CNEWA
ONE Magazine
God • World • Human Family • Church

Symbols of Faith

On the west coast of India, the state of Goa is awash with the faith of its Christians.

Dawn gently rolls back the sleepy solitude of the tropical night. Thin shafts of light glisten and play upon the broad fronds of coconut trees rustling and shimmering in the early morning breeze. From the vantage point of the hill overlooking the village, the effect is not unlike that of a vast sea of green, rhythmically swelling and falling in a show of light and darkness. Below, the village is muted in the blue and indigo shadows of early morning. Mothers and daughters, dressed in calico cloth and lace mantillas scented with hibiscus and jasmine, walk with husbands and sons wearing freshly starched white shirts. They follow the red clay road past the paddy fields to the clearing at the end of the village. There, standing out like a beckoning lighthouse against the Indian jungle splendor is the radiant whitewashed facade of the early 16th century Church.

The village is in Goa, a state on India’s west coast, where life has been carefully orchestrated for centuries. The elements of family, nature and trust in God’s providence form the harmonious balance that results in the symphony of life’s purpose.

The story of Goa’s Catholics is a tale of the past, continually reborn and witnessed in the beliefs and symbols of today’s faithful. As the whitewashed facade of the village church radiates the faith of the community of believers, other symbols stand in profusion throughout the Goan milieu, declaring the same message. Large alabaster crosses adorn the courtyards and fields of rich and poor, while small grottoes and shrines are found in every village for evening’s common prayer. Frescoes depicting the Virgin or a favorite saint stand half-blackened by devotees’ candles near bus stops for morning offerings by the faithful on their way to work. Throughout the marketplace crosses are garlanded with marigolds by village women coming to see the sea’s fresh bounty or the land’s harvest. A man genuflects before an icon nailed to a tree along the main boulevard, while another says a prayer in front of a monument by the sea. A rosary is left in the hand of a statue by a petitioning pilgrim, the prow of a fishing boat boasts that “God is Love” (on the other side, “Joy to the Fish”), and the spare tire covering on a motor scooter is adorned with the image of Christ. Everywhere one looks the gestures and symbols of belief are in evidence. The invisible gift of faith is made abundantly visible, and the invitation to give thanks and praise is open to all.

The church in India is truly Catholic. Amidst its Eastern environment the Latin rite thrives. The gift of faith was planted in Goa by Portuguese missionaries during the 16th century. Because of the Portuguese evangelization the Catholics of Goa are Latin rite. Other missionaries, also from Europe, brought the Latin rite to different areas of India where today it flourishes alongside the Malankara and Malabar rites.

To discover the roots of Goan Christianity is to journey through history to the 16th century to the Rome of the East, the golden city of Old Goa.

In search of fame and spices in 1510 Portuguese galleons sailed down the Mandovi River. These ships came 12 years after the famous explorer, Vasco de Gama discovered the route to India. It was a time of Portuguese ascendency on the high seas. It was a period when the spice pepper was the measure of wealth in the western world. While this common condiment is taken for granted in our day and age, 16th century Europe would refer to the high cost of objects as being “as dear as pepper” or the value of a man as “he is worth his pepper.”

Today the rule of pepper and shameless conquest are gone. Instead, one witnesses an endless caravan of low-lying barges, ferrying pyramid-shaped mounds of iron ore from Goa’s interior mines.

Between this steady, lazy traffic along the river, however, a dug-out canoe delicately eases its parasolled passengers along the currents to the other side. And at the point in the passage when boat and palm-fringed shore begin to fall together in a moment of tropical splendor, the vision of what appears to be the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome, rises alone, inviting the discovery of history.

Arriving in Old Goa at the river quay evokes the past. It is to approach the splendid surviving buildings as any new arrival did in the 16th century. Much has been lost since the time when the city was the “Rome of the East”. No longer is life all bustle and motion. No longer are there the fabled marble houses of the nobility along streets boasting the richest of merchants and artisans representing every conceivable nation. Palaces and government buildings have succumbed to the encroaching jungle vegetation and the advance of time.

Scenes of elephants with gorgeous trappings, palanquins carried by natives in splendid liveries, running footmen, grooms and horses festooned with superb housing now dance about in the imagination. Gone is Old Goa’s population which exceeded that of either London or Paris in the 16th century. Instead, as one follows the road from the quay and passes beneath the Arch of Viceroys erected in 1597 and bearing the statue of Vasco da Gama, one is suddenly possessed by a strange melancholy. Towers, domes and pinnacles sullenly peer out of neglect amidst tangled vegetation.

Cathedrals seemingly uprooted from Northern Italy emerge from the Indian landscape to arch their roofs like testaments of God’s enduring faith in man. And the heavily ornate pediments, portals, cornices and facades inspired by the Baroque churches of Italy stand proud though neglected, against the lilting grace of the tropical palm.

What remains is majestic. Fourteen basilicas, cathedrals, chapels and monasteries stand where all else associated with the rule of the sword has disappeared. The religious grandeur of Old Goa has survived, only because of the unwavering support of the people.

This attachment of the Goans to Catholicism not only saw them through the eclipse of the Portuguese empire, but it also remains steadfast to protect the religious heritage of Old Goa when the city was abandoned in the early nineteenth century. The population of the city had grown too large and the porous soil allowed sewage to contaminate the city’s water supply. Frequent epidemics of cholera and malaria were devastating. The kingdom of man toppled to the law of the jungle. The rule of power and the reign of the Portuguese were doomed to the vagaries of history and the critique of time.

The signs of Portuguese rule are still reflected today in the atmosphere of the plazas, parks and architecture of village homes. The Goans maintain a nostalgia for their cultural past and amongst themselves speak in Portuguese. They are Indian citizens now; they are unique in identity. Their success has been due to the strength of their church.

With a population of 300,000 in a nation of more than 700 million, Goa’s Catholics must be masters of their fate and not mere vestiges of a tradition. The story of Goa is not one of place and facts, it is a story of spirit and destiny, of cultural synthesis, and most importantly of the indomitable Goan people’s embodiment of their past heritage, reborn continuously in the present symbols and gestures of their Faith.

Richard C. Walker was a Peace Corps volunteer in India.

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