Stepping back in time in Old Goa

Goa, India…jewel of the South.  It’s not all just beach, pool, and awesome fun, you know!  It also has some interesting heritage sites!  As we toured the Goa region, one of our stops was the city of Old Goa.

A bit of History

Old Goa was a Portuguese settlement from 1510 to 1835.  Yes, Portuguese!  This was new learning for me as I didn’t realize that anyone other than the British had built settlements in India.  Of course, the area had been through multiple rulers over time.  The Portuguese captured Old Goa in 1510 from the Muslim Emperor Yusuf Adil Shah.  Why would the Portuguese be interested in Goa?  The spice trade.  Shortly after occupying Goa, the Portuguese began shipping spices back to Portugal, and the return ships came filled with Portuguese immigrants – about 2500 per year.  Then came the Catholic missionaries with the goal of converting the locals to Christianity.  This was quickly followed by the introduction of the Inquisition…

As more settlers arrived the city grew until it swelled beyond its borders.  At one point the city walls were taken down and the moat filled in to help with the expansion.  At its height, Old Goa had a population of over 250,000 people.

The problem with Old Goa is that it was built on a swamp, and that meant lots of mosquitoes.  Along with poor sanitation, the city underwent epidemic after epidemic of malaria, cholera, and typhoid fever.  Roughly every 10-15 years a major epidemic would strike, killing the majority of the population of the city.  For instance, in 1535 a cholera epidemic wiped out an estimated 200,000 inhabitants.

Despite the unending cycle of epidemics, Lisbon insisted that the city could be made livable if the swamps were drained and the sanitation improved.  However, in 1695 having a population of only 20,000 people, the attempts to “fix” the problems were abandoned as the deaths of the workers by malaria were too high to continue.


With the arrival of Christian Missionaries in Goa came the building of churches.  As we stood in what was more or less the town centre we could see 4 significant churches all within about a 1 km radius.  And these were not small chapels…they were huge!  It was almost a shock for me to see “European” architecture here in India where the buildings have all been very different.  This collection of surviving churches in Old Goa has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Se Cathedral

This is the largest church in Asia!

The church appears lopsided from the outside as one of the bell towers was destroyed by a lightning strike and collapsed.  The remaining tower contains a bell known as Sino du Ouro or Golden Bell for its very rich tones.  This bell was chimed as the missionaries carried out their “tests of faith” during the inquisition in the town square which was right outside the church.

Inside there is the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament.  This nave is very ornate, in direct contrast with the rest of the church which is very plain overall in its colours and decorations.

Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament

Opposite, is the Chapel of the Cross of Miracles.

The story goes that the cross was planted on a hill nearby by shepherds in 1619.  The cross grew in size and several people claimed to have seen an apparition of Christ hanging on the cross.  A church was planned for that location on the hill, and the cross stored nearby until the church was completed.  When it came time to move the cross, it was found to have grown again, and the doorways of the church had to be modified.  In 1845 the cross was moved to the Cathedral, and it remains a popular place for people to make petitions for the sick.

Church of St. Francis of Assisi

Church of St Francis Assisi

Church of St Francis Assisi

This Church immediately to the west of the Cathedral started out as a small chapel, built by the Franciscan friars who arrived in 1517.  The church was rebuilt/enlarged several times.  Only the entrance door remains from the original building.

The crucifix is interesting, showing Christ with his right arm free embracing St. Francis, who is standing on the 3 vows of the Franciscan order – Poverty, Humility, Obedience.


Chapel of St. Catherine


This is a small chapel about 100m to the west of the Church of St. Francis.  The original chapel was built in 1510 to commemorate the triumphant entrance of Alfonso de Albuquerque into Old Goa on St. Catherine’s Day.  Later, in 1534 the chapel was given cathedral status by Pope Paul III, so the original chapel was torn down and then rebuilt.

Basilica of Bom Jesus

Construction in the Basilica was started in 1594 and completed in 1605.



The name of the church literally means “Good” or “Holy” Jesus.  The façade contains elements of Corinthian, Doric, and Ionic design.  Of note is the emblem of the Jesuits “IHS”, an abbreviation of the Latin “Iesus Hominum Salvator” – Jesus Saviour of Men.

IHS - Jesus Saviour of Men

IHS – Jesus Saviour of Men

This is a significant pilgrimage site for Indian Christians as the church contains the final mortal remains of St. Francis Xavier in a mausoleum to the right of the main altar.

This is also the only church in Old Goa not plastered on the outside with lime plaster, which was removed in 1950.  The notion by the people at the time was that when exposed to the elements, the stone would become more durable and the building strengthened.   In reality, removing the plaster has caused the church to begin eroding, particularly during each monsoon season.  Unfortunately no one has gotten around to re-plastering the church to further preserve it.

Church and Convent of St. Cajetan

This church is a little off the tourist trail in Old Goa…we just ‘happened across’ this large church and convent while we were walking.

The church is no longer in use, however the convent is now a college for newly ordained priests and continues to be used today.  This is the only domed church remaining in Goa.  As we entered, it really reminded me of St. Peter’s in Rome, though on a much smaller scale.

Traditionally the remains of the Portuguese governors were kept in the crypts in lead coffins until they could be shipped back to Lisbon to their final resting place.  There were a few that were forgotten, and were finally shipped back to Lisbon in 1992.

Just about 100m from the church is another piece of history.  Here, we found 5 steps leading up to a pillared doorway made of basalt which is the only remaining part of the Muslim ruler Adil Shah’s grand palace.


This palace was later converted to the palace of the inquisition, where ‘heretics’ were kept awaiting their fates.

The Viceroy’s Arch

Not all the monuments in Old Goa are churches!  We did have a bit of an adventure to find this monument, including walking through a construction site!

The Viceroy’s Arch

This arch was built in 1597 by the viceroy at that time, and was the way which people who arrived in Old Goa would have gotten off of their boat and walked up to the city, and through this arch.  Today, you can still take a ferry across the Mandovi River and drive into the city through this arch.

People arriving in Old Goa through the arch would first see is the deer coat of arms of the viceroy Vasco de Gama, and above that a statue of the viceroy himself.

Viceroy Vaco de Gama

On the city side of the arch is a statue with a European woman holding a sword over an Indian man – a clear message of the times as the Inquisition made its way through Goa.

In summary…

It seems to me that this collection of churches, and even the Viceroy’s Arch, were all constructed with one goal in mind: to intimidate the locals to either convert to Christianity or to keep those who have converted under control.

Imagine if you are a local who has been brought to the city square outside of the Se Cathedral for the Inquisition “Tests of Faith”.  No doubt you are kneeling before the Inquisitor, and and as you look up you see the Cathedral’s towers soaring into the sky.  You look to the left and you see the impressive Basilica of the Bom Jesus.  Finally, just over the shoulder of the priest you see the tower of St. Augustine’s up on the hill, overlooking the city.

The Ruins of St. Augustine's Tower

The Ruins of St. Augustine’s Tower in the distance

The scope and size of it all is simply overwhelming…How could you not “convert”?

2 thoughts on “Stepping back in time in Old Goa”

  1. Herta Park says:

    Well, Oliver, your pictures and your history lesson are most interesting and enlightening…and I have read much between the lines. My comments therefore , I will reserve to myself this time. Trust those Europeans to convert the ‘savages’ with whatever means possible….that’s all I am going to say.

  2. Baba, says:

    Hi Oliver,
    Thank you for your excellent commentary and your great photos! I found this information very chilling!. Baba

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