Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Inquisition: The burden of Goa's past

Church of St Francis
The burden of Goa's past
Goa is dotted with charming little grottos dedicated to Mary and her son, shaded by ancient trees with gnarled trunks. Some of these are believed to have mystical powers to heal the sick and ensure a safe journey for motorists. The devout stop by every day to remove yesterday's floral offerings, light candles and place fresh flowers -- crimson hibiscus, fragrant frangipani, bright yellow honeysuckle or a clutch of flame of the forest -- while whispering prayers and seeking salvation. I was told that for many Hindus these grottos are on a par with neighbourhood temples -- the burning joss sticks are often their contribution; at some of the grottos there are earthen diyas.
Of course, these humble grottos, often crafted out of stone, pale in comparison to Goa's majestic, lime-washed churches that tower above everything else and bear testimony to its colonial past when it was an outpost of Portugal. That's how it would have remained had the Indian Army not marched in and liberated Goa on December 19, 1961. This was preceded by a surge of nationalism among Goans of all faiths who were eager to break free of Portugal and throw in their lot with India. Khwaja Ahmed Abbas was to later capture this mood in his film, Saat Hindustani, which also marked Amitabh Bachchan's entry into Mumbai's film industry. Abbas won the 'Best Feature Film' award; Bachchan was honoured with the National Film Award for the 'Best Newcomer'. And so was history made.
The departing Portuguese offered to take home their loyalists. But only a handful of Goans boarded the ship to Portugal. Some years ago, during a visit to Lisbon, I met a few old Goan families who had migrated to the 'King's country', opened up small businesses, usually corner shops, and then began to miss their 'mother country'. Their children have sort of integrated with Portuguese society, but the elderly women and men still feel left out, their printed knee-length cotton frocks and crisp linen suits a bit of an oddity in today's Portugal.
But let's not digress from the majestic churches of Goa. A slim pamphlet meant for tourists informs visitors, "Church-building was one of the main occupations of the early Portuguese and in fact one of Vasco da Gama's main missions for finding the sea route to India was to 'seek Christians and spices'." It goes on to add, "Christianity was forced upon (Goans) with religious fervour by the Portuguese during the period of the 'Inquisition' with wide scale destruction of temples and this continued till the official end of the 'Inquisition' in Goa in 1812. Most of Goa's churches were built on the very site of former temples. The confiscated lands of the temples were handed over to the Church and the communidades. In fact, the first Hindu temple allowed to be constructed by the Portuguese in 300 years was in 1818 at Panaji."
I have yet to come across credible information about churches being built on the site of razed temples, but thanks to the late Sita Ram Goel, I have had the opportunity to read an excellent treatise on the Goa 'Inquisition'. The contents of the eponymous book are extremely revealing; since they are based on Church and Portuguese documents, they cannot be outright denied or repudiated by those, both at home and abroad, who would like to gloss over that period of Goa's history when Hindus were disadvantaged on account of their faith.
"His Majesty the king has ordered that there shall be no Brahmins in his land and that they should be banished."
"In the name of his Majesty I order that no Hindu can or shall perform marriages..."
"The marriages of the supplicants are superstitious acts or functions which include Hindu rites and ceremonies as well as cult, adoration and prayers of Hindu temples..."
"I order that no Hindu temples be erected in any of the territories of my king... and that Hindu temples which already have been erected be not repaired..."
Anybody familiar with the brutalisation of Hindu customs and practices, indeed Hindu faith and belief, could mistakenly believe these are extracts from firmans issued by India's Muslim rulers. But these are not extracts taken from firmans issued by the court of Aurangzeb. They are from firmans issued by Goa's Portuguese rulers who recognised no religion other than Christianity as the legitimate means of communion with god. It was no secular rule that they imposed, but a ruthless system of pillage disguised as trade and a cruel administration for whom the heathens, especially Brahmins, unless they embraced Christianity, were nothing more than "supplicants" to be crushed into submission or exiled into oblivion.
Nobody talks of the Goa 'Inquisition', but that does not mean it never happened or there is no evidence to prove that it happened. There exist, in full text, orders issued by the Portuguese Viceroy and the Governor. There exist, in written records and travelogues, penned not by the persecuted but by the persecutors, full details of the horrors perpetrated in the name of the Church.
Hindus who dared oppose the religious persecution by the Portuguese administration or the Church were punished, swiftly and mercilessly. Those who were fortunate got away with being banished from Portuguese territory. The less fortunate had their property seized and auctioned -- the money was used, in large measure, for furthering the interests of the Church. The least fortunate were forced to serve as slave labour on the galleys that transported riches from India to Portuguese shores.
These are events that occurred in the distant past and should not be allowed to influence relations between Christians and Hindus in today's Goa. This is all the more so because the post-colonial Church in Goa has been deeply nationalist and refrained from aggressive proselytisation or offending Hindu sentiments. Nothing illustrates this better than the work done by Fr Agnel's mission to promote education and nationalist values. It would, however, be in order for the Vatican to offer an apology and thus close a bitter chapter of Goa's -- and, therefore, India's -- history. If he were to take the initiative, Pope Benedict would demonstrate that he is a man of courage and conviction, apart from being a man of god.


Coffee Break / Sunday Pioneer / June 8, 2008

(c) CMYK Printech Ltd

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