The roof repairs are done and work of providing structural stability to the monument has been taken up. The toilet block is also being repaired,” another ASI official provided the details.

Other works related to chemical conservation may take time due to lockdown, as officials cannot travel to Goa.

Fr Fernandes said that the priority was to draw up a plan with experienced conservationists help. “Then, a body with wide representation, including a church representative can monitor the work,” he said.

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