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From a Chapel to a Cathedral Se Cathedral, Old Goa

Sanjeev Sardesai

After having passed through the portals of the Bom Jesus Basilica and being awed by the exterior and interiors of this magnificent edifice, let us now turn our feet to another jewel in the crown of the World Heritage site – The Se Cathedral.

Old Goa was called as the ‘Rome of the East’ for the very reason that, during the initial century of the arrival of the Portuguese regime, almost every Order of the Christian Faith was represented here, in Goa. However, we must keep in mind that the reference Goa during that era did not mean the present day Goa state borders, but the reference was only to the island of Tiswadi, on which lies Old Goa and Panaji. Every major Order of Christianity operated from their dedicated ecclesiastical edifice, in or around Old Goa, stretching from Gandaulim, Dhauge in the east, to Panelim to its west.

As writings inform us, when Afonso da Albuquerque re-conquered Old Goa, it was under the rule of the Yusuf Adilshah of Bijapur. This place, then known as Ellapuri, was enclosed with a huge fortification Wall, built by the Adilshahi regime for its protection. Encompassed within these walls, was a city where dwelt thousands of citizens. It is said that there were many mosques spread out here within the wall precincts, along with a few fine temples.

On November 25, 1510, when the armada of Afonso da Albuquerque entered the city, with well planned and armed soldiers, the lands were wrested from the poorly armed local soldiers after a ‘bloody’ battle. Many of the locals— men, women and children, were put to sword in the days to  follow; and after the battle was decisively won and the lands taken over – it is said that Afonso da Albuquerque, who was at the helm of the fighting, fell down to his knees and prayed to thank his patron family saint Catherine of Alexandria. Incidentally it was the feast day of Saint Catherine, on the day that the lands were won.

It is said that he ordered that a shrine (chapel) be constructed at the very spot, where the battle was won to be dedicated to St Catherine. And in this manner, the first ecclesiastical structure in Goa was constructed at this place. Today a small, but empty chapel stands in its place, but is not used for veneration. The location of this chapel, now under the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), is just below the ASI Museum to the north west, next to the Church of St Francis of Assisi.

The initial shrine may have been constructed of local architectural material such as wood and a coconut leaves thatch. It was on November 3, 1543, by the issue of the Papal Bull (Pope Document), the Diocese of Goa was established, for the whole of the East; and in turn this Church of St Catherine was raised to the rank of a Cathedral (Bishop’s Church). But later around 1550’s, under the aegis of Portuguese Governor, George Cabral, a larger edifice was considered to be constructed.

The website of the Department of Tourism informs us that, “The construction of this imposing edifice began in the year 1562, during the reign of King Dom Sebastião (1557-78) and significantly completed by 1619. The first holy mass at the Se Cathedral was held on July 2, 1619. It was consecrated in 1640. The main altars however were not finished until the year 1652. The Cathedral was built for the Dominicans and paid for by the Royal Treasury out of the proceeds of the sale of the Crown’s property”.

The Iberian styled facade of the Se Cathedral, which is among the largest ecclesiastical edifices in India, faces the east. The open space or square, in front of this Cathedral, was earlier called as Terreiro de Sabaio.

When we look at the facade of this Cathedral, it seems that the architecture is asymmetric. There is one bell tower to the right of the Cathedral, while none exists on the other side. In actuality, there existed a similar bell tower to the left side, too. However, it is said that in a ferocious monsoon in 1773, and having been struck by lightning, this tower collapsed, never to be re-built again till date.

However, the existing bell tower holds Goa’s largest, heaviest and most amazingly sounding bell, which is more famously known as the Golden Bell. This does not mean that it is made of gold, but it refers to the most melodious sounds, carried for miles around, when the bell tolled.

Inside, the Cathedral displays a richly gilded altar, which gives a prosperous appearance. Just below the main altar and on both sides, are partitioned wooden chairs that were used to seat the Canons. On the left of the altar, towards the nave, is a golden gilded wooden carved throne, for the Archbishop.

Just outside the sanctum sanctorum area, and at the end of the aisle, and toward the main altar is a roof hung and very exquisite cut glass chandelier. And on the roof, just above this, one can see the Coat of Arms of Portugal, with a Royal Crown, affixed onto the roof portraying that this Cathedral enjoyed royal patronage.

Just outside the main altar area, one can see two grave stones, in marble. One of these belongs to a Goan, Dom Francisco Xavier da Piedade Rebello, who was the first Goan dean to administer this Archdiocese and died on July 7, 1975 at Margao.

Along both the sides of the nave, and along the altar frontage, are a total of fourteen altars, dedicated to various saints, and deities. Of these altars, one must visit and see the altar of the Miraculous Cross, which is second from front towards the right side, behind the Pair of Pulpits. This Cross is said to have been found to grow from an initial one made of coconut leave end (piddo); hence this Cross is also called as ‘Piddeacho Khuris’.

Next to this is another amazing altar, which opened a Pandora’s box, when in the year 2004, during the Exposition of the Sacred Relics of SFX, the ASI wanted to put CCTV, and a slab cracked to open a stairway to a burial crypt below the grave stone, here.

In the last altar, towards the right, and near the entrance, is the granite Baptismal, which is said to have been used by St Francis Xavier to convert the new Christians. This Cathedral, at one time was the biggest in India. Being dedicated to St Catherine of Alexandria, this edifice facing the east, is today known as Se’ Cathedral or simply the “Se”.

There is a very unique ritual that takes place here, for a short time, every year on Good Friday. This is called as ‘Shepdyeanche Pursanv’ or ‘The Procession of Tails’. On Good Friday, in the afternoon, the Canons’ wore a black hooded cape, with a trail, which when they walked in procession, looked like tails trailing behind.

One cannot write about the beauty of this Cathedral edifice; but one has to visit it and see the various aspects at leisure!

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