See Cathedral
About 400km south of Mumbai, Goa
Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1986


In the beginning of the 16th century, Goa, which was then under the rule of an Islamic dynasty based in Bijapur, was besieged by the Portuguese fleet. After its utter destruction, it was occupied and magnificently reconstructed on the model of Lisbon, becoming the Portuguese base for trade and Christian mission work in Asia. The Portuguese poet Luis de Camoes, who visited Goa in the 16th century, called the city ‘The Fair Lady of the Orient’ in his great epic “The Lusiads.” However, this ‘Golden Goa’ declined in the 18th and 19th centuries, with its majestic churches, monasteries, and palaces gradually swallowed up in dense forest. And yet the remains of Old Goa remind us still now of its past glory and prosperity.


Nearly 500 years ago, the Portuguese admiral Afonso de Albuquerque (1453-1515) commanded the siege of Goa from a hill (serra) from which one can look over the city and the Mandovi River. In 1510 the shells fired from cannons on this hill crushed the cavalry of Yusuf Adil Shah, Sultan of Bijapur. Albuquerque built the simple Church of Nossa Senhora da Serra in the Manueline Style, which is now entirely covered with vegetation, to commemorate his triumph on this hill.

This victory marked the foundation of the Portuguese colonization of India and Albuquerque was later appointed viceroy of the country. Goa attainted the summit of its prosperity at the end of the 16th century, by which time there were as many as 60 Baroque style Christian churches and splendid palaces vying with each other in terms of their beauty.

The great Portuguese poet Luis Vas de Camoes (1524-1620) stayed in colonial Goa, which had a population of 200,000 in the middle of the 16th century, writing here his patriotic epic work “Os Lusiadas” (The Lusiads), a history of Portugal. In this epic, he highly praised the Portuguese endeavor to enlarge its territory and carry out Christian missionary work, calling thriving Goa ‘The Fair Lady of the Orient.’ Later, his statue was erected in the central square of Goa to honor his achievement. It was replaced with that of Gandhi after the annexation of Goa into India in 1961.

St Cajetan___ Alter
Dome and wooden Altar of Church, Convent of St Cajetan

Goa, which prided itself with the nickname ‘Golden Goa’ in its heyday, is utterly desolate nowadays. The extant buildings are nothing but ten or so churches. The Convent of St Cajetan is one of them, modeled after St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, though its scale is much smaller. It has two towers at the western front and a dome over the crossing.

With a few exceptions, churches in Goa are usually constructed of laterite. Laterite is a red colored soil but, being as hard as stone, is used as building material. It was generally covered with white plaster, since its surface is coarse and porous. This method was adopted in many places in Asia, where Catholic missionaries propagated Christianity, based in Goa.


Albuquelque originally did not have a territorial ambition to conquer India. His objective was to establish the Portuguese East India Company, for trade with Asian countries, in Goa celebrated as a new Gomanta, a paradisiacal city depicted in the Indian epic “Mahabharata.” Based on the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, with which Spain and Portugal divide the newly discovered lands, he developed Goa into a new commercial city after the victory in 1510.

The port of Goa, facing the Mandovi River, came to take up an important position, functioning as a transit base on the sea route from the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea, and also being open to Indian inland markets.
The construction of the city was modeled after Lisbon in the suzerain, making a large public square at the place leading to docks in the port, and erecting main buildings around it such as the cathedral, monasteries, and the viceroy’s palace. The town was reticulated with irregular winding streets and the port was guarded with massive embankments.

The merchants of Goa presented Arabian horses to the last Hindu empire in southern India, Vijayanagara, gaining in return luxuries in much demand such as spices, coffee, and tea.
The first viceroy did not necessarily want inhabitants to become Catholic, and allowed marriage between Catholics and Hindus. Although it is not known if people took this up, it is clear that mixed relationships between fidalgos (white landholders) and natives were carried out, by the features of their descendants.

St Francis___ St Francis
Church of St Francis of Assisi and its interior


Such religious tolerance was not pleasant for Catholic missionaries. They gradually began to destroy Hindu temples and persecuted those who had not accepted conversion through the Inquisition. The building from which the merciless Inquisition was operated was located near the Cathedral dedicated to St Catherine but it was pulled down, leaving no traces now.
There were many occasions that Christian churches or monasteries being constructed over the sites of demolished Hindu temples. It was because of its numerous churches and monasteries that Goa was widely known as ‘Oriental Rome.’

The construction of the colossal See Cathedral started in 1562, 52 years after the conquest of Goa, protracted for long period of time, and eventually inaugurated in 1619. The façade of this cathedral is in the Tuscan order of the Italian Renaissance. The bell suspended in its bell tower is the largest in Goa, extolled as the ‘bell of golden tone.’

Located next to the Cathedral, a monastery and its church, St Francis of Assisi, are now used as a museum. Originally it was a small church built by Franciscans in 1517, enlarged later, and then reconstructed in 1661. Its portal and choir are made in the Manueline style and its nave is fully embellished with wooden statues and reliefs covered with gold leaf and frescoes.

The Basilica of Bom Jesus, constructed in 1594, is decorated in the Baroque style only on the front façade. Its side walls with many oculi and its bell tower were built with laterite, but left without coating, differing from other churches. Its interior is a simple single-naved hall, showing vestiges of the Renaissance style at various points. In the most ornate sanctum is installed a large magnificent wooden altar covered with gold leaf.

Bom Jesus
Basilica of Bom Jesus, Body of Xavier inside


In the Basilica of Bom Jesus, there is a chapel in which lies the body of the Spanish Jesuit, Saint Francis Xavier (1506-52), who sailed even as far as Japan for missionary work. When he arrived in Goa in 1542, there had already was Christian society in Goa. He was probably a descendant of Nestorian Christians, who had migrated from Mesopotamia in the 5th century. Consequently, liturgies in Goa have been saved from the musical reformation, retaining an older style than in usual Roman Catholic churches.

After returning to India from Japan, Xavier set sail to China again and died of fever in 1552 on the way to Guandong. It is said that his body did not show any symptom of corruption. This ‘Apostle of the Indies and Japan’ was canonized in 1622.

St Francis
Body of St Francis Xavier open to public every 10 years

In 1655, the grand duke of Tuscany, Ferdinand II, made a silver coffin in which to put the saint’s body. It is encrusted with bronze relief panels depicting the life and deeds of the saint in the Baroque style and is covered with textiles embroidered with golden threads. Thus people eternally praise Xaviel, one of the founders of the Jesuits, along with Ignatius de Loyola (c.1491- 1556). His feast day is December 3.

Map of Old Goa
Map of Old Goa (from Google Maps)


When the Hindu empire in southern India, Vijayanagara, collapsed in the middle of the 17th century, Goa lost an important trade partner. International trading, at that age spreading to as far as Southeast Asia, had become a focus of attention for the western powers hunting concessions. The Dutch army attacked ‘Golden Goa’ several times, demolishing even religious buildings such as the See Cathedral and the Franciscan monastery. While Portugal and the Netherlands struggled with each other, Britain and France fought constantly over how to divide the Indian Subcontinent.

In 1759, the Portuguese Secretariat moved from Goa Velha (Old Goa) to Goa Nova (New Goa, present Panaji), which is located 8km west. Old Goa had been declining for about a century due to the successive plagues of cholera and malaria, decreasing in population.

There remained only a single monk and nun in Old Goa, and the Jesuitic Basilica and its monastery were decayed by moisture, leaving its cloisters in deep silence. There was nobody who visited the old palace, which Albuquelque had erected by imitating Islamic architecture in Bijapur.
Main events came to be performed in the bishop’s house, and the Franciscan monastery rapidly declined in accordance with the decay of Portuguese power. The statue of Camoes was abandoned and few people know the name of this Portuguese great poet in today’s Goa.

St Augustine
Ruined Church of St Augustine

“They had created in India something not of India, a simplicity, something where the Indian past had been abolished” wrote British writer of the Indian ancestry V.S. Naipaul about the colonists in Goa, who were far from their motherland Portugal.
In Goa, people abandoned traditional religion and language, and created no literature. It is also clear, when looking at the portraits of the voyager Vasco da Gama (c.1469- 1524) or others in museums, that pictorial arts did not developed either during the colonial ages.

In comparison with other Indian cities, which are overpopulated and confused in town-composition, Goa was a well-designed city in trim order, achieving a prosperous era, but now converted into a fossil, with few of the interesting cultural heritages that astonish visitors to other sites in India.

(In "UNESCO World Heritage" vol. 5. 1997, Kodan-sha )


© Takeo Kamiya
E-mail to: kamiya@t.email.ne.jp