Restoring Basilica of Bom Jesus, and the Role of Archaeological Survey of India

The Archaeological Survey of India's role in the protection of the 16th century Basilica of Bom Jesus monument in old Goa has come under attack. The rector of the basilica, in an open letter recently, has accused the ASI of “utter apathy” in restoring the structure. This has prompted the Goan government to swing into action by appointing a committee to overlook the restoration of the monument. What is of importance in this case is that the monument is still used as a church by the local community. Religious heritage buildings that are still in use by the community call for a different kind of restoration measures. The ASI needs to take the local stakeholders into confidence, and allow their participation in the protection of monuments. 


The Basilica of Bom Jesus has stood intact for more than four centuries, but currently, there is a gaping hole in its roof. This has made the structure susceptible to flooding after rains in April this year. Following this, the rector of Basilica, Father Patricio Fernandes S J, has raised an alarm accusing the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) of  “utter neglect … leading to the deterioration of the Basilica and the Shrine of “Goecho Sahib” St. Francis Xavier” (Fernandes 2020a). The apathy shown by the ASI over the years has made Fernandes conclude that ASI “might as well relinquish its claim to be protectors, preservers and conservators of the Basilica.” Has the government-appointed body, the ASI, whose responsibility is to protect this heritage structure, lost the trust of the church and the local community, to whom the Basilica belongs? 

Even though the basilica is an artefact of history, and righty recognised as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) world heritage site, the church is also a “living religious heritage,” where the local community continues to use the monument for the purpose it was originally intended. As part of lived culture, conservation of monuments like the basilica requires different considerations. This is because doctrinal texts, such as the international conservation charters, which have been universalised for secular monuments, fail to adequately address the conservational needs of religious monuments (Stovel 2005: 2). On the other hand, the conflict arises when ASI delinks local communities from the process of conservation of monuments under the guardianship of communities. It has been observed that, in the case of living monuments, local communities associated are willing to actively participate in taking care of their heritage. In fact, the history of the basilica shows that it is the pressure from the community and their contributions to the conservation of the monument in various forms, including labour, that have enabled the monument to stand tall after a long afterlife, preserving the rich heritage.   

A Monument of Historical Significance 

In terms of history, the Basilica of Bom Jesus is older than Taj Mahal (1632–48). The basilica was commissioned by the religious order of the Jesuits; its construction began in 1594 and the church was consecrated in 1605. The basilica was built specifically to house the relics of St Francis Xavier (1506–52), which were shifted to the basilica in 1624. Historian Paulo Varela Gomes (2011: 68) states, 

“The Bom Jesus has a unique façade in the history of Christian architecture, one of the outstanding monuments of the architecture in India.” 

Further, he adds that the lasting contribution of the basilica is that it “allowed Indian artisans to domesticate European architectural and ornamental vocabulary, to make it their own” (2011: 70). Not only the artisans and labour involved in its construction were local, but much of the material with which the church was built, such as the laterite stones and timber, were also sourced locally. While it is true that the inspiration for the building’s aesthetics came from Europe, the monument is as much a part of the local Goan heritage, because the skills and labour of locals contributed to its construction and, thereafter, its maintenance for the past 400 years. 

The Bom Jesus is among a few monuments to have survived the steady decline of Old Goa, the city which was once the capital (1530–1843) of Estado da Índia (The Portuguese State of India); at one time, this Portuguese territory spanned from the Cape of Good Hope in Africa to Macau in China. The basilica survived even after Portugal expelled its original benefactors, the economically powerful religious order of the Jesuits from Goa in 1759. However, other buildings, whose owners were also ousted by the Portuguese state, did not enjoy the same fate. For example, a contemporaneous building to the Bom Jesus, the grand complex of Church of St Augustine in Old Goa, fell into ruins immediately after the expulsion of all religious orders from Goa in 1835. 

The originally lime-plastered and whitewashed Basilica of Bom Jesus in 1890, photographed by Souza and Paul. The current brown look of the Basilica is the result of restoration carried out by Baltazar Castro in the 1950s. 
Source: Central Library of Goa, Panjim

Essentially, monuments that endure a long afterlife, such as the Bom Jesus, do so because they have been cared for and looked after. For instance, in 1862, a major restoration of the Bom Jesus was undertaken, including the addition of key structural supports (buttresses) to the northern wall, while the roof of the church was also completely redone (de Albuquerque 1890: 13). Such restorations arose not solely because of the state’s desire to look after it, but also because the Goan public pressed the administration into ensuring the restoration and preservation of their beloved monument. The 1862 restoration followed the exposition of St Francis Xavier’s body held in 1859, during which more than 2,00,000 pilgrims of different races, religions, and castes gathered there to venerate the relics of their beloved saint (Neri Xavier 1861: 406). Gathering in large numbers demonstrates the people’s adoration of the saint and his shrine, which, in turn, pushed the state to invest in maintaining the basilica.  

The Need for Concrete Action 

Perhaps, the open letter written by the basilica’s rector could well mark another moment that could prod the authorities and the government into action to save the monument. His letter has already garnered the attention of the public, and several ministers, including the Chief Minister of Goa, Pramod Sawant, have visited the basilica and ensured speedy action (Monteiro 2020). Due to this letter, which was widely reported in the local media, the basilica’s roof had been repaired prior to the onset of monsoon (Times of India 2020; O Heraldo 2020; Goan 2020; Da Gama 2020). Nevertheless, such ad hoc measures, only undertaken when controversy brews, are insufficient. As its reputation was at stake, the ASI has repaired only a section of the roof over the passage of the courtyard, though in reality, the entirety of the roof’s structure needs restoration. 

The monsoons are an annual affair in South Asia, so while a small section of the roof may have been patched up for now, this does not prevent the building from future damage. As this suggests, there are also other problems that require attention to ensure the monument’s long-term protection. 

A Generational Damage 

Today, a generation of Goans has grown accustomed to seeing the basilica’s exposed laterite walls, but this is not the way the building was designed, nor indeed the way it looked until about 60 years ago. It was the famous restorer from Portugal, Baltazar da Silva Castro, who, in the 1950s, brought about the dramatic transformation of the external appearance of the basilica by having the plaster removed and leaving the underlying laterite stone exposed. Joaquim dos Santos (2017: 247) claims that such de-plastering was part of former Portuguese prime minister António de Oliveira de Salazar’s nationalist ideology, where monuments in Portugal were falsely “restored” to look ancient, or rather medievalised, to proclaim the antiquity of the Portuguese empire. Dos Santos further adds that many such ideologically motivated restorations were initially undertaken in Salazar-ruled Portugal during the 1940s to reinforce the nationalist agenda and to essentially prove, through architectural restorations, the long lineage of the Portuguese “nation.” 

One consequence of keeping the basilica exposed is that, because the laterite stone is porous, when exposed to rain, it absorbs water by capillary action, soaking the entire wall. Further, because of the heavy rainfall in Goa, the exposed surface of the laterite has undergone severe weathering, leading to the deterioration of the building. The damage that the monument has come under has not only been restricted to the exterior surfaces of the building (Kandolkar 2016). In fact, it is a miracle that the exposed laterite walls of the basilica have withstood the onslaught of the Goan monsoon since the 1950s. However, the Arch of the Viceroy, another monument in Old Goa that was de-plastered on the recommendations of restorer Castro in the same period, crumbled during heavy monsoon rains that followed, and the arch visible today is a reconstructed version of the original. 

In fact, as dos Santos (2016) maintains, the colonial administration became aware of the problems of an unplastered basilica and was in the process of rectifying their mistake in the 1960s. However, before it could execute the work, Goa was integrated with the Indian union. Thereafter, the reluctance of the church and ASI to make amends for the historical mistake has led to further ruination of the monument.

Many in the present generation accept the look of the unplastered basilica, just because it is this appearance that they have become accustomed to. The clerical authorities in the Archdiocese are aware of the problem, but they continue to believe that the basilica should remain unplastered fearing opposition from the people. In 2016, the former rector of the basilica, Savio Baretto, opposed the replastering of Bom Jesus, merely because “[m]ost … Goans have been born to the sight of a red-bricked [laterite] church. Having it plastered will hurt the sentiments of the people of Goa more than anything” (Goan 2016).  

The “sight” of Bom Jesus continues to fuel contemporary debates on the conservation of this architectural heritage. It is true that tourists and pilgrims have seen the brown basilica on their visit to Old Goa, and that the circulation of coloured images of the brown basilica in the postcolonial period has also imprinted this particular impression in the imagination of the people. Having seen the “brown” basilica, it appears that many in Goa cannot “unsee” it and accept, or understand, it as the whitewashed monument it once was. 

Although replastering the building’s surface would increase its life expectancy by fixing leaks that have deteriorated it, the basilica continues to remain unplastered because people have been fed a particular, (mis)representation of the monument’s appearance in the last many years. In this case, the seeming support for popular sentiment is the product of a lack of awareness about the building’s history, which actually hurts its physical integrity. Replastering and whitewashing the basilica would not violate the 1964 Charter of Venice for restorations of historic monuments, as such change would be for structural rather than aesthetic reasons. Taking care of the external repair is a decision that needs a consensus, but this does not necessarily absolve the ASI of not doing enough to protect other parts of the structure, such as repairing the leaking roof and undertaking termite treatment. The lack of action by the ASI on these matters is endangering the basilica. 

Building Consensus for a Coordinated Effort 

The bottom line is, while there is no doubt that ASI needs to take the responsibility for protecting the monument, there is much more at stake when the concerned heritage building is part of a lived heritage. It is not the same thing for the ASI to take care of secular–cultural heritage sites, such as the ruins of a fort, as attending to the needs of a lived religious heritage, such as the basilica, where a large local community continues to be a part of it. Living religious heritage monuments require a different set of arrangements to handle the intricacies of restoration while also managing the component of everyday worship. 

Further, during a recent interaction I had with Fernandes, he mentioned that many devotees of the saint were willing to help in the upkeep and maintenance of the church, including local artisans who have the skill to work on heritage buildings. For instance, he recalled that an artisan had approached him to redo the altar’s faded gold-gilding work, a prospect which the ASI is, inexplicably, completely opposed to (Fernandes 2020b).

The importance of involving the community lies in the fact that the building is first and foremost a church—a site of their spiritual worship and a part of their living heritage. Comparatively, for the ASI, the structure is simply a historical “monument,” which is tagged as a world heritage site. As Fernandes notes, parishioners and well-wishers are concerned for their church, and at the same time, their involvement could help fill the vacuum created by the lack of consistent care needed for a centuries-old building. This still does not mean that the basilica does not require professionalised care. Even as the ASI, with the experts from the field of archaeological conservation, has been entrusted with the task of maintaining the basilica, the deterioration of the monument shows otherwise. For instance, ASI did not treat the wooden elements of the church, such as the altars and statues, against termites and other burrowing insects, which are an endemic and ongoing problem. While this would have been a simple task to undertake, it has not been taken up, and more complex matters, including the restoration of the silver casket where the remains of Xavier are kept, have also remained unattended to.

While it would not be expected that parishioners would know how to deal with the upkeep of an early modern building’s architecture and art, a task that is in the purview of preservation experts, the involvement of the former cannot be excluded because the building is the living heritage of the local people. Were the ASI to partner with the locals, they would not only be serving the needs of the community, but also benefit from the traditional knowledge of local artisans already working in the field. As retired archaeologist N Taher (2020), who has served two terms with the ASI in Goa, states, there is a problem in the communication between the two major stakeholders of the basilica, meaning “the owner of the property—Church Authorities—and the custodian of the property—Archaeological Survey of India”. To make matters worse, both stakeholders address the structure differently. As Taher (2020) notes, one refers to the structure as a “church,” whereas the other considers it simply a “monument;” “[t]o one, it is of immense spiritual value and to the other it is a World Heritage property”.  

As indicated by the archaeologist, the current approach of ASI is to treat even living monuments as archaeological ruins, as rigid objects of the historical past. It appears that the ASI is insensitive to the heritage sites, such as the basilica, in the everyday lives of respective communities. The previously cited letter written by the rector, highlighting the shortcomings of the ASI, calls for a debate to arrive at tangible solutions for the maintenance of the basilica, because it is a living monument continuing to evolve with the community it supports. Certainly, the ASI has a role to play as an organisation able to employ conservation experts, but that role needs to be additionally reimagined to seek the collaboration of the locals.

The basilica has been part of the living heritage of Goans for 400 years; in fact, the next exposition of St Francis Xavier’s relics to be held in 2024 will mark 400 years since the transfer of the saint’s body to Bom Jesus. The afterlife of the saint is inextricably linked with the church erected to cradle his remains, and Goans hope that Bom Jesus will continue to stand as a monument to their saint. While the basilica remains a powerful testimony to Goa’s history, even more importantly, it continues to be an integral part of a continuing cultural memory. In such a context, ASI’s apathy in caring for the building could be culturally construed as an outrageous sacrilege of a revered holy site.  

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