Saturday, August 27, 2011


The lush Goan landscape is dotted with many spectacular and magnificent churches. The whitewashed façades of the churches makes it impossible for any of us to pass by and not notice them. However, many will not know the history of the architectural evolution of these churches – the when, how and why. Since the day I started contributing articles to newspapers on some unique historical events and monuments of Goa (mainly churches), the problem of locating reading material that would provide some details and improve and augment my understanding of Goan churches has been frustratingly scant. However, I have consulted with fruitful results, Fr. Moreno de Souza’s four volumes in Konknni (in Romi script) featuring the churches of Salcete, Tiswadi and Bardez.
         Whitewash, Red Stone by Dr. Paulo Varela Gomes, a professor at the University of Coimbra, Portugal and who formerly was the delegate of the Fundação Oriente, Goa, was a welcome addition to my personal library. I feel this book will forever change our understanding about the architecture of Goan churches and also function as a harbinger, altering in the process, our understanding of Goan social history as well. The crux of Dr. Gomes’ book is to emphasize the ‘Goaness’ of Goan churches. The first line of the first page of this fascinating book makes this abundantly clear: “The Catholics of Goa and other former Portuguese possessions in India created churches and houses that are unique in the world history of architecture.”
The story of the architectural evolution of Goan churches begins in the City of Goa in the 16th century. From there Dr. Gomes takes us on a guided tour throughout Goa, picking some of the most spectacular and magnificent churches for his discussion and shows us how they represent watershed moments in the history of the church architecture of Goa and how Portugal is not the only region to have influenced the architecture of Goan churches. “But apart from its European origin, the European inputs that influenced Goan builders and patrons from the 16th to the 20th centuries did not originate from Portugal alone and sometimes did not originate from Portugal at all. Certain essential typological traits in Goan churches simply do not exist in Portuguese architecture. They bring to our memory places like northern and central Italy (exterior side elevations, niches along the interior of the naves), or Flanders (vaulting systems). This is hardly surprising considering that the religious orders within which most architects of Goan churches were trained in the 16th and 17th centuries were multi-national bodies with priests of pan-European origin or who had travelled extensively throughout Europe,” he says.
            Speaking of the non-Portuguese and sometimes even non-European influences on the Goan churches, Dr. Gomes mentions the Islamicate influence (social and cultural complex historically associated with Islam and the Muslims, both among Muslims themselves and even when found among non-Muslims) from the court of Bijapur. The octagonal towers employed in the façade of the St. Francis of Assissi church comes from Bijapur “…due to the influence of the architecture of the more important political and cultural centre of the Deccan in the second half of the 17th century: the Sultanate of Bijapur. European ambassadors, merchants and artists travelled to Bijapur frequently. The Bijapuri court was highly cosmopolitan, cultivated and open to people of all creeds.”
            Dr. Gomes also tells us about the role of the caste system in making the decision as to where a church should be located and also shaping the architecture of the Goan churches. The European priests, shrewd as they were, did not want the churches they were building to identify with any particular caste group which inhabited a particular area and hence they chose locations that were far from the settlement. The churches also left an impressive mark on the sylvan landscape of Goa. The ganvkars who took over the churches that the Jesuits and Franciscans had built and later enlarged and renovated them make interesting reading.
            The distinctly Goan church did not evolve overnight. Dr. Gomes after extensive travelling and sifting through centuries-old documents and architectural styles and influences, informs us, “The cupoliform-façade churches, a Goan ‘invention’ if ever there was one, constitute the climax of the evolution toward a characteristically Goan church…”
The last major development in Goan church architecture is the influence of the Gothic architecture from 19th century onwards. These are called neo-Gothic churches because there were some Goan elements in it. This type of architecture developed chiefly in Bardez and Marmugão and the reason Dr. Gomes gives is that, “…all neo-Gothic Goan churches of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and all the neo-Gothic transformations of existing churches, took place in Bardez and in the area of Marmugão. [As] Marmagão was a hub of British economic activity since the Anglo-Portuguese economic treaty of 1878, which determined the building of a railway between British India and the harbour of Marmugão. Bardez, on the other hand, was a region from where thousands of people migrated in the second half of the 19th century to Bombay, establishing in that city a number of burgeoning Goan colonies.”
            When I first saw this book, I wondered why a history of Goan church architecture should be named Whitewash, Red Stone. Reading through this book, I realized that since the whitewash was unique to the Goan churches and has become the hallmark of contemporary Goa and the red laterite stone being widely used in Goa, the title was not only apt but also very smart. The neatly bound and printed book has as many as 200-odd photographs and illustrations and they not only help the reader in understanding the case that Dr. Gomes is making but also aid in understanding the various architectural terms and features.
Lastly, what I liked about this book is that the voice of Dr. Gomes is not one from the patronizing West. Dr. Gomes is Portuguese and the fear that the biased world-view of Portuguese Orientalism or Luso-tropicalism might have slipped in his work can be very real. But Dr. Gomes has moved beyond such isms and has opened new avenues for contemplating our own history and heritage.

Whitewash, Red Stone: A History of Church Architecture in Goa by Paulo Varela Gomes (New Delhi: Yoda Press), 2011; pp. 248, Rs. 450/- [ISBN: 93-80403-00-3]

(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: August 27, 2011)

1 comment:

  1. Dale:

    There are many similarities between Churches in Goa and the old Spanish mission churches built by the Franciscans in the Southern United States and Northern Mexico,with the flat facade reminiscent of goan churches. I wonder if there was some influence of Goan churches on the Franciscan friars in the then Spanish ruled portions of the USA or vice-versa.