Let’s go to Goa, da. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve weaselled out of that plan. All my life I’ve avoided tourist traps but once I became a travel writer I found myself courting them with savage glee. I don’t whine (no, not even inside my head) when I am escorted in a bus to a place already so full of tourists that a few more with disdainful looks on their sunglass-festooned faces wouldn’t tip it over. Instead, I sink into it as two parallel persons — one, the tourist and, two, the writer. These dual personalities savour, separately, all they can of the scene, making notes in parallel mental notebooks and then coming together for a sundowner and a fireside chat.
So it was with Goa in November last, just a week before the Exposition of St Francis Xavier (which, when I last checked, ended on January 4). It wasn’t the best organised of tours, as FAM trips come, and we reached Velha Goa at dusk, having just enough time to photograph the exit of sunlight from the ruddy ruins of St Augustine’s church. Cussing, and fending off the swarms of mosquitoes that enveloped us muttering vespers of gratitude, we departed. Only to arrive again the next morning to work off the engorgement ensuing a delayed breakfast. Tidal waves of tourists washed over Old Goa that day — a Saturday morning — and soon I was walking in a trance, the rhubarb-rhubarb of their chatter forming a calming screen of white noise at the back of my head as I explored, wandered entranced and gleaned anecdotes.
We were fortunate to be led around Old Goa by Sanjeev Sardesai, an intrepid freelance culture enthusiast and a sought-after tour guide who time and again berated the Archaeological Survey of India for its lazy approach to history. I found common cause with him and soon, I was picking up frayed threads to weave back the story in my head. And somewhere, the tourist and the travel writer in me began to nod in unison.
The Basilica of Bom Jesus, an imposing reddish-brown laterite stone structure, is a church unlike any other in the region. More than its antiquity — it dates back to 1605 — it is revered by Roman Catholics for it treasures the mortal remains of St Francis Xavier, co-founder of the Society of Jesus. Francis Xavier played a major role in the instruction of the Christian faith in Portuguese Goa. He even played a role in the infamous Goa Inquisition, in which new converts to Roman Catholicism — identified by the pejorative Rice Christians, for they were alleged to have accepted baptism in exchange for bags of rice and other material benefits — were tried and sentenced to death for reverting to the rituals and practices of their original religions, in this case Hinduism and Islam.
In 1552, proselytisation took Francis Xavier to Shangchuan Island on the southern coast of China, where he took ill and died. He was buried on a beach — his first burial. When his body was exhumed for reburial, it was found to be incorrupt — it had not decomposed. It was taken by ship to Malacca and buried again at St Paul’s Church — the second burial. When it was exhumed again in 1553, it was found intact. From here the body — still incorrupt — was brought to Goa and kept in a glass container encased in a silver casket at the Basilica of Bom Jesus, where it remains today. I admire the Roman Catholics for their pluck — in this case, quite literally. The right forearm, which the saint used to baptise his converts, was detached and taken to the main Jesuit church in Rome where it is displayed in a silver reliquary. Another arm-bone was brought to Macau. The body also has missing toes, bitten and taken away as souvenirs or relics by the overzealous devout. I lost my appetite just standing there and listening and viewed everything I ate that day with great suspicion, turning over bits of meat to ascertain if there were hairs or fingernails attached.
I admire the Roman Catholics for their pluck — in this case, quite literally. The right forearm, which the saint used to baptise his converts, was detached and taken to the main Jesuit church in Rome where it is displayed in a silver reliquary. Another arm-bone was brought to Macau. The body also has missing toes, bitten and taken away as souvenirs or relics by the overzealous devout. I lost my appetite just standing there and listening and viewed everything I ate that day with great suspicion, turning over bits of meat to ascertain if there were hairs or fingernails attached.
Every ten years, the sacred relics of St Francis Xavier are brought to Sé Cathedral, across the road from Bom Jesus Basilica, and displayed to flocks of devout Christians in a ceremony called The Exposition. The 17th Exposition began November 21 and continued until January 4.
Old Goa, known as Velha Goa (distinct from Goa Velha — which lies further south and was the erstwhile Govapuri, the capital of the Hindu Kadamb kingdom), was the capital of the Portuguese government in India and was vacated and moved to Panjim after several successive outbreaks of bubonic plague that claimed many lives and struck terror in the hearts of the inhabitants. Today, the buildings of Old Goa comprise a UNESCO World Heritage Site .
Besides the Bom Jesus Basilica, Old Goa has a number of old churches and buildings. Among these are the imposing Sé Cathedral, the Church of St Francis of Assisi, the Chapel of St Catherine, the Chapel of Our Lady of the Mount, the Church of Our Lady of Rosary, the Church of St Cajetan, the Chapel of St Anthony and the ruins of the Tower of St Augustine’s Church. There are also other monuments and antiquarian structures such as the gateway of the College of St Paul and the Viceroy’s Arch.
I’m going to take you on a little walk, in my own footsteps that day. All you need do is imagine the crowd.
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