The reverend Christian theologian was sitting in the upper room and preaching to a small community that was gathered around him. This theologian had built a career around inter-faith dialogue and was talking of how Christian sites were often built over the sacred sites of other faiths. “For example”, he said “the Basilica of Bom Jesus is built over the tank of a temple and can today be seen under the altar of the church.”
This was about as much as the angry young man could take. He sprang up and challenged the old man. “You’ve got your facts all wrong” he charged. The Basilica was built on the maidan outside of the walls of the Bijapuri city of Goa. There was no temple there. And that’s not all, the church you are referring to is the church of St. Cajetan. And here too you are wrong. The church sits within what was the very heart of the citadel of the fortified Bijapuri city. The well we see today is the result of the architect’s attempt to drain the soil so that he could sink the massive foundations he needed to raise the huge dome of St. Cajetan’s. Further, we need to decide who were the bad guys, the ‘Muslims’ or the ‘Portuguese’, they both cannot have destroyed the same temple can they? That is, if there was any temple destroyed in the first place!”
That great temples were destroyed and the Goan churches of today were raised over them is a shibboleth of much popular Goan history. But this nugget of information may be more myth than actual history. The churches of Old Goa, as has already been pointed out, were built within the Bijapuri city of Goa, and if anything, the churches were built over mosques. The Cathedral is reported built over the Jama Masjid of the city.
The scene becomes ever more complex if one leaves the urban contexts of the city of Goa and heads into the villages that surrounded this core of Portuguese domination in the sixteenth century. To begin with, most people make the mistake of assuming that the countryside around the city was a Hindu space. This is a popular misconception. The land was teeming not just with Hindus (that is to say brahmanised castes) but with a variety of subaltern and untouchable groups, as well as Muslims and other social and cultural groups. If sacred sites were taken over, then these sites could have also belonged to groups beyond the brahmanised castes. Indeed, because of what we know of the history of the location of Goan churches, one could safely assume that if a sacred site was repurposed then it was the shrines of the marginal groups that suffered this fate.
In his marvelous book Whitewash, Red Stone that discusses the Goan-ness of churches in Goa, Paulo Varela Gomes makes the astute observation that most of the early churches in Goa were not built in village centres, but rather on the peripheries of villages. This was the case because there was no centre in the European sense of the term. Rather, villages were organised according to castes, each caste having its own little ward, set apart from those of the others. Within such a society, Varela rather persuasively suggests, rather than risk identifying the church with a particular group, these priests built their churches outside of the villages in spectacular locations. Think of the church of Penha da França, or that of Curtorim. Where settlements do exist around these churches, whether in the case of Margão or Chinchinim, these were later developments with the village shifting toward the church, following the lead of powerful families that sought to replicate European urban forms.
What then do we make of the fond myths that have been told and retold for generations? Take the case of Margão for instance. We are told that the (Brahmin) villagers of Margão offered any space in the village for the church, but requested that their temples be spared. Unheeding the Bishop is said to have cast a sword into the air and toward the temple of Damodar causing this temple to be displaced to make way for today’s Church of the Holy Spirit.
The strength of this story rests on the conflation of the Damodar of the story with the great lord of Zambaulim. There are, however, a number of crucial details in the popular retelling of the foundation of the church in Margão that could tell us a different story. According to legend, the Damodar in question was a brahmin male who was killed on the outskirts of the village as he returned with his bride after his death. Hell hath no fury like a brahmin spurned, even worse a brahmin who has been killed before he could realise his desires. Their tormented souls turn into Pisacha and wreak havoc on the realm of the living. It was to pacify this soul, therefore, that a shrine would have been built. A minor shrine to a demonic being is different from a central shrine of a brahmanical deity patronised by the dominant caste of the village. We can conclude therefore, that it was no great temple that was destroyed in Margão, but if at all, a minor little marker, perhaps not so different from the shrines (of all religions) that continue to spring where a person has met a violent death.
Contrary to widespread beliefs today, temples did not come up at the whim and fancy of people. There was an entire cosmology that allowed for temples to emerge. To sustain its growth the brahmanical order would first set up the temple of a brahmanical or brahmanised temple. Other deities would then be constructed as minor and hierarchical relations constructed between this main deity and the minor deities. In this process, those who worshipped the inferior deity were also crafted as inferior. This is another story, however, and it connects with the theme of this column only to the extent of making the point that we need to realise that very often, the missionaries chose to avoid sites of the dominant castes and constructed their churches outside of village centres. The myth of the destruction of temples to facilitate the building of churches over them therefore needs to be revisited and systematically examined for the facts in each case.
(A version of this post was first published in the Herald dated 13 June 2014)