|The St. Augustine's Tower|
The lofty tower and the Augustinian complex
The St. Augustine’s Tower has today been transformed into one of the most romantic ruins in Goa. Located on the Monte Santo (Holy Hill) at Old Goa, the Nossa Senhora da Graça church was erected from 1597 to 1602. In the course of time it became the richest convent in Goa. The Augustinian friars occupied the convent till 1835, when they abandoned it owing to an official decree and the then Portuguese government ordered for its demolition. Soon some charitable institutions of the Santa Casa de Misericordia moved in the convent. But they had to leave due to the high costs of maintenance. Partial demolition, weathering and natural decays caused the façade and the 46 meter high tower to partly collapse in 1931. In 1938 the remaining of the tower also collapsed.
José Pereira, a professor of Theology, Fordham University, New York, in his book ‘Churches of Goa’ describes the church thus: “Nossa Senhora da Graça was one of the few Goan churches to have side chapels. Through the screen of piers at the church’s entrance (the vestiges of which were visible until recently), the visitor would have had a glimpse of its eleven altars, but would have been attracted by the sanctuary retable, with its majestic tribune of the Blessed Sacrament, bearing a pavilion of gold filigree. But the nave was crowned by a panelled barrel vault, too massive for even the church’s gigantic walls to support it; it came crashing down in 1842.”
“Nothing now remains…,” mentions Dr. José Fonseca, whose work, ‘An Historical and Archaeological Sketch of the City of Goa’, was first published in 1878. “… of all these buildings but a heap of ruins, amidst which stand the arch and the lofty tower, whose gloomy aspect prepares the traveler at a distance for the desolation and misery which is to be witnessed in the once opulent city.” Evidently, Dr. Fonseca visited the city at a time when the dilapidation of the Tower was very profound.
The Queen of Kakheti
The church of Our Lady of Grace or more popularly known now as the St. Augustine’s Tower made international headlines when the Catholic Patriarch of Georgia sought permission in a letter to the then Indian ambassador to Ukraine to search for the relics of Queen Ketevan in 1998. She was the queen of Kakheti, a kingdom in eastern Georgia.
In 1614, Ketevan had effectively surrendered herself before the Islamic ruler Shah Abbas I of Persia as an honorary in a failed attempt to prevent Kakheti from being attacked by the Iranian armies. She was held in Shiraz for several years. Being a staunch Greek Orthodox catholic, Queen Ketevan refused to convert to Islam, and join the haren of the Persian ruler. On September 22, 1624, she was executed in public. An Augustinian friar who witnessed her execution reported that her delicate body was torn apart by red-hot iron pincers.
Her martyrdom prompted the Augustinian friars to clandestinely take portions of her relics to Georgia where they were interred at the Alaverdi Cathedral. In 1627, part of these remains, her right arm and palm, were brought to Goa and buried in the church of Nossa Senhora da Graça.
Silva Rego and the Chapter Chapel
Subsequently, a high profile Georgian delegation visited Goa to search for her relics, but they did not succeed. However, a break-through by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) some years back led to the identification of the place where the relics of the Queen were kept. This has been confirmed by another Georgian delegation, headed by Fr. Giorgi Razmadze of St. Ketevan Church, which descended on Goa in November, 2006.
The first evidence of her presence in Goa surfaced in 1633 when a letter was published on the martyrdom of Queen Ketevan in England. There are scarce literary sources to track the architecture and history of the Convent. Of these, the work of Silva Rego in Portuguese is an important source. Silva Rego studied the manuscripts of the friars and recorded the seven tombstones located in the Chapter Chapel and he also mentioned the place where the relics of Queen Ketevan were kept.
ASI’s photo exhibition
A lot of excavation and conservation work has been carried out at the St. Augustine’s Tower by the ASI since 1988. Recently, a photo exhibition along with brief snippets of information printed on flex vinyl panels have been put up by the ASI. All the altars and chapels on the epistle and gospel side have been marked too. The Site Manager and his team, Goa circle ASI informs that, ‘this photographic interpretation is meant to educate the visitor to the site of the magnitude of the task to excavate, conserve and interpret this magnificent 16th / 17th century monument which fell into ruins in 19th century. The exhibition guides you through the Augustinian complex with brief, significant information.’
Recent as well as old photographs from the files of the ASI mark the transition of the Augustinian Tower from a dilapidated to a romantic ruin. Mostly the walls of the side chapels are used for this display.
One particular panel tells the story of the architect of the church and vault: “The church had a sprawling vault which collapsed between 1842 and 1846. It is said that the vault collapsed twice during construction and on the third attempt the architect to test its ability ordered a heavy canon to be fired at the building with his only son standing underneath. The vault withstood the shock.”
Fragments of bone and the relic box
Yet another informs about the discovery of the resting place of Queen Ketevan’s relics: “Excavation near the 2nd window on the Epistle side did not yield any result except for the fallen coping stone, and fragments of bone near it. However, this is the most important and significant find as no other associated remains of the relic box as described in the documents of Silva Rego [Portuguese scholar] were found. This is identified as the place where the relics of Queen Ketevan once rested.”
Azulejos and Chinese pottery
The Azulejos or polychrome glazed tiles also find mention in the photo exhibition. Excavations inside the complex unearthed many such tiles. They were painstakingly rearranged like a jigsaw puzzle and affixed to the walls wherever possible. These tiles were introduced in Spain by the Arabs. In the 15th and 16th centuries Portugal imported these tiles for using in religious and private buildings. The use of such tiles made a simple building elaborate and ornate. Large quantities of Chinese pottery of the Ming period were also excavated.
DNA analysis of the relics
Recent DNA analysis of the bone fragments found in the Chapter Chapel have confirmed that they belong to the 17th century but a DNA test of the queen's descendants is required to establish the veracity of the remains. In the meantime, come to the complex and let the ASI take you through the ruins of ‘such a magnificent building’ which according to Denis L Cottinueau, a famous traveller, ‘few cities in Europe could boast of possessing within their precincts!’