A Georgian tale in Goa

In the ruins of St. Augustine Church lies a thrilling story of a royal martyr

Published - December 23, 2018 12:15 am IST

When I lived in Pune, I would go with my family to Goa every year for a holiday. The seafood was a great attraction for us. And of course, apart from the Basilica of Bom Jesus and the Se Cathedral, the sea and beaches too were irresistible.

With its natural harbours and wide rivers, Goa has been a major trade centre for centuries. For the same reason, it has been ruled by many dynasties, starting with the Mauryas in the 3rd century BCE to the Portuguese in the 16th century CE.

Early this month, I went to Goa for the Goa Arts and Literature Festival (GALF). Going back after 20 years, I realised that my priorities had changed. This is not to say that the food and sea have lost their charm, but it was the churches, mosques, temples and forts that held my attention.

In the ruins of the church

Of all the places that I visited, St. Augustine Church captivated me the most. While other churches in Goa are well maintained, this one is in ruins. It was built between 1597 and 1602, and is dedicated to Our Lady of Grace by the Order of Saint Augustine. In 1837, the Augustinian friars were expelled from Goa in the aftermath of the Liberal Wars of the 1830s, and the church was abandoned. In 1842, the main vault of the church collapsed and its decay was a matter of time.

The church was built atop Monte Santo (Holy Hill). It has been a couple of weeks since I saw it but the image of the church’s imposing 46 m belfry tower, which is all that remains of the four towers, remains fresh in my mind. Constructed of laterite, it has four floors, all of which are lit by the sun. The grey basalt columns provide a lovely contrast to the red laterite.

I also realised that the tower is haunting, after repeatedly clicking photographs of it. But this did not stop me from seeing the remains of the eight chapels and four altars. The chapels are labelled, so that they can be identified. They must have been richly decorated once upon a time, but now they are bare. In stark contrast is the altar with its beautiful multicoloured Italian tiles and remnants of red and blue paintings. Writer Manu Pillai and I could not stop marvelling at its glory and soon ran out of superlatives.

A thrilling tale

The complex also houses the Convent of St. Augustine, which is now in ruins. There, Vivek Menezes, co-founder and co-curator of GALF, told us about a Queen and her connection to the Safavids. Ketevan (1560-1624) was a queen regent of the kingdom of Kakheti in eastern Georgia. Her son Teimuraz was king, but as a vassal of Shah Abbas I of the Persian Safavid dynasty. When Shah Abbas I threatened to invade Kakheti, Ketevan went to him and offered to be held hostage to prevent bloodshed. She was held hostage in Shiraz in Iran for many years and tortured. When she refused to convert to Islam, she was killed in 1624. She was buried in Shiraz, but two Portuguese Augustinian monks whom she had befriended in Shiraz were privy to the location of her grave and managed to smuggle her body out. She was seen as a martyr as she had died refusing to convert. Her body was exhumed and her remains were taken to Teimuraz in Kakheti. However, when her remains were being shifted to safety amid raids on the region, they were lost. According to a Portuguese chronicle, the Augustinian friars found her right arm and buried it in the Chapter Chapel in St. Augustine Church in Goa. She was then canonised.

The Georgian authorities approached the Indian government to locate her remains in 1998, but it was only in 2004 that the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), with the help of Portuguese researcher Sidh Mendiratta, succeeded in finding bone fragments during excavations. DNA analysis confirmed in 2013 that the fragments belonged to a Georgian woman from that time period. In 2017, St. Ketevan’s remains were sent to Georgia for a year. In October, St. Ketevan’s remains were returned to Goa. They are now kept in the ASI museum.

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