Monuments of Old Goa


The city of Goa (Old Goa), in the western state of Goa along the Arabian Sea, was the one-time capital of the Portuguese colonies in India. It is studded with many churches and convents. These churches – especially the Church of Bom Jesus, which contains the tomb of St Francis Xavier – illustrate the evangelization of Asia, and especially of the Portuguese Indies. These churches were instrumental in spreading various forms of Manueline, Mannerist, and Baroque art in the countries of Asia where the missions were established. These monuments are considered to be the finest examples of Renaissance architecture in the world.


The history of Goa starts with the third century BC., and it passed through several kingdoms over the centuries. By the 14th century, Goa became part of the Vijayanagar kingdom and experienced a cultural revival. (For more information on the Vijayanagar kingdom, see the UNESCO site of “Hampi” under the Indian flag). Adil Shah, the Sultan of Bijapur, developed the port at Ela (the present Old Goa) towards the end of the 15th century, and it soon became an important trade station on the Indian Ocean.

The Portuguese established a trading station at Cochin following the landing of Vasco da Gama in 1498. They searched for a permanent base from where they could control the seas. With its navigable rivers and natural harbors, Goa seemed the perfect answer. Alfonso de Albuquerque succeeded in driving out the forces of Ismail Adil Shah in 1510. They Portuguese were to remain in Goa for another 451 years (until 1961 – even after Indian Independence).

For the Portuguese of the 15th and 16th centuries, religion and politics went hand in hand. Colonization was performed with religious zeal. The Portuguese regarded themselves as instruments of God and instrumental in the propagation of the Catholic faith all over the world. Though Christianity had come to India with the arrival of the apostle St. Thomas, followed by the Syrian Christians, it was the Portuguese that gave the necessary royal support so that it took firm roots in the soil of Goa.

St. Francis Xavier was charged with the mission of spreading Christianity to the Indians. He arrived in Goa in 1542. Portuguese became the state language and every sphere of Goan life, from religion to architecture to art and cuisine was affected. Many schools, convents, and churches in Goa still bear his name.

The Franciscans were, in fact, the first religious group to arrive in Goa (1517), and many other religious orders followed suit, each establishing their own churches and convents. Many large churches and equally large convents, as well as chapels, monasteries, and a cathedral were thus erected. Public and private secular buildings were also built under the Portuguese. Old Goa became an important Christian spiritual center of Goa and the city came to rival Rome in splendor.

By the end of the 16th century, however, the Portuguese were unable to retain their maritime supremacy. This led to their demoralization, and the city itself began to lose some of its grandeur. Britain eventually gained control over the whole of India, yet the Portuguese were allowed to continue to rule over Goa (Old Goa) and their other small colonies because of their treaty relations with England.

Added to the Portuguese economic and military decline were a cholera epidemic of unprecedented magnitude that struck the populace in 1635 and the terror of the Inquisition. Subsequently, the population decreased and the city deteriorated. The administrative capital was moved to Panjim in 1843. The transfer of power and the repressive religious policy undertaken by the government, which forced the eviction of many religious orders in 1835, led to the desertion of Goa. It was transformed into a small, desolate village, and from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century, the city was completely empty except for one or two buildings used for military purposes. The enormous buildings continue to stand as a mute testimony to the contribution that they made to the culture and history of the region.


Art and architectural styles that were prevalent in Europe influenced the buildings and artistic embellishments in Goa. Most of the extant churches in Old Goa were built in the beginning of the 17th century. The Renaissance movement was at its last stages in Europe at this time, gradually yielding to Baroque. The architects who built the edifices in Goa were inspired by the Italian architects, some of whom were among the Jesuits that had come to Goa. Imitations of churches in Rome sprang up, having a touch of the renaissance with Baroque confined to the interior.

The prominent features of Baroque included “twisted shafts, broken cornices surrounded by curved pediments, wavy scrolls, flying figures with a touch of Classic orders and profuse interior decorations with intricate details of ornamentation emphasized by gilding in gold.” As the Archaeological Survey of India puts it, “The Baroque style, often expressed in sinuous frontages, overburdened decorations, with absolute disregard of well-laid principles of construction, came to be introduced as a natural reaction against standardization.”

With its heavy ornamentation, the Baroque style and gilded work also served to make the “required impact of awe and reverence on the minds of the new converts whom these churches were meant to serve.”

All of the churches in Old Goa are built either entirely or largely of locally available laterite of reddish shade. Basalt was used in making pilasters and columns to decorate the facades. Being not as strong and durable as the basalt, the laterite was protected from the weather by a coating of lime plaster. Though the churches were built by different religious orders, they are similar on plan as far as the various components like the belfry, altars, choir, sacristy, etc, are concerned. They differ in details like the respective locations of these components in each church, as well as their dimensions.

Though the churches were modeled on European ones, they are marked by certain limitations due to climate and the availability of materials, labor, and artisans. Because the monsoon is severe in Goa, certain ornamental elements were dispensed with and substituted with others. The lime plaster that protected the laterite structure was reapplied frequently, meaning that the buildings were in a constant state of repair. Failure to re-plaster in the face of the heavy monsoons meant complete deterioration of the building.

Though the architects were foreign-born, the artisans were local. This is especially evident in the floral decorations on the interior of the church and convent walls.


Several paintings, in the style of the Italian school, were drawn by local artists who were supervised and assisted by the Italians. These are poor imitations of the canvas paintings done in the West. However, in the frescoes showing floral designs, the local artists were following an age-old tradition, and thus produced fine paintings. The arabesque designs on the walls reveal traces of Islamic art. The few canvas paintings that hung in the churches were painted in the West and show scenes from the Bible or from the lives of the saints. The statues, adorning the various altars, are done mostly in wood and depict the various saints, Mother Mary, and Jesus on the Cross.


Many of the important buildings in Goa (such as the palace of Adil Shah, the Senate, the Palace of the Inquisition, the Arsenal, the Mint, the Gunfoundry, the prison, the docks, and the Royal Hospital) have disappeared, leaving only heaps of debris and traces of their existence. However, there are still many buildings – especially religious buildings – that are extant, some of which are protected by the Archaeological Survey of India. Some of the more notable ones are described below.

Church of Our Lady of the Rosary: Built between 1542 and 1549, this is the earliest of the existing churches in Goa. It was built by Alfonso de Albuquerque in fulfillment of a vow. With a plain exterior and rounded dome, it looks more like a fort than a church. Built in the Manueline style as an experiment, it didn’t work in the tropical climate of Goa.

Portal Remains of St. Paul’s College: The college of St. Paul, built in 1542, was founded for giving instructions to the new converts. It had 200 teachers and 3000 students. The body of St. Francis Xavier was initially kept here. The first printing press in Asia was introduced here in 1556.

Church of St. Augustine: The Augustinian Order established a convent here in 1572. It was the largest church complex, with a convent, library, cloisters, dormitories, galleries, and seminary. The church’s facade had four stories with three arched doorways. The Augustinians were forced to leave Goa by 1835, after the Portuguese government banned all the religious orders in 1832. Because of the lack of maintenance, the huge vault collapsed in 1842, followed by the facade and towers in 1931 and 1938, respectively. The debris was removed by the Archaeological Survey of India, who also discovered five altars, eight side chapels, and a cloister. Only the remnants can be seen today.

Church and Convent of St. Francis of Assisi: Initially built in 1517, this church was a four storied facade with two octagonal towers. The main altar has Baroque with Corinthian features, while the ornamental portals are in Manueline style. On either side of the main altar are large oil paintings in wood panels that depict scenes from the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Grave markers dating from the 16th century cover the floor of the church. Some of the painting in the church – in shades of pink, mauve, and gold – has worn away, but it is evident that it was once very grand.

Basilica of Bom Jesus: This large church, built between 1594 and 1605, has a main altar, several side altars, and two chapels. The main altar, Baroque with Corinthian features, is gilded and dedicated to the infant Jesus (“Bom Jesus” means “Good Jesus” or “Infant Jesus.”). Architecturally, the facade – decorated with Ionic, Tuscan, Corinthian, and Composite pilasters – shows the application of the Classical Order. The interior walls are painted a plain cream color and the ceiling is wooden. The interior is adorned with scenes from the life of St. Francis Xavier. The main attraction of the church is that it contains the relics of the saint. An Italian sculptor took ten years to make the magnificent marble tomb, while a Goan silversmith added a rich silver casket (once studded with precious stones) several decades later.

Se Cathedral: Started in 1562, construction on this cathedral took 90 years to complete. It is Goa’s largest church – an example of the Renaissance style, with its plain Tuscan exterior, Corinthian columns, and its raised platform with steps leading to the entrance. Aside from a bit of decoration on its interior sides and its main altar, the church seems barren, and it is its almost complete lack of decoration that is striking. With its high ceilings and all-white painted walls, combined with its lack of worshippers, the cathedral seems huge and empty – a dead monument that stands as a testament to a happier past.

Church of St. Cajetan: This church was modeled after St. Peter’s church in Rome. It has a Corinthian façade, two bell towers, and a central dome. Built in 1661, it has one of the nicest interiors of any church in Old Goa.

Chapel of St. Catherine: First built in 1510 when the Portuguese conquered Goa, this small chapel consists of two short towers on either side of the façade and a single altar in the interior. It is made of reddish volcanic rock and wood, and everything had recently been repainted. It was extremely plain and simple, with absolutely no decoration whatsoever. It was raised to the status of a Cathedral by Pope Paul III in 1534 and maintained that position until the new Cathedral was constructed.

Arch of Viceroy: Constructed by Francisco da Gama in 1599 in memory of his great-grandfather, Vasco da Gama, this arch commemorates the Portuguese conquest of Goa. A statue of the latter is on the river side of the arch, while a statue of St. Catherine adorns the other side.

Gate of Adil Shah’s Palace: The Palace became the residence of the Portuguese governors until 1695. Only the gateway remains. It consists of two basalt pillars and a stone screen. Carvings have the characteristics of temple art.

Other Monuments: Other monuments in Old Goa include the chapel of Our Lady of the Mount, the church and convent of St. Monica, the church and convent of St. John of God, the royal Chapel of St. Anthony, the church and convent of the Cross of Miracles, and the Arch of Conception.


The Archaeological Survey of India has been protecting the monuments at Old Goa according to the operational guidelines of the World Heritage Convention since its inscription on the W.H. list in 1986. The Archaeological Museum exhibits coins, bills, and stamps from the Portuguese period, as well as the portraits of every Portuguese governor and viceroy from 1505-1961.

In addition, an exhibit demonstrates the importance of maintaining the monuments in Old Goa. Photos show graffiti and vandalism, and locals and tourists eating on the lawns, engaging in commercial activities, and parking their vehicles en masse near the sites. Underneath the photos are captions such as, “Should we allow this? Is World Heritage site a parking spot? Is W.H. site a picnic place?” etc. Signs with such messages are seen on the well-manicured lawns of the monuments, emphasizing that the W.H. monuments are of universal value not only to Indians, but to all of mankind and that the people should be proud of their heritage and thus take an interest in protecting it.

The Archaeological Survey does a good job at protecting the monuments at Old Goa. Each one is well marked “World Heritage Monument.” They were immaculate and the upkeep was impressive. The lawns were manicured and the flower gardens well tended. Trashcans were in abundance (no littering here!). Old Goa was unlike any other town that we’d seen in India. People lived mostly in houses (as opposed to tents), there were very few animals in the streets, and the town was very clean. It was a pretty town – more old colonial European than Indian.


Goa was a scenic area. It took us 1 ½ hours by scooter to reach Old Goa from Arambol, where we were staying, and the drive was very enjoyable. We crossed a river, colorful Portuguese villas with Catholic names, many roadside shrines and churches, some with fluorescent crosses. It was very green.

The sheer number of churches in such a small area was impressive, but the churches themselves, though large, were not especially beautiful. They seemed barren and empty, with just a few tourists and no worshipers (unlike temples and mosques in India, where there are always plenty of worshipers). The church interiors were quite plain – almost always painted a plain white – the walls having been whitewashed and re-plastered frequently over time.