Treasure trove for antique lovers

glory of old goa
Last Updated : 15 May 2010, 12:19 IST

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As I look up at her from the sunlit garden, I feel like a lowly commoner about to intrude upon the privacy of the local aristocracy. I am in the sleepy village of Chandor in south Goa where right by the village square, sits a beautiful sprawling Portuguese mansion called Braganca House. Aida Menezies Braganca is the matriarch of one half of the house — the west wing. As I climb up the winding stairs to greet her, I feel I am entering another world. She waves her servants away and then closes the heavy carved wooden door behind us. Without any preliminaries, Aida Menezies Braganca starts her tour.

A look in any direction will take your breath away. From the ceiling tiles hand-painted by Chinese artists, to the oyster shell windows and the exquisite porcelain plates from Macau adorning the walls, I realise I am entering a world of exquisite beauty. This 450-year-old mansion, says Aida Menezies Braganca, was built in the 16th century by two brothers. After completing the first stage of the house, the two brothers began to live separately. The west wing became the property of the Menezies Bragancas and the east wing of the Pereira Bragancas. Aida Menezies Braganca is the seventh generation of the family, and to date, nine generations have lived here.

Ancient atmosphere
One of the most striking features of the interiors is the handcrafted furniture in rosewood and teakwood. More than two centuries old, it was made by Goan carpenters who would come to Braganca house every day to carve. These include intricately carved four-poster beds adorned with the family’s initials and dining chairs that are the exact replica of those, which are now used by Queen Elizabeth in the Buckingham Palace.

The showstopper in the west wing is, however, the library. Aida Menezies Braganca proudly says that this is the single largest private library in all of Goa. 5000 books sit on rows and rows of book shelves running alongside the walls. There are Portuguese, English, French and Latin tomes. I spy a well-thumbed copy of War and
Peace nestling close to an obscure Portuguese journal.

As I walk from room to room, it is hard not to be touched by a sense of nostalgia and melancholy. In the music room, I imagine the tinkle of the old piano, perhaps a family gathering around it and singing old Portuguese songs. Solemn looking ancestors stare down at me from portraits on the wall. I feel like I am disturbing the ancient atmosphere of the house.

The west wing seems completely insulated from the modern world. Later, Judy, the official guide, tells me that in 1962, a year after Goa’s liberation, new land reforms meant that the family lost all the land they owned. With no compensation from the government, they were forced to open Braganca house to the public. Today it relies on public contributions for upkeep and the tour inevitably ends with a stop at the collection box. (a minimum of Rs 100 is expected.) I say goodbye and the door of the west wing closes behind me.

Slice of history
As if by clockwork, the door of the east wing opens. The guide ushers me in and I get a glimpse of the Pereira Braganca-side of the house. Here, the age of the house and the ravages of time are more apparent. In the ballroom — the most exquisite room of the house, with its Italian alabaster marble flooring and crystal chandeliers from Venice, the ceiling is damp and peeling in large chunks. And yet I can so easily envisage the many balls that took place here, and see the gentry of old Portuguese Goa gliding elegantly across the marble floors.

The house is a place of refuge for objects that recall an earlier age. In the corridor, sit a pair of ancient tombstones belonging to the Pereira-Braganca ancestors. Dating back to the 1800s, they were suffering damage in the open graveyard and are now protected indoors. Right next to them in the corridor lies a palanquin. It was used extensively by the Braganca ancestors as a common mode of transport and needed four able-bodied servants to lift and carry the precious cargo.

Interestingly, the east wing also contains a family chapel complete with a single fingernail, a relic of the Jesuit saint St Francis Xavier. As my tour of the east wing comes to an end (with another stop at the collection box), I am filled with a sense of nostalgia for what Braganca House (both parts of it) represents. The entire house breathes saudade, the Portuguese word for a feeling of longing for something dear that is
now gone.

It represents an age, which is nearly lost and stands for the fragile nature of Goa’s heritage — constantly threatened by modernity. The walls of the house preserve a Goa that has withstood the tourist onslaught — from the hippies in the 60s, the ravers in the 90s to the package tourists of the millennium. Perhaps, Braganca House will see a renaissance and come to represent the future of Goa, where visitors, tired of over-commercialisation, crime and drugs of the beach scene, will be drawn to the history and culture of this fascinating state. Let’s hope so. This monument — a remarkable piece of art and slice of history is worth preserving.
Gargi Shastri

Published 15 May 2010, 12:19 IST

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