Old Goa situated on the banks of Mandovi river is steeped in history. Adil Shah of Bijapur Sultanate established the city. The Portuguese arrived in 1510 and captured it from Adil Shah. Soon Old Goa under the Portuguese flourished in terms of trade and became the capital. Old Goa or Old Velha was considered the ‘Rome of the East.’ At its peak from the 16th-17th century, more people stayed in Old Goa than London or Lisbon! The Portuguese built several churches, cathedrals and chapels which led to its rise until it was abandoned in the 17th century due to disease. So magnificent and opulent are these historic buildings that a visit to Old Goa will transport you to the Portuguese era. It is not surprising that Churches and Convents of Goa have received a UNESCO World Heritage Site tag.
Although geographically Old Goa is a part of North Goa, it merits a separate travelogue to do justice to its heritage and architecture. So, join us as we take you exploring Old Goa. The one thing to note while visiting the Churches and Convents of Goa is to dress appropriately respecting the churches’ sanctity. Since weekends and holidays can be jam-packed with large crowds so opt to visit on a weekday. We realized it on our recent visit during Christmas when we saw serpentine queues for entry to the site.
Basilica of Bom Jesus
The Basilica of Bom Jesus is the piece de resistance of Old Goa as it’s the most ornate church with the remains of St Francis Xavier. The non-plastered brick red exterior of this church conceals the magnificence of the ornamental interiors. Its exemplary baroque architecture remains in good condition even today more than 400 years after it was constructed in 1594.
As we enter, we notice the church is simple, but the altar is in gold with a white arch around it. Unlike other churches that usually have a statue of Jesus Christ, we see a statue of St. Ignatius of Loyola. He was the founder of Society of Jesus and a companion of St Francis Xavier. We can see the emblem of Jesuits with radiant rays above the statue. Over the emblem is the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
We now see the mausoleum of St Francis Xavier on the right. In a silver casket with glass windows, we can see this Jesuit saint’s holy relics who came to Goa in the 16th century. For over 400 years his body has miraculously remained preserved and can be viewed once every four years on 3rd December. Everyone is standing on their heels, trying to glimpse the holy relics as the faithful pray.
Church of St Francis of Assisi
We next visit the Church of St. Francis of Assisi built-in 1661. It has a simple white façade, but inside it is beautiful with Baroque Corinthian features. The altar has a statue of the patron saint and Jesus Christ. On either side of the altar are paintings that depict scenes from his life. The ceiling is beautifully painted in squares with floral designs. The adjoining convent of the Church of St Francis of Assisi has been converted into a Museum of Archaeological History. We didn’t want to spend too much time at the museum, so we decided to give it a skip.
The Sé Cathedral de Santa Catarina, the largest Church in Asia is what we visit next. Its striking feature is the bell tower. The cathedral is dedicated to St Catherine of Alexandria. On her feast day in 1510, Portuguese general Alfonso Albuquerque defeated Adil Shah and took over Goa. Here too we see a beautifully carved golden altar dedicated to the patron saint.
St Cajetan’s Church
Near the Se Cathedral is the St Cajetan’s Church whose architecture is inspired by the St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. The children are getting tired, so we decide to just skip visiting the church from the inside.
St Catherine’s Chapel
It is a relatively simple chapel compared to the other imposing Old Goa Churches. It has brown and white façade.
Visiting all these churches has made me nostalgic as I reminisce my childhood days at the convent school I attended. Memories of my old school days flash of being disciplined under the watchful eyes of nuns, singing hymns, visiting the chapel with my Christian classmates. My children and husband now understand why churches hold a special place in my life.
Church of St Augustine
The Church of St Augustine with its crumbling 45-metre tower is today a far cry from what it originally was. It was one of the three great Augustinian churches in the Iberian world of Portuguese, Spain and Andorra in its heydays. The Hindi mystery thriller movie Gumnam’s titular song has been picturised here.
Arches of Goa
Vasco Da Gama’s great-grandson built The Viceroy’s Archway in 1597 in his memory. It is made with red bricks, and on the top, in a niche, we can see a statue of Vasco Da Gama. It had particular ceremonial importance during the Portuguese rule. The reason being that every time a new viceroy came to Goa, he would be handed over the keys to Old Goa City at the arch. We drive further and see another arch in white called ‘The Arch of Conception’ covered in green foliage.
Chapel of Our Lady of Mount
Our final stop is the quaint Chapel of Our Lady of Mount on a hill. A flight of stairs takes us to this chapel. Although a simple whitewashed chapel, the view from the top is incomparable to anything you will see in Goa. We can see the lush green forest, meandering Mandovi river and the churches of Old Goa. Having discovered this chapel on our earlier trip, it became a ritual for us to visit it each time subsequently. It has featured in several Bollywood movies like Golmaal. It now is one of the priced spots to click Instagram worthy pics.
The Churches of Old Goa are in some ways the heart and soul of Goa. Their splendour and grandeur, historical and cultural significance as well UNESCO World Heritage status merit a visit. You won’t be disappointed!