‘Portuguese architecture’ in Goa has little to do with the Portuguese and everything to do with Goa

‘Portuguese architecture’ in Goa has little to do with the Portuguese and everything to do with Goa

Goa’s remarkable and unique colonial-era built heritage is comprehensively misunderstood and willfully misrepresented. The most common error is to view the Latinate architecture of India’s smallest state via the prism of the rest of the subcontinent’s experience of British colonialism, where every aspect of planning and construction was dictated by the European overlords. But that was not the case in Goa, where the Portuguese ran out of money and energy by the cusp of the 18th century, and almost all the buildings that followed until decolonization in 1961 were triggered, conceived and executed by ambitious natives.

In the new millennium, an overheated marketplace has developed for marvelous old Goan dwellings, which are bought and sold as “Portuguese houses”. About this lobotomized real estate shorthand, the Goan architect and Secretary of Goa Heritage Action Group Raya Shankhwalker writes:

“Ill-informed brokers have coined the term, which reflects a deeply ignorant conception of the complex, multi-layered evolution of architecture in Goa. It is wrong, even offensively wrong, and it is extremely irritating to see the term actually gain popularity instead of being discarded. The use of local materials, crafts and skills make the Western-influenced Goan house a unique architectural expression.”

These nuances matter beyond mere semantics, because the many-layered syncretic Goan identity is being questioned anew in the current national political atmosphere charged with fanciful notions of purity, and a purportedly unpolluted past. Recently, Goa’s residents were shocked to read that the central government will soon establish a regional centre of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts “to promote local indigenous culture to counter Portuguese cultural influence” and “launch a massive hunt for folklore artistes which have nothing to do with Portuguese culture”.

Once again, the intricate cultural expressions of Goa that have arisen over millennia of contact with the outside world, most specifically from 450 years as the centrepiece of the Portuguese maritime empire, are treated as suspect, as though they do not qualify as Indian enough. The argument is quite like what continues to rage about the Taj Mahal, which the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Sangeet Som called “a blot on Indian culture…built by traitors”. His colleague GVL Narasimha Rao agreed, “It is a symbol of barbarism.” More worrisome still was Som’s boast, “What history are we talking about? The creator of Taj Mahal imprisoned his father. He wanted to wipe out Hindus. If these people are part of our history, then it is very sad and we will change this history.”

The threats sounded very much like warning shots in Goa, where many churches are undeniably built on sites previously occupied by Hindu temples (and most likely Buddhist, Jain and animist shrines before them) but are nonetheless cherished today by pilgrims and devotees of all religions. In this regard, it is exceedingly important to understand the many ways in which Goan experience of the Portuguese Estado da India is unique in the history of colonialism. In this riparian sliver of the Konkan coast, after an initial heyday that lasted for a couple of centuries, the Portuguese only managed to maintain control via painful negotiations with the local elites, who continually extracted considerable concessions to shift the balance of power in a way that was both alien and offensive to other European contemporaries.

Unique identity
Two additional potent factors exacerbated this singular situation. From the very beginning of colonial rule there was an official promotion of intermarriage with the locals. Later, the products of these alliances, along with all other Goans, were granted equal rights and freedoms with all other citizens of Portugal.


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Written by:
Vivek Menezes


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