Goan houses


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PERHAPS the earliest expressions of art and architecture in Goa are samples of rock art found in Kevan-Dhadole and Pansalimal (Usgalimal) in the northern taluks or sub-districts of Sanguem.1 Rock carvings found here are believed to depict ‘symbols of the fertility cult, religious cosmology, Triskelion, engravings of animals like the Zebu bull, deer, gaur, scene of mating animals, large animal hoofs, scenes of chasing animals, animals in sitting posture, bison with wound marks, x-ray type animals, etc.’2 At Kajur, Goa’s earliest anthropomorphic figure of what is believed to be a mother goddess, could also be considered a form of documentation in stone besides its overt interpretation as a religious symbol. Besides this figure there are also artistically rendered images of animals carved out in stone with the use of tools made from jade, flint and quartz.3

The symbolism of these artistic renderings needs further investigation especially in the context of the location of the allotment of public spaces for worship in Goa. Were these rock carvings done in the public domain? If these pieces of rock art belong to the neolithic or monolithic period, it might be reasonable to assume that the people here lived in houses made from natural materials like timber, grass, dry twigs and mud using the wattle and daub building technique. It would be just as reasonable to assume that all magico-religious activity or worship of the mother goddess took place in the public domain or common space. Flimsy homes do not lend themselves to rock art. We do not know if a roof protected these carvings. Whether it did or not, there is no doubt that this was the precursor to the mand or Goan temple ground, a public space reserved for religious art forms.



Thus, through functional spaces (and objects) both art and architecture have made subtle inroads in everyday Goan life. Art in Goa often manifests itself in the form of a functional object or dwelling. Art as an article of acquisition is completely alien to the Goan psyche. Goan architecture is, therefore, embellished to suit a purpose. When that happens, this form (architecture) becomes art by design. Sometimes a functional device, like the rotating device used to fix a door in a groove in a chamfered wall, takes artistic dimensions. Or a locksmith crafts a latch on a door and gives it a bend that makes it easier (or more difficult) for the user. This then becomes architecture that is art by accident. In that sense, the words ‘art’ and ‘architecture’ are interchangeable.

Architecture can be both historical evidence and an art form. The 3rd-4th century megalith found near Poriem in the Sattari taluk,4 the 12th century Shivalingum (Saptakoteshwar) from Malar in Divar5 and the 14th century Jain basti at Bandoda near Ponda6 are both art and architecture. In these and other architectural samples we see art imposed on architecture as decoration. This intent may be religious symbolism or pure aesthetics. The trend appears to place art within the realm of architecture and to allow art to be part of architecture by design.

In the case of the inscribed megalith at Poriem, calligraphy serves the purpose of art and thus art makes an appearance here by coincidence. It is one of Goa’s greatest tragedies that no example of domestic architecture dated earlier than the 18th century survives in pristine condition. The ruined artefacts that have survived fall in the genre of public or institutional spaces. However, there are some very fine examples of the Indian Art Deco style that was introduced into Goa in the 1920s, two decades after the advent of the motor car in Bombay from the United States of America.



What are the past trends of art in Goan domestic architecture? A combination of biodegradable building material and an exposure to the elements may be responsible for the destruction of any evidence. The main stock of houses that have survived appear to be those built or refurbished between the middle of the 18th and the 20th centuries, a period when the region was under Portuguese governance. Historians argue that the year 1750 was a turning point in Goa’s political and social history. It is this turning point that was also responsible for the exuberance and ostentation in architectural wealth that we see in the houses of Goa built subsequently.

So what happened in the middle of the 18th century? The gold rush in South America had begun a few years into the reign of King Joăo V and following this wealth came into Goan hands. The proclamation by the powerful Marquis de Pombal, Prime Minister to the King, declaring all colonial subjects to be Portuguese further emboldened Goans. They began to express themselves (and their Goan identity) through music, dance, sculpture, painting, food and folklore. It was around this time that Goans first began to use their homes as vehicles of this expression. They also began to use their homes to display personal wealth, unthinkable before the arrival of the Europeans.



Most grand houses that we see today are the homes of Goan Christians. A few may belong to Hindu families as well but these are town houses originally built for the entertainment and luxury of European guests who could not be entertained in the more tradition-bound country homes where religious taboos disallowed the serving of prohibited foods and where women followed seclusion regulations. Conversion to Christianity turned ‘inward-looking’ houses into ‘outward’ looking ones. Small windows (rarely fronting the street), blind walls and open courtyards in the interiors of Hindu homes were transformed to create ornamental homes with balcăos fronting the street where men and women could sit together and ‘see and be seen’.7

There must have been several architectural ‘missing links’ that document the evidence of this transition but none have survived. Homeowners who claim that their homes can be dated to before the arrival of the Portuguese in Goa have refurbished their homes to such an extent that it is difficult to find evidence of their antiquity. Of all the houses of Goa, there is one house that deserves a special mention. The Archiepiscopal Palace built in 1580 and located next to the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, Old Goa is believed to be not just Goa’s but India’s oldest domestic building that is undisturbed.8 This house is a fine example of art and architecture combined to illustrate posture, position, status, authority and aesthetic sense.

Let us examine some of the extraordinary features of this house. In the house is a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Carmel in the Palace that is artistically rendered to heighten Christian symbolism using devices such as icons, an ornate retable and a high ceiling. The high ceiling serves both a practical and artistic function. The trusses supporting the roof make an interesting and pleasing pattern overhead. While this could be called an accident, the layers of graffito art on the Palace walls is art by design. This unique art form (where the design is scratched out on lime plastered laterite stone and then refilled with lime and red oxide) originates in the temples of Bicholim in North Goa. Goan Hindu houses also display this art form but exclusively in sanctified areas that are customarily used for religious pageantry. The Palace also displays this art form on the exterior of the building, irrespective of the sanctity of the rooms within, a feature not seen in any other house in Goa.



Even from what remains, it is easy to see why this Palace set the trend in Goan domestic architecture from the mid-18th century onwards. The houses built between the middle of the 18th century and the early part of the 20th century display a unique combination of artistry and architecture rarely seen elsewhere. Where art has been superimposed on architecture, there is a function that this art is expected to perform. The stucco mouldings over windows, for example, may appear purely decorative, but have their origins in such mouldings in the windows of Portuguese houses. There these elements of style were devices to help sailors identify their homes at a distance as they sailed in. The design is therefore an ‘import’ but serves the same purpose. It helps construct the identity of the home.

The Goan house is a complex amalgam of design elements, adaptations and influences from all over the world. Portuguese rule allowed Goans to travel abroad over long sojourns. When these Goans returned they brought with them ideas and influences from the country of their expatriation.9 The creativity of the Goan master builder in this broad canvas cannot be underestimated. He (for there were no women in this trade) was able to understand the basic concepts underlying these designs and execute them within the scope of available building material. Artistic rendering was often given a rational interpretation.10



The most obvious example of this is the manner in which some column capitals have been executed in the front verandas and balcăos of Goan houses. The capitals have been decorated with an Indianized acanthus leaf that is both stylised and animated. The column performs an important architectural function and the stylised elements provide the aesthetics while covering up the ungainly seam that joins the roof to the capital. Here we see how art and architecture are also deliberate and intentional results of reflective thought. It is interesting that although some of these elements are common to many houses in Goa there is also an imprint of individuality. Every Goan house, therefore, becomes a reflection of the homeowners’ taste, education and travel experience. It is also the product of the Goan craftsperson’s ability for ingenious adaptation.



Within the scope of this expression of individuality, however, Goan houses fall into distinct categories. There is the single-storeyed house, the half-storeyed house and the double-storeyed house. Typically, houses have an entrance area where visitors are entertained or screened on arrival. A passage or corridor cuts the house in half with the formal reception room on one side and the master’s bedroom or study on the other. The dining room is usually perpendicular to these rooms; the bedrooms flank the courtyard and the kitchens and service areas are at the rear of the house.

Half-storied houses have high plinths with an impressive flight of stairs leading to the balcăo or veranda. Built-in seats placed in rather curious fashion (on the steps with each seat on a step or facing back-to-back on the balcăo) add to the posture or stature of the house. Double-storied houses were modelled after Portuguese houses of aristocrats of the 18th century. Typically, these houses had the reception room and bedrooms on the upper floor and kitchen and service areas on the ground floor. This separated the homeowners from servants and dependants (often impoverished relatives) and allowed the dramatic tableau of two varying lifestyles being enacted under one roof.11

Dramatic and startling colour plays an important role in Goan architecture. Colour has been used as a device to distinguish ownership and reiterate identity. Appearances bear considerable importance in architecture just as they do in social life. Very few buildings are exactly alike and although solid colours are used for front facades, interiors are usually in yellow ochre and doors and windows are rendered in white. This rendering or piping in white has a reason. During the Portuguese occupation of Goa there was an unwritten rule that no private house or building could be painted in white. Only churches and chapels enjoyed this privilege. It is understandable that Goan Christians followed this unwritten rule as white was associated with the Virgin and therefore the virtues of purity and chastity (both desirable in Goa) but surprisingly Goan Hindus too respected the rule. As a result of this code, an aesthetically pleasing and interesting trend developed. Natural pigments were used to cover houses. Competition among neighbours gave an impetus to variety. Colour was an additive and used purely to create a sensation. With a colour wash, the house looked ‘dressed’ and therefore displayed the economic well-being of the family that lived in it. Here art in architecture performed a social function.



Art historian Jyoti Sahi speaks of ‘the use of skin, colour and clothes as visual language’ as means to convey religious, social and cultural statements.12 Sahi also debates the use of dark skin stones and eastern style clothing in Christian art in Asia as the only symbols of inculturation. With skin tones and clothes, the artist conveys his or her theories on the origins of Jesus Christ and the subject of inculturation of his message. Art in this case works through the conventional mediums of painting, sculpture and installation to convey inspired thought. The architecture in Goan houses also illustrates this in a vivid and durable manner.

Art and architecture have served the cause of history in Goa. Art objects were collected as devices to enhance social status while architecture served to define and determine individual identity. It was also used to demarcate the social classes, the ‘haves’ from the ‘have-nots’. These ideas and objects often accompanied members of a household on their return from travels abroad. Marginalized and subaltern groups did not travel. Ownership of artifacts and architectural property, though the subject of inheritance laws, was never considered of commercial value until recently. The purchase of art or architectural wealth for the purposes of making a financial investment finds no place in the Goan psyche. Art as protest is practically non-existent.



What are current perspectives on Goan architecture? Elements of style, drawing on historical references from the past, are currently being superimposed on buildings irrespective of the original conception in terms of size, mass, scale and purpose. While architecture still remains individualistic and unique, furniture appears to draw mainly on the past with present creations forming the subject of repetitive design. Artistically designed pieces of furniture are perceived as objects of value, creating an imbalance among Goan craftsmen and women in favour of furniture restorers and carpenters. Creative inspiration has been forced to seek patronage from tourism. As a result, the products on sale since the establishment of the first commercial art gallery in the tourism belt of Sinquerim-Candolim-Calangute-Baga in North Goa in 1989-90, remain largely commerce driven. Nevertheless, like the case of current architecture, this too may be a reflection of a plural society in a state of social, cultural and creative turbulence.



1. P.P. Shirodkar, Nave Parva (special issue, Goa State Department of Archives, Archaeo-logy and Museums Bulletin, Vol. 31, 6-9), 1995, p. 10.

2. Ibid., p. 11.

3. Ibid., p. 15.

4. Ibid., p. 29.

5. Ibid., pp. 16-17.

6. Ibid., pp. 22-23.

7. Heta Pandit and Annabel Mascarenhas, Houses of Goa, Architecture Autonomous, Goa, 1999.

8. Vikas Dilawari, conservation architect, personal communication at site, 25.07.2001.

9. Heta Pandit and Annabel Mascarenhas, Houses of Goa, Architecture Autonomous, Goa, 1998.

10. Heta Pandit, Hidden Hands: Master- builders of Goa, The Heritage Network, Goa, 2003.

11. Heta Pandit and Annabel Mascarenhas, Houses of Goa, op. cit., 1998.

12. Jyoti Sahi, ‘Art and its Prophetic Role: Counter Culture Illustrated in Fonseca’. Paper presented at the Pilar Theological College symposium, Art and Spirituality, Goa, 6 December 2002.