Hidden Goa: St Augustine tower
Updated: Apr 11, 2021
The melancholy ruins of Church of St Augustine, do not wholly fit in the “Hidden Goa” category. But most of the tourists, who throng the naves of other churches of Old Goa such as Bom Jesus, Sé Cathedral and Church of St Francis of Assisi, give these ruins a miss. But Church of Saint Augustine has seen much better days. It was built from 1597-1602, by Augustinian friars in exactly the same period when Guru Arjan Dev was finishing compiling “The Adi Granth”, Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar was nearing completion and Akbar was busy building Buland darwaza in his new capital Fatehpur Sikri.
The church was the toast of the Augustinian order for two centuries until 1835, when Portuguese authorities expelled various religious orders which they considered as a dangerous aberration to orthodox Catholicism. The church was abandoned and willingly allowed to decay. Its vault collapsed in 1842 and in 1871 the bell from its belfry was removed and now adorns the façade of “Our Lady of Immaculate conception church” in Panjim, dutifully calling the Christian faithful to mass. It weighs around 2250 Kilogram.
The astonishing tower of St Augustine is now a sad but a striking 46 mts tall skeleton
The red laterite bricks of tower have been withstanding the alternate assaults of scorching sun and torrential rain.
Standing against the odds
Ruins of 4 Altars
Ruins being covered in a patina of moss
Remnants of former glory
The astonishing tower of St Augustine, which earlier had the strength to house this massive bell for more than 200 years, is now a sad but striking 46 mts tall skeleton, which appears to be conjured up from an H.P Lovecraft story. The red laterite bricks of tower have been withstanding the alternate assaults of scorching sun and torrential rain for more than 400 years now. It appears very feeble now. Time and elements have taken a heavy toll. It oversees four ruined altars and eight chapels. In year 2006 a remarkable discovery was made at this site. Some human bone fragments were found and findings of DNA analysis confirmed that around 2 decades of search by Archeological Survey of India, had come to an end. These bones belonged to a Georgian woman.
Tragic Tale of queen Ketevan (1560-1624 AD)
Ketevan was married to future king David 1 of Kakheti kingdom in Georgia. His reigned only for two years from 1601-02. Ketevan successfully quelled an uprising by the king's brother Constantine to usurp the throne and then became regent for her underage son, King Teimuraz. But for a neighbor, she unfortunately had one of the most powerful kings in Persian history, Shah Abbas 1. Shah Abbas was watching these developments with great interest as he eyed this small kingdom covetously. In 1614, in order to prevent a Persian invasion, King Teimuraz sent his queen mother and his two sons to negotiate with Shah Abbas. The sons and the ill-starred queen were taken as hostages. She was a captive in Shiraz for almost a decade. Sons of Teimuraz, princes Alexandre and Levan were castrated after 5 years in captivity and died there. In 1624, to teach Teimuraz a lesson, Shah Abbas ordered the old Queen to convert to Islam and join his harem. Queen Ketevan refused. An infuriated Shah Abbas ordered that Queen be publicly tortured with hot pincers and put to death. Among the crowd that had gathered to see an “Infidel” being put to death, were two French Augustinian friars. After her heart-rending torture and execution, they retrieved her mortal remains, smuggled and interred them in Aliverdi Monsatery in Georgia. They remained there for almost a century. She was canonized as a Saint and Christian martyr by the Patriarch of Georgia. When, once again a threat of attack from Persia loomed, her remains were exhumed for second time for re-location to a safe place but were lost forever in the ensuing confusion. However, in 1970’s and 80’s a research showed that the Augustinians friars had interred most of her remains in Georgia but had taken remains of her arms to their Church in Goa (Augustinian order was at its peak in India during that time. Goa was known as Lisbon of the East). Georgia was part of Soviet Union in 1980’s and Soviet government requested India to carry out a search to find these remains. Relics of Queen Ketevan are now kept in Archeological museum in Old Goa. In 2017, on completion of 25 years of diplomatic relations between India and Georgia, they were sent there for 6 months and were received with much pomp and ceremony.
Panel of torture and execution of Queen Ketevan azulejo at the Graça Convent in Lisbon, Portugal
Queen Ketevan the martyr in regal attire
King Teimuraz (1st Painting) and Shahenshah Abbas 1 (2nd Painting)
Fascination with relics : Relics have always been venerated and have held great importance in Christianity, as they are believed to have miraculous powers. On a saint’s death, the overenthusiastic followers sometimes used to sever their body parts to keep as personal relics. For instance, while most of the body of St Francis Xavier lies in Bom Jesus Basilica in Old goa, his left hand is in Japan, his shoulder blade is on display in Macau and his right hand (Baptizing hand) is in Rome. In 1554 when body of St Francis Xavier was displayed for first time in Goa, a Portuguese woman, Dona Isabel Carom, bit off a toe from the right foot. In 1614, right arm of St body was severed by Superior General of Society of Jesus, Claudia Acquaviva. It has been on display for more than 400 years in Church of Gesu in Rome. In 2018 this arm was taken on tour all over Canada and displayed to faithful of Kingston, Toronto, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Regina, Calgary, Vancouver, Victoria, Montreal and Ottawa for veneration.
Right arm of St Francis Xavier
Since the discovery of relics of Queen Ketevan, efforts are being made to restore the place or whatever is left of it. Some parts of ruins are out of bounds for tourists. An ever growing cover of moss in overrunning the rest. The spires of this broken tower, obscure the setting sun in evenings. It is a breathtakingly uncommon sight. History and singularity of this place will carve a deep niche for itself in your memory. Rest as they say, proof of the pudding lies in the eating. One has to visit this mournful monument himself to experience its grandeur.
See also our other blogs on Goa