Gloriously standing out amongst all other, well-kept complexes and whitewashed churches in its vicinity, the ruins of St Augustine’s Church in Old Goa is inviting and enticing. Being excavated to life and preserved for its worth, it tells stories of the days gone by.
Some buildings in Old Goa are older than they appear. With regular revamping being done, flaky paints are the only ruins one may spot around, if at all. The gloriously done white walls of the 450-year-old St Monica Church, for instance, make it look like a new book with old stories enclosed in it. The adjacent museum of Christian Art further speaks of the time that has gone by as it displays some ancient pieces glorified in golden rays, putting them in spotlight behind crystal clear glasses.
But, just opposite this whitewashed arena is a ruined and fallen complex, standing tall and rather beautifully, against its clean neighbourhood.
The ruins are of the church of St Augustine, dedicated to Our Lady of Grace, and was once perhaps the biggest church in Goa, of which only excavated ruins and a dilapidated tower now exists.
Built on the holy hill of Monte Santo, the construction of the complex was initiated in 1572, when Friars of the Augustine order arrived in Goa. After they were compelled to abandon it in 1835, following a decree passed by the ruling Portuguese government, the complex fell apart, partially due to ordered demolition by the officials and partially due to lack of maintenance and the whimsical vagaries of nature and time.
But, when it was full in its nature, it had a commanding view of other churches in its vicinity and stood apart from all other in terms of glory. It is believed that the dimensions of this edifice placed it at par with the great imperial cathedrals of the Renaissance era, a fact which can be roughly comprehended from what remains.
The church had a sprawling vault (roof), which eventually collapsed and so did three of its four empowering towers. Its only remaining tower, a four storey high structure, 46 m in height, built of laterite, looms large on the complex.
Research and excavations show that the original structure contained eight chapels, four altars and a convent. A study, which was initiated in 1990, also resulted in discovery of the remains of the lost martyr, Queen Ketevan of Georgia, the patron saint of Georgia in Goa. The initiation of the research of the relics was what brought the complex in international focus. However, the relics were only found in 2003, when scientific clearance identified the chapter chapel that sheltered them.
The 16th century complex, which fell into ruins during the 19th century, is now being conserved and interpreted by the Archaeological Survey of India and makes an integral part of the Cidade de Goa or the city of Goa. Declared as a world heritage site in 1986, the ruins now attract tourists from around the globe, who visit the site with a preconceived excitement that only amplifies after standing in the middle of history, in real time.
“This place is splendid. I got excited after seeing this big tower. It reminds me of an old church in Iran,” Thara Habibi, a tourist from Iran shared with us.
And, while tourists flock this site to witness the remains and the now bell-less tower, the ring of the bell from the adjacent church resonates in the environs, giving a vibe of what could possibly once have been.