Goa’s ancient churches are museums for the future. Here's how...

On International Museum Day, let's focus on the unique aspects of Goa’s churches, which are museums, in effect
Goa's ancient churches are museum for the future.
Goa's ancient churches are museum for the future. Photo: Rohan Fernandes

From the beautiful works of art to the gilded altars to the magnificent white-washed Baroque style of architecture and antique furniture, a walk into any of Goa's centuries-old churches are sure to transport you back in time, to an era when Goa was popularly called the 'Rome of the East'.

These majestic churches have given Goa its unique identity, and travellers of yore, who found their way to Goa, documented in their travelogues how they were mesmerised by these churches.

Church of Our Lady of the Rosary.
Church of Our Lady of the Rosary.Photo: Venita Gomes

Today, when you step into Goa's ancient churches, you get the feeling that every element is a treasure trove of history and culture -- from the intricate designs to the architectural details. These churches will inspire you to dig deeper into the land's past.

Just like museums, Goa's churches, too, possess a host of invaluable items and stories that make them almost museums in themselves.

As we celebrate International Museum Day across the world, let's take a look at how churches from the 16th to the 18th century, during colonial rule in Goa, serve as museums.

Goa's ancient churches are museum for the future.
Goa Heritage Festival 2023 gets underway today at Saligao

Tracing the history of Christianity in Goa

Many believe that Christianity reached Goa with the arrival of the Portuguese. However, Fr Cosme Jose Costa, of the Pilar Seminary, discovered a 7th century Pahalavi cross on the banks of the River Zuari, thus suggesting the existence of Christianity well before the Portuguese landed in Goa.

When foreign missionaries came here along with the Portuguese rulers, they established the religion further, and churches began to be constructed here.

St Catherine Chapel at Old Goa.
St Catherine Chapel at Old Goa.

In Old Goa, the chapel of St Catherine was constructed on the day the Portuguese conquered Goa. The inscription on the chapel is written in Portuguese, and the plaque outside the chapel was put up by George Cabral, the then Portuguese Governor.

Translated into English, it reads: “Here, on this spot and by the door, entered Governor Afonso de Albuquerque who reconquered this city from the Moors (Muslims) on the day dedicated to St Catherine in the year 1510, in whose honour and memory the Governor Jorge Cabral raised this house in the year 1550."

This important piece of information helps us trace an integral part of Christianity and Portuguese history in Goa.

Goa's ancient churches are museum for the future.
River Mhadei through the eyes of an artist in Goa

Churches and their architecture

In Goa, you will find churches displaying various architectural influences. And, these aren't just Indian or Portuguese influences, but architectural elements from different cultures.

For example, St Cajetan Church in Old Goa is a replica of St Peter's Basilica in Rome -- if you look closely at the pillars, they display influences of the Corinthian style of architecture.

Also, the St Francis of Assisi Church is an older structure and exhibits the Portuguese and Manueline style of architecture.

The Church of St Cajetan in Old Goa
The Church of St Cajetan in Old Goa Photo: Rohan Fernandes

The famed Basilica of Bom Jesus, which houses the incorrupt body of St Francis Xavier, exhibits various architectural styles in the exterior façade, and these include Corinthian, Doric and Composite.

Similarly, many churches in Goa display not only architectural influences, but are also designed in foreign styles.

Basilica of Bom Jesus at Old Goa
Basilica of Bom Jesus at Old GoaPicture Courtesy: Rohan Fernandes

The many religious orders in Goa

Wondering how so many influences and styles can be seen in Goa's churches? That's because many religious orders, belonging to the Catholic faith, such as Jesuits, Franciscans, Augustinians, Theatines, etc came to this land to propagate Christianity, thus, simultaneously opening avenues for various influences, cultural exchanges and more.

Apart from the influences, a variety of customs also came to the local population following the arrival of these orders, and these changes can be seen in the life of the local people.

Goa's ancient churches are museum for the future.
Vernal equinox puts on a fleeting light show at Holy Spirit Church in Goa

One example of this would be the Santa Monica Convent, in Old Goa, where nuns received tutoring.

It is these nuns who were involved in preparing some of the best confectionery in Goa -- Bebinca. It is believed that Bebinca, which is Goa's very popular dessert, was first made in Goa by a nun.

Thus, these religious orders brought in a variety of new things along with them.

The scientific design of Goa’s churches

Back in the day, mics and sound systems didn’t exist, but churches were acoustically designed in a manner that choir music could reach not just the congregation, but also those at the far end of the church.

Similarly, in South Goa, the Holy Spirit Church, in Margao, is designed in such a way that on the day of summer and winter equinox, sunlight falls on the three statues on the altar – Holy Spirit emblem (in the middle), the statue of Mother Mary on the right and statue of Jesus on the left – for a few fleeting moments.

The Jesuits, who are responsible for building many churches in the south of Goa, are said to have had a keen interest in scientific and astronomical matters.

Sundials, made of granite, and able to tell time, even in this day and age, can be found outside the churches of Verna, Loutolim and the Rachol Seminary.

Key points to take from Goa's churches

These are just a few interesting features, but there are many more things in Goa's churches that are worth checking out. One needs to understand how Goa’s churches are capable of starting a dialogue.

Beyond churches, one can also discover the stories of saints, scriptures and practices.

It is time to embrace the past, understand the present and preserve these elements for the future, while at the same time, building an exchange of ideas and thoughts.

So, the next time you visit a church in Goa, don't forget to stop and ponder over how these spaces can be museums for the future!

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