Goa: A Distinctive Architectural Landscape

Goa: A Distinctive Architectural Landscape

A local, regionally appropriate architecture holds its ground against the colonial splendour that was unleashed on the streets of Goa. Think Goa, and in swim images of Mannerist mansions and sightings of the Mediterranean Casa alongside thatched roofs, coast-side constructions that families and friends chilling in the interior courtyards popular along the West coast of India, and the vibrant, vibrant colours that made the little state a sure top on the hippie trail.


What we talk about when we talk about the ‘colonial’ style, has itself been unraveled into cultural intricacies created by the interaction of colonial powers and regional reactions. Goa, in particular, highlights the way the colonial influence was hardly uniform across the country. Not only was Goa colonised by an imperial power that was a minority of sorts on Indian soils, but the process of colonization that transformed Goa’s architectural landscape itself was (visibly) different from English Imperialism. While the British swept across the Indian subcontinent like a mighty tidal wave of change whose force spoke volumes of the youthful macho energy of Britain, that was still a young imperialist when it coveted India, the Portuguese powers were experiencing a steady decline in economic and political growth which began a little after they set foot on Goan soil. Accordingly, the way each country left its mark on the local architecture was quite specific. Here, we explore some of that colonial flavour, and see what makes Goa so special.

The Portuguese Stronghold

Goa was officially made the headquarters of Portuguese India in 1510. Moreover, it’s importance to the Portuguese presence in this part of the world was sealed by the presence, in Goa, of the Portuguese Viceroy who was in charge of all operations in Asia. By the early 1600s, Goa was already known in Europe as the “Rome of the East”, and was given the civic privileges that Lisbon enjoyed, including direct communication with the king, and a special representative to attend to its interests in court. All this goes to show the centrality of Goa to the Portuguese imperial government. Goa, moreover, is the scene of an infamous Inquisition, one that lasted longer than the Spanish Inquisition itself. This fact sets the context for the kind of social and administrative power exercised on Goa by the Portuguese.


Goa: A Religious Centre

Churches were important marks of the Imperial state, and served as seats of authority, and for this, the church provides a key architectural reference. The Basilica of Bom Jesus, or the Basilica Du Bom Jesus, Goa’s most illustrious church, is one such example. Once the seat of Portuguese Catholic power this side of the world, this church was finished in 1605, and is still a major pilgrimage site for containing the remains of the Jesuit founder-saint St. Francis Xavier.



Inside the Basilica

Inside the Basilica

It is India’s first basilica and stands as a fine example of Baroque architecture in the country. The floor is wrought from marble, and inlaid with precious stones, complimented with the gilded altars. However, like most Portuguese churches, the rest of it is quiten straightforward and simple. The inside holds a large statue of Ignatius Loyola, with whom St. Francis founded the Jesuit order. It must be noted how Portuguese religious architecture differed from British Christian architecture in crucial ways: the British religious imprints upon India usually display a decadent gothic facade, with elaborate stuccoed walls. Moreover, the protestant Anglican influence was of a less aggressive strain than the violent conversion activities taken up by the Portuguese Catholic  church.

c119 St James Church

British built St James Church, Dellhi

The colour white was usually reserved for churches, in the traditional Portuguese style. Given the status of the church as the seat of authority, other buildings could not be white.

Church of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception, Goa

Church of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception, Goa

Goa: A Splash of Colour

This meant that other buildings, especially houses, were to be painted other colours, differing significantly from the usual lime-white Mediterranean Casa, a style of residence that the Portuguese themselves had picked up and adopted from their travels, and one which was found to be suitable to the Goan environment. This contributed, in no small measure, to the colourful architectural landscape that is such a distinctive feature of Goa.



The Balcao: A Vantage Point

Perhaps the most distinct feature of the Goan house, the balcao is a sort of front porch with stone benches that serves as a sitting area. A simple enough feature, but one that trails a long history, of colonial and local building, and adaption.


Traditionally, native Goan homes were built in the Malabar style that is a signature of the West coast: lush  homes with thatched roofs that were built around a central hidden courtyard, tucked away from outside eyes. This courtyard allowed the women to gather and take respite from their domestic duties. With the Portuguese influence, however, it became more fashionable to adopt ‘progressive’ practices from Europe. Women were encouraged to participate more in society, and the balcao was imported straight from the Mediterranean to allow the women and other members of the house to catch the breeze in the stifling Goan afternoons. In essence, the Balcao has been associated with neo-Christianity and its outward looking perspective- in contrast to the traditional isolation from the world that was practiced by the  earlier monastic orders. The Balcao is also said to have become the ideal vantage point for the ‘beatas’, or the local gossip mongers. One the other hand, this porch also served a purpose in the class-ridden society: those of lower caste were made to stand outside, or sit on the stone benches.


Portuguese Vs British Architecture: Offering a Contrast

Features of Portuguese architecture, like the standard Portuguese fort, have long been noted for their functionality. This prioritization of functionality over decoration offers a great place to compare British colonial architecture with its Portuguese counterpart. Let us recall that the Portuguese empire was in an advanced stage of Imperialism compared to the British, to set things in perspective.  A few historians have noted how British buildings in India are needlessly elaborate, adopting symbolism and imagery from the classical style, to leave a grand mark on the colony. Ostentatious neo-classical styles were often embellished with local imagery, notably Mughal architectural features, to give birth to thestyle known as Indo-Sarcenic architecture. This was a visible administrative strategy, this careful re-appropriation of architectural styles. A prime example of Indo-Sarcenic Revival architecture would be the Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus, at Mumbai, with its elaborate Victorian Gothic appearance fused into an equally showy local style. This was also in keeping with the youthful British obsession with technology.


Portuguese architecture, on the other hand, clearly followed a different strategy. In about 20 years from the time they captured Goa, it had becomes the Portuguese centre in the Orient. After years of inquisition and aggressive colonization, the Imperial mother country found itself losing its foothold in the country. The fusion of European and local styles was also a feat that the Portuguese prided themselves on being able to  accomplish, but this never came close to the grand scale in which the British went about it.

The Church at Old Goa

The Church at Old Goa


One main challenge that was faced was the problem of the adaptation of European styles of architecture to the local climate. The Portuguese were, by this time well versed in, and favored the Mannerist style of building, a geometrical and straightforward style that was well suited to the Mediterranean coast. However, battling with Goa’s harsh monsoons and ever-encroaching greenery posed other challenges.


This, along with the reactions against the aggressive Portuguese influence by the locals, led to a unique fusion of European and the local Malabar styles. The thatched roofs were best suited to brush off the rain. The development and reappropriation of the balcao shows how the inner courtyard came in and out of style, and was a statement that was used by local Hindus to assert their freedom from Portuguese influence. The inner courtyards and the balcao also effectively contribute to a sort of  blurring of the inside and the outs, very appropriate in the lush climate of Goa, and symptomatic of the fusion between European styles and local knowledge of the environment. The use of locally available laterite stone, in place of the lime and plaster (as is common in the Mediterranean style), and the lining of windows with mother of pearl emphasizes this.




Faustina Johnson

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