Church-hopping in Velha Goa

The Se Cathedral is symbolic of Portuguese power and pride

By R Niranjan Das

A lovely morning ride on my hired Royal Enfield took me from Anjuna Beach to Velha Goa, the Portuguese name for Old Goa and one commonly used by people of that region. From Panjim, along with the Enfield, I had the Mandovi River for company through villages like Ribander, until I reached the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Old Goa. As I rode from Panjim, the landscape, houses, people and everything changed. Though crowded, Velha Goa with its cathedrals, churches, chapels and convents still holds an old world charm and the prominence of Christianity cannot be ignored.

Built by the Bijapur Sultans in the 15th century, the city was colonized from the 16th to the 18th century by the Portuguese before they abandoned it in the 18th century after it was hit by an epidemic of plague. Its beautiful structures, though, remain.

Basilica De Bom Jesus, with its imposing facade and baroque architecture, stands tall. It was the first of the churches I visited. The basilica’s dark colour and imposing size set it apart. Though it might seem dilapidated at first look, with its reddish brown colour, ornamented pillars and magnificent carvings, the structure stands rock solid even after 400 years. Dedicated to Infant Jesus, this grand church also treasures the mortal remains of St Francis Xavier, which are taken out for public viewing once every ten years. The interior of the basilica has a lot of art, murals and numerous altars to captivate visitors.

As I came out of the Basilica, a few meters away stood the white Se Cathedral of Santa Catarina. Dedicated to St Catherine of Alexandria, it was once considered the largest cathedral in Asia. Built in Portuguese architecture, it was constructed to portray the power and fame of the Portuguese. The cathedral also houses many altars and paintings and the large Golden Bell.

From Se Cathedral I moved to the Church of St Francis of Assisi, which has baroque-style architecture with beautiful frescoes on the walls and ceilings. The church also houses some brilliant 17th century wall paintings. Next to it is an archaeological museum displaying ancient statues and portraits.

Half a kilometer away is the beautiful Viceroy's Arch next to Mandovi quay. Built in the 16th century, the arch must have been witness to thousands of people landing on Goan shores. Near the arch is the Gateway of the palace of Adil Shah. Built before the arrival of the Portuguese, it is all that survives of the palace.

From the gateway I walked towards the immaculate Church of St Cajetan, built in Corinthian architectural style using laterite blocks with two towers on either side of the main dome. The interiors of the church are neat and its altar is one of the most beautiful ones I have ever seen.

I walked further towards the Basilica of Bom Jesus. As if from nowhere appeared the Chapel of St Catherine, which appeared to be abandoned and dilapidated. Alfonso de Albuquerque built it in the early 16th century when he took over possession of Goan territory.

In a different direction but not far away from de Bom Jesus are the Towers of St Augustine church. Built in the early 16th century this church was over a period of time abandoned and neglected, which led to the fall of the vault and the body of the church in mid-19th century. By the mid 20th century every part of the church had collapsed except for one of the four towers and this, today, is the sole remnant.

Beside the Augustine tower is the Convent of Santa Monica and a Christian museum, which is definitely worth a visit.

A few meters away from Santa Monica and the Augustine tower is the Church of Our Lady of Rosary. Built in the 16th century it has a mix of Renaissance and Gothic architecture. The view of the Mandovi River from the church is spectacular.

There are many more churches, museums and other structures in Old Goa to excite the traveller but this piece covers only the most-visited ones.
Niranjan is passionate about travel – from long bike rides and treacherous treks to leisure holidaying, backpacking through the countryside and engrossing train journeys. He dreams of setting foot on every country on earth, meeting adorable strangers and learning about new cultures. Discover more at his blog