The story beneath the ruins...

A lonely relic
Last Updated 17 July 2010, 10:25 IST

 Today it  is just a   400 year old lonely tower of 46 meters (150 feet) overlooking  the old city. It is a mere skeleton of the great  church and is in ruins. Yet it is impressive. This  colossal, four-storied, arched tower built of laterite, once formed part of the facade of the church of  St. Augustine. The ruins of eight chapels, four altars and extensive convent with numerous cells may be seen below it. The portico and the tower are still present and look absolutely splendid.

The  ruins first afford  the tourist, a glimpse of the high altar, with its large gilt tabernacle sheltered within an arch, through a screen of arched piers. Vestiges of most of these piers were visible until recently; they supported a spacious choir which could have accommodated a large number of Augustinian monks. Now under the broken arches, locals sometimes gather and talk.  There was also a barrel vault, whose enormous weight unfortunately hastened its collapse. It was traditional to bury the dead from noble families inside the church itself, close to the sanctuary holding the altar and there are quite a number of  graves  covered with carved stone slabs. 

When it was completed in the early years of the 17th century in 1602, this grand Church was recognised as one of the three great Augustinian churches in the Iberian world, the other two being the Basilica of the Escorial in Spain and St. Vincente de Fora in Lisbon.
During construction, the high vault fell down twice. However, the Italian architect built it again and he and his only son stood under the vault and asked for  heavy cannon  fire to test the stability of the structure. It did not fall down.

In 1835 the church  was abandoned as a result of the expulsion  of the Augustinians  from Goa by the authorities  and the Portuguese government ordered its demolition. The bell of the church, was removed to the  Fort Aguada Light House initially (1841-1871) and in 1871, transferred to the  Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, Panaji. This  functioning  bell  weighs about 2,250 kilograms.

After being given up by the Augustines, the church was used for missionary and charity work by the charitable institution of the Misericordia for quite a while. However, the buildings finally fell into neglect. This resulted in the collapse of the vault on September 8,  1842. As a direct result of all these occurrences, the  Goa Government appropriated the property and sold the materials of the remains of the church in 1843.

 In 1846, the main vault  of the church  collapsed and the convent  rapidly  decayed. The facade collapsed on August 8,  and August 19, 1931 and  whatever was left of the the facade of the church including the 46 meters tall tower fell in 1938. By this time, many of the valuable  articles  had been either  sold or lost or dispersed across other churches in Goa.

Somewhere beneath these crumbling stones was hidden the missing corpse of Queen Ketevan of Gerorgia. The Archaeological Survey of India  (ASI)  was  looking for her   grave  for the last 15 years at the request of the Georgian government, for whom Queen Ketavan  (now St.Ketavan)  is the patron saint.

In 1613, the Emperor of Persia  Shah Abbas, led an army to conquer the Georgian kingdom and he took Queen Ketevan as  prisoner. Ketevan, was martyred in 1624 after refusing to convert to Islam or to marry her captor,  who had her flesh torn  off with  hot tongs! She was  killed most brutally. According to an account, her  brains were boiled in a giant kettle! Her remains were recovered and hidden by Portuguese clerics in Persia, who then spirited  it to Goa.   According to historians , the queen’s right hand and right arm were buried in St Augustine church in Goa while other relics  were buried in a Georgian orthodox church cathedral  in Georgia.

A team of Georgian and Archaeological  survey of India experts, in a joint effort, found the relics from under the window of the  church in  2006.  DNA tests  on the remains are being done under the auspices of the ASI. 

But the hoary church may yet have many untold stories which lie buried the debris of the past. What remains of the five storey tall tower is thankfully being conserved against all odds for future generations.

(Published 17 July 2010, 10:25 IST)

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