The Basilica of Bom Jesus: A Symbol of Goan Identity

in Article
Published on: 18 May 2018

Vishvesh Kandolkar

Vishvesh Kandolkar is Associate Professor at Goa College of Architecture, and a doctoral student at Manipal University through the Srishti Institute of Art, Design, and Technology, Bangalore. A writer of op-ed columns, as well as art and architectural criticism, his writings can be accessed at


The disappearance of the city of [Old] Goa, of its streets, squares, terreiros (large open spaces in front of churches, palaces, or noble houses…), largos (little squares), calçades (mounting streets), houses and palaces, of most of its churches, chapels, and convents, has ensured that every history of architecture of Goa is necessarily flawed from the beginning.

Paulo Varela Gomes (2011:15)


The Basilica of Bom Jesus, the construction of which began in 1594, is among the few monuments that have survived in Old Goa and it bears witness to the glorious past of this erstwhile capital of the Portuguese empire in Asia. The church, which was raised to the level of minor basilica by the Roman Catholic Church in 1946, is important not only because it houses the relics of the famous St. Francis Xavier, but also because it is a critical part of Goa’s architectural history. Apart from being an important religious building, the Basilica of Bom Jesus represents the flowering of Baroque style architecture in Goa.


The church, designed as a part of a residential building for priests, the Casa Professa, was built by the Jesuit missionary order and was not funded by the Portuguese crown (Pereira 2011), unlike the Sé Cathedral, which was also being built then. Perhaps because of the limited funding and due to the Jesuits’ usual austerity (Osswald 2013:202), the basilica was meant to be a modest building compared to the other churches being built near it at that time. For example, the outstanding stone barrel vault roof (made of laterite stone, itself a technical feat) and the array of lateral chapels, present both in the Sé Cathedral as well as in the Church of St. Augustine, are absent in the basilica.


In his seminal book Whitewash, Red Stone (2011), architectural historian Paulo Varela Gomes observes that while the overall design of the Basilica of Bom Jesus was a modest affair, it was the last-minute decision of the Jesuits to use Bassein basalt in the front façade that changed everything. He states that 'the Bom Jesus has a unique façade in the history of Christian architecture, one of the outstanding monuments of the architecture of India' (2011:68). The basilica was constructed with local laterite stone and except for the front façade, it was whitewashed with lime plaster. The reason this was done was that Bassein basalt could be elaborately carved unlike the soft and flaky local laterite stone of Goa.


The façade is divided into three bays, vertically and horizontally, and three storeys with Ionic columns on the ground floor, Doric columns on the first, and Corinthian columns on the second. Only the pilasters that divide the bays of the front façade are made of laterite, which was plastered and whitewashed like the rest of the basilica.


The Jesuits chose a strategic location for the complex, next to a large urban open space called Terreiro dos Gallos, which lay just outside the old fort wall of the city. While the Jesuits commenced the construction of Casa Professa in 1587, the church could only be started in 1594, due to a lack of funds. Architect and scholar António Nunes Pereira (2011) notes that an elaborate Renaissance proportioning system was used for the design the basilica. Above the church’s entrance is a balcony for the choir and straight ahead is a single nave or main hall (50 metres by 23 metres) with the main chapel (15 metres by 15 metres) at the end it. This chapel, with the famous gilded altar, has a coffered barrel vault roof, whereas the nave has a wooden ceiling. Originally, on both sides of the transept were shallow spaces. But the two side chapels that we see there today, the Holy Sacrament on the left and the one dedicated to St. Francis Xavier on the right, were added in 1652 (Varela Gomes 2011).


The highlight of the church is the tomb of St. Francis Xavier, which is located in its own chapel. It is here that the saint’s mortal remains are on display. The marble tomb of the saint was gifted to the basilica by the Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III di Medici, and it was designed by the distinguished Florentine sculptor Giovanni Battista Foggini in 1686. The chapel dedicated to Xavier allows worshipers to view the mortal remains from all four sides. Devotees, after worshipping at the chapel, usually move from the inside of the church into a series of intermediary spaces and then exit at the courtyard of the Casa Professa.


The church’s sacristy, is another architectural masterpiece. Located on the southern side of the church next to Xavier’s chapel, the present sacristy was remodelled from the old one between 1652 to 1653 (Osswald 2013:75). Sacristy is a chamber where priests get ready for the service and where vestments and the items of the worship are stored. The interior of the basilica’s sacristy is striking for the architectural thinking that has gone into making this space. Its rectangular shape, 20 metres in length and 10 metres in width, is perfectly proportioned with the height of the ceiling. The sacristy also amazes the first-time visitor because of the quality of light that enters through its octagonal windows, strategically located high up on the wall, particularly where it meets the ceiling. The light bounces off the white stucco decorations on the ceiling to create a mystical glow within.


Travellers to Goa in the 17th century remarked that the Basilica of Bom Jesus was one of the more exquisite churches even as compared to those in Rome (Osswald 2013:86–87). This praise of the basilica though was not because of the size and layout of the structure; rather, it was the façade along with the architectural embellishments inside, like the design of the sacristy, the chapel dedicated to Xavier, and the legacy of the famous tomb, that impressed many. Moreover, the rich gilded altars in churches like this one were the reason why Old Goa came to be known as Goa Dourada or Golden Goa. The powerful Jesuits had ensured that St. Francis Xavier enjoyed popularity around the world. It is precisely because of the saint’s popularity that influential Goan patrons were attracted to the basilica, like the viceroys and governors of Portuguese India as well as other high-ranking political and military dignitaries. The reason it survived the otherwise sorry decline that the rest of Old Goa witnessed, is that it enjoyed the patronage of these influential individuals, particularly for its upkeep. In return, they were honoured with burials in the church. By investing in the architectural legacy of the basilica, these individuals and their families hoped to immortalise their own legacies in Goa. Thus, the Basilica of Bom Jesus is as much a repository of an architectural history of Goa as it is about the Portuguese colonial empire, the Jesuit order, the legacy of St. Francis Xavier, and the many influential as well as ordinary individuals who engaged with the church.  


St. Francis Xavier: Defender of the Orient


It was through St. Francis Xavier—his life, missionary work, death and the ritualisation of his mortal remains—that Goans were able to stitch together their collective identity. Xavier, who was of Spanish Basque origin, came to Goa through the Portuguese maritime network. To say that he represented the Portuguese in Asia or to link him to his Spanish birth in the 16th century would be a stretch because concepts such as ‘Portuguese’ or ‘Spanish’ didn’t exist then. Xavier was important first for the Jesuits and later, through his miracles, for the colonial state and the city of Old Goa.


As one of the founder members of the Jesuit order established by St. Ignatius of Loyola in 1540, Xavier headed the Jesuit mission in Asia. Having reached Goa in 1542, Xavier’s missionary activities covered the entire Portuguese maritime network in Asia, including Japan where he was revered. In 1552, while he was on his way to China, he succumbed to illness and died in Sancian. In 1553, three months after his death, Xavier’s body was disinterred by members of his religious order:


his body was found to be ‘incorrupt’—meaning that his flesh had not decomposed. The body was put on the next westward-bound Portuguese ship, stopping briefly in Malacca and arriving in Goa on 16 March 1554, where it was honoured in a small reception. (Gupta 2014)


The mortal remains of Xavier were initially kept in the College of São Paulo in Old Goa. Afterwards, efforts to canonise him began and in 1622, the Roman Catholic Church finally declared Xavier a saint (for which his right arm was severed from his body and taken to Rome for veneration). In 1624, with much fanfare and celebration, the mortal remains of St. Francis Xavier were shifted to the Basilica of Bom Jesus.


As the repository of the relics of St. Francis Xavier, the Basilica of Bom Jesus became the centre of action, with multiple agencies trying to claim the saint in the 17th and 18th centuries. Obviously, the Jesuits gained from his popularity as did the Roman Catholic church and the Portuguese state in Goa. The church was in the throes of Counter-Reformation and needed the popularity of St. Francis Xavier to widen its base. The Portuguese state, on the other hand, hoped to gain from the saint’s symbolic power in order to consolidate its weakening empire in the East. On the events and manner in which the saint was integrated into the service of the Portuguese state, Pamila Gupta writes:


It was when defeat for the Portuguese was near at hand [in1683] that Viceroy D. Francisco de Tavora appealed to the saint for his ‘divine intercession’, handing over his baton of command to him in the process. As a result of his… success in staving off another invasion, a new ritual practice called posse was initiated, by which each newly appointed Viceroy of Governor, shortly after his arrival in Goa, received Xavier’s blessing in the act of exchanging his staff of command, recognizing his power and protection and accepting his position as the saint’s ‘vassal’ for the duration of his term…On 24 March 1699 St. Francis Xavier was given the honorific title of ‘Defender of the Orient’ by royal decree, an action that linked his earlier success against the Marathas in Goa [1683] to his future intercession and protection of not just one colony but all those now under the Portuguese dominion in the East.’ (2014:129)


Partaking in official ceremonies of the state, like the handing of the Viceroy’s staff to St. Francis Xavier, enabled the basilica to become the political centre of Índia Portugueza. Such ceremonies consolidated the symbolic value of the Basilica of Bom Jesus and it became more important than the Sé Cathedral, which remained merely the seat of the Archbishop. Malekandathil states that after 1624 ‘pilgrimages were repeatedly organized, with the state as the sponsor or facilitator, to the shrine of St. Francis Xavier kept at Bom Jesus Basilica, making the people move towards the centre, more as a religious ceremony, but eventually converting it into a political device’ (2009:32). However, while the figure of St. Francis Xavier became increasingly indispensable to the Portuguese state (because of his popularity), the same could not be said for the missionary order to which he belonged.


The first threat to the legacy of the church came in 1759, when Portugal, under the leadership of Marquis de Pombal, expelled the Jesuits from all their territories, including Goa. This was a new era of Portuguese colonialism where the state wanted to distance itself from the church. The Jesuits had also grown powerful, which was not to the liking of the Portuguese crown. Gupta writes that ‘the Jesuits were as much a commercial enterprise as a religious institution, accumulating wealth through their role as moneylenders and landowners, wealth that the colonial state could potentially seize and employ to buttress its failing economy’ (Gupta 2014:132). The expulsion of Jesuits had a major impact on Goa as they not only controlled important religious institutions in the city of Old Goa but also administered all the churches in the province of Salcete. It is during this time that the affairs of the Basilica of Bom Jesus as well as safeguarding the relics of St. Francis Xavier’s body were placed ‘under the auspices of the Portuguese Crown, with the Congregation of the Oratorians, an organization of “secular” (non-ordered) clergymen, appointed to oversee his general care and management, while still responsible to the Archdiocese and Viceroy’ (Gupta 2014:132). The state knew that the basilica with the tomb of Xavier was an important asset and it hoped to continue to gain from the legacy of its historic location.


From the 19th century, the state made the basilica more important than it was before, especially by organising expositions of the relics of St. Francis Xavier. The state had organised the first exposition in 1782, which interestingly, Gupta notes, was to assure the locals in Goa that the Jesuits had not taken the mortal remains of their beloved saint with them. While the state ensured the smooth transfer of the affairs of the basilica, the rest of the city of Old Goa did not enjoy a similar kind of care. The city underwent rapid deterioration and fell to ruins. In 1834, the Portuguese state also expelled the remaining missionary orders, leading to further abandonment of the city. And, in 1843, the state officially moved its capital from Old Goa to Panjim, bringing to a close another chapter in the history of this former capital. Nevertheless, the Basilica of Bom Jesus continued to remain in focus. In 1859, the state organised the second exposition almost 80 years after it had organised the first one. Not surprisingly, this exposition received an overwhelming response from the public as devotees flocked to the basilica to venerate the mortal remains of their beloved saint. From this time onwards, the exposition became a regular affair with a large gathering of Goans in attendance. Even the recent expositions show that millions of people attend it once every ten years. Such large gatherings of Goans and non-Goans are not purely to witness a religious event, but also to highlight basilica’s historic importance.


The architectural legacy of the Basilica of Bom Jesus


The Basilica of Bom Jesus had a huge influence on the design of churches built in the 17th and 18th century in Goa. Varela Gomes highlights the novelty and modernity of the basilica’s façade, which ‘had a profound impact on Goa’s architectural culture: Flemish ornament, Serlian mouldings, round windows, and French Serlian window frames, were subsequently used in simplified form throughout Goa in the 17th and early 18th centuries’ (2011:69). Varela Gomes claims that the lasting contribution of the basilica was that it ‘allowed Indian artisans to domesticate European architectural and ornamental vocabulary, to make it their own’ (2011:70). The architecture of churches in Old Goa provided a design template for the rest of the churches in the region. What is critical is that Goans were scripting the legitimacy of their own claim over Goa through this architectural inheritance.


According to Varela Gomes, the architecture of churches in Goa after the 17th century had 'far less Portuguese influence than one would be led to believe' (2011:4). On the multiple influences on the evolution of Goan churches, he writes:


It is true that, analysing the buildings in parts … one can see Portuguese wall composition, Flemish vaulting or ornament, Bijapuri tower design, Konkan stucco pattern and ornamental design, etc. But the churches as overall buildings did not result from the sum of their constitutive parts. The builders and patrons knew how they wanted a Catholic church to look and how they wanted it to be experienced… (2011:6).


What was going on was that in the 18th century, the ‘native’ builders and patrons were making radically different churches compared to those made by the Jesuits or the Franciscans earlier, in order to further their claim over it. These buildings were introducing new themes and contributing to the evolution of Goan church architecture. Architecturally, the Basilica of Bom Jesus served as a design model for many churches, especially those that were directly under the Jesuit control in Goa as well as the rest of Estado da Índia.


Polemics around the image of the Basilica


The Basilica of Bom Jesus continues to generate controversy because of the manner in which the monument is being conserved. Today, an entire generation of Goans has grown accustomed to seeing the basilica’s exposed laterite walls, but this is not the way the building was 60 years ago. In his paper, ‘On the Trail of Baltazar Castro, a Portuguese Restorer in India’ (2015), architect-scholar Joaquim Rodrigues dos Santos reveals that it was the restorer Baltazar Castro who, in the 1950s, brought about the dramatic transformation in the external appearance of the basilica by ordering the removal of the external plaster, leaving the underlying laterite stone exposed. Dos Santos claims that such deplastering was a part of Prime Minister Antonio Salazar’s nationalistic ideology, where monuments were ‘restored’ to look ancient, or rather medievalised, in order to proclaim the antiquity of the Portuguese empire. Dos Santos also adds that many such ideologically motivated restorations were initially undertaken in Salazar-ruled Portugal during the 1940s to reinforce the nationalistic agenda and to essentially prove through architectural restorations the long lineage of the Portuguese ‘nation’.


These changes still haunt the basilica. Replying to the recent discussion in the media on plastering the church, the rector of the basilica, Fr. Savio Baretto admits that ‘[t]he bell tower is a real problem during the monsoon. Maximum leakage takes place there’ (The Goan 2016). But despite the weakening, Fr. Baretto and many others seem to be against the idea of replastering the church. The rector echoes a romantic appeal based on the fact that ‘[m]ost … Goans have been born to the sight of a red bricked [laterite] church. Having it plastered will hurt the sentiments of the people of Goa more than anything. I agree with the fact [that] the church is deteriorating, but there must be more modern ways of preserving and improving the structure’ (The Goan 2016). 


But the fact is there is no better way to preserve the church other than plastering it. History also suggests that sentiments such as the rector’s are misplaced because the basilica was always plastered, from the time it was built in the late 16th century. A porous stone, laterite absorbs water by capillary action, which can lead to the soaking of an entire wall. The damage is, therefore, not restricted to the exterior surfaces alone. The fact is the exposed laterite walls of the basilica have miraculously withstood the onslaught of the Goan monsoon since the 1950s.  The same fate, Santos claims, was not accorded to the Arch of the Viceroys, also in Old Goa. It was also de-plastered by Castro and soon afterwards crumbled during a heavy monsoon storm. The arch, which is visible today, is a reconstructed version of the original. The clerical authorities in the Archdiocese and the Goan state have to decide, therefore, if the current aesthetics of the basilica are more important than the monument itself.




Gupta, Pamila. 2014. The Relic State: St Francis Xavier and the Politics of Ritual in Portuguese India. Studies in Imperialism. Manchester, New York: Manchester University Press.


Osswald, Cristina. 2013. Written in Stone: Jesuit Buildings in Goa and Their Artistic and Architectural Features. Saligão: Goa 1556.


Pereira, António Nunes. 2011. ‘Renaissance in Goa: Proportional Systems in Two Churches of the Sixteenth Century’, Nexus Network Journal 13.2:373–96.


Santos, Joaquim R. 2015. ‘On the Trail of Baltazar Castro, a Portuguese Restorer in India’, in Proceedings of the EAHN 2015: Entangled Histories, Multiple Geographies. Belgrade: European Architectural History Network and Faculty of Architecture, University of Belgrade.


The Goan Network. 2016. ‘Plastering Basilica; Church Says Oh God, Please Don’t,’ The Goan Everyday, October 2. (viewed on September 24, 2017).


Varela Gomes, Paulo. 2011. Whitewash, Red Stone: A History of Church Architecture in Goa. New Delhi: Yoda Press.


Further Reading


Kandolkar, Vishvesh. 2015. ‘Local Identity, Global Architecture’. The Goan Everyday, July 19. Online at (viewed on September 24, 2017).

———. 2016a. ‘The Ruins That Are Not.’ The Goan Everyday, January 31. Online at (viewed on September 24, 2017).

———. 2016b. ‘To Plaster or Not.’ The Goan Everyday, February 29. Online at (viewed on September 24, 2017).


Kandolkar, Vishvesh, and Pithamber Polsani. 2017. 'The Ruination of the Inconvenient: Eroding Goa’s  Intangible  Heritage'. Paper presented at the international congress, ‘Preserving Transcultural Heritage: Your Way or My Way?’, School of Arts and Humanities, University of Lisbon, July 5–8.


Malekandathil, Pius. 2009. ‘City in Space and Metaphor: A Study on the Port-City of Goa, 1510-1700’, Studies in History 25.1:13–38.