Saibachem Goem

The port of Old Goa was founded in the 15th century CE by the Sultan of Bijapur, captured by the Portuguese in 1510, and served as the capital of Portugal in the east until it was slowly abandoned after several epidemics in the 18th century. Of the several churches here, the one that drew me is the Basilica of Bom Jesu, which contains the remains of Francisco Xavier, the accidental traveling missionary who was sent to Goa by the Pope at the request of the Portuguese king, and was responsible for setting up the infamous Goa Inquisition. The local Konkan name for Old Goa is Saibachem Goem, ie, Goa of the saib, Xavier.

The church is a huge building made of the local laterite stone, with several interior courtyards. The large wooden entrance door was rather plain, but set in an imposingly tall doorway made of marble. It was glowing red like newly cut stone, not at all what I’d expected of a church built in the 16th century. I suppose the facade must have been blasted clean with sand and water just before I arrived (I should remember not to visit often, because this treatment cannot be very good for the stone). The ASI has been in charge of the upkeep of the church since it was declared to be a world heritage site, and although the local chapter of the organization has been accused of negligence, they are pretty competent in the matter of preservation.

Looking more carefully at the stone I realized that the cleaning was not too recent. The stone had started weathering again, and moss was growing in the mortar. I suppose it must have been cleaned for the 500th birth anniversary of Xavier, a couple of years before I visited. The rain here is extremely heavy, and even when I visited, at the end of a monsoon season more than a decade ago, it was raining continuously. The amount of moss I saw was consistent with just a couple of years of growth. A service was on, and people kept arriving. All of them came on foot, and I wondered who was the lone person who had come here on a bike.

Except for the very ornate altar, the church was quite plain. After the service was over I admired the altar, but the light was too bad for photos. The gallery of art work on an upper level was closed for the day. I looked in at the crypt of Xavier, and the famous glass casket where most of his body is interred (some parts have been taken to Rome and Macau). The casket bears beautiful work, almost 400 years old, by Goan silversmiths depicting scenes from Xavier’s life. I wished the light was good enough to take photos of the details.

Xavier’s life is well known and very well documented; even his Wikipedia entry is enormous. I find it interesting that he was part of the millennia-long power struggle between the Eastern and Western Christian churches. When he arrived in India and began traveling to convert local people to Christianity, he visited the tomb of the apostle Thomas in Mylapore, and would have been aware of the many sects of older Christians in India, several of which had attended the very early Synods which codified the doctrines of Christian faith. Perhaps this was even at the heart of his championing the establishment of an Inquisition in Portuguese India. I’m sure that there are many studies of the religious and political climate which drove him east to Borneo, Japan, and eventually to China, where he died in 1552. I wonder though whether the urge to travel was not among his motivations.