Goan Temple Architecture: Embodying Landscape and History

in Overview
Published on: 24 March 2021

Pedro Pombo

Pedro Pombo is an assistant professor at Goa University. He received a PhD in anthropology from ISCTE-IUL, Lisbon (Portugal), on an ethnographic exploration on space, belonging and personal narratives in Southern Mozambique. He investigates traces of Indian Ocean circulations though dialogues between cartography and archives, heritage and material culture. He also investigates Goan heritage as translating larger Indian Ocean cultural landscapes.

Portuguese presence in Goa induced profound changes in the the social and religious aspects of local life. The possession of the actual state of Goa by the Portuguese was made in two very distinct phases: while the so-called old conquest, comprising the actual talukas of Tiswadi, Bardez and Salcete became Portuguese in the first half of the sixteenth century following the conquest of Old Goa city from Adil Shah of Bijapur, the enveloping hilly territories that became known as new conquests came under Portuguese domain only in the second half of the eighteenth century and always maintained religious freedom.

The Portuguese presence in the territories captured under the old conquest was symbolically and pragmatically surrounded by a planned destruction of all the temples inside its borders. Conversion to the Catholic faith was embedded in the colonial project at the time, as it would be for several centuries, and churches and chapels substituted the existing temples and religious structures, both Hindu and Muslim. Despite the profound changes that the Portuguese domain would stimulate in Goa, deeper cultural senses prevailed in peculiar ways: the local modes of Hindu and Muslim spiritual lives influenced the Catholic faith, and in the modes this faith itself became Goan. 

Because of the peculiar history of Goa coming under Portuguese rule in two very different epochs, we have the privilege of having two different territorial sections that unveil history in distinct ways. We can understand how deeply local sensibilities of space, society and religion influenced the rooting of the Catholic faith in Goa, given its counterpart in the regions where the Portuguese influence did not provoke destruction of temples. It is through this duality that we can relate church and temple, or the cross and the tulsi, [1] or understand the syncretic religious experiences we find in the state.[2]

The influence of Indo-Portuguese aesthetics in temple architecture is particularly visible in the territories that came into Portuguese domain in the second half of the eighteenth century, where was maintained a long-standing tradition of Hindu architecture in Goa from the Bhojas to the Vijayanagara empire.[3]

The Portuguese actions in their first decades of their rule in Goa induced the relocation of many deities by their devotees to safe places across the border, mostly to the actual taluka of Ponda, Bicholim, Quepem and Pernem. Thus, in Goa we find temples dedicated to local deities as well as temples dedicated to deities that ‘flew’ from their original village.[4] An essential aspect of this is that the relocation of deities not only created new temples but ‘the ties between the temples and the villages of origin were kept intact.’[5] These ties were geographical, social and religious, and the long-standing regular visits that the converted Catholic population kept paying to their ancestral deities, across Portuguese territory, was a constant matter of concern for Portuguese and Catholic authorities for centuries.

The distinction between the local temples and ones that had relocated deities[6] had profound consequences for the architecture and social formations around these sacred buildings. On the one hand, social structures were developed around the life of these temples, which supported an administration that was often separated from the village where it was located—many of these temples are considered private and administrated by the respective mahajans or administrators. On the other hand, in almost the totality of the cases, ‘migrated’ temples were the object of important renovations during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that clearly distinguished them from the surrounding village temples.

Thus, the most famous, emblematic and touristic Goan temples are dedicated to deities hailing from the territories conquered by Portugal in the sixteenth century. These are the paradigmatic cases of an Indo-Portuguese architecture in Goan temples, revealing stylistic features and construction solutions deeply inspired by Catholic and Portuguese aesthetics, without, it is important to highlight, changing the traditional Hindu spatiality and symbolism of space. Among the most common features of this Goan temple architecture is the use of elements such as pilasters, columns or friezes, decorating the walls; octagonal, quadrangular or round shikaras over the garbhagrha (sanctum sanctorum), often covered by a dome; and the deepa sthamba (tower of light) gaining dimension and built with European decorative elements.[7] Most of these buildings are masonry structures, plastered and embellished with crystal chandeliers in their inner spaces, in a local aesthetic that reflects the history of the state.

In a critical contrast with the grandeur that these temples present, we find the village temples mostly dedicated to deities connected directly with the village.[8] It has been noted that in Goa ‘the relationship between sacred beings, geographical space and social order is deeply rooted’[9] in local senses of belonging. At the village level and in the Hindu context, the temples dedicated to the Gramdevata (literally, the gods of the village) and the Grampurusha (the first inhabitant of the village) constitute the main religious places, condensing the history of the village.

Belonging to a Landscape: A Survey of Wooden Temples
Amid this architectural panorama, we find a typology of temple that cuts across the differences and is rapidly disappearing: the temples built with wooden structures.

While most of the larger examples surveyed are built to ‘migrated’ deities, the smaller ones are almost invariably dedicated to the god Betal (or Vetal). It is worth mentioning that in Goa, the worship of Betal is very common,[10] and the taluka of Ponda has one-third of all the temples in Goa dedicated to this deity.[11]

Betal is a god who protects the boundaries of the village, and is represented as a fierce and sexualised man: he generally stands very tall and is represented in an aggressive mood. Sandals, liquor, and meat are some of the common offerings made to him. Because he is a god deeply linked with the environment, his image can also be found without any shelter in the middle of the forest, as in the case of the famous Betal statue of Loliem in the Canacona taluka. [12]

Across the whole state of Goa, the wooden temples are found in the talukas of Ponda, Canacona, Quepem and Sanguem. The remaining talukas of Pernem, Sattari, Bicholim and Dharbandora do not have any known example of wooden structures, even in the oral history, which must be further investigated.

One noteworthy aspect is that the structural logic and the decorative elements in the artistically carved wood columns and beams remain the same across the temples, despite the difference of scale between the smallest and the largest examples. This proves that these temples follow a clear and rigorous typology of structure, proportions, decoration and spatial meaning. These characteristics indicate that this architecture was developed over time, and is deeply connected with the surrounding landscape of the forested hills of the Western Ghats. Here, we see a truly vernacular architecture of the region.

Chronology and Aesthetics
There is not much information regarding the origin of the temple structures, but some of the larger temples have been mentioned in archival sources.

The systematic destruction of temples that occurred in the mid-sixteenth century was recorded in documents which contained details of the temples that existed in every village. For the case of Salcete, there are records that tell us that many of the destroyed temples had wooden structures, and these existed at a very large scale and much of it was salvaged and used to build boats. This indicates that wood was largely used in temple construction at the time. The fact that both temples built to commemorate deities that ‘flew’ across the border as well as small village temples used similar structures indicates that this corresponded to a local architectural tradition.

Similar wooden columns kept in Panjim, in the museum in the Adil Shah Palace, and in Portugal, in the S. Juliao da Barra Fort, have been dated with some doubts to the seventeenth century. This would mean that by this time this temple model was widely used in this region, which corroborates its use at the time of the Portuguese conquest of Goa.

The centuries that followed saw a growing influence of Indo-Portuguese architecture in the temple aesthetics under Maratha rule. These temples differed from other architecture traditions in the Indian subcontinent[13] such as the temple of Saptakoteshwar in Narvem, renovated by Shivaji. The progressive development of an aesthetic that combines Hindu norms and spatial sensibilities with Indo-Portuguese techniques of building became paradigmatic of the Goan temples. The Portuguese territories saw the development of an Indo-Portuguese aesthetic in a Catholic world, from architectural language to decorative motifs, and the surrounding Maratha territories similarly saw the development of a particular temple architecture that translated the presence, and influence, of these two religious traditions.

In the case of the larger temples, the central building was endowed with a mukhamandapa (entrance porch) that shelters devotees during the big zatras (pilgrimage). Laterally open to allow air circulation, these structures are covered with tiled roofs and the geometry of pillars and beams translates into masonry the older wooden structures.

Analysing the structural, spatial and sensorial aspects of each temple allows us to understand the evolution of a model over centuries and to observe how the memory of the simplest architectural solutions are preserved in the larger and complex constructions.

The temple spaces and structures embody the ritual life of the deity’s worship and the building is planned to connect the deity with the devotee, in a spatial progression from the mundane world to the sacred space where the deity resides.

In the case of the temples with wooden columns in the sabhamandapa (assembly hall), the ritual of kaul prasad or prasad pakri (the oracle of the deity, where questions asked by the devotees are replied by the deity), is commonly done using one of the columns, sacralised for that effect. As in the temples of Shri Mahalasa in Mardol, Shri Mallikarjuna in Shristal (Fig. 1) or Shri Parashuram in Poinguinim, the chosen columns can be covered with silver or surrounded by glass, always visibly marked as sacred. When this demarcation is not so pronounced, we can still notice the darker colour of its surface, vestiges of applying flowers and leaves with water that are part of the oracle ritual.

Fig. 1: Shri Kashipurusha temple, Shristal. View of the wooden sabhamandapa structure.
Fig. 1. Shri Kashipurusha temple, Shristal. View of the wooden sabhamandapa structure (Courtesy: Pedro Pombo)

This is such an integral part of the local religious life that even when a wooden structure is not used, there is a free-standing wooden column placed in the sabhamandapa or sthambadeva (an adjacent temple). This is found in the small temple of Jalmi in Nundem, Canacona, in the reconstructed temple of Shri Betal in Querim in Ponda (Fig. 2), and in the Shri Mallikarjuna temple in Shristal, where the sthambadeva has its own small shrine. This means that the old wooden columns, and its profound connection with both the landscape and the deity, still linger in the local social and religious memory.

Fig. 2: Temple of Shri Betal Poinguinim, destroyed. One of the columns of the destroyed temple, laying abandoned in the vicinity of the new building.
Fig. 2. One of the columns of the destroyed temple of Shri Betal Poinguinim, lying abandoned in the vicinity of the new building (Courtesy: Pedro Pombo)

The temples discussed here integrate the cultural history of Goa, and need to be seen as outstanding examples of centuries-old architectural traditions. Amid dense forests or in front of vast paddy fields, these buildings and sacred spaces are part of the Goan landscape and examples of deep relations between deity and place, nature and religious feelings. 

A deeper study of these temples is imperative, considering the progressive destruction of old temples across the state of Goa. Recent renovations or total reconstructions indicate the strong social and religious dynamics underlying contemporary Goan society, as is across India.[14]


 Perez, The Tulsi and the Cross.

[2] Henn, Hindu-Catholic Encounters in Goa.

[3] Mitragotri, A Socio-Cultural History of Goa from the Bhojas to the Vijayanagara; 'Vijayanagara and Post-Vijayanagara Art & Architecture of Goa'; Kamat, 'Ponda: A History of Temples'.

[4] Axelrod and Fuerch, 'The Flight of the Deities : Hindu Resistance in Portuguese Goa.'

[5] Ibid., 392.

[6] Newman, Of Umbrellas, Goddesses and Dreams: Essays in Goan Culture and SocietyGoan Anthropology.

[7] Pereira, Goa: Hindu Temples and Deities.

[8] Rai Sardessai, 'Cults, Beliefs and Legends in Goan Hindu Temples.'

[9] Henn, 'Crossroads of Religions: Shrines, Mobility and Urban Space in Goa,' 659.

[10] Mitragotri, A Socio-Cultural History of Goa from the Bhojas to the Vijayanagara.

[11] Pereira, Goa: Hindu Temples and Deities.

[12] Mitragotri, A Socio-Cultural History of Goa from the Bhojas to the Vijayanagara, 170.

[13] Kowal, 'Hindu Temples of Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Goa: The Maintenance of a Sacred Integrity and the Process of East-West Cross Fertilization,' 399.

[14] Kanekar, 'The Goan Temple: A Unique Architecture on Its Way Out.'  


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Henn, Alexander. 'Crossroads of Religions: Shrines, Mobility and Urban Space in Goa.' International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 32, no. 2 (2008): 658–70.

———. Hindu-Catholic Encounters in Goa. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2014.

Hutt, Antony. Goa: A Travellers Historical and Architectural Guide. Interlink Pub Group, 1988.

Kamat, Padmaja Vijay. 'Ponda: A History of Temples.' Goa University, 2011.

Kanekar, Amita. 'The Goan Temple: A Unique Architecture on Its Way Out.' The Al-Zulaj Collective, 2017.

Kowal, David. 'Hindu Temples of Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Goa: The Maintenance of a Sacred Integrity and the Process of East-West Cross Fertilization.' Portuguese Studies Review 9, no. 1 and 2 (2001).

Mitragotri, V. R. A Socio-Cultural History of Goa from the Bhojas to the Vijayanagara. Panjim: Instituto Menezes Braganca, 1999.

———. “Vijayanagara and Post-Vijayanagara Art & Architecture of Goa.” In Goan Society through the Ages. New Delhi: Asian Publication Services, 1993.

Newman, Robert. Goan Anthropology. Vol. 2 vols. Saligão: Goa 1556, 2019.

———. Of Umbrellas, Goddesses and Dreams: Essays in Goan Culture and Society. New Delhi: Other India Press, 2001.

Pereira, Rui Gomes. Goa: Hindu Temples and Deities. Panjim, 1979.

Perez, Rosa Maria. The Tulsi and the Cross. New Delhi: Orient BlackSwan, 2012.

Pombo, Pedro. 'Shri Betal Prasannah. The Temples of Betal of Priol, Velinga and Querim.' Oriente, no. 16 (2006): 115–28.

———. 'Water Cartographies of Goa: Khazans, Sedimentation and Dissolution of Coastal Cultural Landscapes.' Journal of Heritage Management 4, no. 2 (December 1, 2019): 192–207. https://doi.org/10.1177/2455929619877477.

Rai Sardessai, Manohar. 'Cults, Beliefs and Legends in Goan Hindu Temples.' Journal of Sukrtindra Oriental Research Institute 4, no. 1 (2002): 71–81.