Revisiting Christmas In Govapuri AD 1075


Nandkumar M Kamat

Readers are forewarned that this is my time travellers’ tale which showcases the great liberal, cosmopolitan and tolerant, harmonious elements of Goan history which were witnessed in AD 1075 in the prosperous capital of the Kadambas of Goa- Govapuri or Gopakpattana. 

Before I could pay closer attention to the late evening procession on the Rajvithi, the royal road in Govapuri, a voice came from behind. “Oh, learned stranger, are you from Dhofar“, I found a Nestorian monk behind me, who said, “I am Barsauma from Mosul. I belong to Ittā d-Madnĕkhā d-Āturāyē, The Assyrian church of east, and I invite you to join our celebrations. Our Good Lord, Jesus Christ was born on this night”.

He pointed to the procession which carried a giant but peculiarly ornamented decorated wooden cross in front, followed by men and women in colourful costumes, all carrying crucifixes and banners with Christian symbols. The cross was typical of what I had seen on the church walls during my visit to a Monastery of Saint Gabriel on Tur Abdin plateau on the border of Anatolia and Mesopotamia.

“Come, the whole town is joining us, at midnight with the bells of our holy house tolling, we would rejoice in the birth of our Lord, Jesus Christ” said Barasauma, “and you know  to join our midnight special prayers the great King, his royal highness Jayakeshideva  would arrive along with the righteous, noble Prime Minister Shaik Sadhan,  son of Mohammed the great from Chemulya”.

I wondered what brought Barasauma all the way from Mosul to Hind’s west coast. Assyrians like Barasauma were monotheists before Christ and Christians after him, and they had well adapted to Christianity. With procession I crossed a beautiful lake and could see a small structure painted in yellow and blue. It had a vast courtyard and stood close to the river. Obviously, it was the Assyrian house of prayers in Govapuri.  The full courtyard was decorated. Thousands of large carved stone lamps were kept ready for the approaching night. The atmosphere was full of several aromas- camphor, burning candles, boiled rice, oil, fried meat, fish, crabs, lobsters. The breeze from the river was spreading the aroma in full town. Then we heard approaching royal guards, horse riders sent in advance to secure the path for the midnight arrival of the king and the prime minister.

King Jayakeshi had astutely joined hands with Yemenese Arabs to subjugate pirates of Mogadishu and Sokotra. His fame had reached the courts of Sultan of Zanzibar and tribal chieftains of Zambezi valley. His great naval victories had given him the title “Lord of the Western Ocean (Paschimasamudradhipati)” and his loyal naval fleet was always ready to defend the city. I decided not to miss the opportunity to join the midnight mass to celebrate the birth of infant Jesus.

As soon as we entered the kitchen pavilion a man in silk apron saw us. He was issuing orders in the kitchen. “Welcome, look at our typical Assyrian spread. Tonight, after the mass for the feast and to also take care of breakfast, we are serving Harissa, our traditional Assyrian porridge made of chicken, wheat, and a generous amount of butter. See these pretty women are busy in preparing Masta, this is our yogurt. And you can enjoy it with bread, or, come here you can use any of these to go with masta.

He pointed to bowls full of chopped cucumbers, garlic, salt, mint.  We also use this, he pointed to a bottle full of brownish liquid- this is jajick, oil which we extract from olives, specially imported with royal permission for the festival tonight. Thank Sheik Sadhan, the benevolent Prime Minister. He supported us in all our needs.  We have this thick bread- samoon. And if you had a heavy dinner, fall asleep and wake up early then try -Baklawa, kelecheh, and kadeh or taste our creamy Gehmar with honey or date syrup on samoon. “What are you going to serve as appetizers tonight?

“I would tell you, come here, an elderly man with long flowing beard, in a purple robe holding a silver casket called me. “My name is Nestorius- no relation to the great one and I supervise operations here. Tell me, what you wish to know about Assyrian food festival which we organize every season to celebrate the birth of our Lord?  “I said “everything, including what you serve to his highness the great king Jaykeshi and members of the royal court.

“You see Atithi we shall all miss the midnight mass if you go on talking about Assyrian food. Let us take appetizers- you see there, five tables are spread. Our appetizers tonight include hummus, Baba Ghanouj, Tapoula, Fattoush, vegetables and dip, Burek. I thanked Nestorius and rushed to join the midnight mass before the royal party could arrive. I have not forgotten that night and what King Jayakeshi said bowing before the altar – “glory to the Lord, may peace be upon all in my kingdom. I shall donate thousand Padmatankas, in gold for upkeep of this place, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”.

“Long live, the lord of Western Ocean, King Jaykeshiraj” thousands of people were hailing the king. The ceremony was over. The king went around with the Assyrian priests and exchanged Christmas greetings. Finally he came near me and after accepting my salutation said – “I have heard about your arrival. Don’t forget to keep good records, so in future writing let people know who I was and how I treated my subjects.” Prime Minister Sadhan, who was listening to all this addressed to me in Arabic “learned one, join us for Assyrian food festival tonight. I have sponsored it.

I could not believe what he said- Arab Prime Minister of a Hindu King sponsoring a midnight party of Christians to celebrate the birth of Lord Jesus Christ in a Hindu Kingdom in the land of Hind? Would anyone in future believe this, I wondered. I followed the Prime Minister in the courtyard and saw King Jaykeshi himself sitting on a low Silver throne and enjoying Fattoush served in a Chinese bowl. His guards stood like statues besides him without any naked swords. I had never seen before a king enjoying Assyrian Fattoush, a salad like the commoners. I would never forget that Christmas night AD 1075 and the Assyrian food festival blessed by the king of Govapuri.