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Footsteps along Monte Santo or the Holy Hill

Sanjeev V Sardesai


Every visitor to Goa, is not necessarily a tourist, but has the World Heritage Site —Old Goa and its old era edifices on his or her itinerary. The public in general may call these edifices as Churches, Cathedral and Basilica, but in actuality, these are the very majestic structures erected by artisans, who were Goan by birth.

A visitor to Goa, wishing to imbibe the richness of this heritage site, must be sincere in his or her craving to identify specialities, as there are exciting mysteries and stories, behind and beyond every stone (carved or not) and every ruin that stands proudly on this mount, lying to the West of the precinct of Old Goa. The identity of the Holy Hill cannot be veiled, as the Convent ruins of the Bell Tower of the Augustinian Order, makes its towering presence known to every person who steps into Old Goa.

Ideally, it is suggested to every visitor to Old Goa, that one must start their exploration of this historic precinct, from the Holy Hill, and more specifically the St Augustine Convent ruins. The Holy Hill was more popularly known as Monte Santo.


St augustine convent ruins

As informed in the earlier article, Old Goa of the Portuguese era was a home to many of the Catholic Religious Orders. One of the Orders, that defined their presence at Old Goa, was the Augustinian Order. They arrived in Goa around the year 1572, ( along with the exodus of others, with a wish to set a niche, in the newly discovered lands of the Indian Sub-Continent.

Having made an entry into Goa, they proceeded to erect a convent to carry out their activities of evangelisation in the new territories. One must be made aware that the architectural concept of affixing the bell, in a bell tower was introduced into Goa by the Augustinian Friars. Earlier the bell was affixed on the Church, in a triangular mid portion of the frontage facade of the building.

The Augustinians, in Goa, established the Church of Nossa Senhora da Graca or Our Lady of Grace in their Convent. Today just a few masonry ruins enlighten us of the splendour at its zenith, which existed here, in the supposedly five-storeyed impressive and sprawling structure that fashioned the convent.

The glory of this Convent escalated, till the ominous year 1835, when the Queen Maria I of Portugal, decreed the expulsion all the Catholic Orders in the Portuguese territories, and to vacate Goa—possibly with a very, very short notice. The Augustinian Friars’ along with the other Orders, exited Goa, leaving behind the materialistic splendour of their convents and churches. As time passed, nature took its toll and this magnificent convent building started to meet its creator.

The rigorous Goan monsoons, made a victim of the roof or the vault of the Church of Our Lady of Grace, and the same collapsed around 1842, with a huge crash. The downfall of the Convent of the Augustinians had started. The impressive facade started its deathly sequence of collapse from 1931, and led to more collapses in 1938, designing the present silhouette, of the visible ruins.

The ruins, of the Convent erected by the St Augustine Friars, have created a heritage of immense value. These facts are lesser known, for its heirs—The Goans. Many of us visit Old Goa, or escort visitors and relatives, to these ruins and take pride to point and show the Bell Tower, now in a bad shape; but many are incapable to justify, what happened to the bell/s from this Bell Tower?

One of the huge bell, from this Tower of the St Augustine Convent, considered as the second largest bell in Goa, and weighing about 2,250 kgs, made its way inside the Upper Fort of Aguada (1841-1871), prior to the construction of the Heritage Light-House. This bell was shifted to Fort Aguada, to ring the hours of the day, for the passing ships, in the Arabian Sea, along the coast of Goa. It was also rung to warn the ships if they came too close to the rocky shores of the Aguada and Sinquerim Bay.

Around 1871, after completion of construction of the new light house, inside the Fort Aguada, this huge bell was shifted to the Church in Panaji, dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. Initially, the Immaculate Conception Church had a triangular steeple, at the top central part of its facade, as seen in a sketch by Antonio Lopes Mendes. This was later, partly modified to erect masonry columns atop the central part, and the bell was affixed here. It had found a home in Panaji – the present capital city of Goa, after having started its journey from the earlier capital of Portuguese Goa.

If humans could understand the language of a tolling bell, then maybe we could hear the heart-rending story, of its jerky journey from a majestic ecclesiastical tower to a life saving duty at Aguada Fort and finally resting atop the iconic edifice in the Capital City of Goa,— The Panaji Church. The melodious sound waves, when it tolls, it must be singing the poetic song of the heritage trail it took, and the events it witnessed.

The aspects to experience at the St Augustinian Convent ruins range from taking selfies and memorable photos under the artistic, masonry, arched structures, the side chapels and to see fantastically preserved coloured Azuleijos— the painted ceramic tiles, donning the sides of the main altar of the Church of Our Lady of Grace. This art, found prominently in Spain, was brought into Goa by the Portuguese. These surviving beautiful panels have been exposed with care, by the ASI, after being covered under the mud and stones of the collapsing convent.

The most important aspect within these ruins was a secret it held, in its bowels, for almost 350 years. These are the relics of the Queen Ketevan from Georgia, who was martyred on September 3, 1624 at Shiraz, Iran by the Safavid Suzerains, for not giving up her faith. After her torturous death, and her internment, it is said that a few Augustinian Friars, who witnessed her martyrdom, removed her relics and clandestinely shifted them to the Alaverdi Monastery in the Kakheti Region of Eastern Georgia. They also brought a few relics and interred them inside the St Augustinian Convent at Old Goa, which later collapsed. These relics were found in one of the inner altars, by the Archaeological Survey of India as late as 2013. The same are preserved with the ASI.

Though these ruins may seem located at one site, it should take a visitor atleast about an hour, if not two to see all the sturdy structures and altars.

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