Goa’s only World Heritage Site – Old Goa

Sanjeev V Sardesai

One of the most famous pilgrimage heritage sites, found in most of the itineraries of tourists and other visitors to Goa, is undoubtedly – Old Goa. The apple of the eye, of many early dynasties and regimes, the entire precinct of Old Goa has the honour of being Goa’s only World Heritage Site, inscribed, under the UNESCO norms, in 1986.

Situated on the island of Tiswadi, Old Goa was known during the Portuguese era by the name Velha Goa, from whence comes the translated and more famous name Old Goa. This name should not be mistaken with Goa Velha (Gopakapattan), another village on the North bank of River Zuari, near Agassaim, separated by a small hill range from Old Goa, and which was the second capital of the Hindu dynasty – The Kadamb’s.

Due to silting of the River Zuari at Goa Velha, it was the Kadamb’s which initiated the move to shift their capital to a new location – Ellapuri. Ellapuri (now known as Ela), was the earlier name of the village, which we know today as Old Goa. But luck did not favour the Kadamb’s, and they were attacked and their lands on this island captured by the Muslim (Bahamani and Adilshahi) forces, which made Ellapuri their capital.

It remained as the Goan capital of Adilshah’s dynasty, till November 25, 1510, when they were brutally run over by the galleons’ borne Portuguese forces of Afonso da Albuquerque. From this moment onwards, the Portuguese rulers anchored themselves into these lands; and they were to stay here for 451 years (partially and totally)—the longest foreign rule over Indian soil. For their defence, the Adilshah’s administration had constructed a huge fortification wall, with a moat, around their capital, —the ruins of which can still be seen. Sadly, it was this fortification wall that blocked them from re-taking their own capital from the Portuguese, a couple of months later.

Old Goa, a beautiful village situated on the South banks of River Mandovi, is about 10 kms from the capital city of Panaji and was a very strategic location for the rulers of the past. A person with the travel bug can safely acknowledge that Old Goa can be the first-stop, for a day long pilgrimage tour, including the Catholic Churches, the Hindu Temples, as well as a very historic Muslim Mosque of the Adilshahi period.

Accessible by public transport, this venue is a hot spot of cars, two wheelers and tourist buses, with millions of tourists – domestic and foreign, making a beeline to see the majestic edifices here, annually. It can also be accessible by the riverine route, by those with an adventurous streak, from Panaji.

Another very interesting reason to visit Old Goa is also to cross over to the historic landmark of Goa, the Divar Island, by ferry, operated by the River Navigation Department, just a stone’s throw away from the historic Viceroy’s Arch at Old Goa. This island was a host to many a Hindu Temples, prior to the arrival of the Portuguese. Just about 10 minutes crossing over, in person or by vehicle, this island opens an arena of history, and the living styles of a Goan to visitors.

Near the jetty are specially designed fabricated motorised boats, with seating capacity of around 20 people, which can take the visitors and ornithologists to the hinterland waterways to view exotic avian species or crocodiles basking in sunlight, on the riverine ‘bandhs’ or barrages built to stop saline water from entering fields.  A tour, lasting for about 2-3 hours of the inland waterways, can be one of the most fascinating memories that can be created by the visiting tourists and their families,— but with prior bookings. Also very close by to Old Goa, about 1.5 kms away, is the famous Carambolim (Karmali) Lake, touching Karmali Railway Station, which becomes home to many migratory birds, who seek shelter here to escape the cold winters of the upper Northern Hemisphere.

A visitor, expecting to lay eyes and understand the splendour and majesties of Old Goa, may require a whole day, if not two. Old Goa— spread over a terrain that could extend to approximately two square kilometres, has huge ecclesiastical edifices, whose historical past have stories to tell, which keeps the listener in awe.

I once took a group of foreign writers and bloggers, to show them the World Heritage site of Old Goa. After a gruelling half day, walking tour, I asked them how they had envisioned the architecture and other aspects of the precinct of the World Heritage Site. Their response took me off-guard and surprised me. I quote “Oh! We are not impressed with the portrayal or with the edifices, in the holistic aspect of decor and architecture, though they are unique in its own ethnic mode. We do not mean to be offensive, but as compared to other old churches, we have seen, all over the world and their artistic manifestation, the same lacked here”.

Though these views soured my morale, what they said next elated me, and was something which I, as a Goan, had never taken realised and which had skipped me totally.

They went on to tell me, “Though there seems to be a lack of artistic display, as compared to other ecclesiastical buildings all over the world, there is one unique aspect, which amazes us all. We realise that this is the only place, which we have travelled in the Christian predominant areas of the world and are surprised to observe that in Old Goa, most of the Christian Orders, having their own Churches and Convents, ‘all in one single location’. In other parts of the world, the regions or countries are allotted to a maximum two to three Christian Orders, who religiously carry out the work of evangelisation or education or development, in their respective demarcated areas and regions, as per their expertise”. This was a very important aspect of Old Goa, which has skipped many a brochure and advertorial schemes of people and the administration.

Maybe, it was for this very reason that Old Goa was called Rome of the East. During the Portuguese era, there were more than 14 Orders of the Church, who had been operating from Old Goa, through their own churches and convents. But a directive from the Portuguese Queen, somewhere in 1835, all these Orders were asked to vacate Goa immediately. This led to most of the huge churches and convents, in and around Old Goa, to lie bare, and over a period of time, without any occupants or care-takers fell to ruins; while memories, locations and traces of many of them have been lost in the sands of time. [NT]