Undying Old Goa

Undying Old Goa

She has not been canonised by the Vatican, but is a saint nevertheless... in Georgia, at least. The church in this East European country has a few bones, and, literally so, to pick with its counterpart in Goa. They want the relics of Queen Ketevan of Kakheti (Eastern Georgia), who was martyred for love and whose bones were later smuggled into Goa.

Roll back. Queen Ketevan was drop-dead gorgeous and her beauty filled a Persian king’s heart with lust. He wanted her at any cost, but she was already married. That did not deter the king, who kidnapped her and whisked her away to his domain. But the queen was a faithful wife and staunch Christian, and rebuffed all his advances. She paid the ultimate price: death. The story does not end there.

Friars of the St Augustine Portuguese order smuggled her remains out of Persia and brought them to Goa, and gave her a fitting burial there.

Found here...
Fast forward to the year 2014. After years of searching for the relics of the queen, they were finally found in the ruins of the 16th century St Augustine Monastery on Holy Hill to the west of Old Goa. Georgia wants the saint’s relics. Goa claims her as her daughter, too. In fact, the smallest state in the Indian Union has started to celebrate her memory by holding the Ketevan Music Festival each year.

The Ketevan World Sacred Music Festival is held amidst the atmospheric red laterite ruins of St Augustine Monastery, where one can imagine that the ghosts of the past strut and sashay in the light of a full moon.

The now-ruined monastery (a 17th century traveller had said that from a distance, it resembled a noble palace) consisted of a church, cloisters, galleries, halls and cells for the friars as well as expansive lawns, and a library. It was abandoned by the Augustinians in 1835, and  just an empty shell remains today; broken walls, niches and a crumbling 46-metre tower of the church pointing an accusing finger at the heavens above.

We walked amidst the weeds and creepers that cloak what was one of the grandest churches of Old Goa and felt the thrum of magic. The Ketavan World Sacred Music Festival is held there in February each year in the altar of the ruined church and brings together an eclectic blend of musical streams. Carnatic, Christian, Sufi, Hindustani, Jewish, Native and many other musical traditions meld to create a goosebump-worthy affair. Stirring melodies and symphonies soar into a soft February sky, blurring the lines between the past and present. The sacred nature of the site enhances the ethereal experience.

As we ambled around Holy Hill, we stumbled on the convent and church of Santa Monica. There in a lonely chapel stands a remarkable cross. Nuns attending a service on February 8, 1636 suddenly realised that they were a blessed lot as a miracle started to unravel right before their eyes. Christ, nailed to the beams of the crucifix, suddenly opened his eyes and started to weep tears of blood. Four days later, Christ started to weep blood once more in the presence of the Portuguese viceroy and the local inquisitors.

Then there is the miracle of Dona Maria de Crom, daughter of a German nobleman who died in the convent on January 2, 1683. What made her death remarkable was that stigmata (wounds that resembled the lacerations that Christ suffered during his crucifixion) appeared on her hands and feet.

There are no miracles in the adjoining Museum of Christian Art except for the fact that religion and art come together seamlessly, with strands that are unique to India woven in. Gasp-inducing ceremonial robes embossed with ivory figurines; silver challises; an ornate crucifix; a relief of the Holy Trinity on a marble slab...

Enshrined in a side altar of Se Cathedral, in the touristy heart of Old Goa, is the Growing Cross. Some two centuries ago, on February 23, a congregation praying in front of the cross saw an image of Christ nailed to the cross. It is believed that, ever since, on the anniversary of the miracle, Christ relives the agony and glory of his crucifixion by ascending once more on the cross, which old-timers swear is larger than when they saw it in their youth.

All things sacred
Across the cathedral, which is the largest church in Asia, rises the Basilica of Bom Jesus. Within this grand red laterite building, we seemed to swim in a sea of devotion for it houses the mortal remains of Old Goa’s most celebrated resident: St Francis Xavier. Uncorrupted even in death, the body of the saint is on display in a glass-panelled silver casket perched on top of a late-17th century memorial sculpted by Giovanni Battista Foggini of Florence, Italy.

Devotees filed up to the memorial, bowed in reverence, muttered silent prayers and left behind pleas for divine favours even as cameras clicked and captured the moments in their memory banks. Meanwhile, we heard a guide tell his flock of how, centuries after his death, blood started to gush out of one of the saint’s toe when a lady bit it off in a fit of devotional passion.

The image of Christ on the Inquisition Cross in the museum behind the main altar had graphic streaks of blood running across it. The crucifix was used to accuse Jews and other non-believers of being responsible for His continued suffering.

Interestingly, the Archaeological Society of India (ASI) leaned on the clergy to dig this rather disturbing exhibit out of its vaults and put it on display. On our last evening, we headed for the Church of Our Lady of the Mount, located on a wooded hillock. The charming whitewashed church looks down at Old Goa, its spires peering over a sea of palms, like a benevolent mother. Each year in February, the grounds around the church resonate with the magical sounds of the Monte Music Festival.

Jazz, classic Western music and Indian ragas... musical notes float down from the hillock and embrace the once-living city below.

Yes, Old Goa was once the capital of Portuguese India. However, when a wave of epidemics — small pox, cholera, the plague — swept over the bustling city, residents abandoned their homes and fled. The Portuguese shifted their capital to Panaji. At dusk, tourists start to drain out of the once-mighty city. It is time for the restless wraiths, saints and icons in the many churches to come to life and fill the vacuum.

That is when Old Goa is draped in an eerie, other-worldly beauty. We hurried back to Champakali, our boutique homestay, 15 minutes away, and felt the warmth of its hospitality wrap us in its comforting embrace.

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