The buses disgorged visitors every few minutes and sped away
to allow new arrivals. Traffic had been diverted and policemen waved cars away
to follow new routes around the church complex in Old Goa. Like ants crawling
toward sugar, visitors of all ages from different parts of the country walked
along a narrow street lined with shops and vendors squatting by the roadside.
Some sold cheap trinkets and others stuffed bun paus with greasy
rosaries of red chorizo sausage for eager buyers. A makeshift tattoo parlour
was doing brisk business. A few stalls had put out Christmas decorations on
It felt like a carnival.
A ferris wheel turned slowly in the air, cotton candy spun like pink hair around little sticks, and paper cups and plastic wrappers fell to the ground. Wonderful calypso-style Konkani music blared from a stall selling CDs and an old crone in a skirt with bandaged forearm stopped me to pin a tiny paper flower on my shirt front.
The broad avenue leading to the famous churches offers a splendid sweep of the dark brown Bom Jesus church—built of laterite with red tiled roof—on the left and the milk white Sé Cathedral, the largest in Asia, on its right, with coconut palms and trees standing in the distance against a clear blue sky. Banners hung from lines strung along lamp posts on either side. The lawns flanking the avenue were dotted with portable toilets.
Visitors rested on the grass, posed for photos, and had picnics. There were a fair number of foreigners, as well as Hindus and Muslims. A large pandal had been set up outside the main entrance of Bom Jesus and hundreds of seats provided for the pious to listen to masses in different languages.
Conducted on a stage, the prayers and incantations of the priests amplified through speakers. At least 10 masses were conducted daily I was told, and the number of visitors totalled about 60,000 every day.
There was a sense of solemnity pervading the festive mood. This was the 17th Exposition of their beloved saint, unfolding after 10 years; the first having taken place in 1782. A week before I went there, on November 22, the saint’s body or whatever remains of it—“holy relics”—had been taken down from its lofty perch inside a silver glass-panelled casket above a gaudy Florentine marble and jasper pedestal ringed by cherubs, and after prayers carried out of Bom Jesus by pall bearers chosen from various parishes across Goa in a solemn march to Sé Cathedral a few hundred metres away, followed by a long file of distinguished priests and VIPs.
The pure whiteness of the Sé’s exterior belies the grandiose dim interior lit by crystal chandeliers that drop from a high vaulted ceiling. It is baroque splendour made to bring onlookers down on their knees.
An enterprising photographer among the scrum who jostled for
clear shots had used a camera mounted on a remote controlled drone. Some
western newsmen were present, and a TV crew had come from Portugal. After a
mass conducted by the Archbishop of Goa and Daman, along with two of his ilk
from Itanagar and Mangalore, the saint had been installed upon a low table in the cathedral,
where he remained for the duration of the
Exposition, available every day for viewing from 6 a.m. to 6.30 p.m.
Every day, local newspapers carried detailed reports of the spectacle and announcements of the day’s special events, which included a sound-and-light show and musicals in the evenings in a theatre close by. The newspapers carried front page reports about the great saint and his enduring legacy. A special commemorative issue was put out by the Herald Group. An editorial in the Herald English daily was headlined “Bless Us Goencho Saib!” and said, “May St. Francis Xavier protect Goa and all those who will come to venerate him during these 44 days while his sacred remains are being exposed for a closer touch and feel! May he grant us our prayer for Goa always to remain peaceful, tranquil and well protected. May he listen to us as we pray…”
Joining the long queue winding into the cathedral, I made my way through metal detectors and moved forward with stops and starts as the people far ahead entered through a side door for darshan. After about ten minutes I had had enough, fell out of line and walked away. I had after all seen the saint half a century ago in 1964. It was the first Exposition after Goa had attained independence three years earlier and I was six, driven by my grandparents from Belgaum where we lived, about four hours away. The dappled memory of that trip has remained with me ever since, full of sounds and smells from an innocent past.
The pure whiteness of the Sé’s exterior belies the grandiose dim interior lit by crystal chandeliers that drop from a high vaulted ceiling. On either side flanking the aisles are tiny chapels and alcoves. There are angels aplenty, tall columns, and beyond the altar at the far end, a wall of sheer gold, rising to the ceiling.
It is baroque splendour redolent of a bygone age, made to impress and bring onlookers down on their knees. Worshippers sat upon wooden pews and prayed quietly or spoke in hushed tones, while up ahead before the main altar, cordoned off by erected barriers and police on duty, lay the saint, cut off from view. All I could see was the unending stream of visitors shuffle in, go round the casket, many of them touching and caressing the same in awe and blessing themselves. They exited through another side door next to the one they had come through. The perambulation lasted less than two minutes. Once in a while, a volunteer steered in the very old or infirm in a wheelchair, did the U-turn and went out again into the sunshine.
t. Xavier lay calm and serene in the coffin framed in silver … the body clayish in colour measures about four feet and an inch. It is draped in ... the saint’s left hand is folded over his chest. A part of the right arm, which was cut off in 1614 has been preserved in a reliquary on the altar of the Church of Jesus in Rome. The other portions lie in Malacca and Cochin. The right shoulder blade is in Macao. The face is wrinkled with the dried up skin separating from the bone.
“The left portion of the scalp has peeled off, exposing the skull. The eyes have sunk in their sockets while a few teeth are visible through the parted lips. The bare feet have shrunk considerably. The right foot has only the big toe ... A chunk from the right heel has also disappeared exposing the bones of the ankles...” and so the description, worthy of a forensic report, by a staff writer goes on.
It appeared 50 years ago in the Navhind Times of November 1964. I cannot remember my reaction to peering at the same then. Most probably the sight must have haunted my little dreams. (It is also mentioned in the same issue of the paper that, incredible as it may seem, kissing the body was permitted until 1952. But thereafter the “relics” were hermetically sealed inside a glass box.)
reparations for the Exposition begin a year in advance and involve not only the church but also the state government; the chief minister is appointed chairman of the Exposition Secretariat. Both work in unison to ensure all goes smoothly. This time, Superintendent Bosco George was in charge of the government’s Exposition Committee and had a makeshift office close by the cathedral to answer the media.
A handsome man of 48, George explained the organisational procedures and scale involved in orchestrating such an event. Besides his own media cell, lots of other temporary structures had been put up, he said, and four large pilgrim centres erected to house and feed pilgrims from afar for up to three days. The local panchayat licensed over 600 stalls for the duration of the event. Shuttle buses from Panjim drove back and forth; the fire brigade and ambulances were on stand-by night and day; and security measures required companies of reserve police to be brought in from Maharashtra to bolster the small force Goa could spare.
The total cost, he said, would top the original estimate of ₹50 crore. It would nullify any profits generated by visitors’ expenditure during their stay in Goa. Asked how many were expected, he said three to four million—more than twice the state’s resident population of 1.5 million.
Noting down all this, I asked George at last how he personally felt about the affair and the care and protection befitting a head of state, given that St. Francis had almost single-handedly established the Inquisition and caused untold suffering. He did not flinch.
Goa was made capital of the eastern Portuguese empire—Estado da Índia. More traders and buccaneers began to land ashore to make their fortunes, competing with the Arabs, Jews, Moors and Turks.
“See, one must dissect this issue and look at it in a
historical perspective,” he replied, smiling. It would not be the last time I
heard that phrase during my time in Goa: in a historical perspective.
He directed me to the site of the dreaded Inquisition, a few minutes’ walk from where we were, marked now by a black stone pillar in the middle of a crossroads. Vehicles and pedestrians go past this reminder unaware of its significance and, I imagine, would not believe anyone if they were told its dark history.
fonso de Albuquerque’s takeover of Goa in 1510 laid the foundations of Portuguese rule and began the period of colonial rule, first over small states, and later the whole of India by European powers. The intention was to protect the sea-lanes, then dominated by Portuguese caravels mounted with cannon that carried valuable spices home.
Due to its strategic location between Malacca (in Malaysia) and Hormuz (Persian Gulf), which had also been captured by Albuquerque, Goa was made capital of the eastern Portuguese empire—Estado da Índia.
More traders and buccaneers began to land ashore to make their fortunes, competing with the Arabs, Jews, Moors and Turks who had been trading out of Goa for ages. In their wake came Christian priests.
There is a common misconception among Indians that Xavier and the Jesuits were the first Christian missionaries in Goa. According to A History of Christianity in Asia by Samuel H. Moffett: “For the first 40 years after the arrival of the Portuguese, the only Catholic missionaries in [Goa] were Franciscan. Eight Franciscans had come in 1500 and by 1518, as the numbers rose they were made a commissariat and began to build a friary.” There were also a number of Dominicans but they did not group themselves until about 1550 and only thereafter became strong.
Xavier was not meant to come here. When King John III of Portugal asked Pope Paul III to dispatch men of the cloth to the far horizons of his expanding empire, he sent for the newly formed Jesuits, who came together in 1534 as the Society of Jesus (SJ) and with the approbation of the Pope in 1540, had been given the seal of recognition as a new religious order. The Jesuits were making a name for themselves in Rome and elsewhere, so it is no wonder the Pope contacted Ignatius of Loyola, the founder, and asked for seven men.
But that being their total number, Loyola offered two: Simon Rodriguez and Nicholas Bobadilla. The latter fell ill, and so by a simple twist of fate Xavier, who happened to be present, took his place.
rancis Xavier was born in a castle in Navarre, northern Spain, in 1506 into a family that could claim descent from the kings of Navarre. While his older brothers took up the chivalrous military tradition, Francis opted for scholarship and in his 18th year set off for Paris, where he enrolled in a college that boasted among its teachers some of the most illustrious minds of the day. He is said to have studied the classics and many other subjects, including ecclesiastical history and literature.
His preliminary studies over, he took up philosophy, and finally gaining his Masters degree became Professor of Philosophy at Beauvais College. By all accounts he was brilliant, discoursing on metaphysics and logic with eloquence and attracting a growing number of students.
But a chance meeting with Ignatius of Loyola who had come to Paris in 1528 drew him away from academics and cast him in a role he could scarcely have dreamed of and whose repercussions we feel to this day. Loyola was older, also of noble birth with a military background, but had opted for piety instead of the rigours of soldiering. When he forged the Society with his band of six young Catholics, he brought to it the same zeal, sense of purpose, and pride as would a knight riding to the Holy Land. He also composed Spiritual Exercises, a series of meditations for moral rearmament.
The initiates took vows of poverty and strove to strengthen body and spirit with strict discipline in order to preach the Gospel. (Among the reformist Hindus impressed by the Jesuits were Swami Vivekananda and Gopal Krishna Gokhale who was inspired by Loyola in organising his Servants of India Society.)
Xavier travelled to Italy and was ordained in 1537. So when the time came, he willingly started on the odyssey that would take him to the edge of China and everlasting fame, in a rough spun cassock, with a breviary and crucifix, and fierce ambition for sustenance.
Goa, by the time Xavier landed in 1542 after a voyage lasting 13 months in the company of a new Viceroy, Martin Affonso de Sousa, was already a bishopric. One of the first things he did was to pay his respects to the Bishop, a Franciscan. Then he set about his mission in earnest, living with the poor, treating the sick and dying, preaching to one and all. He seems to have been appalled at the growing decadence of Portuguese officers and merchants, and the local populace. A man of action, he impressed everyone with his zeal and single-mindedness. He was there as a servant of God and he meant to proclaim the Truth to as many as possible so that they may be saved, come what may. Moral reform and mass conversions were his goals.
In one of his first letters back to the Society in Rome, he wrote: “There is now in these parts a very large number of persons who have only one reason for not becoming Christian, and that is that there is no one to make them Christians. It often comes into my mind to go round all the Universities of Europe, and especially that of Paris, crying out everywhere like a madman, and saying to all the learned men there whose learning is so much greater than their charity, ‘Ah! what a multitude of souls is through your fault shut out of heaven and falling into hell’!” (Henry James Coleridge, The Life and Letters of St. Francis Xavier)
Roberto de Nobili, an Italian Jesuit related to two popes, came to Goa in 1605. He wasted no time in going native—first learning Sanskrit and later Tamil, gave up meat, shaved his head, and wore dhotis.
He was a prolific letter writer, signing each off with a great flourish of long, slanted strokes, and it is possible to construct a fair picture of his life in Goa and elsewhere through their chronology, and those written by others who knew him.
Giving a description of locals in the same letter, he writes: “We have in these parts a class of men among the pagans who are called Brahmins. They keep up the worship of the gods, the superstitious rites of religion, frequenting the temples and taking care of the idols. They are as perverse and wicked a set as can anywhere be found, and I always apply to them the words of holy David, ‘From an unholy race and a wicked and crafty man deliver me, O Lord’. They are liars and cheats to the very backbone.
“Their whole study is how to deceive most cunningly the
simplicity and ignorance of the people. They give out publicly that the gods
command certain offerings to be made to their temples, which offerings are
simply the things that the Brahmins themselves wish for, for their own
maintenance and that of their wives, children, and servants ... The Brahmins
eat sumptuous meals to the sound of drums, and make the ignorant believe that
Further on he adds: “Brahmins have barely a tincture of literature, but they make up for their poverty in learning by cunning and malice. Those who belong to these parts are very indignant with me for exposing their tricks.”
It is no wonder that he did not have much success with the Brahmins, and is credited with only a single conversion among them until he left India. (In complete contrast to Xavier was Roberto de Nobili, an Italian Jesuit, also of noble birth and related to two popes, who came to Goa in 1605. He wasted no time in going native—first learning Sanskrit and later Tamil, he read Hindu scriptures, gave up meat, shaved his head, and wore dhotis, earning the nickname of “White Brahmin”. He was very successful in Brahmin conversions in and around Madurai.)
Fr. James Brodrick, well-known biographer of St Xavier and
himself a Jesuit, while writing about Miguel Vaz, a co-worker of Xavier, states
how Vaz’s policy of conversions involved “a great deal of pressure, social and
financial” and resulted in breeding a hatred of
In his book Saint Francis Xavier, Broderick wrote, “St Francis Xavier’s knowledge of Hinduism was, if possible, even less adequate than his few biased notions of Mohammedanism. Though the Portuguese had been in India for over 40 years, none of them appears to have made the slightest attempt to understand the venerable civilization, so much more ancient than their own, on which they had violently intruded.”
he three marks of the Portuguese empire continued to be trade, anti-Islamism and religion. They decided early that no faith need be kept with a non-Christian, and to this policy of perfidy added a tendency of cruelty beyond the normal limits of what was a cruel age (Encyclopaedia Britannica).
By the mid-1500s, firmly in possession of Goa, and later Daman and Diu where they had built strong forts, as well as tiny Dadra and Nagar Haveli in the northwest, the Portuguese seemed content with making money and keeping the powder dry, leaving priests to spread the catechism and educate.
Competition must have been great among the different orders and plenty of intrigue played out, as they pullulated and sought patronage and funds to finance their missions and gather souls. They set about building churches and chapels all over, while the chilli plants brought from Latin America via Lisbon, flourished and soon replaced homegrown pepper as the spice of choice.
Later, in the 1560s the first cashew trees were planted and multiplied. Before the century’s end Goa was being referred to as the Rome of the East.
Taking a guided tour around Old Goa one afternoon, I was struck by the tropical beauty so abundant everywhere, whitewashed churches here and there, and the Mandovi flowing lazily. But history soon raised its ugly head as the guide, Kanchan Naik, in her early 40s, casually mentioned that on the site of the St. Cajetan Church we had just seen stood a Shiva temple. A well lies beneath the altar, she added, but is now covered. Asked what she thought of the saint, she laughed nervously, saying “He came with a cross in one hand and a sword in the other!”
In all, over 300 temples and some mosques were destroyed in Goa, and the matter of conversions remains a sensitive topic. A café owner named Raju Amonkar lowered his voice, telling me to be careful while discussing it with Christians, while the publisher of The Goa Inquisition by A. K. Priolkar—he reprinted that classic account some years ago—did not wish to be quoted when he spoke to me in his Panjim office.
“You might set fires alight!” he warned dramatically as I left.
The year before Xavier arrived, a Confraternity had decided in 1541 to start a seminary which would cater to the “education of children of all Asiatic nationalities … so that the torch of Faith might be taken to the whole East”.
Goa was thus among the first dioceses in the world to think of seminary education for the formation of secular priests. The Franciscan friar Diogo de Borba was to head it. Initially in 1541 it had 20 candidates being taught first the rudiments of Portuguese and then of Latin. It was named Seminary of the Holy Faith.
After Xavier landed in May 1542, he was put in charge, but by September of the same year, he left for south India, leaving it again in the hands of de Borba. Eventually after 1548, it developed under the Jesuits into the famous St. Paul’s College. It trained not only Jesuit and secular candidates in great numbers for the priesthood, but also other religious orders, as well as laymen who wanted to follow other professions.
Some years later, with the variety of the subjects it taught, it could rightly be called an Oriental University with 3,000 students. Its library was one of the biggest in Asia, and the first printing press was mounted in its premises in 1556. The Doutrina Christa composed by Xavier became the first book ever printed in India the following year. A short time later, three Jesuits from Goa ventured to the court of Akbar, who was born in the year of Xavier’s arrival. There they tried but failed to convert the young emperor.
It is extraordinary how prejudiced and full of venom the man was even by the standards of his time, when much of the world and its people still remained undiscovered.
oing south through Malabar—where he faced stiff resistance
from members of the older Syrian Christian faith—Xavier hastened to Cape
Comorin, finding fertile ground among the fisherfolk. Starting with them, he
worked his way up the east coast all the way to Tuticorin, converting Paravas by the score.
He writes to his friend Ignatius of walking through villages
ringing a bell to attract children who would run behind him “and baptised all
the children that had not been baptised. In this way I have christened a
multitude of children who, as the saying is, did not know their right hand from
the left. Then the young boys would never let me say office or eat or sleep,
till I had taught them some prayer.” (The Life and Letters of St.
He would complain in another letter that his arms ached at night from having dunked so many boys in water all day long. And that at first sight the Paravas seemed to him so dark and ugly he thought they could have had no souls!
“Following the baptisms, the new Christians return to their homes and come back with their wives and families to be in their turn also prepared for baptism. After all have been baptised, I order that everywhere the temples of the false gods be pulled down and idols broken. I know not how to describe in words the joy I feel before the spectacle of pulling down and destroying the idols by the very people who formerly worshipped them.”
All this after the Hindu Raja of Quilon had given him a large grant to build churches. It is extraordinary how prejudiced and full of venom the man was even by the standards of his time, when much of the world and its people still remained undiscovered.
He must have known the terrors and excesses of the Holy Inquisition. Yet he persisted, beseeching the crown to set up a tribunal in Goa. The institution came to Goa in 1560, eight years after Xavier’s death.
He returned to Goa with a rich harvest of thousands of
converts and set about its improvement with gusto. Besides the European rabble
who lived in sin, the group that most drew his ire was the Jews. They fled
Portugal in the thousands to north Africa and northern Europe, while many came
to Goa following an expulsion ordered by the king in 1496 to impress his in-laws
Prince Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain by copying their action of 1492
(in which year Columbus set off to discover the New World—his epoch-making
voyage bankrolled by Jews).
Francis Xavier sent this letter to King John III on May 16, 1545: “The second necessity for the Christians is that Your Majesty establish the Holy Inquisition because there are many who live according to the Jewish law, and according to the Mahomedan sect, without any fear of God or shame of the world. And since there are many spread all over the fortresses there is the need of the Holy Inquisition and of many preachers. Your Majesty should provide such necessary things for your loyal and faithful subjects in India.” (Joseph Wicki, Documenta Indica, Vol. IV)
The above letter and more thereafter laid the foundations for a cataclysm for which Xavier must bear the responsibility. As a theologian and former professor he must have known the terrors and excesses of the Holy Inquisition, which had existed in his country for years. Yet he persisted, beseeching the crown in Lisbon to set up a tribunal in Goa. The King refused but his successor yielded. And the institution, flourishing in Portugal since 1536, came to be installed in Goa in 1560, eight years after Xavier’s death.
here were two inquisitions or, to put it better, two currents of inquisition, quite dissimilar in their origins and functions. The first, in the 13th century, was the result of a long process set in motion by the popes; it is often called ‘the pontifical inquisition’. The second answered to an initiative of the Catholic kings of Spain who, in 1478, asked the Pope to reorganise the former institution.
“This tool of royal absolutism—aimed at the religious minorities of Jews and Moslems, who were being assimilated with difficulty into the national life, and at the current trends of thought which seemed to be threatening the social order—would not be suppressed until the 19th century. This was the object of ‘the black legend’, so tenacious that even today the term ‘inquisition’ immediately arouses emotional reactions and evokes concepts of fanaticism and intolerance among the people.
“For the least grave faults the tribunal imposed penalties of a religious nature: to carry a cross, to visit churches, to make pilgrimages—or more weighty undertakings. If the heretic was obdurate, the church handed him over to the secular arm which could, from the 13th century on, decree the death penalty. From 1252 on, the Inquisition made use of the right to torture those charged with heresy, as was customary at the time in common law.” (Guy Bedouelle, The Holy Inquisition: Dominic and the Dominicans)
The Holy Office, as it called itself, was set up in a former palace long occupied by governors and viceroys of Goa which they called Santa Casa, with two secular canonists as chief inquisitors aided by many priests and torturers. Henceforth no one was safe except the priests. It must have been a terrifying time, especially for the newly converted, many of whom were accused of worshipping their banned gods in secret and dragged away to be punished. Victims, young and old, were arrested for the flimsiest of reasons. They were never told who had given evidence against them, adding to their mental agony.
Christian notions of heresy were deep-rooted and absurd, as these prohibitions on Hindu marriages which came into force just before the Inquisition’s establishment, show:
“The instruments for Hindu songs shall not be played; While giving dowry the relatives of the bride and groom must not be invited; At the time of marriage, betel leaf packages (paan) must not be distributed either publicly or in private to the persons present; Flowers, or fried puris, betel nuts and leaves must not be sent to the heads of the houses of the bride or groom; On the day prior to a wedding, rice must not be husked, spices must not be pounded, grains must not be ground and other recipes for marriage feast must not be cooked; The poor must not be fed or ceremonial meals must not be served for the peace of the souls of the dead; Hindu men should not wear dhoti either in public or in their houses. Women should not wear cholis; They should not plant Tulsi in their houses, compounds, gardens or any other place.” (Teotónio R. de Souza, The Goa Inquisition)
The most famous and the only first-person account of what it was like to be imprisoned in that evil palace is that of M. Dellon, a 24-year-old French Catholic falsely accused and arrested in Daman in 1673 and then transported to Goa where he languished over two years.
He wrote his account in France, eight years after his release. “So soon as the condemned arrive at the place where the Lay Judges are assembled, they are asked in what religion they wish to die; without referring in any manner to the proceedings against them, which are presumed to have been perfectly correct, and the prisoners justly condemned, the infallibility of the Inquisition being never questioned. Upon this question being answered, the executioner lays hold of them, and binds them to the stake, where they are previously strangled if they die Christians, and burnt alive if they persist in Judaism or Heresy.” (M. Dellon, An Account of the Inquisition at Goa in India)
Once sentenced, the guilty were dressed in long vests painted with flames pointing upward if they were to burn, and flames going down if not. The rack, spikes, stakes and other more imaginative instruments were used to extract confessions in dungeons—all so that the poor victims’ souls might be saved. If this were not history, one would imagine it to exist only within the tales of the Brothers Grimm.
In Europe, the Goa Inquisition became notorious for its cruelty and use of torture. Voltaire wrote: “Goa is sadly famous for its inquisition, which is contrary to humanity as much as to commerce. The Portuguese monks deluded us into believing that the Indian populace was worshipping the Devil, while it is they who served him.”
Exact numbers are not available, but upwards of 16,000 people of all faiths—including lapsed Christians—are known to have been tried and a few hundred killed, most of them publicly in the autos-da-fé (acts of faith). Thousands fled to safety in Konkan and other areas outside Portuguese jurisdiction.
The Inquisition lasted until 1812 when, through the intervention of the British, it was ended. (In Portugal, it lasted until 1821.) Some years thereafter the palace where it had unfolded was torn down.
Today only the lone stone pillar stands as a reminder.
he exactitude of the institution and the “lawful” manner in which it was carried out is worth noting. Desmond Nazareth, who made a 70-minute documentary Souls and Spices on the Portuguese in Goa in 2003, said he had free access to the vast files, neatly numbered and preserved in the Torre do Tombo, the national archives in Lisbon set up in 1378. The footage he shot was from records dated 1701. They reveal details of every trial, however small, noted in legible script running across page after page.
“They kept very meticulous records,” he told me. Their methods could well be a template for the Gestapo, KGB, Stasi and other such organisations of modern times.
I went to the Goa State Central Library in Panjim one morning to check old files. Above the entrance to the large and modern building is a blue-and-white tile Mario Miranda mural. It shows Portuguese ships sailing into Goa, watched by curious natives amid coconut palms. I took it as a good sign, remembering how in 1996 Miranda had told me at his residence in Bombay that Indians knew precious little of Goa’s history. I like to think the good man would have been pleased by my research.
Asking for any English newspaper of the year of my first visit, I was handed a cloth bound file containing issues of the Navhind Times, October to December 1964. Turning the grey pages of the broadsheet (price: 10 paise), I gleaned a front-page report headlined “Mysterious Circular Calls For Sabotage”.
The story, dated October 13, described a circular by
Movimento Resistência Goesa (MORG), a notorious Portuguese organisation based
in Paris for “liberating Goa from India”. It appealed to government servants
and leading citizens “to sabotage by all means possible the government’s
efforts to make the Exposition of the remains of Saint Francis Xavier a
success”. MORG was also spreading lies about the repression of Catholics in Goa
and trying its best to prevent Pope Paul VI from attending the Eucharistic
Congress in Bombay,
Reading with pleasure of a time when I could not read newspapers, I saw another tantalising item. Dated November 8, it was headlined “Life of St. Francis Xavier”.
“A full-length motion picture of St Francis Xavier is currently nearing completion at Mohan Studios in Bombay,” the report began and went on to say it was being directed by Vernon Corke who also played the lead, for AVN Productions. Highlights were listed as “a cabaret dance, an African war dance, a harvest dance, and a kunbi.” Production was said to have cost `5 lakh and it was slated for release on December 3 on the feast of St. Xavier. However, when I turned to that day’s issue there was nothing about the film, and I could find no more about it in subsequent issues. That film may still be lying around somewhere in rusty cans. It should be fun to watch.
I then read about the Exposition, copying the macabre description—reproduced early in this report—and after looking at some books on Xavier, left the excellent library.
n 1545, Xavier set sail for Malacca after learning of opportunities for evangelisation in that Portuguese outpost. Having found missions among the Malays and the headhunters of the Spice Islands (Moluccas), he returned to Goa in 1548, only to leave the following year, venturing farther east to Japan, landing in August 1549 at Kagoshima.
The Japanese made a favourable impression, and in one of his first letters from there, he calls them “the best people yet discovered”. But in late 1551, having received no post since his arrival, Xavier decided to return to India where he assumed administrative duties as head of the Jesuits.
But the call of the wild being strong, the missionary set forth yet again to try and breach the border of China, a country then closed to foreigners. He wrote to Loyola from Cochin in January 1552: “I hope to sail for China in this year 1552, whither I am attracted by the hope of being able to do good work in furthering greatly the service of God … I am full of confidence that by the labours of our Society, the Chinese and Japanese will abandon their idolatrous superstitions and adore Jesus Christ, the Saviour of all nations.” (The Life and Letters of St. Francis Xavier)
Having landed on the island of Sancian (now Shang-ch’uan Tao, off the Chinese coast) and penned a few more letters, Xavier died of fever on December 3, 1552.
It cannot be denied Xavier was immensely popular. A bigot, racist and uber proselytiser, he was scrupulously honest, had great organisational skill, and worked night and day with superhuman energy.
The story begins to get hazy and downright unbelievable. His
body was buried a few days later, then exhumed after more than two months to be
found intact, and shipped via Malacca where it was buried and exhumed yet again
in a fresh state for the last leg to Goa, where it arrived 15 months after his
death in March 1554. He received a hero’s welcome with cannon firing and church
bells ringing when the ship came in with her “incorrupt” cargo of flesh and
blood (similar to Nelson’s return home after the battle of Trafalgar in a keg
of brandy). The body was put up for public veneration in the church of St. Paul
in Old Goa for three days.
“Isabel saw the gold embroidered cloth covering the body … She knelt before the feet and as her lips touched the toes of the body her mouth opened, engulfed the little toe of the right foot, her teeth closed around it and one motion, Isabel bit it fully off the foot of Fr. Francisco Xavier.”
This almost pornographic recreation is from the novel Touched By The Toe by Alexandre Moniz Barbosa who gave me a copy when I met him in Panjim. An executive editor for the Herald, he has written in the past about the many “relics” of the saint—gobbets of flesh and bits of bone cut off and scattered around the world.
According to him the famous toe is in possession of the family of the Count of Nova Goa in Portugal; the right arm is in Rome’s Gesu Church; the shoulder blade went to Macau; something else was sent to Cochin; and later when another Jesuit superior general asked for a titbit, all the internal organs of the chest and abdomen were removed and sent away! A colleague of his had even seen a “relic” offered for sale on Ebay, he said, and informed me that many saints’ bodies in Christendom have been preserved for clergy and laity to worship over the centuries.
Whatever his faults, it cannot be denied Xavier was immensely popular. A bigot, racist and uber proselytiser, he was scrupulously honest, had great organisational skill, and worked night and day with superhuman energy, as his letters reveal. Even in his lifetime his fame had begun to spread; premature death gave him rock star status. Calls were soon being made for him to be canonised and the propaganda machine was switched on.
Even before his sainthood, the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens was commissioned to paint “The Miracles of St. Francis Xavier” in 1617 for the altarpiece of the Jesuit church in Antwerp. Among other things in the large work, a man is summoned back from the dead, the blind and lame are healed, and in the temple an idol is falling, broken, to the ground.
In 1641 French painter Nicolas Poussin produced his version of the Miracles which shows Xavier raising a girl from the dead, Christ looking down from above, watched by a group of astonished onlookers. Yet another charming work around that time has a fat crab scurrying out of the sea towards Xavier, holding aloft the crucifix which he had dropped accidentally! Thus the legend grew.
In 1931 the Portuguese issued a set of six postage stamps in his honour and in 1948 the Indian government included him in a series named “Famous Men of India”. Nowadays you see him everywhere in Goa: on calendars, posters and book covers. Kitsch little figurines of his are on sale at the Exposition. His cult is widespread and deeply entrenched, with locals of all faiths affectionately calling him Goencho Saib (Goa’s Sahib). All over India there are schools and colleges named after him, and the Society of Jesus has more Jesuits from India than anywhere else.
Xavier was beatified in 1619 and canonised in 1622, along with his friend and mentor Ignatius of Loyola. In 1748, he was named Patron Saint of the Orient. In 1904 he was declared the patron saint for the Propagation of the Faith; and in 1927 named the Patron of Missions. Xavier is also the Patron Saint of all Navigators. The Church has canonised no less than four Grand Inquisitors: Peter the Martyr, John of Capistrano, Peter Arbués, and St. Dominic.
Catholic sainthood must be like the Nobel Peace Prize—even war criminals like Henry Kissinger can win it.
y last official visit was to the Bishop’s House on Altinho hill in Panjim, where I hoped to meet the incumbent Archbishop Felipe Neri Ferrão. Two days earlier on the Feast of St. Xavier, a public holiday in Goa, he had conducted High Mass outside Bom Jesus along with Archbishop of Mumbai, Cardinal Oswald Gracias. The papers next day reported more than 1,20,000 visitors, including about 200 from Navarre, Spain.
The large white house is the size of a chateau and most spacious. Directed upstairs, I walked into a large hall on the first floor with wooden ceiling and floorboards which overlooks the garden, and has a private chapel adjoining. There were ornate marble-topped side tables and armchairs set against the walls, and at one end, upon a dias stood a dark mahogany chair with crimson velvet seat and splat, and a back over six feet tall that tapered like a spire and was carved with the Portuguese coat of arms. I could imagine the Chief Inquisitor seated upon it.
The upper half of three walls were adorned with large framed oil portraits of the 27 bishops—all Portuguese, except one—who held office in Goa before Ferrão. They showed men in full regalia, sure of their status, not to be trifled with, and immensely powerful.
The archbishop’s secretary, Fr. Loiola Pereira, occupied an office just opposite the hall door. A grey-haired, nervous man of about 60 in a cassock, he welcomed me and explained, speaking with a slight lisp, how matters stood, how very busy His Grace was, and why an interview was out of question. After more banter and pleasantries I was given a card and advised to email my questions.
Days later I sent an introductory note and seven questions pertaining to Xavier and the Inquisition to the archbishop, whose full title reads “Archbishop of Goa & Daman, Titular Archbishop of Cranganore, Primate of the East”, and, “Patriarch of the East Indies”.
Getting no reply, I sent secretary Pereira a reminder after a week. I have still got no response. My last question to the Archbishop asked if a simple memorial to the victims of the Inquisition could possibly be raised in Old Goa. In South America, there are at least three museums of the Inquisition: in Lima, Peru; Cartagena, Colombia; and Mexico City. Even the Spaniards, who invented the phenomenon, have one in Cordoba.
But in India? There have been isolated cries for justice, but now the movement is gathering force. IndiaFacts reported online last November of Robert Rosario, an activist and leader of the Konkani Christian Victims of Francis Xavier’s Atrocities, a pressure group based in Mangalore who opposed the ongoing Exposition and have begun an agitation, claiming they are the descendants of the victims of Xavier’s atrocities. Their demand is to have Xavier’s body sent back to Spain. They have also begun a nationwide signature campaign to press their demand it was reported.Even as this show comes to an end, there is much excitement and preparations being made for the canonization of Goa’s very own Blessed Joseph Vaz on January 14. He went in disguise to Ceylon in the 1700s and is said to have performed enough miracles there before his death to win the title.