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To Cherish and to Share: The Goan Christian Heritage

(Paper presented at the 1991 Conference on Goa at the University of Toronto by John Correia Afonso S.J.)

Goan Catholic Heritage.pdf

The 1991 Toronto Conference on Goa is gathered to consider certain distinctive elements of the Goan cultural heritage, as part the wider theme of continuity and change in Goa. It is obvious that such a study must be made against the geographical background of the land, and in the context of its history. These have played—and still play—a chief role in the cultural evolution of Goa, and a brief reference to them, though it may appear superfluous to some not be out of place by way of an introduction.

Goa, which in May 1987 became the twenty-fifth state Republic of India, is a tiny territory of a little more than 3,500 square kilometres on India's West Coast, bounded by Maharashtra and Karnataka. It is good to remember that the present frontiers of Goa were fixed only in the late eighteenth century, when the Conquests were added to the Old by the Portuguese. Goa's eleven talukas contain five cities or towns and some 250 villages. This cold administrative description cannot convey, of course, any idea of the beauty of Goa-of its luxuriant vegetation, meandering rivers gleaming beaches and green hills, blessed alternatively by sun and rain. It is this breathtaking vision of which the Goan never tires when he is home, and dreams of when abroad.

The Goan people have a hoary past and a history, which goes back four thousand years. For the two millennia before the Christian era Goa was already known as an important entrepot, trading with the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, the Persians, and others. Goans came the time mainly from Aryan and Dravidian stock, and mixed in some measure with the foreign traders as well as people from other parts of India. Important are some of the original settlers in Goa the Kunbis, a hardy dark-skinned race of labourers still to be found today, very independent in spirit and attached to their ancient customs.

Recorded Goan history in the Common Era takes us back Bhoja kings, the Konkan Mauryas, and the Kadambas. It is these last who are best remembered, having brought a golden age to Goa by uniting it into a prosperous kingdom, ably ruled from their imposing capitals of Chadrapura and Gopakapathana. Later Goa came under the sway of Vijayanagara, and subsequently of Bijapur. In 1510 as is well known, Goa was conquered by Afonso de Albuquerque. It remained in Portuguese hands till 1961, which brings us to the present days, but

if Goan culture and identity is understood as a long historical process there is less scope to be pessimistic about the influxes and outfluxes of people in this territory. Movements in both directions have made and will continue to make their contribution to the growth of Goan culture and identity.

The above brief overview gives us an idea of the factors that have shaped Goan culture. Its maritime location gives Goa an openness that is both physical and social. The land and climate have made for a population living in relative sufficiency. Both position and population have contributed to the development of trade and cultural exchanges. Migrations in both directions have deeply affected Goan society and life, especially in this century. Most recently the forces of decolonization, democratization, industrialization, and technology have brought social and ecological problems along with undoubted benefits. Though with a fairly peaceful past, Goa has had its share of invasions and occupations, which have left their mark.

Is the Goan Unique?

What have these factors produced? Is it the end-of-the-twentieth century Goan who is modestly convinced that he or she is unique, and the greatest? Are Goans really so different from other Indians, other people?

Jawaharlal Nehru, in the thick of the struggle over Goa's integration into the Indian Union, declared: "Goa has a distinct personality, and we have recognized it."2 This personality is not the monopoly of the Goan Christian, but belongs also to Hindus and Muslims. It has a long history, but there is no doubt that a turning point in its formation was the arrival of Portuguese on Goa's shores, and the inclusion of Goa into the one world which the European explorers and conquistadors were shaping, for better or worse. As has been perceptively remarked:

Goans figured among the earliest, if they were not the very first extra-European group to be incorporated in that New World, that new order or context. It is true that the inhabitants of the Caribbean islands visited by Columbus preceded us by a few years, but they did not survive the visit by more than a generation. Goans on the contrary have a lively tale to tell, a tale that has the duration and continuity of modern history.3

Still, for all that, though Goans may differ in certain respects from other Indians, can they claim to be unique? Not really. Many of the characteristics the vocal Goan is inclined to claim as his own belong in fact to a limited sector of the Goan population, others are shared by many coastal people.4 Cultural openness and assimilation, leading to cosmopolitanism, are among the latter. An artistic temperament, a love of music, a taste for conviviality are found among the coastal Bengalis, for instance. It is for these reasons that "it is more useful and accurate to regard Goa as an Indian region with a rather unusual past."5

But even if the Goan is not unique, does he have a predominant characteristic? "What is Goan or who is a Goan," writes a very knowledgeable non-Goan, "evokes an instantaneous streak of smile conjuring up images of the sosse gado Goan-the merry-making, happy-go-lucky Goan male representing an ethos, an abandon, a leisurely existence."" The author, however, proceeds to say that this image is resented by "the self-conscious middle-class Goan, who has come to realize where his genuine culture is."

I believe that there is something in the concept of the sosse gado Goan. Not in the sense that the Goan is by nature happy-go-lucky, much less that he is bone-lazy. But that he is blessed with a certain equanimity, content with what he has, and not interested in the modern rat-race.7 This containment has its roots in complex causes like his native temperament and habitat, the absence of dire poverty, a trust in Providence, and firm social ties. Again, it is not the monopoly of the Christian.


Which brings us to the core of our subject, the Goan Christian heritage. Let me say at the outset that I intend to speak not of the Christian heritage of the Goan, but of the heritage of the Goan Christian. The Christian heritage of the Goan is basically the Catholic faith in a Portuguese wrapping, but the heritage of the Goan Christian is something much wider and richer, for it includes valuable elements from his Indo-Hindu origins. In this context I agree with the view expressed on the occasion of the International Goan Convention of 1988, that "many Goan emigrants [and I add, not emigrants alone] need to shed their very parochial concept of Goan culture and admit that their Goan culture is 'Indo-Portuguese,' which is obviously Indian first."

But it is not only Goan culture as a whole that is Indo-Portuguese: even the sub-culture which we call Goan Christian, if greatly influenced by the Portuguese, is manifestly also Indian. Our Goan Christian heritage, it has been said, consists of an amalgam of what is intrinsic to our faith, with a thin overlay of the Western ethos and what we have been permitted to retain from the culture of our pre-conversion days.

The Goan Christian must not forget the Indian contribution to his identity. Unfortunately

many people in the past and today think they are Portuguese Christians when in reality they often behave and think in ways that indicate they are really Indian Christians. Christian Goans see no contradiction in this, nor did they in the past, for being blind to one's enacted (as distinct from one's self- elected) identity is part of being human and is an essential aspect of the real Goa, Goa Indica.9

If the Goan Christian has retained Indian cultural roots while being considerably Lusitanisized, it is good to note that the Portuguese way of life has also affected the Goan Hindu–in the commercial and legal spheres, for instance. A further point to be borne in mind is that when we speak of Goan culture we tend to concentrate on the way of life and tradition of the upper castes and the economically powerful, ignoring the large majority of the population, both Hindu and Catholic.10

The Goan Christian is clearly a product of acculturation, a highly selective process in which a group engaged in cultural contact maintains its social identity and to a degree its cultural distinctiveness and integrity.11 The Goan Christian has a cultural legacy in which Indo-Hindu and Luso-Christian elements are inextricably mixed. However, we shall try to identify and focus some of the principal components, and not only the positive ones.

The Legacy of India

What does the Goan Christian owe to his pre-sixteenth-century past? It is impossible, of course, to analyze here all the Indo-Hindu institutions and characteristics which he still retains. Kinship ties, social customs, folklore, and superstitions–these are just some of the areas that must be explored. We shall concentrate on three elements:

1. Konkani–The language of Goa, officially recognized as such only in 1989, is Konkani written in the Devanagari script. Derived from Prakrit, Konkani in pre-Portuguese times was written in Kannada or in Devanagari, but it had little literature. Though the attitude of the Portuguese to Konkani became only increasingly negative, it cannot be forgotten that it was under their regime that the first Konkani grammars and dictionaries were composed and printed, by Christian missionaries such as Tomas Stephens, Diogo Ribeiro, Ignazio Arcamone, and Miguel d'Almeida. They played vital part in making the "Lingua Canarim" or "Lingua Bramanica" a literary language, albeit they changed the script to Roman. The Goan Christian is apt to speak a Konkani which is far from nitoll or pure, but he is becoming increasingly conscious of the beauty and importance of the Goan mother tongue, amchi bhas, "an ancient and vital language which was used as literary and educational medium and which enjoyed popularity in pre-Portuguese times.12 As a keen foreign observer has remarked, "Konkani above all is the cement which binds all Goans across lines of religion, caste and class.13 It has been for centuries the unifying bond of the Goan population.

2. Community–Next to the language, the most distinctive feature of Goan society is the millennial institution of the gauponn or communidade. This village community is a peculiar and characteristic organization which has existed from the earliest times in Goa-as it did in most parts of India until it was abolished by the British. "It is this institution that has developed in a Goan a deep-rooted love for his village, and it has been the starting point of all his political, economic, Social, educational and cultural activities."14 Under the Portuguese the communidades had a chequered history, but they were not abolished, and today they can still provide a useful basis for panchayati Raj for they embody a tradition of equality and social justice. In the Goan villages that are predominantly Christian, the gauponns are naturally linked with the village church, and the local feasts and fairs.

3. Caste–The unhappiest inheritance of our pre-Portuguese past is the caste system. Due in great measure to mass conversions, and to a missionary policy which was tolerant in this regard, the Goan convert brought to Christianity, preserved, and even developed his caste and its loyalties, though its excesses were curbed and softened.15 Sadly, "the caste system prevails among the Christians of Goa to this day, and caste discrimination always played an important part in politics and matrimonial relations constituting and segregating endogamic social classes.16 We are surely aware that even today, and even among the educated and the emigrants, the Goan Christian still nurses, if only subconsciously, caste feelings which are really incompatible with his faith and true democracy.

Faith and Empire

And what of our Lusto-Christian heritage, the fruit of long Portuguese domination? The most important part of it is, of course, the Catholic faith. Whatever may be said in criticism of the Portuguese missionary methods, the motivation of the Indian converts, and the excesses of the Goa Inquisition in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, the fact is that the Goan Christian has generally a strong, rather traditional faith. In the model of Iberian Catholicism, this faith is neither Puritan nor individualistic, and it is accommodating. It can on occasion even make room for devotions and superstitions from the Hindu past, though I would not go so far as to say with R.S·Newman that "a majority of Goans share in a syncretic Hindu-Catholic religion–undefined, unlabelled, but mutually understood.17 Goa has given priests and lay apostles to the Church, though they seem to have made their mark more outside the territory than within it–Matthew de Castro, Joseph Vaz, Agnelo D'Souza, and Valerian Gracias are some of the names that come to mind. Unfortunately it is only in very recent times that the Goan Church seems to have felt the impact of Vatican II and of the changed situation in Goa, after 1961.

There is no doubt that evangelization in Goa was accompanied by Europeanization, and a strenuous effort was made by Portugal to "assimilate" the native Christian. Part of this effort consisted in the introduction of Portuguese as the language of State and Church, of commercial and social intercourse among the higher classes. In so far as this was done to the detriment of Konkani, it is to be regretted. However, Portuguese also opened to the Goan a door to the wider world, in as much as it was the lingua franca of the East in the Age of Discovery, and is still today one of the ten most spoken languages of the world. Further, Portuguese vocables have been naturalized in Konkani and many other Asian languages, as that great Goan scholar, Msgr. Sebastiao Rodolfo Dalgado, ably demonstrated in his Influencia do Vocabuldrio Portugue emm Linguas Asiaticas (1913).

It is generally acknowledged that a principal contribution of Christianity to civilization has been the propagation of the ideals of charity and service, and the establishment and maintenance of institutions of social assistance. Among those that have nourished in Goa are the Misericordia, and hospitals, orphanages, and asylums. Schools were not unknown in Goa, of course, but under the effort of evangelization they were complemented by the minor seminaries and institutes of higher education, such as the College of St. Paul, endowed with a fine library. It was here too that India's first printing press with movable types was established in 1556, and was soon used to produce not only catechisms and dictionaries, but also philosophical and scientific works, in Portuguese and Indian languages, and eventually in Indic characters.

While speaking of education we naturally think of the Goan parochial schools which have been called "nurseries of music and musicians" and "agents of cultural synthesis of East and West." The achievement and importance of these schools as part of our Goan Christian heritage has not always been appreciated.18 It is here that, more than four hundred years ago, the Goan talent for music became acquainted with the concept of harmony. Goans then made valuable contributions to Church music, as composers and performers, and later developed their own secular music forms, the mando being the best known of them. It is with reason that the seminar on Goa: The Problems in Transition declared in 1964: "The Seminar believes that Goa is one of the very few regions in India where there is a tradition of the appreciation of Western music. Similarly, the Seminar believes that Goan music itself illustrates the possibility of a creative symbiosis between the Western and the indigenous tradition of music."19 The Goan theatre, now drawing a lot of attention as the Konkani tiatr, is another manifestation of the Goan Christian's artistic and musical gifts.20

The most visually striking part of the Goan Christian heritage consists in the imposing churches, especially those of Old Goa. Volumes have been written about the baroque art of Goa, and the Indian features therein.21 What has been the salvation of the Goa churches, as compared to similar monuments elsewhere, is that the vast majority have been continuously in use up to this day. This also applies to the houses of well-to-do Goan Christians which exemplify Indo-Portuguese domestic architecture–with steep red-tiled roofs, balconies, private chapels, spacious halls, and inner courtyards. Incidentally, Portuguese influences are also in evidence in some of the Goan Hindu temples.22

Apart from architecture, the Goan Christian inheritance includes achievements in the fine arts and liberal professions, in literature, science, and agriculture.23 Worthy of special mention is Goan cuisine, made internationally famous by its chefs and its recipes, some of these consisting of Indian ingredients put together according to Portuguese formulae in places like the Convent of Santa Monica in Old Goa.

It is often thought that in the sphere of law it was the British who made the greatest contribution to Indian society and life. Yet Goa, under the Portuguese, had for generations a Common Civil Code, accepted by all communities without discord, in happy contrast with the rest of the Indian Union. In the sphere of women's rights too Goa has been ahead of the rest of the country. More than three centuries before Sir William Bentinck, Afonso de Albuquerque banned sati in Goa, and Christianity improved the status of women, promoting the equality of the sexes. The Christian–and later the Hindu–woman in Goa was guaranteed basic rights of ownership and inheritance: "The progressive legislation of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries built, for the Goan women, from daughter to grandmother, a brighter legal future based on the twin pillars of equality and liberty."24

Continuity and Change

This has been a very rapid survey of the heritage of the Goan Christian. Basically Indo-Hindu, it was radically transformed by four and a half centuries of Portuguese dominance, which were marked by a relatively open relationship between the conqueror and the conquered who accepted Christian faith. This led, in the view of some, to a bastardized society of denationalized Goan Christians, who were cut off from their ancestral Indian heritage and compelled to change their names, dress, food, and even language–or to emigrate, as an alternative However, while it is true that the religious and cultural life of the Goan who became a Christian was transformed, his social and economic life was much less affected.25 The Goan Christian learnt to live on good terms with his Hindu neighbours, and as peace-loving citizen, a family person, noted for joie de vivre.

Balkrishna Borker, a great Goan humanist and a Hindu, writes about Goan culture:

The virility and vitality of this, quiet, soft-mannered and peace-loving society's culture were tested and proved beyond doubt when in the sixteenth century the Portuguese conquers of Goa tried fanatically to uproot completely. Though partially impaired under their onslaught of superior arms and administrative machinery it not only outlived it but even absorbed some good and progressive features of their Latin culture. Besides, it turned every difficulty they thrust upon it into a new opportunity to revitalize and enrich itself. It adopted some fine modes of Western living and grafted on its ethos and aesthetics the good sense and good taste peculiar to Latin culture brought by the Portuguese.26

And he continues:

Now with freedom acquired, Goa has infinite possibilities and opportunities to enrich its cultural pattern according to its innate genius, but its wall of isolation having fallen, it also runs the risk of being invaded by varied cultural patterns and also by speed of industrialization which is bound to rob it of its leisure.27

Borker was writing twenty years ago. Today the Goan cultural tradition is still under intense pressure because of the changes in economic and political structures; the increased urbanization and migration; and the impact of films, television, and tourism. Nor has Goan education risen to the challenge–quite the contrary, as it is still struggling with the question of the medium of instruction.

It was said at the seminar on Goa: The Problems of Transition (1964) that

The Goan people today are confronted by the difficult task of throwing off the legacy of Portuguese rule: The various institutions created or sustained by the Portuguese served the needs of the imperialist power and reflected its despotic character.28

This statement is much too categorical. I hold that there are elements of the Portuguese legacy, which are worth retaining, and they form part of the Goan Christian heritage.

The Road Ahead

If we are to maintain our Goan Christian heritage, we must cherish it; that is, we must know and value it. To help us in this task is the work of our educators, at home and in school. But we must also protect and cultivate it, and this in collaboration with Hindu fellow Goans. Such an effort will also help build "a new Goan identity," about which R.S.Newman has written with understanding and which would be based, according to him, on four foundations: a shared economic system, a common history, kinship, and the cultural-linguistic heritage.29

It is not enough to preserve our culture, isolating ourselves from others. This is not desirable: it is not even possible today. Our effort must be to understand our Goan Christian heritage, to appreciate it, enrich it, and share it. A programme of this kind was outlined in the International Goan Convention in 1988.30 It calls for human relations skills, cultural self-awareness, multicultural appreciation and cross-cultural activity.

The Goan is not a stay-at-home. Particularly in this century he has been an emigrant and a "cultural broker." Manglore, Bombay, Karachi, Nairobi, London, New York, Toronto, and Dubai are some of the cities where he has established himself.31"A Goan is at home everywhere and nowhere, a man rooted in his soil but also something of an outsider in his own home. That is, perhaps, what a Goan is a man who lives on the other side of the frontier."32 The life of Goa is a life where cultures meet; this is what the Goan Christian can claim with a sense of pride but also of responsibility It is a distinguished Portuguese scholar who has written:

Four centuries of Christian influence have here been so profoundly absorbed by a geographical milieu and a society which are Indian from top to bottom that one might believe that, like Hinduism, Christianity too had been born in the shade of these palm-trees, on the banks of these rivers. This rooting and this fusion of cultures make Goa, according to the happy expression of Pierre Gourou, "a double treasure of civilization."33

Such is the Goan Christian heritage: a double treasure, to be cherished and to be shared.

——— END ———


  1. Teotonio R. de Souza, "Goan Culture and Identity: Historically Speaking" (mimeographed, Panjim, 1990), pp4
  2. Quoted in Robert de Souza, Goa and the Continent of Circe (Bombay, 1973), p. 33.
  3. Joao da Veiga Coutinho, "A New Look at Goan History" (mimeographed, Panjim, 1989), p.l.
  4. See Dionisio Ribeiro, "The Problem of the Emotional Integration of Goans," in A.B. Shah, ed., Goa: The Problems of Transition (Bombay, 1965), pp· 82-85.
  5. Robert S. Newman, "Goa: The Transformation of an Indian Region," in Pacific Affairs, 57 ( Fall 1984) 429.
  6. William R. da Silva, "Construction of Goan Identity: An Episodic Salient Narrative" (mimeographed, Panjim, 1990), p. 2·
  7. See Lambert Mascarenhas, "Coa: A Cultural Synthesis," in Sart Esteves and Vatsala de Souza, eds., This is Goa (Bombay, 1983).
  8. Teotonio R. de Souza, "Looking from Goa," in International Goan Convention '88 Souvenir (Toronto), p. 53.
  9. Caroline Ifeka, "The Image of Goa," in Teotonio R. de Souza, ed., Indo-Portuguese History, Old Issues, New Questions (New Delhi, 1958), p. 193.
  10. Newman, op. cit., p. 436.
  11. See F. M. Kettering, Cultural Anthropology (New York, 1958), p. 387.
  12. Bento Graciano D'Souza, Goan Society in Transition: A Study in Social Change (Bombay, 1975), p. 46.
  13. R. S. Newman, "Konkani Mai Ascends the Throne: The Cultural Basis of Goan Statehood" (mimeographed, La Trobe University, 1988), p. 26.
  14. Sarto Esteves, Goa and Its Future (Bombay, 1966), p. 31.
  15. See Bento D'Souza, op. cit., pp. 150, 241-247.
  16. Robert de Souza, op. cit., pp. 92-93.
  17. Newman, " Konkani Mai…," p. 25.
  18. See Mascarenhas, op. cit.,
  19. Shah, op. cit., p. 97.
  20. See Pramod Kale, "Konkani Tiatr': An Expression of Popular Cul ture," in B.S. Shastry, ed., Goan Society Through the Ages (New Delhi, 1987), pp 236-247.
  21. See Jos~ Pereira, "The Art Historiography of Baroque India," in Indica (1986), pp. 159-170.
  22. Jose Pereira, "Evolution of the Goan Hindu Temple: Temple of Bloom," in Goa Today (September 1990), p. 36.
  23. See Mariano Saldanha, A Luzitana~Bo de Goa (Goa, 1947), pp. 16-17.
  24. Pratima Kamat, "Some Legal Aspects of the Socio-Economic Life of Women in Portuguese Goa," in Shastry, ed., op. cit., p. 99.
  25. Luis Filipe Thomaz, "Goa: Une SocietC Luso-Indienne," in Bulletin des Etudes Portugaises et Bresiliennes, Tome 42-43, p. 32.
  26. Balkrishna Borker,'"The Goan Personality," in Boletim do Institute Meneses Braganea, No. 96(1971), p. 61.
  27. Ibid., p. 62.
  28. S. P. Aiyer and V. K. Sinha in Shah, ed., op. cit., p. 9.
  29. Newman, "Konkani Mai…," pp. 19-26.
  30. See Judy Luis, "History, Culture and Identity: A Critical Link," in International Goan Convention '88 Souvenir (Toronto), p. 15.
  31. The latest study on Goan migration known to us is: Stella Mascarenhas-Keyes, "International Migration: Its Development, Reproduction and Economic Impact on Goa up to 1961," in Teotonio de Souza, ed., Goa Through the Ages, vol. II, pp. 242-246. It is estimated that in 1954 there were 1,800,000 Goans outside Goa(including 1,000,000 in the Indian Union) (see Bento D'Souza, op ,it., p. 203) and some 5501000 i, Goa itself. Before the Gulf conflict (1990) there were probably around 150,000 Goans outside the Indian Union.
  32. Jay Dubashi, "On Being Goan," in Goa Today (September 1985), P· 39.
  33. Thomaz, op cit., pp 15-16.


Reprinted with permission from:
South Asian Studies Papers, no 9
Goa: Goa Continuity and Change
Edited by Narendra K. Wagle and George Coelho
University of Toronto
Centre for South Asian Studies