One of the unique features of Goan homes, known for their Indo-Portuguese architecture, is their decorative windows. As mentioned in the book Houses of Goa by Heta Pandit, “Windows gave the facade character and personality. When windows face a road, they make a statement. That they once belonged to a house that was grand and important and whose members were high-up in the village hierarchy. And, it so came about that the windows in Goan houses became ornate, decorative and expressive.”
These windows had elaborate mouldings and railings, and the shutters were decorated with shells of windowpane oysters. These shells were the best alternative for glass since glass only came to Goa in the late 19th century. Also, these shells gave a sense of privacy and filtered light entering the house.
The book gives further details about these windowpane shells, “Mother-of-pearl shells, collected from the shallow mangrove forest along the estuaries, were dressed to make up 2 inch by 2 inch square pieces of translucent nacre. These pieces were then fitted, one by one by hand, into wooden battens.”
Chairperson of Goa Heritage Action Group, Heta Pandit, explains that this concept of using shells for window shutters came to Goa through the Portuguese. “When we got converted to Christianity, our houses also got converted! Where there were no windows for example, or at best, windows with turned bars right on top or right at the bottom of the frontage wall, we now had windows on the road fronts and at eye level. So, we needed something to cover these windows. Glass was expensive and only came to Goa in 1890. We began to use the nacre of the mother-of-pearl shell as a cover.” She adds that it was not only using these shells, but also the concept of having highly decorative windows that was very common during these times.
However, these shells were hard to procure as they were available mainly at Chicalim Bay. These shells were also used to make handicrafts. But, since this is a natural resource and due to its commercial value, its population was under threat. Hence, it is now illegal to harvest or sell these shells as they are protected under the Wildlife Protection Act. This oyster is a bivalve marine mollusk in the family of Placunidae and is currently endangered.