Reclaiming Goan Identity Through the Feast of Saint Francis Xavier

On 3 December, lakhs of tourists and devotees will gather to celebrate the feast of Saint Francis Xavier in Goa. Are those who congregate present solely to witness a religious event, or does the fact that the event occurs at a historic location—much of which is in ruins—symbolise something deeper?

 Although Spanish, the legacy of Francisco de Jasso y Azpilicueta, more popularly known as Francis Xavier (1506–1552), has been kept alive in Portugal’s former colonies in Asia, especially Goa, where his mortal remains lie in the Basilica de Bom Jesus. In 2014, an estimated 50 lakh people attended the exposition of Xavier’s relics, which occurs every 10 years (Kamat 2014). As this article argues, the number of attendees signals the participants’ connection to the Catholic site as one that, while obviously borne out of religious affiliation, may additionally speak to other possibilities, including an attempt to resist the homogenisation of their culture with that of a Hindu India. That non-upper-caste Catholics and other Goan minority subjects—themselves seeming relics of a colonial past—see in the relics of the saint the possibility of celebration and the need for constant commemoration speaks to the symbolic importance of Xavier, and the architecture that surrounds him. Though the state may have other designs for these elements of Goan culture, those most tied to Goa’s very markers of Catholic faith and history continue to resistantly manifest their presence in celebration and renewed meaning of Old Goa’s relics.

Golden Goa and Tourism

As tourism emerged as the backbone of the Goan economy in postcolonial India, the image of Goa dourada (golden Goa), the notion that Goa is a tiny European enclave attached to the Indian subcontinent, was given a new lease of life in the 1980s (Trichur 2013). The state utilised the colonial and westernised image of Goa dourada to package the state for tourism (Routledge 2000). For tourists from other Indian states, the westernised image of Goa was “extraordinary” (Urry 1990). Goa’s Catholic culture, Latinised music, westernised clothing, multicultural cuisine, and its Europeanised architecture, such as monuments in Old Goa, were distinct from the rest of India.

Additionally, the possibility of witnessing the exposition of Xavier’s mortal remains adds to a tourist’s experience of Goa. However, even though Goa has an equally rich Catholic and Hindu past, only a selected experience of the Goa dourada is on offer to tourists (Gupta 2009). In 1986, with the blessing of the Indian State, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) successfully petitioned the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to declare the churches and convents of Goa as world heritage sites. However, the UNESCO listing of monuments in Old Goa meant that only the physical structures were considered as important common cultural world heritage, while the people who have historically served in and inhabited such buildings were rendered insignificant. Moreover, state efforts to conserve religious buildings in active use are done to prioritise the needs of tourists by showcasing them as vestiges of a bygone era, thus ignoring the local worshippers.

The Ruins And the Ruination of Old Goa

For the tourism industry, Old Goa has been more marketable as a ruin. Ruination, however, is more than a process that results in building debris as a by-product. Rather, it is a political and economic project that lays waste to certain people, their relations, and the things that they accumulate in specific places (Stoler 2013). In rendering particular sites, such as those in Old Goa, as fossils of a bygone era, the state similarly fossilises the community whose history, culture, and memory are an inextricable component of these monuments. Even when such sites are recognised and listed as “national monuments” by the ASI, or as  heritage sites by the UNESCO, it is done not to safeguard the heritage of minority communities, but rather to provide touristic locations to service the neo-liberal economy. This is the case with the colonial monuments in Goa, as both the architecture and the Goan Catholic culture it represents have become objectified. People from the rest of India look upon churches and congregations through a touristic gaze, as if the place and its people were in a museum.

Not only is the Bom Jesus cathedral in Old Goa a world heritage site, but Xavier’s yearly saint day celebrations and the exposition of his remains are marketed as events for the morbidly curious who are interested in “dark tourism” (Gupta 2009).   This notion of morbidity, derived from the remains of Xavier’s body, may be extended to the entire church. The entire site is inadvertently viewed as a mausoleum by visitors who are interested in the seemingly grotesque, which disconnects the monument from its regular function as a place of worship. Most of the ASI’s brochures of Old Goa present images of the various churches as empty spaces devoid of people (ASI nd), as though they are not in use. However, regular masses are held at these locations.  The ASI therefore adds to the perception that there is a vacuum in the churches, which is to be filled by tourists. The state’s characterisation of Old Goa as a site for tourism is emblematic of its relationship to the people whose monuments exist there.

Identifying With 'Golden Goa'

The dominant Brahminical culture in India also problematically characterises all Goan Catholic communities as native managers and the sole beneficiaries of the erstwhile Portuguese colonial order, (Ferrao: 2011;  Ferrão, Fernandes, Kanekar, & Menezes: 2013;  Ferrão & Fernandes 2013; Menezes 2015), but it is often forgotten that the main beneficiaries of colonial policies were the upper caste Catholic and Hindu elites. It was predominantly the Brahmins who capitalised on business opportunities that arose due to the weakening of the Portuguese empire during the 17th century (Trichur 2013) Despite this, the assumption that conversion benefited all Catholics continues to obscure the realities of who gained the most during Portuguese rule.

While India gained independence from the British in 1947, Goa continued to remain a Portuguese territory, with some strands of political action advocating for self-rule. Subsequently, in 1961, India ousted the Portuguese and annexed Goa. The integration of Goa and Goans with India has been a protracted process as the 451 years of Portuguese colonialism have left an indelible mark on Goan culture, which is markedly different from that of British India.

Rediscovering Goa Dourada through Saint Francis Xavier

One of the ASI’s “Slogans on Cultural Heritage,” on a notice board in Old Goa, reads: “Cultural heritage is nation’s trust. the whole world has a right to see that it endures.” The implications of such slogans are twofold. One, it implies that the local Goans have to transcend beyond themselves in order to share their heritage with the world, while for the tourist it implies that they are a part of a common global culture, which allows them to be participate in enjoying this heritage. Accordingly, the monuments in Old Goa are looked upon as ruins from the past. 

So, what should one infer from the large gatherings at the feast of Saint Francis Xavier? Only that locals in Goa continue to hold on to their identity and thereby their claim on monuments—as much as their homeland—by continuing to engage with historic architectural sites in large numbers. Heritage in Goa must be seen not only through the lens of the architectural history of a monument, but also through the lived experiences of Goans, whose culture and history is informed by these structures. Though occasions such as the saint’s feast day or the decadal expositions are special events in the local Catholic calendar, it is important to recognise that the Basilica also functions as a church on all other days, regardless of special events. In other words, for many local Goans, the Basilica is their parish church—a local community institution. The large gatherings for these events demonstrate that the monuments are an extension of themselves. By participating in the very monumentalisation of these edifices, Goans signify their refusal to be rendered insignificant—an act of resistance against their erasure in their own homeland, Goa.

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